Meditations in the Law : No.32 : Recognising Sin
Lev 5:1-4 If a person sins because he does not speak up when he hears a public charge to testify regarding something he has seen or learned about, he will be held responsible. 2″ `Or if a person touches anything ceremonially unclean–whether the carcasses of unclean wild animals or of unclean livestock or of unclean creatures that move along the ground–even though he is unaware of it, he has become unclean and is guilty. 3″ `Or if he touches human uncleanness–anything that would make him unclean–even though he is unaware of it, when he learns of it he will be guilty. 4″ `Or if a person thoughtlessly takes an oath to do anything, whether good or evil–in any matter one might carelessly swear about–even though he is unaware of it, in any case when he learns of it he will be guilty.
Very often in Christian circles there appears a confusion as to what is sin. Now this is somewhat understandable because even theologians have disagreed over what constitutes specific sins. Certainly the Bible speaks generally of lawlessness (1 Jn 3:4) and wrong doing (1 Jn 5:17) as sin, and sometimes of specific sins, but often we are not given specific lists and those who have sought to produce such lists run into difficulties. However in chapter five we are given four instances of things that constitute sin, even though they were done unintentionally. This tells us that we can sin without realising it. Indeed for the Christian, we would hope that this is the only sort of sin that is ever committed, especially when the apostle John says, “No one who is born of God will continue to sin.” (1 Jn 3:9) So let’s look at these identified sins.
What similarity is there between the first and fourth sins? They are sins to do with speech. The first one is a failure to speak up when you should (v.1) and the fourth is speaking carelessly (v.4). How are the second and third similar? They are both about touching something that is prohibited and which will make the person ‘unclean’.
Why do we think these particular sins are mentioned? Because the people of Israel were called to be a special people, a holy people and they were holy because of what they DID. We need to realise that holiness is not something abstract. It is a way of life, and that includes thinking, speaking and behaving. Justice was an important issue in maintaining the Law and therefore failure to take responsibility and speak up when you should (v.1), undermined justice. But truth was so important that sometimes an oath was required, and so responsibility over making an oath was high. Don’t carelessly make an oath said the Law (v.4).
But they were also holy because of what they ate and how they kept themselves clean, i.e. there were hygiene laws to promote good health and that, we suggest, is what was behind verses 2 and 3. For a people who, initially at least, were often on the move, and who lived in a hot climate, hygiene was particularly important. We may not understand God’s thinking in terms of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ animals but it is probable that their potential for carrying or conveying disease was a likely factor. “Human uncleanness” similarly refers to anything about our bodily functions which, in a hot climate, can cause or convey germs and bacteria. If we had greater understanding of these things we would almost certainly wonder at God’s wisdom in these things. For the time being we have to simply accept that He knows better than we do about such issues.
When a person became aware that they had failed in one of these ways, there were two things they needed to do. The first was with their lips – they needed to confess their failure. The second was bringing a sin offering. Words can be cheap but bringing an offering cost you, and that drove the point home! These were means of dealing with the very basics of being the holy people of God, and maintaining that holiness.
Now poverty is not to bar a sinner from coming to God using the sacrificial system and there are two options given. If the person doesn’t have a lamb to bring then they can bring two doves or two pigeons instead (v.7). If they can’t afford those then they can simply bring fine flour (v.11) as their offering – every family would have some of that and that was to be their offering.
If the offering was two pigeons or two doves, they would be used in different ways. The first was to be seen as a Sin Offering and was killed and some of its blood shed thus brings cleansing and forgiveness by the giving of a life. (Note: only the blood is used – the sign of a life being given). The second was a Burnt Offering (see 1:14-17) and it is burnt on the altar as an offering to please the Lord (see 1:17c) and acting in an atoning way (5:10) to restore fellowship with the Lord.
If the offering was flour, it is to be brought without any additives (v.11) and the priest took a handful of it and burnt it on top of the other offerings on the altar as the most simple of the sin offerings. The rest was to be for the priest, part of his support, if you like.
I wonder, as Christians, are we aware that we are a holy people and as such we have responsibilities that preclude certain behaviour. We may think it is all just a case of ‘believing in Jesus’ but it is also about being children of God – children of a holy God and we care called to be holy as He is holy (1 Pet 1:15,16)
As we have noted before, no one is excluded from God’s presence because of lack of possessions. The concern was to deal with the sin and to re-establish the relationship with the Lord. Today, because of Jesus, the way is always open. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness,” (1 Jn 1:9) and that is all because Jesus has been our sacrifice and we come to God on that basis, and no one is excluded!