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Vayikra/Leviticus 4:31 ... and the priest shall make atonement for him and he shall be forgiven.
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Welcome to the world of the cult - the detailed ritual instructions concerned with the worship ofHaShem. This is a world in which the primary concerns are purity and performance: being in the right place and condition to do the right thing in the right way to safely maintain relationship with HaShem. After three chapters dealing with burnt offerings, grain offerings and peace offerings, chapter four switches to look at the way to process inadvertent sin - what might also be described as accidental sin - whose existence may go unnoticed for some time until an individual becomes aware that they have done something that they should not have done of failed to do something that should have been done. Different levels of offence and restitution are discussed, depending on who - the High Priest, an regular priest, a leader or simply a member of the people - - has committed the offence. Common to all of the scenarios is a , a sin offering, after which our text applies: "the priest shall make atonement for him and he shall be forgiven" (Vayikra 4:31). This phrase appears many times in slightly different configurations throughout this aliyah.
Let's consider two key pieces of vocabulary that name what is going on in this phrase. The first is the root , to spread over or cover. It first appears in the Flood narrative, "Make yourself an ark of gopher wood; make it an ark with compartments, and cover it inside and out with pitch" (B'resheet 6:14, NJPS), where Noah is being given HaShem's instructions for building the ark. We find it again in the account of Moshe's early childhood, where his mother "got a wicker basket for him and caulked it with bitumen and pitch" (Shemot 2:3, NJPS). The idea of covering informs the traditional understanding of the word 'atone', which is typically taken to mean covering over guilt and sin so that they have a veneer of righteousness. Here, however, - the Pi'el 3ms affix form with a vav-reversive - is used in an intensive sense that has speaks of cleansing or removal. We can see that atonement, at-one-ment, reverses our separation from G-d: "your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God" (Isaiah 59:2, ESV) by removing our sin.
Baruch Levine reports that " has cognates in several other Semitic languages. TheAkkadian verb kuppuru means 'to wipe off, burnish, cleanse.' In cultic terms this means that atonement is conceived of as cleansing, as wiping away impurity, contamination and, by extension, sinfulness itself." We can hear this idea in the the day of Yom Kippur, when the High Priest confesses the sins of Israel over the head of a goat that is then sent out into the wilderness to "carry on it all their iniquities to an inaccessible region" (Vayikra 16:22, NJPS). Another echo is to be heard in John's choice of words when he first sees Yeshua: "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29, ESV). This is a challenge to the traditional view of many scholars that the verb 'atone' means "to cover or conceal" sin or impurity from G-d's view. What, though, are we to do with the preposition contained in the word ? If the 'him' were a direct object, the phrase "to wipe him clean" would make good sense, but Levine suggests that "here the sense is functional: to perform rites of atonement over, with respect to an individual." This claims that sin or impurity is removed from the offender by means of specific rites. Levine concludes that "the purification comes from G-d in response to the proper performance of required rituals undertaken in good faith."
Our second word, the root also has cognates inUgaritic and Akkadian and probably has an original meaning of "to wash, sprinkle with water". Making its first appearance in this block of text, it is taken to mean "to forgive". Theologically this implies that forgiveness is equivalent to having sins "washed away". Mark Rooker notes that "this is the unique term for forgiveness in Tanakh, and it has only G-d as its subject."1 Gunther Plaut agrees, affirming that "in the Bible this verb is only used for divine forgiveness." If G-d alone is the subject and author of forgiveness, this explains the reaction of the scribes to Yeshua's words to the paralytic man, "Son, your sins are forgiven ... Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" (Mark 2:5,7, ESV). Here - the Nif'al 3ms affix form, with a vav-reversive - is passive: he, the individual who has offended, will be forgiven. Stephen Sherwood observes that "this is an example of the use of the theological passive as an indirect way of saying that YHVH will forgive."2
Who is doing what and why? The Torah is explicit that "the life of the flesh is in the blood ... it is the blood, as life, that effects expiation [makes atonement]" (Vayikra 17:11, NJPS). Everyone agrees: it is echoed by the Sages - "It is the blood which makes atonement" (b. Yoma 5a) - and in the Apostolic writings, the writer to the Hebrews tells us that "without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins" (Hebrews 9:22, ESV). Repentance is a key part of the process.Ibn Ezra maintains that "the sinner 'shall be' forgiven once he repents completely; he is not forgiven immediately", while Plaut asserts that "it is confidently expected that t'shuvah will lead, ultimately if not always immediately, to G-d's forgiveness."
So what is the part of the priest? Clearly, it the priest and only the priest who carries out the atonement process - he shall "take with his finger some of its blood and put it on the horns of the altar of burnt offering; and all the rest of the blood he shall pour out at the base of the altar ... and the priest shall turn [all the fat] into smoke on the altar, for a pleasing aroma to the L-RD" (Vayikra 4:30-31, NJPS) - but, as Samuel Balentine points out, "while the priest actualises the purgation, only G-d can forgive sin."3 Tamar Kamionkowski takes that one step further: "While the priest uses the blood to purge the sanctuary, the individual is forgiven by G-d. The priest does not mediate between G-d and the individual."4
It is Isaiah, however, who puts all the pieces of the puzzle together. In the fourth Servant Song, we hear the well-known phrases pointing to Yeshua: "He was wounded because of our sins, crushed because of our iniquities. He bore the chastisement that made us whole, and by His bruises we were healed" (Isaiah 53:5, NJPS). Although sins are mentioned, that only covers half the picture; the rest comes from the mouth of HaShem Himself later in the chapter: "My righteous servant makes the many righteous, it is their punishment that He bears" (v. 11, NJPS). Yeshua makes sinners righteous by taking away their sin. The choice of words here also show that Yeshua is both the priest - making the atonement - and the sacrifice, making Himself "an offering for guilt" (v. 10, NJPS).
This is why John writes, "the blood of Yeshua [G-d's] Son cleanses us from all sin" (1 John 1:7, ESV). Here's the idea of cleansing again; not just covering over, but cleaning, wiping away, removing. Two verse later we see the process in full: "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (v. 9, ESV). We confess - that is the equivalent of bring the sacrifice to the priest; He forgives - and only G-d can do that; He cleanses - actually takes away or removes our sin. When our sin in removed, not only are we forgiven, but we become ritually clean, so fit to worship and praise G-d. More than that, when we are clean - we are made righteous, we are healed - the Holy Spirit can dwell within us. Yeshua is the priest who makes - has made, once for all - atonement by offering the perfect and acceptable blood sacrifice, his own blood shed on the cross, and in Him, Father G-d can offer forgiveness to all who believe in Him and cry out to Him in faith, as Rav Sha'ul says: "if you confess with your mouth that Yeshua is Lord and believe in your heart that G-d raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Romans 10:9, ESV).
Easy, right? No, not at all. It takes a real step of faith, inspired by the Spirit, to grasp hold of that and cry out. But the living, resurrected Yeshua is still calling today: "Ho, all who are thirsty, come for water, even if you have no money; come, buy food and eat: buy food without money, wine and milk without cost. Why do you spend money for what is not bread, your earnings for what does not satisfy?" (Isaiah 55:1-2, NJPS). Are you hungry and thirsty? Are you fed up with what the world has to offer? Hear His invitation and accept His atonement that you may be not just forgiven but accepted into the kingdom of G-d and become a co-heir with Yeshua Himself of the blessings that are His and the promise of the Ruach as the down-payment of all that is to come when we see Him face to face.
1. - Mark F. Rooker, Leviticus, The New American Commentary, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2000), page 113.
2. - Stephen Sherwood, Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry - Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002), page 52.
3. - Samuel E. Balentine, Leviticus, Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), page 44.
4. - S. Tamar Kamionkowski, Leviticus, Wisdom Commentaries, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2018), pages 30-31.
Further Study: Matthew 13:44-46; Romans 3:23-26; Ephesians 2:4-7
Application: Have you cried out to the High Priest of Israel and asked Him to make atonement for you so that you may be forgiven in His name? Cleansing, healing and righteousness are just a shout away, but they don't just drop into your lap - you have to ask in order to receive. Don't put it off any longer - do it today!
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© Jonathan Allen, 2023
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