Laws Concerning Unintentional Sin
In this blog post, we are going to continue our study on Numbers 15. We will begin with verse 22. Here we get into the thorny area of what is called inadvertent sins. That is, someone commits a violation of one of God’s commandments, but they didn’t intend to and often didn’t even know they did.
However, this section also makes a contrast between what is required of a person who commits this kind of unwitting sin, and what happens when a person commits an intentional sin. Often the Bible will refer to this intentional kind of sin as “high-handed.” And, it denotes that which the Lord considers shockingly brazen and without excuse.
These two categories of sin (inadvertent and high-handed) are themselves each spoken of in two primary contexts:
- The sin being committed by the whole community, a national sin, and
- A sin being committed by an individual.
Let me here remind you that when the Torah speaks of “the whole community” or “the whole congregation,” that nine out of ten times it is speaking of the leaders and elders of Israel, not every ordinary person. Let that sink in for a second.
Though the selection of leaders in ancient Israel was not democratically accomplished, there was an element of affirmation by the people that was required. The governmental structure of ancient Israel though not a one-man-one-vote system, nevertheless was a representative-based system, similar in concept to our American system.
The leaders and elders represented the diverse interests of the various tribes, and therefore the interests of the people of each of those tribes were addressed. A leader that was too unpopular didn’t last terribly long.
Now if God held the people of Israel responsible for going along with what the leaders and elders of Israel decided, then I wonder how the Lord views the citizens of America where our process of affirming leadership is much more in our hands than was ever imagined in Biblical times.
How often I would like to divorce myself from what our elected leadership has decided:
- To allow abortion on demand,
- To celebrate homosexuality,
- To demand that Israel gives up some of its land inheritance to achieve a more peaceful Middle East and serve our needs for an uninterrupted supply of oil.
But the fact remains that, Biblically, we are responsible to God for these affronts towards Him. And such a responsibility falls under the context of “the whole congregation.” Understand: the term “whole congregation” isn’t only a religious term it’s a national term and theologically it applies to us just as forcefully as it did to ancient Israel.
Since national responsibility (and subsequent national blessings or national curses) is one of the Lord’s fundamental principles, we find it addressed here in Numbers 15?
And the requirement for dealing with an inadvertent sin of the nation (generally meaning the nation’s leadership but also including the guilt by association of the common citizens) is that a sacrifice of atonement must be offered when that sin becomes known and apparent.
And, the offering shall consist of a bull as an ‘Olah sacrifice, accompanied by the standard Minchah sacrifice, a grain offering, and also a libation offering of wine. Also, a male goat must be offered as a Hata’at offering, usually rendered as “sin offering,” but I believe more accurately translated as a “purification offering.”
Please notice some key words in verse 25:
“The priest shall make expiation for the whole Israelite community, AND THEY SHALL BE FORGIVEN.”
Forgiveness of a type was indeed available to the ancient Israelites at the will of God. In our modern English, and in our western way of thinking, we would be much better off to take this statement about forgiveness to mean “that they MAY be forgiven,” rather than “they SHALL be forgiven”.
Because the Lord has set down many principles concerning His meting out of forgiveness and they all apply, and all must be met for Him to show mercy. For instance, repentance and contriteness MUST be present. It is not the sacrificial ritual itself that has some supernatural quality that forces forgiveness out of God; rather it is the sincere obedience to the divine commandment that is at issue.
Vertical Retribution is also at work. The PUNISHMENT due to the nation may be pardoned if God so chooses but the guilt of the sin remains, and the requirement for exacting divine retribution is often only passed on to the next generation.
Notice that in verse 26 that it is crystal clear that the forgiveness that MAY be afforded by God upon Israel applies to both Israelites and the ger (the protected foreigners) who live among Israel.
Next, up the inadvertent sins of an individual. The person is NOT required to bring an ‘Olah and Minchah sacrifice, but he or she is required to bring a Hata’at (a purification offering) sacrifice, though it is of lesser value than the Hata’at required for the nation as a whole.
The individual must bring a female goat to the Priest for sacrifice. And, interestingly, a ger must do the same thing. If a ger sins inadvertently, he too must offer a sacrifice of atonement.
Let me remind you, though that the sheer number of laws that a ger might be subject to advertently breaking were significantly fewer than for the Israelite. And this was because a ger was bound ONLY to obey the prohibitive (negative) commandments of the Law.
However since a ger was also permitted to observe some of the positive commandments if they chose (such as following the Feast Days as one can imagine most of the ger did), they had to do it correctly.
So, likely, many gers fouled up the more strict aspects of one observance or another without intending to, and when someone informed them of this, the ger was required to make the Hata’at sacrifice of a she-goat.
Law Concerning Presumptuous Sin
Now the more strict requirements and consequences mentioned in this section appear. Beginning in verse 30 the case of a person committing a “high-handed” sin is brought up.
And we find that this law applies equally to an Israelite or to a ger (again, the ger usually had fewer commandments that he was required to obey and thus less that he could break). And notice that NO sacrifice of atonement is prescribed for the one who “acts defiantly” against the Word of God.
In other words, the person committing a high-handed sin is not excused from a sacrifice of atonement; it’s that he has NO atonement available. Therefore there is no mercy, only divine retribution. And the punishment is in Hebrew, karet, cut-off.
The idea of karet is that the punishment is NOT usually meted out by men; that is, the guilty party is not often stoned, or jailed, or punished by the citizens of Israel. Although, if a direct revelation from Yehoveh was claimed to instruct such punishment to be carried out, it could be.
Rather God will now, supernaturally, exact judgment. It could mean dying young. It could mean dying childless and thereby bring the end of a man’s family line (this was probably the most feared punishment in the Biblical era). But it could also mean being less prosperous, or one’s health being poor or any number of other onerous things.
And the timing of just when the effects of this punishment might take place, only the Lord knew. So the guilty party walked around with the judgment of divine retribution on his head at all times, with no remedy for it and he didn’t know when the eternal shoe might fall.
Over the centuries, as one might expect, just what karet amounted to varied between the modern Hebrews versus the ancients. By the time of the great Rabbi Maimonides (the RamBam) of the 12th century AD, it held that the karet INCLUDED the possible death of the soul so that a spiritual afterlife became impossible.
Today karet as practiced in Judaism is usually defined as excommunication from the Synagogue, or, the death sentence imposed by civil authorities, lawful execution. No matter, we can get the sense that karet is severe and is applied only in the most high-handed, offensive acts against the Lord. And we’re about to get a very well known example of a high-handed sin that has no possibility of atonement available.
Penalty For Violating The Sabbath
Verse 32 tells the story of a man who went out to gather wood on Shabbat. The man was arrested, brought before Moses, and Moses apparently wasn’t clear on how to judge the matter because the end of verse 34 says, “……for it had not been explained what should be done to him.”
So Moses consulted God, and God gave him his answer: execution by stoning. The man was summarily taken outside the camp, and stoned to death. Wow.
What happened here? What was it that this man did wrong? Why didn’t Moses know what to do? And why must the man be executed?
The first question to ask is what the law about the Sabbath was? We have to look at Exodus 35:2-3 for the answer:
Work shall be done for six days, but the seventh day shall be a holy day for you, a Sabbath of rest to the Lord. Whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your dwellings on the Sabbath day.
So apparently the issue about gathering the firewood is tied to the negative commandment that a fire MUST NOT be kindled on the Sabbath. But the man was NOT caught igniting a fire. He was only found gathering the wood FOR a fire. And this was probably the primary reason that Moses didn’t know what to do about it, yet knew that the distinct possibility of a serious violation did exist.
So the issue revolves around INTENT. Was he merely gathering wood for another day? Did he fully intend to use the wood he collected to start a fire on the Sabbath? Was collecting the wood “work” and therefore prohibited in general?
Well, the Rabbis found the answer to this interesting little dilemma in the story of the gathering of Manna. They found the laws concerning the collection and use of the Manna to be a clear analogy to the matter of gathering sticks for a fire.
What Israel had been told was that whatever Manna they would need on the Shabbat should be collected, cooked, and prepared BEFORE Sabbath. On the Sabbath, they were also told they should not “leave their place”. In other words, they weren’t to go on a journey; they weren’t to go somewhere; they weren’t to exert themselves to any substantial degree.
So, just as gathering Manna on the Sabbath was prohibited, because the eating of Manna gathered on the Sabbath is forbidden, so than gathering wood on the Sabbath is forbidden because it indicates the pre-mediated intention to start a fire on the Sabbath.
The two actions of first gathering the wood and then kindling the fire are both required for a fire. Therefore the two works are inseparable, and God considers the violation of Sabbath on par with breach of the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, those two days forming the highest of the high observances of appointed days.
As we saw just a few verses earlier, the punishment for a “high-handed” sin such as this one is karet, divine retribution. So why was the man to be stoned to death at the hands of other people?
Here we find yet another fascinating principle: stoning is judicial death brought about by a violation of civil law. Karet is divine punishment brought about by God due to a violation of religious law (although of course from a spiritual standpoint the civil and religious are cut from the same cloth).
The man carrying the sticks became subject to BOTH! Thus he was to be executed (stoned) by the people, causing his physical death and afterward, he would ALSO be cut-off, karet, from God, spiritual death.
So for the most high-handed sins against God we find that there is a double-whammy:
- First, you’ll face legal, judicial punishment,
- Then you’ll face divine punishment.
Here in the Torah, in Numbers, we have the principle that the Church has held so vital to our fundamental beliefs:
- There is a physical life and death, and
- There is a spiritual life and death.
And what Christ saves us from is the spiritual death, not the physical death that all men are subject to regardless of their status before God.
Now does this sort of double-whammy still exist for the Believer? Is karet a possibility for the Believer? Well, there is certainly a strong hint that under the most severe of circumstances something like karet remains an option.
Let’s read Hebrews 10:26-27
For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries.
This verse in Hebrews is nothing more than the re-stating of the Law concerning deliberate or high-handed sin. Now we’ll not get into a debate, today, whether or not this is possible for a Believer to do in the first place.
The wider point I wanted to make here is that the long-held concepts of intentional versus unintentional sins and their consequences were alive and well in Christ’s day and in NT times. And this passage in Hebrews is a direct reference to those concepts, and it clearly applies to Believers, Jew or Gentile.
The final subject of this chapter is what most Bibles call “fringe” or “tassels,” and the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT, calls them a “hem”. In Hebrew, the word is tzitzit.
In my next blog post, we’ll complete Chapter 15 by discussing Tzitzit.