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Vayikra/Leviticus 4:13 And if the whole assembly of Israel go astray and a matter is hidden from the eyes of the congregation ... they shall be guilty.
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What? Is it possible that the whole assembly, the congregation of the Children of Israel could get something wrong and go astray - be misled or misguided - in their interpretation and application of Torah? It would appear so. This is the second in a series of cases - the others being that of the anointed priest, a leader or an individual - where someone "unwittingly incurs guilt in regard to any of the L-RD's commandments about things not to be done" (Vayikra 4:2, NJPS) and the Torah provides a mechanism to bring atonement for inadvertent sin.
We are all used to seeing and using conditional sentences: if <condition> then <consequence>. The structure of our text clearly follows this form. The verse starts with the word , literally "and if" introducing the protasis - the clause expressing the condition in a conditional sentence - while the verse ends with the one-word apodosis, , literally "and they will be guilty" - the clause expressing the consequence in a conditional sentence, often beginning with 'then'. If they do this - that is, go astray to do one of the things that the Torah forbids - then they will be guilty.
Nechama Leibowitz asks an important question that many have surely asked over the centuries: "Why is an error, the result of inattention, considered a sin?" Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch replies that, "the unwitting sinner stumbled because he was slack rather than 'trembling at My word' (Isaiah 66:2). Insufficient anxiety to abide by the precepts of the Torah renders the inadvertent transgression an offense." Leibowitz concludes: "A lapse or absent-mindedness does not exempt unintended contravention of the law."
Next, we need to ask who the "whole assembly of Israel" and the "congregation" are. If they are the same, why doesn't the Torah use the same word for both? Drazin and Wagner report that "Sifra identifies the group as the Sanhedrin, the judicial court of seventy-one members. Since there was no Sanhedrin during the biblical age - the word is Greek - Sifra probably means the tribal leaders." Saadia Gaon understands the "whole assembly" as an exaggerated statement that describes the error of only a group of Israelites, while Gunther Plaut thinks it means the community leadership, adding, "the ancient Israelites had a strong sense of communal solidarity; they believed that the misdeeds of some members of the group, especially the leaders, could bring guilt on all." Certainly the choice of the word before emphasises that all of that body are involved. , on the other hand, is universally recognised as being the people themselves. We therefore see a situation where some form of leadership group make an invalid decision about how some aspect of the Torah is to be understood and, unaware that the leadership have erred, the people act on that decision and disobey one of the Torah's "you shall not" commands.
Who becomes guilty - the leaders or the people? The problem is that the apodosis verb - , the Qal 3cp affix form of the root , to be or become guilty, with a vav-reversive - has no clear antecedent. It is unclear whether 'they' is the whole assembly or the congregation. Looking at the verb - the Qal 3mp prefix form of the root , to wander, err or go astray - theBaal HaTurim reports that a masoretic note means that "this word appears twice in the Tanakh: (i) here; and (ii) 'My sheep wander' (Ezekiel 34:6), regarding the shepherds of Israel who cause the flock, i.e., the people, to become lost." The Sforno agrees that this is a leadership issue, commenting that "they are the eyes of the assembly who should see for others, they themselves did not look well, and of them it is also said, 'and they are guilty'." Richard Elliott Friedman, on the other hand, seems to take the opposite view in his translation: "And if all the congregation of Israel will make a mistake and something will be hidden from the community's eyes ... and they are guilty."
On the last word of the text, Baruch Levine points out that "the term refers to the judicial state of guilt, from G-d's perspective, regardless of whether the community is aware of the offense. means "to be in a state of guilt", needing [in the following verse], 'to know', for the community to become aware of that guilt." John Hartley adds that " has both a formal, legal meaning, 'become culpable' for an act, and an emotional, dynamic meaning, to feel or realise guilt'."1 How do these two meanings come together? Samuel Ballentine explains that, "when the community unintentionally violates one of G-d's prohibitive commandments, the error may for a time remain unknown to them. Eventually the liability they have incurred creates a feeling of guilt that in its own way is part of the dynamic in which the sin 'becomes known' (Vayikra 4:14)."2 The feeling of guilt, without knowing the reason for it, rises both in individuals and in the community as a whole, until eventually the error is disclosed in some way. Then, everyone knows and something can be done to resolve the problem and atone for the sin that has - even if inadvertently - been committed.
Tamar Kamionkowski offers two scenarios linking the offence with its remedy. "One scenario is that the leadership errs and therefore leads the community astray so that the community becomes guilty. Thus the community must atone for its communal errors and the elders of the official body present the offering. Another possible possible scenario runs as follows: the leadership errs and incurs guilt, while the general community does not know about it; but when the truth comes out, the community initiates the mechanism to rectify the situation. In this scenario, the community has a responsibility to call its leaders to account for their mistakes."3 As we will see, this is an important insight that can help us address errors in our communities today.
How is the Church to respond to its consistent policies of replacement theology and anti-semitism? We can see in Rav Sha'ul's letter to the communities of believers in Rome that the seeds of replacement theology had already found fertile ground in the years following Claudius' expulsion of the Jews from the city. While at Corinth, Sha'ul "found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome" (Acts 18:2, ESV). Darrell Bock dates this to the year 49 CE,4 less than twenty years after the crucifixion and resurrection. Those expelled would have included those Jewish believers in Yeshua who had brought the gospel back with them from Jerusalem in the years following the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost and who had initially led the churches in Rome. When the Jews returned in the early years of Nero's reign, the believers among them found a church that had been under Gentile leadership for some years and tensions arose between the old and the new leadership specifically on the issue of Jewish identity and calling for the followers of Yeshua.5 It is into this tension that Sha'ul writes.
After setting up his analogy of the olive tree, with different types of branches representing different people groups - the natural or cultivated branches representing Israel and Jewish people, the wild branches the believers from the nations - Sha'ul urges the Gentile believers not to be "arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you" (Romans 11:18, ESV). Cautioning against pride, particularly the idea that the natural branches were broken off permanently so that wild branches could be grafted in, he adds, "For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will He spare you" (v. 21, ESV). This puts the Gentile believers on notice that G-d is not interested in and will not tolerate replacement theology and anti-semitism. Nevertheless, both errors persisted and survive in many churches and fellowships today. Although usually denied, they are usually endemic in liturgy and worship, in the readings and preaching, in the way the Hebrew Scriptures are not read or used in preaching, in attitudes towards Jewish people. Church leaders are suspicious of ministries teaching about Israel or the role of the Jewish people today. The value and importance of Jewish identity and calling in the kingdom of G-d are denied or denigrated. Yeshua warned the disciples, "Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod" (Mark 8:18, ESV) and Rav Sha'ul added that "A little leaven leavens the whole lump" (Galatians 5:9).
Although there are some wonderful exceptions, church leaders are typically negative about these matters and unwilling to rock the boat of their tradition and/or their denomination. That places them in the position of the community leaders in our text; they have erred and the matter is all too often hidden from the congregation. Nevertheless, in these days the Spirit is stirring the hearts of the people, making them feel the guilt of disregarding or disbelieving G-d's word and revealing the truth about these matters. It is the community who are leading the initiatives of repentance and reconciliation to remedy the error. The congregations are following the example of the Bereans, "receiving the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so" (Acts 17:11), challenging their leaders and calling them to account for allowing these errors to continue. We must be on our guard and speak against these errors wherever they are found.
1. - John E. Hartley, Leviticus, Word Biblical Commentary, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1992), page 62.
2. - Samuel E. Balentine, Leviticus, Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), page 43.
3. - S. Tamar Kamionkowski, Leviticus, Wisdom Commentaries, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2018), page 34.
4. - Darrell L. Bock, Acts, ECNT, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007), page 577, although the exact date is contested.
5. - Philip F. Esler, Conflict and Identity in Romans (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), page 102.
Further Study: Romans 1:16-17; 1 Corinthians 5:6; Hebrews 12:14-15
Application: How can you identify and correct replacement theology or anti-semitism in your fellowships or churches today? Ask the Spirit to reveal the source and content of these errors and give you strength and boldness to speak the truth and seek a change in attitude and doctrine.
Comment - 07:34 06Mar22 Judith Chesney: Antisemitism is rife in the church, stemming from the community of non-Jews in Rome. Rabbi Shaul founded that congregation before he was imprisoned, only to find himself kicked out when he returned. Today there is an Anglican church near me who refused to allow a Jewish lady believer to partake of the communion because she was Jewish. In concentration camps the notice read, "You killed Jesus so we kill you." Jewish people are very sure what christianity is. However the revival in Israel since lock down is amazing and only from God. I learn a lot from their teachings on One for Israel. Christian leaders and Rabbis have cursed themselves with teaching hatred but God will have His Way. He is soon coming and His beautiful feet will stand on the mount of Olives. We have a forgiving God. We are in labour pains until He reveals Himself in all His glory. We shall all see eye to eye when the Lord returns to Zion. Halleluyah!
Comment - 11:56 06Mar22 EA: This drash seems to contain a lot of 'meat' to address the spiritual malnutrition that seems to affect parts of the Body today, due to being fed and trained to relish only spiritual 'comfort food' rather than to "tremble at" every word that proceeds out of God's mouth. Some are sadly choosing to run with only the parts of His words that please us or please our companions, and to disregard (rationalize or simply set aside) those that don't. I pray for wisdom to always be on the right side of such matters.
Comment - 04:55 17Mar22 Di Stanfield: Thank you for this study. I am just emerging from my own wilderness experience when I felt as though my prayers were not going anywhere. When I asked YHWH to please do something as it felt as though I'd gone about as low as I could go, He came up with a most unexpected solution. Perfect timing. Wow! Oh me of little faith. Thank you Father & Yeshua!
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© Jonathan Allen, 2022
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