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Vayikra/Leviticus 5:2 If a person who touches any matter that is impure ... and it was concealed from him and being impure he becomes guilty.
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This is the second in a series of four unintentional sins for which the guilt offering is applicable. The first, that of a witness refusing to testify of what he has heard or seen, doesn't seem to fit the category very well, but the other three are all concerned with either unawareness or forgetfulness. Our text and the one that follows deal with sin committed while unaware of being ritually unclean or impure, while the last one covers making an oath by mistake and, having done so, forgetting to keep it. In all of these cases, the obligation to bring a guilt offering is entirely contingent on the person becoming aware of having sinned.
In this particular case, the condition starts with a person becoming ritually unclean by touching the dead body of something impure and then either being unaware of exactly what he has done or forgetting that he has done it. But, as theRamban says, "there is no sin involved in touching the carcass of an unclean beast or a swarming thing;" although it makes one impure, that is not of itself a sin. "Even the priests have not been warned against it. So it is impossible that Scripture should require a person to bring an offering just because he touched them and thereby became defiled." The offence is only committed when someone who is ritually unclean eats "holy things", food that is holy because it is the priest's portion of something has been offered to HaShem (Vayikra 22:3), or when a ritually unclean person enters the Sanctuary (B'Midbar 19:13,20). The Ramban concludes, "Scripture is stating that when a person becomes defiled and forgets his state of uncleanness, or when he swears and then forgets the oath, and he becomes guilty by violating it - for either of these sins committed through forgetfulness, he is required to bring an offering. Now it is understood that the mere forgetfulness of his state of uncleanness involves no sin except [if in that state] he ate holy food or entered the Sanctuary." In summary, Gunther Plaut explains, "It is not sinful to become ritually impure; such defilement is inevitable in the ordinary course of living. Sin only occurs if one who has been defiled enters the sanctuary or eats consecrated meat without having been purified."
The Torah provides a formal procedure for cleansing from ritual impurity (for example, B'Midbar 19:14-19) involving sprinkling with water from the ashes of the red heifer, washing one's clothes and waiting for a period of time, but a person would only do this they know that they need to do so. The Mishnah offers atonement or ritual cleansing on an anonymous basis - that is for someone who is ritually unclean, but does not know it - on a regular basis: the sin offerings on Yom Kippur, the sin offerings at each new month and the sin offerings at the festivals (m. Shabuot 1:4-5). Someone who has unknowingly become ritually unclean is considered to have been cleansed once one of these events has passed.
Ibn Ezra - perhaps thinking that a dead lizard does, after all, look like a dead lizard - offers a different translation for "and it was concealed from him": "the fact escapes him". This allows for it to be known but forgotten when he then commits the sin - making it more analogous to the case of the forgotten vow. Normal life goes on and, asIbn Ezra assumes, "eventually he realises his guilt." So the guilt offering - which was after all, not for forgetting that he was ritually unclean, but for touching holiness (things or the place) when ritually unclean, can be brought to reflect the sin the person now knows that he has performed. Committing either of these sins knowingly results in a person being cut off from the congregation and his people, so it important to normalise the situation and recognise the close shave that he has had! As Baruch Levine points out, "The point is that impurity is the basis of the offender's guilt. For a time one had been impure without realising it and had therefore been culpable without knowing it."
The question of unknown sin or someone else's sin affecting a person was a significant issue in New Testament times, as these verses from the gospel show: "As [Yeshua] passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, 'Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?' Yeshua answered, 'It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of G-d might be displayed in him'" (John 9:1-3, ESV). Notice the assumption that the man's blindness was the result or consequence of sin, either his own or his parents'. The former - that the man had been born blind because of his own sin - implies either that he was born blind because at some (later) point in his life he was going to sin, so had been pre-punished, or that he committed sin before birth. The latter - that he had been born blind because of some sin that his parents had committed - was a common thought in those days, based on "For I the L-RD your G-d am an impassioned G-d, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me" (Shemot 20:5, JPS). We should notice too that a significant proportion of the church today subscribes to these views: that sin has potentially physical consequences, certainly in the life of the sinner and, at least in more "prosperity" oriented circles, in the lives of children and other family affected by the sin of a parent or family member - a sort of collective punishment.
There is a trend in some church circles for young people who have not got married as early or as easily as they would have liked, or who have married but have been unable to have children, to take this idea as applying to themselves. The pseudepigraphical book 1 Enoch contains the verse, "Why is a woman not given (a child)? On account of the deeds of her own hands she dies without children" (1 Enoch 98:5), giving the distinct impression that sin in a woman's life prevents childbearing, possibly also marriage. This is a particular instance of the general proposal - starting perhaps from the sin of Adam - that physical afflictions, such as illness, defects or financial hardship and even death, can be traced to sin: generic sin, "just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned" (Romans 5:12, ESV); parental sin, "I the L-RD your G-d am a jealous G-d, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate Me" (D'varim 5:9, ESV); or personal sin, "If you will not obey the voice of the L-RD your G-d or be careful to do all His commandments and His statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you" (D'varim 28:15, ESV). This conclusion leads them into harrowing examinations of their own conduct and that of their parents and previous generations to discover something that they can confess, for which they or their family can be forgiven, and the curse of singleness or barrenness can be lifted.
Does unknown sin affect us in this way today? Do offences that we may have unintentionally, inadvertently, innocently and unknowingly committed in the past hang around our necks, causing G-d to hold out on marriage, children, finances, other blessings until we have got our act in order, or at least located and confessed that sin? Is that in line with G-d's character as He has revealed Himself to us? Does He punish us for things of which we are not aware - as a wake-up call, perhaps?
Revisiting our initial text, we need first to remember that it was not the touching of the impurity that caused sin, but the subsequent contact with holiness when in a ritually unclean state that caused the sin; secondly, that the guilt offering only needed to be made if and when the person became aware that they had sinned; and thirdly that the original uncleanliness was cleared regularly by the operation of the festival offerings on behalf of all Israelites. Sins that believers in Yeshua have committed, for example, before coming to faith in Him, but which have been completely forgotten, are all covered by Yeshua's once-for-all sacrifice on the cross when we choose to make Him our L-rd and Saviour. This is why Yeshua tells the disciples, "If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift" (Matthew 5:23-24, ESV) This starts with remembrance - if you remember - if you (genuinely, of course) don't remember then you are clear to bring your offering.
Next, we need to check Yeshua's reply to the disciples' question about sin: no-one had sinned. G-d allowed the blindness so that Yeshua might heal the man's eyes. Stuff happens, events occur in our lives so that G-d is glorified and so that we are conformed to the image of Yeshua, "this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison" (2 Corinthians 4:17, ESV). G-d, who loves each of us and knows what it best for us, allows what we may see as suffering in our lives to refine our characters and make our lives a testimony in this world so that others can come to know Him.
Finally, we rely on the Ruach to bring to mind and convict us of sin that needs to be resolved. He will "teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you" (John 14:26, ESV). So if we have peace with G-d, and the Ruach is not prompting us, then we need not go looking for sin - there is nothing to do on that account.
Further Study: Luke 13:1-5; 1 John 2:1-3
Application: Are you beating yourself up looking for sin that never existed or that you can't remember? It's time to get over it and move on. Ask G-d to show you so that you can confess it right now and if nothing happens, praise G-d anyway!
© Jonathan Allen, 2016
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