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Vayikra/Leviticus 4:2 If a soul sins in a sin of ignorance from all the commandments of Adonai that should not be done ...
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Nechama Leibowitz says that, "sin offerings are brought only for transgressions committed unwittingly" and goes on to ask the question: "Why is an error, the result of inattention, considered a sin?" Torat Kohanim connects this to the verse, "You shall have one law for him who does anything unintentionally, for him who is a native among the sons of Israel and for the alien who sojourns among them" (B'Midbar 15:29, NASB), to explain that the sin offering for unintentional idolatry is the model for all unintentional sin offerings: in all cases where a negative command or prohibition ("You shall not ...") is violated unintentionally, a sin offering must be brought to atone for the violation.
There are three Hebrew verbs that sound very similar: , the root that generates the noun - in a sin of ignorance - in our text, means "to err, to commit an error"; means "to wander or go astray, to sin through ignorance", while means "to be mad, to act or behave like a madman". Sin can occur in any of these ways: ignorance either of the law itself or that a particular action is classed in a certain way; carelessness or inattention, particularly in a moment of stress; being temporarily out of control, either through anger, distress or - literally perhaps - insanity, mental illness or incapacity.Hirsch feels that is caused by carelessness, so that the person who sins in this way is responsible for not paying proper attention to their actions. "It is just this lack of attention, this carelessness as to whether his actions are in accordance with the demands of the law, wherein lies the sinfulness of his mistake."
Nachmanides is concerned about the effects of even unintentional sin in our lives: "All sins (even if committed unwittingly) produce a particular 'stain' upon the soul and constitute a blemish thereon, and the soul is only worthy to be received by the countenance of its Creator when it is pure of all sin. Were it not so, then all the fools of the world would be deserving to come before Him." He seems to be saying that the smallest infraction, even on a completely ignorant basis or committed by someone who is incapable of understanding or remembering the commandments, is still sin and so requires atonement.
It is important to remember that the Jewish commentators write to the Jewish community, making a basic assumption that all people within the community will have some basic knowledge, or at least opportunity to acquire learning, of the the Torah and its requirements. Even allowing for Sha'ul and Barnabas' assurance to the people at Lystra that "G-d has not left Himself without witnesses" (Acts 14:17, NASB) and Rav Sha'ul's letter to the Jewish community in Rome that, "whenever Gentiles, who have no Torah, do naturally what the Torah requires ... their lives show that the conduct the Torah dictates is written within their hearts" (Romans 2:14-15, CJB), we have to make allowance for people raised and brought up without any access to the gospel and those below the age of reason or of diminished responsibility. Rav Sha'ul again: "For the unbelieving husband has been set aside for G-d by the [believing] wife, and the unbelieving wife has been set aside for G-d by the brother - otherwise your children would be 'unclean', but as it is, they are set aside for G-d" (1 Corinthians 7:14, CJB). While this does not mean that the partners and children are 'saved' simply because of their family relationship to a believer, it does create a space and opportunity for people to hear and respond to G-d's message so that they may acquire the necessary information and act upon it for themselves.
The all-encompassing nature of sin is clearly picked up by James when he wrote to the Jewish people in the Diaspora who had come to faith in Yeshua as the Messiah of Israel: "For a person who keeps the whole Torah, yet stumbles at one point, has become guilty of breaking them all" (James 2:10, CJB). James is writing in the context of people who are either saying that some commandments apply and others don't, or who are saying that now many they are believers they don't have to do anything at all. James reminds them sharply that "faith by itself, unaccompanied by actions, is dead" (v. 17, CJB); it is the things that we do that demonstrate both to others and to G-d that our faith is real and that our lives have changed by being in relationship with G-d. Whether Jew or Gentile - and there are different specific requirements for both - being a believer has definite obligations. Sin is still sin; disobeying G-d is sin; Rav Sha'ul wrote, "Heaven forbid! How can we who have died to sin, still live in it?" (Romans 6:2, CJB). John reinforces the situation, then explains G-d's solution: "If we claim not to have sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we acknowledge our sins, then, since He is trustworthy and just, He will forgive them and purify us from all wrongdoing" (1 John 1:8-9, CJB). Just as a sacrifice was required for even unwitting sin, so as believers eery sin must be confessed and brought to G-d for forgiveness in Yeshua.
Further Study: 2 Kings 22:13; 2 Peter 1:10-11
Application: Are you conscious of having stepped over the line inadvertently and fallen into sin? Know that G-d wants to bring you out of that situation and has provided from the beginning a way to make that happen. Whether it happened through carelessness, lack of attention or pressure of circumstances, G-d wants to remove this foothold that sin now has in your life - talk to Him about it today so that you can move on and put it behind you.
© Jonathan Allen, 2008
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