Chapter 4 (Sin or Purification Offering) pages 87-106

North begins his chapter (page 87) with the statement that

‘The theocentric message of these judicially unified passages [the chapter begins with the quote of Lev 4:1-3 and 4:22-24] is that God must be placated for sin. When He is not placated by sinners under His authority, He threatens negative corporate sanctions against them’

Although the first sentence is obtainable from the passages quoted, the second is not. The Levitical ordinances only outline the way that sin (and that sin which is not a deliberate act of the will - the Hebrew word for ‘sin offering’ means something like ‘miss the mark’) may be dealt with and forgiven - it provides no warning to the unrepentant sinner that any sanctions (corporate or otherwise) may fall upon anyone should the offering not be offered.

This is an important point. God presumes upon the commitment of the Israelite to live a righteous life before Him and is concerned only to provide a way of forgiveness under the Old Covenant regulations where ‘unknown’ sin can be dealt with in order that the covenant may not be damaged. Sins that were a deliberate act of the will against the known ordinances and commandments of God had no provision to be dealt with except through judgment (though the notable exception is found in Lev5:1) - and that, sometimes, meant the execution of the individual who sinned, corporate sanctions upon the nation that were sinning or, even, corporate judgments that were a result of an individual’s sin (as in the case of Achan - Joshua 7:1-5).

The Levitical commands, therefore, didn’t teach the Israelites or infer that ‘negative corporate sanctions’ were to fall upon them should they not offer sacrifice but, rather, that they were to realise that there was only the possibility of forgiveness for inadvertent sin and that the person who committed a deliberate act of disobedience had no opportunity for forgiveness through the law (note that the guilt offering did provide for deliberate sin to be forgiven but only in a few cases such as robbery provided that economic restitution was made - Lev 6:1-7).

North’s statement (pages 87-88) that

‘To avoid negative corporate sanctions, societies must conform to God’s mandatory means of placating Him publicly through formal repentance. In the Mosaic Covenant, the sin offerings were the mandatory means’

needs the qualifying statement that there was no repentance possible under the law for deliberate sin breaking - though later on (pages 88-9) North will refer to this.


North also introduces the chapter with (page 88)

‘These offerings...established the judicial principle of corporate responsibility’

even though most of Leviticus chapter 4 deals with individual sin - on three occasions out of the four different types of people are mentioned. Certainly, the legislation of 4:13-21 (as we shall see) spoke concerning corporate responsibility, but the thrust of the passage is detailing how inadvertent sin may be dealt with by certain sections within Israelite society and detailing, by the different animals that were commanded to be used, the severity of sin according to the responsibility of the individual/group within the Israelite nation.


The purpose of the sin offering, according to North (page 89), was to purify

‘...the tabernacle and temple, God’s dwelling place, the geographical location around which He had drawn a boundary’

quoting Wenham as saying that

‘Under the Levitical laws the blood of the purification offering was used to cleanse the tabernacle from the pollution of sin...’

Even Harrison (page 61) follows this line, quoting Zech 14:20 as his proof text (which doesn’t actually prove the point at all). But this isn’t how the Levitical laws read. Certainly, during the Day of Atonement outlined in Leviticus chapter 16, this concept of cleansing the place where God dwelt is present (16:16) but not so here where individual and corporate sin is envisaged as needing to be dealt with. If the cleansing of the Tabernacle had been in mind, then the often repeated phrase (variously applied - 4:20,26,31,35) that

‘...he shall be forgiven...’

would rather have been something along the lines of

‘...the holy place shall be cleansed from his sin...’

North is quite correct, though, when he states (page 89) that

‘Sin, if it was not judicially dealt with according to God’s holy standards, would drive God away from His place of residence among His covenant people’

but the dealing of the Tabernacle’s cleanliness occurred only once a year at the Day of Atonement as previously mentioned. Therefore, though North will continue the chapter thinking about the cleansing of the Holy Place in corporate confession with application, the real thrust of the Levitical passage is the forgiveness of both individual and corporate ‘inadvertent’ sin through the offering of sacrifice.


The question needs to be asked as to how the High Priest’s inadvertent sin brings guilt upon the nation of Israel (4:3).

Harrison sees the guilt spoken of in a similar vein to the defilement that needed to be cleansed on the Day of Atonement, namely that his sin would (page 61)

‘...defile the most holy place by reason of his iniquity’

Here we’re going back to the understanding of the sin offering as being necessary on account of the Tabernacle defilement and there may be good reason for doing this, seeing as the formula ‘he shall be forgiven’ is not present within the legislation of Lev 4:1-12.

But, against this, the identical application of the sin offering for the nation of Israel (4:13-21) concludes with the statement of forgiveness. This could indicate that the High Priest’s offering should be considered as securing forgiveness rather than the Tabernacle’s cleansing.

In that case, then, how is guilt imparted to the nation?

By being the intermediary within the nation who stood in a special relationship with God and before God between Him and His people, any ceremonial uncleanness or imperfection in his life would mar the efficacy of any offerings that he would present on their behalf.

If the sacrificial offerings were therefore ceremonially unclean, guilt would be incurred by Israel through the rejection of their offerings and, perhaps, even manifested by acts of judgment throughout the nation.

Though North’s assertion (page 90) that

‘No one can legitimately claim judicial innocence based merely on his claim of autonomy’

is a valid and correct one, even going so far as to say (page 90) that

‘Participation in any covenantal institution is inevitably a form of assent to representative authority...’

his claim that the High Priest (page 90)

‘...sinned representatively

is not a fair one to make. It was because of his unique position and role as intermediary that guilt would be brought upon Israel.


North states (page 93) that

‘...the bullock was associated with priestly authority’

going on to assert (page 93) that there was a

‘...sacrificial link between priest and people...’

and, previously (page 92), that

there was a unique covenantal link between priest and people

all based upon the common ‘bull’ that had to be offered to atone for sin.

Firstly, though, if an offering of a bull was representative for priestly authority, Lev 1:5 and 3:1 should state that the offering was only acceptable for either priest or nation and, besides, the two goats of Lev 16:15-22 presented ‘for the people’ on the Day of Atonement should have both been bulls.

Secondly, while the bull is the common link between the High Priest and the nation, this does not have to indicate priestly similarity but, rather, the severity of moral responsibility that was considered to be due through having to offer a ceremonially more valuable animal than that of a goat or lamb.

Besides, all three individual sin offerings (High Priest, tribal ruler and common person) are offered as a result of a priest’s sin because the nation was expected to be a ‘kingdom of priests’ (Ex 19:6) though, by the time that the Levitical instructions were given concerning the sacrifices, it appears that God had already decided that His intention of having the entire nation to be priests before Him would have to be postponed to a later date through the Israelites’ disobedience and the Levites’ zeal (Ex 32:25-29).

This would indicate that God only considered the High Priest as an intermediary - whatever, either all four are part of God’s chosen priesthood or only one. When North concludes (page 93) that

‘...there was a much closer judicial link between the priesthood and the covenanted society than there was between the civil ruler and the covenanted society

he’s correct if viewed from the considered severity of the sin, but his next sentence

‘This is why we must conclude that the church was covenantally more important in Israel than the State was’

jumps to a conclusion that he bases a lot of his subsequent teaching on for the remaining chapter. North equates Lev 4:22’s ‘ruler’ (RSV or, perhaps better, ‘tribal ruler’) with the State. This is simply not a correct identification - the tribal rulers did not rule over the nation but they safeguarded their own respective tribes and, perhaps, if they are to be identified as the nation’s ‘elders’, would also have dispensed justice and judgment, but they were not similar to the present day existence of the State that North will go on to draw interesting and fairly accurate teaching from.

Besides, both the High Priest’s and the congregation’s sin affected the nation. But the ruler’s did not - he did not bring guilt upon the nation through his sin in the same way as the High Priest did. Therefore, we would expect the value of the High Priest’s and congregation’s sin offering to be similar.

But the real importance of the types of offerings commanded is that the High Priest’s sin (he who was the ecclesiastical head and authority of the nation) was considered to be more severe than any ruler’s sin that may have been committed within the nation - because the High Priest was the nation’s one supreme representative who mediated between God and the Israelites whereas the ruler did not, which North actually notes when he writes (pages 93-4) that

‘...the laxity of the priesthood regarding their personal sins threatened greater direct negative consequences for the citizens of Old Covenant Israel than the moral or judicial laxity of the civil authorities’

Rather than see the ruler’s sin as being ‘less severe than’, the better way to view it is that it is ‘more severe than’ the sin of a common person because more is expected of the nation’s leaders than those who are under their rule and authority.


North is accurate when he states (page 94 - my italics) that

‘The priests were legal representatives placed by God between Himself and His people’

but his assertion (page 94) that

[the nation’s] continuing consent is the basis of [the High Priest’s] authority

is not. Certainly, the continuation of the High Priest’s ministry was dependent upon the nation continuing to consent to the legislation of Leviticus being implemented, but the High Priest had authority from God whether the people consented to it or not (Num 25:10-13, 18:7, Ex 28:1).

God had ordained that there should only be one man who had authority to mediate on behalf of His people - and his authority came directly from God, not from the people who he served.

What North does, however, go on to show well is that the Israelites as a nation were morally responsible for the enforcing of the Mosaic Law and that, to turn a blind eye to blatant sin and corruption within the nation (whether a sin committed by a priest, ruler or one of the ‘common people’), was to bring guilt upon the nation.

As he notes (page 94)

‘If the people refuse to act as God’s representatives, then He acts on His own behalf against both the rulers and the people’

and (page 95)

those who are threatened as the primary recipients of God’s national covenantal sanctions are the society’s primary sovereign agents. From him to whom much is given, much is expected...’


Pages 95-105 contain some good teaching (with some notable exceptions that are mainly repetitions of the thoughts dealt with above). A few quotes are worthy of note here (though the logical progressions of thought that arrive at these conclusions are not necessarily being agreed with)

Page 97 - ‘...the church is more fundamental than the State in the political economy of the Bible. The church is central to society: not the State and not the family’
Page 98 - ‘It is the moral character of the people that determines the public character and historical fate of society
Page 103 - ‘A society’s creeds are more important than its civil constitution’
Page 104 - ‘If moral corruption is the standard in the church, then moral corruption will be the standard in the State [or world?]’

The only disappointing thing here is that most of Leviticus chapter 4’s text goes uncommented on!!

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