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Vayikra/Leviticus 4:27 And if an individual from among the people sins unwittingly ...
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The Sages of the Talmud spend some time debating the sin offering that is to be brought in the case of unknowing or inadvertent sin. The word , the feminine noun - an unknown or unwitting error - with the prefix preposition - in - from the root - to err or commit an error, coupled with the verb , a 3fs Qal prefix form of the verb - to miss the mark, fall short, sin - gives the picture of someone who has definitely sinned, but without knowing it, or being aware that they have done so. The next verse says, "if his sin, which he has committed, is made known to him" (v.28, NASB), implying that if a sin remains unknown then, although technically guilty, since the offender doesn't know that he has sinned, the guilt offering is not required since he wouldn't know that he needed to bring one. The Sages concluded that this situation only applies to an offence whose deliberate committal would result in being cut off from the people, but whose unintentional committal required a guilt offering (b. Yevamot 9a, Keritot 22b, Horayot 8a).
Baruch Levine, in the JPS Torah Commentary, points out that the phrase - the people of the earth - is not being used in the derogatory sense that it later came to have by 2nd Temple times1 when Peter and John are dismissed by the Pharisees and members of the Sanhedrin as simply "uneducated and untrained men" (Acts 4:13, NASB). Levine comments that here, following similar statements about a serving priest (vv. 3-12), the whole congregation (vv. 13-21) or a leader (vv. 22-26) sinning inadvertently, this clause is now talking about simply a lay person: someone who is neither a religious professional nor in a leadership role within the community. TheSforno, being aware of the difference between the priests and Levites - those who had education and who were to teach the people the Torah - and the people themselves, considers "it is a likely possibility that one of the common people will sin". The religious professionals were considered less likely to sin inadvertently because they were familiar with the Torah on a daily basis; the lay people, who were more concerned with agricultural matters and protecting their cities, farms and families, would only encounter Torah on an occasional basis so would not be aware of all the smaller items and so would naturally be more prone to unintentional sin.
In what might at first appear like nitpicking, theBaal HaTurim states2 that the requirement to bring a sin offering only applies if the sin is performed in its entirety, but not partially. This allows for the position that someone becomes aware of the situation part-way through; by repenting and not finishing off the sinful action, it has not been "done" and so no obligation for a sin offering has been incurred. In the same vein, Hirsch speaks of "the repeated stress which is laid upon a single individual being the bearer of the sin which comes to be atoned for" so pointing us towards the cost of sin to the whole community even if only one individual is involved. Small things repeated many times become habits and build up an atmosphere that is conducive and supportive of sin and others will inevitably question the Torah or be drawn into sin themselves. The Sefer HaChinuch says, "It is impracticable for the repentant sinner to cleanse his heart by a mere verbal undertaking to avoid sinning in the future. For this purpose a significant act must be performed, i.e., the sinner must take a he-goat from the sheep-pen and go to the trouble of taking it to the Temple to the Cohen, where the procedure will be carried out to the last detail, as commanded in the Torah."
The issue of continuing sin was obviously something that the early Yeshua-believers also had to deal with. How were they to address habits and lifestyles that they now found - as believers - were not according to G-d's standards. Rav Sha'ul has to ask, "So then, are we to say, 'Let's keep on sinning, so that there can be more grace'?" (Romans 6:1, CJB). If G-d's forgiveness was freely available for sin, then some believers might have been suggesting that perhaps a little sin not only wasn't a big deal, but perhaps was also a good thing so that there could be more forgiveness and more for which to thank G-d. Sha'ul quickly answers his own (rhetorical) question: "Heaven forbid! How can we, who have died to sin, still live in it?" (v. 2, CJB)! He then goes on to show that since we have died and been united with Messiah through baptism into His resurrection, we now live in Him; since Yeshua doesn't sin, we should not sin - sin is not to be a part of our resurrected spiritual nature. We have to actualise this in our lives: "In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to G-d in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires" (vv. 11-12, NIV). A significant act has taken place in our lives: instead of taking a goat to the Cohen in the Temple and sacrificing it, so that the procedure not only provides atonement but a very visible and physical deterrent from sin habits, we have met with Yeshua and been "born again"; we have been baptised in His name, we have been set free from the patterns and habits of sin, we have transferred into the Kingdom of G-d. To use Sha'ul's words again: "having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness" (v. 18, NASB). Now that we belong to G-d, we are expected to obey the rules of the kingdom and sin, even unintentional sin, is not acceptable behaviour.
In the parable of the Prodigal Son, when Yeshua relates the words of the son who - after wasting his inheritance in profligate living - is returning to his father's house, seeking forgiveness and a place among the hired hands, the son says to the father, "Father, I have sinned against Heaven and against you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son" (Luke 15:21, CJB). We repeat the same theme in the words of the general confession:
Father Eternal, Giver of light and grace,
we have sinned against You and against our neighbour,
in what we have thought, in what we have said and done,
through ignorance, through weakness,
through our own deliberate fault.
Whether deliberately, by weak omission or neglect, or simply by not knowing what we should do, as people we sin; as a part of the human race and by the habits of a lifetime, we sooner or later end up sinning - taking decisions quickly, casually, without thinking, that are not in accordance with G-d's heart. When this happens we need to re-engage with that significant event in our lives; we need to confess our sin to our Father and seek His forgiveness in Yeshua, we need to re-actualise the moment of Calvary in our lives so that we are not only forgiven but changed in a way that makes sin more difficult. Then, cleansed by G-d on the inside because "If we acknowledge our sins, then, since He is trustworthy and just, He will forgive them and purify us from all wrongdoing" (1 John 1:9, CJB), we count ourselves dead to sin and resolve never to do that again.
1 - In fact, quite to the contrary, Levine suggests that the am-ha'aretz formed a land-owning gentry class that exercised some degree of leadership over Jerusalem and even the coutnry as a whole up until the destruction of the 1st Temple.
2 - On the basis of gematria.
Further Study: 1 Kings 8:46-50; Job 33:23-28
Application: Are you frequently tripped up by some besetting sin that seems to grab you again and again, unwittingly or knowingly? G-d wants to free you from that place, but you have to accept His forgiveness and cleansing to make it a reality in your life. Why not ask Him about this today and put those sinful thoughts and habits behind you once and for all!
© Jonathan Allen, 2009
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