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Vayikra/Leviticus 4:3 If the anointed priest sins, to the guilt of the people ...
This section of the Torah deals with inadvertent sin: sin caused unintentionally by mistake or through ignorance of the law: "When a person unwittingly incurs guilt in regard to any of the L-RD's commandments ..." (Vayikra 4:2, JPS). Three specific examples are given: the anointed priest (vv. 3-12), the congregation (vv. 13-21) and a prince or leader of the people (vv. 22-26), followed by the general case of individuals from among the people (vv. 27-31). Our text starts the first example: the anointed priest.Hirsch maintains that this applies only the serving and properly anointed High Priest, based on the Talmud: "Our Rabbis taught: 'Anointed' might imply a king, hence it was stated 'priest'. If only 'priest' had been stated one might have applied it to the High Priest who was dedicated by the additional garments only, hence it was stated, 'anointed'. If only 'anointed' had been written one might have applied it to the priest anointed for war, hence it was stated, 'the anointed Priest' above whom there is no other anointed [Priest]" (b. Horayot 12a). Baruch Levine explains that "the title 'the anointed priest' is synonymous with 'the high priest' which occurs in 21:10. According to the primary laws of Leviticus, he is the only priest anointed with the oil of unction", but Drazin and Wagner point out that "since Aharon and his sons were anointed, it could refer to any of them."
Is it possible or even thinkable that the Cohen Gadol could sin? TheSforno thinks not - at least, not on his own account: "he will not sin (even) inadvertently except if the people ensnare him. Then he did not sin from his heart, but it happened due to the guilt of the people." Rabbi Hirsch explains that there is every expectation that the priests - particularly the High Priest - will be perfect: "Certainly the Torah expects that the priests, altogether the whole tribe of Levi, by the service in the Sanctuary of the Torah to which they are allocated, and by the position in the Nation to which they are appointed and by which they lacked the security of landed property, should pre-eminently see, as it says, their inheritance in G-d, and develop into men with deep knowledge of the Torah and of the spirit of the Torah."
Why is it so serious if the priests sin? TheRashbam notes that according to Moshe's words - "They shall teach Your laws to Ya'akov and Your instructions to Israel" (D'varim 33:10, JPS) - "the priests are to teach the people so if he teaches or models sin, the whole people sin with or after him." Hirsch agrees: "it is activity in teaching, in exhortation, directing and leading people back to G-d and to their fellow men, which the Jewish priest is expected to show by word and example." This is why HaShem rebuked the priests during the days after the return from Babylon: "For the lips of a priest guard knowledge, and men seek rulings from his mouth; for he is a messenger of the L-RD of Hosts. But you have turned away from that course: you have made the many stumble through your rulings; you have corrupted the covenant of the Levites -- said the L-RD of Hosts" (Malachi 2:7-8, JPS). By their example, the priests were leading the people astray from correctly obeying the Torah. Things didn't look much better in Yeshua's day, as He told the disciples: "'The Torah-teachers and the P'rushim,' He said, "sit in the seat of Moshe. So whatever they tell you, take care to do it. But don't do what they do, because they talk but don't act!'" (Matthew 23:2-3, CJB).
More serious, perhaps, than the question of teaching and example, is the affect that the priest's sin has upon his ability to function as a priest.Rashi highlights this when he says, "When the High Priest sins, it is the guilt of the people since they are dependent on him to atone for them and to pray on their behalf, but he has become impure by sin." Sin renders a person impure; sin therefore renders a priest unable to serve in the Temple, so that any ritual that he performs is invalid. In particular, if the High Priest has unwittingly sinned, then he cannot correctly carry out the Yom Kippur ritual and the whole nation remains in a state of impurity. Nor can a simple case of forgetfulness or lack of attention be excused; as Nechama Leibowitz points out: "A lapse or absent-mindedness does not exempt unintended contravention of the law. Indeed, a person's accountability grows with his responsibilities, whereby any slackness becomes an offence." In the priest's office and calling, he simply cannot afford to have any mistakes - with the office comes the responsibility to execute it in a valid way so that the people are not unable to maintain their relationships with G-d.
The Bible tells us clearly that sin happens, that sin happens in everyone's life, from the well-known "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23, ESV), to the less well-known "There is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins" (Ecclesiastes 7:20, NASB). John's stark assessment is true for believers and non-believers alike: "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8, ESV). The Hebrew Scriptures contain the stories of men whose hearts were described as righteous or perfect before G-d and yet sinned. That is why G-d had to reach out to man and make a way for relationship to be restored, for a way for sin to be covered during the days of the Israelites (Vayikra 17:11) and then vanquished at the cross by Yeshua (1 Corinthians 15:56-57).
Yet there has to be more to life than simply accepting that sin is inevitable, confessing it when it happens and being forgiven, then hunkering down and waiting for the cavalry to come over the hill. John offers us hope: "I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Yeshua the Messiah the righteous" (1 John 2:1, ESV). It is possible - unlikely as that may seem to us each day - not to sin. Although John assures his readers that for anyone who does sin, there is a way to be reconciled with G-d, he clearly seems to see the idea of not sinning as possible, otherwise why would he write? Yeshua told the woman who had been caught in adultery, "Go, and from now on, sin no more" (John 8:11, ESV). Is He simply talking about the specific sin in which she had been involved, or is there a wider application?
John's letter goes on, "Those who have been born of G-d do not sin, because G-d's seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of G-d" (1 John 3:9, NRSV). This is a bold claim which has been used by some to teach that sinless perfection is achievable in this life. This can lead to a life of misery, striving endlessly for a legalistic spiral of attempted law-keeping and self-criticism. However, the majority of modern translations take a softer line: "No one born of God makes a practice of sinning" (ESV), "No one who is born of God will continue to sin" (NIV), taking the present tense as a continuous action rather than a state. It indicates the balance of our conduct and a trend away from sin and thoughts of sin as we are conformed to the image of Messiah.
This matters much more, however, than the theological niceties of translating a Greek verb. As with the priests serving in the Tabernacle or the Temple, sin among G-d's people renders them unfit for service and damaging or inhibiting to others. Believers in Messiah stand in the place of priests in the world: we share the stories of Yeshua and the Good News of relationship with G-d, we comfort those who mourn and are oppressed, we engage the kingdom of G-d in and with our communities, we pray with the sick and the suffering, and we hold up a beacon of witness to the world - shining "like stars in the universe" (Philippians 2:15, NIV). Our witness is seen, make no mistake; but what if that witness is disqualified by sin in our lives? An occasional sin is one thing, bad enough in itself, but that can be rectified by repentance and, where necessary, restitution. It may be missed or excused by others on the basis of stress, a headache or a bad hair day. A habit of sin is entirely another; a continual trait of sin - bad attitudes, language, immodesty, dishonesty - all of these will be quickly seen by the world and will discredit any witness we have for the things of the kingdom. Rav Sha'ul wrote that "we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves" (2 Corinthians 4:7, ESV). If the earthen vessels become feet of clay, then the glory of G-d is hidden and tarnished by our lives.
It is easy to excuse sin - like addicts, it is all too easy to pretend that we don't have a problem and brush it under the carpet - but we must grasp the nettle and admit that we need transformation if we are to make progress in seeing sin being purged in our lives. John says that "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9, NASB). Unpacking that a little tells us something important: we confess our sins - our failings, our weaknesses - He forgives and cleanses us. We do not do the cleansing; in fact, we cannot do the cleansing. He cleans and we work with Him to allow that process to take place and then, again working alongside Him, we strive to maintain the holiness that He gives us, we exert ourselves to "sin no more".
Further Study: Proverbs 10:9; 1 Timothy 5:24-25
Application: Do you struggle with some behaviour that, although small enough in itself, you know G-d wants to change? Old habits die hard but we have been "crucified with Messiah" (Galatians 2:20). Don't give up, but press Him to make that a reality in your life today.
© Jonathan Allen, 2015
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