Corporate Sin
March 1, 2021

A couple of observations about the sin or purification offering, with implications for corporate dimensions of sin.

1. Leviticus 4 prescribes the rituals for the purification offering for priests (4:1-12), the congregation (4:13-21), leaders (4:22-26), and common Israelites (4:27-35)

The introduction to the last category includes a grammatical ambiguity. The NASB of 4:27 begins: “if anyone of the common people.” More literally, the verse begins: “If one soul (nephesh) sins in wandering from the people of the land.”

The ambiguity is: What does “from the people of the land” modify? Most translate it as a modifier of “soul” (nephesh): “one soul . . . from the people of the land.” But it better fits the word order to take it as a modifier of “wandering.” On my translation, the sinning soul goes astray from the people when he disobeys Yahweh’s command.

There’s a communal dimension to sin. Sin is wandering and estrangement, not only from God but from Israel. Serious sinners are “cut off from among the people” (e.g., Lev 17:4, 9-10; 18:29), but every Israelite who sins wanders off from the people.

Sin is self-harm, because a limb cannot live when separated from its body. Sin also harms the people, insofar as it deprives the social body of one of the healthy organs it needs to flourish.

Paradoxically, the social body is repaired by the dismemberment and transfiguration of an animal body. The animal represents not only the worshiper, but the community, which has to be broken up completely in order to be repaired.

2. Leviticus 5 begins with a list of cases that require a purification offering. The first case is intriguing. A crime has been committed, and the “voice of oath” has been broadcast. Literally, it is a “voice of curse” (qol ‘alah), a summons calling for witnesses to testify, on pain of suffering a curse.

If someone is a witness, whether he saw the incident or knows through some other means, he is obligated to report it. If he doesn’t, he “will bear his guilt” (5:1).

He might refuse out of fear. He may be indifferent: He heard the summons and has relevant information, but can’t be bothered to help bring the perpetrator to justice. Perhaps he’s complicit in the crime. The cause of his silence is irrelevant: Silence is not an option. In this case, silence is violence.

The hatt’at always brings hidden things to light. Usually, hidden sins are brought from the darkness by the sinner himself (Leviticus 4:13, 22-23, 27-28). He brings to light sins that are buried in his memory.

In 5:1, the sin isn’t hidden in the person’s consciousness but from the community, and the individual’s health and health of the community depend on it being revealed. His sin can be forgiven and atoned by sacrifice only if he confesses his wrong (Lev 5:5).

As Jacob Milgrom points out., this admonition to testify runs contrary to the common sense of the ancient world. One ancient writer warns, “Stand not betwixt persons quarreling. . . . thou wilt be forced to bear witness; but run from thence and rest thyself.”

Meander the Egyptian writes, “If there is a quarrel in a street. . . . If you stand there and watch, you will be required to give witness before the court.” See no evil, hear no evil. Don’t look, don’t listen. Save yourself the trouble of testifying.

The Levitical requirement points to a broad difference between Israel and other ancient nations. In other ancient polities, power is concentrated in the hands of an elite few, who police the people.

Israel, however, is a self-policing community. Each citizen is responsible for ensuring the righteousness of the whole community and ensuring that criminals are punished.

The church has a similar form of communal life. If a brother sins, Jesus says, another brother must confront him, then a group of brothers, before it is taken to the church (Matt 18:15-18). Hebrews picks up on this Levitical requirement: “consider how to encourage one another to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24).

We are the holy community. Each of us is a priest, each called to guard the holiness of the Lord’s holy house, whose house we are.

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