Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26)


The story of Israel’s journey takes a pause, a very long pause, for the book of Leviticus. This most difficult of books is a sort of appendix of priestly theology and procedure. Decoding the rituals takes a little effort, but the reader will find this to be the most detailed theology in all of Torah, making the effort worthwhile.

Right from the outset the reader is drawn in with two themes that speak to our condition with God: nearness and wiping away the pollution that forms some sort of barrier between us and God.

The “nearness” theme is found in the noun used for an “offering,” which is קָרְבָּן qōrban, from the root קרב meaning “to draw near.” Similarly the verb usually rendered “present” (as in “present an offering”) is from the same root and means “bring near [an offering].”

The “wiping” theme is the surprising meaning of the verb often translated “atone” or “expiate.” Atonement in English is a made up religious word meaning “to make a person at-one with God.” But this is not the meaning of the Hebrew verb. It stands for a much simpler idea, to “wipe off a substance,” as in cleaning something. And the ritual detergent is blood.

Bringing a sacrifice was the nearest an Israelite would come to approaching God’s Presence in the shrine. The strange ritual procedures with the blood affected a “wiping” or “cleansing” or “purging” in some sense. How all this will work and what it all means remains for the unfolding of the theology of Leviticus. The text does not give meaning directly but requires the reader to interpret the rituals.

The Lord summons Moses to the Tabernacle (1), introduction to animal offerings (2), burnt/whole offering from the herd (3-9), burnt/whole offering from the flock (10-13).

Leviticus begins as a sort of appendix to the book of Exodus, a lengthy aside about priestly procedures and theology. The pretext for Leviticus is that the tabernacle has been set up (Exodus 40) and now God is giving Moses the detailed procedures for its daily operation. The reality is the last sections of Exodus and all of Leviticus are from the P source, a priest in Judah probably during the reign of Hezekiah (see Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible?). What we read in Leviticus most likely represents the shared theology and the actual practice of the temple and priesthood in Judah during the monarchy. P’s voice is perhaps the strongest in the entire Torah and the theology of Leviticus is the most detailed. It is also the least known and understood among the general readership of the Bible.

“When any of presents an offering,” could be better translated “brings near an offering.” The Hebrew root is קרב, and in the Hifil pattern it means “cause to come near, bring near.” The same idea of nearness is found in the very noun used for an offering, קָרְבָּן qōrban, from the same root. The word in Hebrew for “offering” (as in an animal or food sacrifice brought to the temple) contains within it the idea of “something brought near.” There is no adequate or elegant way to capture this in English, though perhaps it could be called a “nearness gift” instead of an “offering.”

The sacrifices are first and foremost about drawing near to God, the occasion when Israelites would be closer to the Presence than at any other time. It was literally true that bringing a sacrifice was drawing near, since the offerer came to the “north side of the altar” (vs. 11) near the entrance to the sanctuary. God’s Presence was inside the inner room, not far from the offerer. It was also a drawing near in a spiritual and psychological sense, with the offerer coming in awe to the place of God’s dwelling to present a gift.

Why does the text need to reassure the offerer that the offering he or she will find acceptance (or favor) in drawing near to God? Why does the offerer need atonement (vs. 4, “to make atonement [expiation] in his behalf”)? Baruch Levine (JPS Torah Commentary) suggests that it is because he or she has drawn near to the holy Presence, which is life-threatening. In other words, God invites the Israelites to come near, but has to atone for them since nearness is dangerous.

What are we to make of the verb often translated “to make atonement”? Some commentators have explained the word on the basis of its meaning in the verb pattern known as the Qal (the common pattern), where its meaning would be “to cover.” But in all priestly and sacrificial texts the pattern is Piel and not Qal. It is kippeir כִּפֵּר and not kafar כָּפַר.

The meaning of kippeir כִּפֵּר is “wipe off,” as in literally wiping off a stain. Another connotation is “cleanse” or “purge.” The basic verb for atonement in Hebrew does not mean to “cover up” a stain, nor (as some suggest) does it mean “ransom.” The commentator who has done the most work of explaining this theology of Leviticus and the priestly work of atonement is Jacob Milgrom. His three-volume commentary on the Leviticus in the Anchor-Yale series and a one-volume version published by Fortress Press are standard works referred to by all scholars since. The results of his analysis are nearly always surprising and have resulted in a deeper appreciation for the theology of the priests and temple in ancient Israel.

The first basic distinction in sacrificial offerings is between animals brought as sacrifices and grain offered in various forms. The basic animal offering is the burnt or whole offering (עֹלָה ,ōlah). Milgrom (Anchor-Yale, Leviticus 1-16) says that Leviticus goes out of its way to deny that this is a feeding of God (as in pagan rituals). This is why offerings are burned on the outer altar in the courtyard and not brought into the tabernacle. He notes that in some cultures outside Israel such offerings were brought inside as a supposed meal for the deity.

The leaning of the offerer’s hand on the head of the animal has been thought to be either: (1) transfer of sin or (2) identification of ownership. Milgrom argues it is about ownership. His argument hinges on the difference between the hand-leaning in a normal sacrifice versus the leaning ritual at Yom Kippur. We know in the Yom Kippur text that transfer is involved, but in that case the leaning ritual is different, involving two hands on the scapegoat (16:21). Thus, one-handed leaning (1:4) is identification and not transfer. The offerer is attesting, “This is my offering brought in sacrifice and paid for by me to worship my God.”

The burnt offering is the standard offering of the patriarchs, as it pre-exists the tabernacle, and is brought for worship and perhaps for general purging of any unknown guilt before God. Baruch Levine (JPS Commentary) suggests the function of the burnt offering is attraction, to attract the deity. It is a costly offering and it is to get God’s attention, which is why it is always first in the order of offerings.

LEVITICUS 1:14 – 2:6

If the burnt offering was about costliness, giving the whole of something valuable to God, then it is fitting God accepted whole offerings from every level of value. From the poorest Israelite who could bring only some grain, to those who could afford a bird, goat, sheep, or even the wealthy who could bring a bull, everyone could give a gift to God.

The burnt offerings are listed in order of costliness, from an offering of a bull to a ram to a bird and then simply grain, with or without frankincense added. Even frankincense, a costly substance, was only necessary for the first type of grain offering, the flour offering.

Grain offerings are mentioned as required in certain instances including: to accompany a thanksgiving offering (Lev 7:12-14), at the ordination of priests (8:26-27), among the Nazirite’s required offerings (Num 6:19-20), a purification (sin) offering for a poor person (Lev 5:11), in the case of a wife suspected of adultery (Num 5:15-26), the high priest’s daily offering (Lev 6:12-16), the bread of the presence (Lev 24:5-9), barley first fruits during Passover (Lev 2:14-16; 23:10-11), and wheat first fruits during Shavuot (23:15-17).

While Leviticus places so much emphasis on blood as the substance which effects ritual purification at the altar, the grain offering is an obvious exception to this rule. This is especially the case in Leviticus 5:11, where a grain offering may be used as a purification offering (sin offering) by someone who cannot afford even a bird.

Atonement is something God designed to be within everyone’s reach, rich and poor alike. Similarly, the other uses of grain offerings as gifts expressing worship and loyalty to God, are also something God desired to make available to everyone.

The social justice God demands of his people, in the Torah and in the prophets, is something he practiced himself. Concern for the poor is built into the priestly laws so that the sanctuary of Israel, where the divine Presence resided among the people, was truly a place for everyone.

Burnt/whole offering of birds (14-17), the grain offering of flour and frankincense (2:1-3), the baked grain offering (4), the grain offering from the “griddle” (5-6).

The burnt offering was the primary mode of sacrifice prior to the building of the tabernacle and the establishment of the priesthood and its procedures. Stories of the patriarchs include burnt offerings brought for a wide range of reasons including joyful and troubled motivations (e.g., thanksgiving, fear of divine anger, etc.). It is assumed in certain texts that the burnt offering is a weightier gift, since the offerer derives no meat from it (cf. Judg 13:16 and Midrash Tanhuma Zav 1, Milgrom, Anchor-Yale series, Leviticus 1-16).

Since the burnt offering was so costly, Leviticus begins with the more expensive offering from the herd, to the gradually less expensive offerings from the flock, of birds, and then the grain offering. In other words, the grain offering is the poor man’s burnt offering, as the rabbis affirm (Mishnah Menahot 13:11).

The basic word for the grain offering means a gift (מִנְחָה, minchah), like tribute given to a king. Like burnt offerings of animals, the grain offering can function for atonement in some cases (Lev 5:11). The grain offering may be prepared in a variety of ways, the first three out of four types being described in 2:1-7: flour with frankincense, unleavened cakes baked in an oven, and the toasted “griddle” offering (see comment in next section about the “griddle” vs. pan).

Grain offerings sometimes were a sacrifice unto themselves and sometimes accompanied other offerings, especially the burnt offering. Vss. 3 and 10 emphasize that only a small portion of the grain offering is to be burnt, which Milgrom says is likely to strongly overcome the cultural tendency of surrounding peoples to offer grain offerings on private altars, burnt whole. Leviticus requires them to be offered at the sanctuary as part of its program to eliminate multiple shrines and the tendencies of polytheistic worship.

The bread of Israel made up a large part of the income of the priests. Frankincense is a resin from the sap of the Boswellia tree obtained from Arabia and Somalia in ancient times and very costly. Only the uncooked grain offerings required it to be added to the small burnt portion, whereas cooked grain offerings required only some olive oil.


In Exodus 20:22-23, there were two unusual requirements for the altar that Israel built: it should have a ramp and not steps, it should not be made from dressed stones, but only uncut ones. The reason given for the prohibition of steps up to the altar is that the nakedness of the priests would be exposed to worshippers below. As for dressed stones, the Torah says they are profaned because they have been worked with tools. The likely meaning is that iron tools, implements of war, have been used on them rendering them unfit for God’s altar.

Now in Leviticus 2 we find that “no leaven or honey [fig/date syrup]” should be used in the grain offerings and also that salt should be added.

Again we are dealing with what should and should not be present in God’s ideal space, the place on earth set aside to be the dwelling place, where people draw near to the divine Presence . There is a system of allowed and disallowed things in the sacred place of God’s dwelling and the place where people make atonement.

Leaven is fermentation, which is related to death. Fruit syrup is prohibited because there is some fermentation present in it. Nakedness is unfitting here because it reduces the dignity of the priests who are serving. Metal tools should not be used because implements of war have no place at God’s altar. But salt is a necessity because it preserves, preventing fermentation and rendering food more fit for life.

These may seem like persnickety details, overly meticulous requirements. But symbolism is what the tabernacle and temple are all about.

We have to admit from the outset that the tabernacle was a place of death, for animals, but of life, for human beings. In that animals are dying to provide life in a symbolic way for people, the tabernacle is not yet realizing the Ideal. It is a step in the direction of heaven, of the next world which is implied in God’s commands about the symbolism of life and death.

The tabernacle symbolizes, as much as is possible given the reality of the world where human beings live, the divine palace. God’s abode, of which the tabernacle is a sort of symbol, has no place for war. Salt is a fitting offering to bread sacrifices because it preserves life and prevents fermentation and decay. Leaven and fruit syrups have no place on the altar because they represent the forces of death. If God is concerned to make a place on earth a symbol of life, then we see from the earliest layer of the Bible that he has good things in mind for us in the future.

When the whole universe, and not just the tabernacle, becomes the place of God’s dwelling, we have some idea already what kind of place it will be.

The grain offering of the pan (7), the procedure for the grain offering (8-10), instructions regarding leaven and salt (11-13), the firstfruits offering of toasted grain (14-16).

What is the difference between grain offerings from the griddle versus the pan? The rabbis stated that the pan is deeper than the griddle and that the pan had a lid. The prepositions support this since the grain offering is baked “on” a griddle and “in” a pan (vss. 5, 7).

Milgrom (Anchor-Yale, Leviticus 1-16) says that many “griddles” of clay and some of iron have been found in archaeological excavations. The griddle offering is a hard, toasted bread broken into pieces and softened with oil. The pan offering is cooked in oil (whereas the griddle cake is broken and softened with oil). The pan offering is a sort of fried dough cake.

Leaven is forbidden on the altar because it represents decay (fermentation), and the whole purity system separates God from death (as will be shown in upcoming comments on Leviticus 12-15). Honey is likely fig syrup (maybe date) and prohibited also because there has been some fermentation. Salt is a preserver and a symbol of the enduring covenant between God and the people (see Numb 18:19 and 2 Chr 13:5).


The primary kind of animal sacrifice in the lives of ordinary Israelites was one that signified joy, well-being, feeling a sense of connectedness with God. In summing up the overall emotion of the well-being offering, Jacob Milgrom uses the word “joy” (Leviticus, Fortress Press). Baruch Levine (JPS Commentary) traces the idea back to a word meaning “tribute,” referring to a gift brought to a king.

Commonly translated as a “peace offering,” Jacob Milgrom’s preferred rendering of זֶבַח שְׁלָמִים zevach shelammim is “offering of well-being” (Leviticus 1-16, Anchor-Yale). A zevach is a slaughtered animal and interpreters have pondered possible meanings for the second word, shelammim, which is related to the familiar Hebrew word “shalom” (“peace, wholeness, completeness”) but also the verb “shaleim” (“to complete, make a payment”).

Milgrom and Levine see different connotations in the phrase zevach shelammim, but perhaps their ideas are not far off from each other. An Israelite could slaughter and prepare meat without offering it to God as a sacrifice (Deut 12:21). But when attending the sanctuary of Israel for a festival or some other occasion, they would offer part of the animal to God and give a portion to the priests. An ordinary slaughter for food is transformed by this act into a gift, an offering, something with more meaning than a mere meal.

Milgrom sees the connotation of shelammim as particularly being about a feeling of well-being in one’s relationship with God. Most of the meat of the well-being offering is for the offerer and his or her family to enjoy together in a feast. The most familiar example of a family enjoying a well-being offering as a feast is eating the Passover lamb. By offering a portion to God and donating a portion to the priests, the family has expressed a connection to God and is, in reality, eating a covenant meal with God.

Levine sees the connotation of shelammim as a tribute to a king. The donating of a portion to God and a portion to the priests is a gift signifying loyalty and relationship.

Later in the text of Leviticus the reader will see some specific occasions, in addition to a festival, where bringing a well-being offering is encouraged. The completion of a vow to God is marked by this kind of sacrifice. Another occasion is thanksgiving, particularly for circumstances involving a rescue from death.

To partake in a well-being offering was to commune with the Presence of God in the tabernacle, to camp nearby and feast joyously as near to him as possible along with the rest of the people of Israel. This picture of a joyous feast with God is something the prophets expanded upon, imagining a future in which God serves the feast himself. As Isaiah says, “Adonai of hosts will prepare on this mountain a feast for all peoples, a banquet of rich meat, a banquet of wine” (Isa 25:6).

The peace/well-being offering from the herd (1-5), the peace/well-being offering from the flock, sheep and goats (6-16), the fat/suet and blood, a perpetual statute (17).

The offerer of the well-being sacrifice (more commonly known as the “peace offering”) comes to the altar at the entrance to the tabernacle. Standing on the north side of the altar of burnt offering (Lev 1:11) at the “entrance of the tent of meeting” (Lev 1:3; 3:2), the offerer will see the curtain leading into the tabernacle on his or her right. This is a place very close to the Presence of God inside the tent and “nearness” is one of the key benefits of bringing an offering. As was noted in the comments on Leviticus 1, the noun meaning “offering” and the primary verb used for bringing a sacrifice both come from the Hebrew root קרב which means “to be near.”

The well-being offering is called a זֶבַח שְׁלָמִים zevach shelammim. The first word means “a slaughtered sacrifice” and the second, from the root שָׁלוֹם shalōm, refers to “wholeness, well-being, peace.” Milgrom (Anchor-Yale, Leviticus 1-16) comments that shelammim refers to the motive for the offering: to feel a sense of well-being in one’s relationship with God.

The distinctive feature of the well-being offering, one which made it the primary offering for individuals alongside the grain offering, is that its meat is primarily eaten by the offerer and his or her family. This is the primary offering at festivals such as Passover and Sukkot (Tabernacles). It is a covenant mal between the offerer and God (see 7:15-21 for the regulations about eating the meat). From a variety of scriptures (including some in Deuteronomy and Psalms, but primarily Lev 7:11-18) we know of three sub-categories of well-being offering: the thanksgiving offering, the vow offering, and the freewill offering.

The organ and skin fat (or suet), kidneys, and large lobe of the liver are burned on the altar. Much of the suet is inedible for people and yet there is a tradition in the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic literature that it is the “best” offered to God. Milgrom calls it a mystery why the suet is reserved for God and burned on the altar. The prohibition against eating suet (organ and skin fat) or blood is called a “statute forever.”

The meat becomes to a certain degree sacred and the joyous experience of drawing near to God at the altar sanctifies the meal (much like a Passover, and many regard the Passover lambs as a special case of the well-being offering). Baruch Levine (In the Presence of the Lord) argues that the well-being offering served primarily as a tribute to God offered to atone for any rifts in one’s relationship with God. The burnt offering and well-being offering are commonly mentioned in the Hebrew Bible throughout Israel’s history. They are the basic and common types of animal offering.


Sometimes the Bible is talking about something completely other than what we assume it means. Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of the “sin offering” of Leviticus, which should more properly be called the “purification offering.”

Our thoughts about God, covenant, afterlife, and the cycle of sin and forgiveness over the centuries have obscured the true meaning of this ancient text. Leviticus 4 is not about “sin” in a general sense, but “inadvertent errors” leading to unintentional violations of prohibitive commandments. One example would be observing a festival on the wrong day and thus engaging in prohibited work on the actual day that should have been observed. Or a person may eat something not realizing until later it contained a prohibited category of food. A high priest might make a ritual mistake that causes contamination in the sanctuary (in a ritual sense, given that “uncleanness” is an abstract and not tangible thing). The whole congregation might be in error because the priests wrongly instruct them in a matter of observance.

These are the kinds of situations covered by the purification offering. The issue is not providing a way of forgiveness for deliberate breaches of trust between God and a person, for deliberate violations such as working on the Sabbath or violating a moral command by doing something like stealing. Wanton violaters are not allowed to enter the sanctuary courts at all (Num 15:30-31) although the rabbis offered a solution to this problem by saying, “Great is repentance, which converts intentional sins into unintentional ones” (Babylonian Talmud, Yom 86b).

What the reader should do is read Leviticus 4 on its own terms. The purification offering cleanses the sanctuary and not the person. Its concern is keeping the place where God’s Presence dwells free from contamination due to errors and symbolic impurities, all of which relate to human death. The priests were mainly concerned with keeping the place holy so God’s Presence would not depart. God taught Israel a symbolic system of purity with a deep theological message that remains unspoken and in the background. Much of the rest of Leviticus will be about the meaning of purity and what the abode of God should be like.

The tabernacle is a symbol of something deeper, of a reality which is not yet but will be. Its mystery calls us to look inside and want to know more.

The Lord speaks to Moses again (1), if a person sins inadvertently (2), the high priest’s sin/purification offering (3-12), the whole congregation’s sin/purification offering (13-21), the king’s sin/purification offering (22-26).

Curiously, chapter 4 is a new section in Leviticus. This is evident because it begins with the introductory phrase, “And Adonai spoke to Moses.” Chapters 1-3 are a unit, beginning with a different introduction in 1:1 about God calling to Moses from the tent of meeting. Since the topical focus is still sacrificial offerings, chapter 4 seems a strange place for a section break. However, it is because the offerings previously discussed (burnt, grain, and well-being) were longstanding customs in the ancient Near East, but the offerings about to be discussed (purification and reparation offerings, usually translated “sin” and “guilt” offerings) are new. They are innovations. They function and have purpose only when the sanctuary (Tabernacle/Temple) is operating. Unlike other offerings, they are to be offered for specific reasons and offenses.

The purification offering (a.k.a., the sin offering) is the subject of chapter 4. A common misconception is that this offering was for effecting forgiveness for the offerer’s sin. It is true that in vss. 20, 26, 31, and 35 we see the phrase “and the priest will make atonement on his behalf and he will be forgiven.” Readers commonly assume this language is part of a “sin and forgiveness” paradigm wherein a person realizes they have sinned, feels repentant, decides to bring a costly sacrifice to God, and receives personal forgiveness because of their repentance and gift.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In the first place, the entire section on the purification offering is about cases where someone “sins inadvertently” (a.k.a. “unintentional sin,” more on the meaning of this phrase below). Therefore, it does not cover the situation of a deliberate breach with God’s instructions. Secondly, the blood of this offering was applied to the altar and/or other parts of the tabernacle, not to the person making the offering. The blood is cleansing or purifying some kind of contamination that has affected the shrine. It is not purifying the offerer. The atonement that is made is not about the offerer achieving a state of atonement. It is about atonement made “on his behalf.”

In other words, the offerer has polluted God’s sanctuary. The blood purifies and rectifies this contamination. The priest makes atonement by “atoning” or purging the tabernacle “on behalf of” the offerer.

To put it most simply: the purification offering cleanses the sanctuary and not the person. Was for the repeated phrase “he will be forgiven,” the meaning is “forgiven for causing the contamination” and the effect of this forgiveness is that the person in question will be allowed to enter the sanctuary courts. The effect of the purification offering is only for a subcategory of errors known as inadvertent sin and it does not effect forgiveness in the relationship between God and the offerer in a total sense.

The fact that Leviticus 4 is about something other than personal sin and forgiveness does not imply that God has no instructions about how to seek forgiveness and maintain a relationship with him. It is simply that the purification offering has a different purpose.

The kinds of “sin” covered by the purification offering need further explanation. The phrase in question is נֶפֶשׁ כִּי־תֶחֱטָא בִשְׁגָגָה nefesh ki-techeta’ vishegagah, which could be translated “when a person errs inadvertently.” The verb for “sin” is wide-ranging and Baruch Levine (JPS Commentary) traces its meaning in the ancient Near East to cases encompassing everything from error to violating an agreement to breaching trust. Leviticus 4:3-12 involves an error on the part of the high priest, vss. 13-21 an error on the part of the whole congregation, and vss. 22-26 the error of a king. The error of a common person will be the subject of vss. 27-35.

Jacob Milgrom (Leviticus 1-16, Anchor-Yale) that this is about an uncommon situation, when a person knows that they did something but did not realize their action constituted a sin. This category covers, for example a wide range of ritual mistakes (keeping a festival on the wrong day) and inadvertent violations (eating something prohibited by mistake, using something vowed to God or set aside as tithe unknowingly). Inadvertent sin has nothing to do with deliberate violations.

As for deliberate violaters of commandments, they were barred from the sanctuary (Num 15:30-31). Yet the rabbis said (deducing from the Yom Kippur regulations in Leviticus 16), “Great is repentance, which converts intentional sins into unintentional ones” (cited by Milgrom, b. Yoma 86b). The concern of the rabbis in this saying is not to turn Leviticus 4 into a text about personal forgiveness but to assure people that forgiveness is available. A reader, upon realizing that the “sin offering” is only for inadvertent sin could get the wrong idea that God does not forgive wanton violations.

This concern of Leviticus 4 to keep the sanctuary clean from cases of mistaken violations seems strange to modern readers. This is because we have been too hasty to read larger theological issues into the text and have overlooked the true theology of Leviticus. The concern of the priests was to maintain an area in Israel where God’s Presence would dwell. It was a sort of “error-free” zone, continually purified from all the mistakes and ritual impurities of human life. It was a place kept free from the presence of human death. The tabernacle and temple symbolized the ideal abode of God, where there is no death or error at all.

LEVITICUS 4:27 – 5:10

God’s dwelling place, the tabernacle and later the temple, is affected by the condition of the people of Israel in whose midst the dwelling has been made. Two conditions in particular affect the sanctuary: the incurring of guilt and the acquiring of a state of ritual impurity.

When a person incurs guilt — deliberately or not — the tabernacle is polluted. The same is true for various conditions of ritual impurity (the subject of Leviticus 11-15). Something must be done to purify the tabernacle. The general principle is stated in Leviticus 15:31, “keep the people of Israel separate from their impurity . . . so they will not contaminate my tabernacle that is in their midst.”

The instructions for the purification offering show us how this pollution principle works. Whereas the blood for the priest and the whole congregation was brought inside the sanctuary (dashed in front of the veil and daubed on the horns of the incense altar) the blood for a leader or commoner is only applied to the outer altar (daubed on the horns and then poured out at the base). The sin of a priest or of the whole congregation encroached more deeply into the sanctuary, defiling even the Holy Place. Milgrom (Leviticus 1-16, Anchor-Yale) declares that the depth of defilement depends on the degree of the sinner and sin. The inadvertent or repented-of sins of the people defiled only the outer altar. Sins of the whole community or the priest defiled the inner altar and Holy Place. Unrepented and brazen sins defiled even the Holy of Holies and had to be purged at Yom Kippur (Lev 16:11-19).

The concern in Leviticus is not a total solution to the rift between humanity and God, a subject of fascination in much later theology (especially in Christianity). Rather, Leviticus is about something equally profound and beautiful: making a space on earth where the Omnipotent One may dwell among us. The priestly duties are largely about keeping the sanctuary contamination-free so God’s Presence will not depart.

As for the sinner, he or she is left outside the sanctuary, separated from and unable to draw nearer to God than the altar. Nothing in the procedures of animal sacrifice enable human beings to commune more directly with God. Leviticus is about managing the negative conditions of human existence in order to keep God near, behind a barrier but close by. The Torah implies and the prophets state more clearly — as for example in Ezekiel 36:22-36 — that a greater atonement will happen in the future and a better redemption is possible. Leviticus is not this, but something smaller, a step along the way toward greater atonement.

The inadvertent sin of a commoner (27), a goat as a sin/purification offering (28-31), a lamb as a sin/purification offering (29-35), the graduated sin/purification offering (5:1-10).

Leviticus 4:27-35 finish out the procedures for purification offerings, requiring a female goat or sheep from a common person who inadvertently violates a prohibition (see notes on 4:1-26). By contrast, 5:1-13 is about a new category of offense and the required offerings are different. Milgrom (Leviticus 1-16, Anchor-Yale) calls this section the “graduated purification offering, referring to the fact that the cost of the sacrifice was graduated according to what the offerer could afford. The choices graduate downward in cost from a female goat or sheep to a pair of turtledoves or pigeons and then, in vss. 11-13, an offering of flour.

The offenses covered by the graduated purification offering are a different category. Whereas the purification offering is for inadvertent error that incurs guilt (such as observing a sacred day on the wrong day or eating something prohibited without realizing it), the graduated purification offering is about neglect. The four mentioned cases are: failure to bring testimony in a matter where the courts have called for witnesses, failure to purify after touching an unclean carcass, failure to purify after touching human impurity, and failure to quickly fulfill an oath.

Milgrom observes that what all of these have in common is prolonging a state of guilt so that impurity accumulates over time and contaminates the sanctuary. The principles governing this graduated purification offering will be explained later in Leviticus, such as what constitutes an unclean carcass and human impurity (chapters 11-15). The idea that incurring guilt causes pollution to travel and stain the sanctuary will be the subject of Leviticus 15:31 (also Num 19:20), a pivotal verse in understanding the book of Leviticus. The blood of offerings, especially the purification and graduated purification offering, is ritual detergent to wipe away the contamination.

For the violations of chapter 4, inadvertent violations of prohibitions, the required sacrifices are expensive. For the lesser situation of prolonging guilt by failing to act quickly to carry out a positive command, the issue address in 5:1-13, the offerer may bring a less expensive offering if he or she can afford it.

LEVITICUS 5:11-26 (5:11 – 6:7 in Christian Bibles)

Fear of divine retribution was a daily concern in the ancient world. One area of life that could get a person into trouble with the gods was mishandling something sacred, something devoted to the deity. This could make people fearful of coming to a temple or participating in rituals dedicated to the gods. If the worshipper mishandled something or failed to comprehend the sacrificial logic of their gods, they might experience suffering or loss. Good intentions did not seem to matter.

In the Torah, the sanctity of the tabernacle and of various items designated for the priests and for God, were all the more sacred because God’s Presence dwelt within. The sanctity of the place was deeply felt. Fear of some unknown violation might keep people away.

One way God provided for the psychological need for peace in the relationship between people and himself was this reparation offering. Israelites knew that if something seemed to be amiss, they could come to the temple and repair the breach. Even if they only suspected they had transgressed inadvertently, there was a procedure for securing peace of mind.

Are we moderns too advanced to have such fears? Not at all. For many there are worries about how we stand with God, perhaps concerns for this life or the next or both. God provides peace of mind. His offerings include reassurance that all is well. His intention is to redeem us and not to make reconciliation impossible or difficult.

It is necessary for us, for our own good, to feel remorse and a desire to improve. This is not a requirement imposed by God in order to make repentance difficult. It is a necessary condition of our own need for growth and transformation. The reparation offering was motivated by this feeling, this remorse and anxiety about a person’s standing with God. Once we feel that desire, we need to know God has made a way to be reconciled and to feel peace. The Torah shows us that God has always provided such a way.

Continuation of the graduated purification offering (11-13), the guilt/reparation offering (14-26 (5:14 – 6:7 in Chr Bibles)).

The section on the graduated purification offering (see notes on 5:1-10) concludes with vss. 11-13. This offering allows for the offerer to bring what he or she can afford. If birds are too expensive for the offerer, the least expensive offering allows for flour. The amount is a tenth of an ephah (2.3 liters, half a gallon), which Milgrom (Leviticus 1-16, Actor-Yale) notes is about a day’s ration. No poor person in Israel would be unable to bring an offering to God for this particular offense.

Starting in vs. 14, Leviticus turns to a completely different kind if offering: the reparation offering (a.k.a. guilt offering). Like the purification offering (a.k.a. sin offering) the reparation offering is an innovation, something not needed or used in times prior to the building of the tabernacle. The more ancient types of sacrifices (burnt, grain, well-being) have a general purpose that does not require a shrine. But the primary purpose of both the purification and reparation offering is to keep the place of God’s Presence pure and free from human error and human death.

Milgrom calls this the reparation offering because actual reparation (remuneration) is required. The one bringing this sacrifice has committed one of a number of forms of sacrilege. Vss. 14-16 cover sacrilege against sacred things, vss. 15-17 cover fear that sacrilege may have been committed against sacred things, and vss. 20-26 cover sacrilege against oaths.

This ancient concern about sacrilege was no minor thing in their minds. Not only in Israel, but in the broader culture of the Near East, one of the greatest fears a person had was that the gods would send death or poverty because of some unknown infraction regarding worship or things belonging to the gods. The reparation offering was a way for God to provide for the psychological needs of Israel, to know that there were no hidden offenses that might be causing them to experience divine retribution. Sacrilege (מַעַל ma’al) concerns the misuse of things belonging to God such as parts of a sacrifice devoted to the priests or God, sacred furniture or other items used in the shrine, things devoted to destruction, things vowed, etc.

Milgrom looks to the wider Near Eastern context to define the word מַעַל ma’al, which refers to sacrilege against things set apart for God. This sacrifice is specifically for cases where reparation (replacing the misused things) is required. For example, the word asam is used only twice in the narratives of Israel’s history and both cases involved a payment of money. In 1 Samuel 6:13-17, the Philistines paid gold as a reparation offering for angering Israel’s God. In 2 Kings 12:17, people brought reparation offerings of silver to the Temple as part of its repair under Joash. The reparation offering requires a payment of what was neglected with one-fifth added (vs. 16).

Vss. 17-19 concern the fear of unknown sin against sacred things. Many ancients worried about the wrath of God (or the gods) for unknown sins. The reparation offering enabled peace that all was right with God and that no unknown sin stood between the offerer and God.

Vss. 20-26 (6:1-7 in Chr Bibles) concerns a series of sins related to oaths and property. The primary example is giving a false oath in a legal matter denying guilt. The one lying about their innocence who use God’s name to swear innocence has now committed sacrilege. It should be noted that this sin is deliberate. How can a sacrifice for inadvertent sin cover deliberate sacrilege regarding oaths in court declaring innocence of fraud and theft?

The assumption of the sacrificial system is that repentance converts deliberate sin into inadvertent sin in God’s mercy. This brings us again to the postulate of the rabbis mentioned in the comments on Leviticus 4:1-16, “Great is repentance, which converts intentional sins into unintentional ones” (cited by Milgrom, b. Yoma 86b). Repentance is the vital ingredient to the reparation offering as indicated by vss. 5-6: “when he realizes his guilt and confesses his sin, he shall bring as his reparation” an offering to God (5:5-6).