Scripture: Lev 12:5-8; Num 15:22-31; Mic 7:18-20; Heb 9:22; 1 Pet 1:18-19
Leading Question: Why does Scripture give us so many stories of restored sinners who seem to have no relationship to the earthly sanctuary service?
Basic Rule: We should always treat people as Jesus treated people and as we would want to be treated if we were in their place: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matt. 7:12, NRSV)
1. People and Rules. The earthly sanctuary service as laid out in the books of Moses is a system of carefully defined rules, rules that are rarely followed in the narratives of the Old or New Testament. Almost no one can obey all the rules all the time. So what happens when we break the rules, by mistake, on purpose, or deliberately in high rebellion?
The official study guide for this week’s lesson focuses on the question of “atonement,” with the subtitle, “Purification Offering.” At one point, the study guides identifies three kinds of “sin” as depicted in the Old Testament:
A. Inadvertent or unintentional sin (cf. Numbers 15:22-29)
B. Deliberate or intentional sin (cf. Leviticus 5:1; 6:1-7)
C. Rebellious sin (cf. Numbers 15:30-31)
When Scripture actually lists the specific sins, the categories begin to merge. In Leviticus 5:1, for example, the sin of keeping silent in court is noted as a sin for which one must offer a sacrifice. Not to speak up would be a deliberate choice. In Leviticus 6:1-3, several other deliberate sins are also noted: deceiving a neighbor about an item entrusted to a person for care, cheating a neighbor, finding lost property and lying about it, or swearing falsely. Sacrifices are designated for each of those sins.
But in Numbers 15:22-31, only two categories are defined: Unintentional sins (vss. 22-29) and defiant sins (vs. 30-31). The Hebrew phrase for “defiant” sins is literally “with a high hand,” a phrase used to describe Israel’s departure from Egypt. They left “with a high hand” (Exod. 14:8; Num. 33:3, KJV), or “boldly” (NIV, NRSV).
Question: Given the “sins” listed in Lev. 5:1 and 6:1-3, sins for which forgiveness could be granted, what kind of sin would be described as being committed “highhandedly” (NRSV) or “defiantly” (NIV) in Num. 15:31-32? In which category would one place David’s sin of murder and adultery? And how would the seriousness of his sins be compared with the sin of picking up sticks on the Sabbath, a sin for which the Lord commanded the death penalty by stoning (Num. 15:32-36), an incident recorded in Numbers 15 immediately after the comment about the high-handed sin?
Complicating the picture even further is the reference to a required “sin” offering for a mother who has given birth to a child (Lev. 12:1-8). The official study guide changes the translation to “purification offering” rather than “sin offering,” noting that the change in vocabulary makes it less likely that giving birth is a “moral fault.” Yet Scripture uses the strong language: “sin offering.”
Question: Why the strong emphasis on requiring a sin offering for unintentional or inadvertent sin? What would be the practical effect of an “official” shrug toward inadvertent sins? Note: One does not have to sin deliberately to cause a lot of damage. The engineer who “forgets” or “overlooks” important features so that a bridge collapses under stress, is “guilty” of great wrong, even if it was only a “mistake.”
Question: How many “forgiven” but rebellious or high-handed sinners can you list from Scripture? Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David….
2. No Forgiveness without Shedding of Blood. Hebrews 9:22 declares that “without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” Within the Levitical system that would appear to be the case as a general rule. But even here Leviticus 5:11-13 makes an exception for the poor who cannot afford to bring an animal sacrifice. The poor may bring a meal offering of choice flour.
Question: How should we understand the seemingly universal statement about blood in Hebrews 9:22 when there were many sinners in Scripture who were forgiven without a blood sacrifice? During the exile, there were no animal sacrifices. Was no one forgiven? Can we see Jesus’ sacrifice as God’s way of saying that Jesus’ blood covers for all those who could not have access to an animal sacrifice as specified by the Levitical rules?
3. Divine Forgiveness for the Greatest of Sinners. The last verses of the book of Micah give a wonderful promise of salvation and forgiveness and includes the names of two servants of God who certainly committed sins with a high hand. We should never let the “rules” of the sanctuary keep us from hearing this great, good news from Micah 8:18-20 (NRSV):
18 Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in showing clemency. 19 He will again have compassion upon us; he will tread our iniquities under foot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. 20 You will show faithfulness to Jacob and unswerving loyalty to Abraham, as you have sworn to our ancestors from the days of old.