Holiness in Leviticus 5:1-4

As I frequently mention, it is unfortunate that people often overlook literature regarding cult practices because it does disservice to the text by ignoring the context. Hence it is essential to recognize the text’s context and proceed by translating the concepts into the 21st century. In agreement with Yizhaq Feder, “perhaps the nonverbal symbolism of the sin-offering, though relatively crude and unarticulate, was the seed from which all of these more elaborate theological discourses would emerge” (Feder, 260). In essence Feder suggests that the ancient sacrificial system of ancient Israel was the beginning of the major theological issues of the 1st and 2nd millennium, such as Jewish and Christian concepts of debt to a deity. Thus, in order to fully understand the major theological issues of this era, it is important to understand the seed of the theological discourse. One of such places is the first four verses of Leviticus 5’s discussion of guilt offerings.

Within Leviticus 5:1-4, the editor presents four basic things requiring a guilt offerings in a chiasm.

A1. Not bearing witness in court (5:1)
B1. Touching animal uncleanliness (5:2)
B2. Touching human uncleanliness (5:3)
A2. Making an oath thoughtlessly (5:4)

A1 is connected to A2 because both discuss the issue of public witness. B1 is connected to B2 because both discuss the issue of cleanliness. Rather than skimming over the miniature chiasm, one must seek out why the editor utilized a chiasm at this moment within the text. In order to do so, one must take seriously ancient Israel’s outlook and not dismiss the issue of cleanliness. The purpose is not to provide an explanation for laws about cleanliness; rather, it is simply to demonstrate why cleanliness was so important.

Throughout Leviticus cleanliness relates to animals (Lev 5:2), food (Lev 11), and humans (Lev 5:3, 13:11, Lev 15). Each law of cleanliness is directed related to ones ability to participate within Temple worship. Hence cleanliness also determines ones ability to approach the holy place of God. Because sin, tied to uncleanliness, was considered to be a sort of debt within the ancient world (Feder, 260), inability to participate in Temple or Tabernacle worship literally cut off people from God and His  representative, whether Moses or the anointed priests (cf. Lev 7:21). Consequently as the individual was cut off from the representative of Israel and God, he was also cut off from the people of Israel. Thus cleanliness was essential to maintaining proper standing within the community of God.

Returning to the chiasm of Leviticus 5:1-4, it is then clear why cleanliness is the center of the guilt offering. Through poetic form Leviticus 5:1-4 highlights the importance of maintaining connection to God. Unlike the common way of writing in the 21st century, which places the climax nearer to the end, Hebrew poetic devices, such as chiasms, often place the important statement in the center. Thus, for the author of Leviticus, the most important thing is maintaining a close proximity to the holiness of God.

The outer-brackets of Leviticus 5:1-4 (A1 and A2) relate to the public sphere of behavior and purity.  Leviticus 5:1 focuses on the legal system on the guilt of one who fails to testify even as a witness, while verse 4 attributes guilt to thoughtless oaths to other people or God. While A1 focuses on public courts and A2 focuses on personal interactions, both relate to ones interactions with man. Ones interactions with man are ultimately centered upon mans vertical connection to God. Thus there are two aspects to the editors chiasm: “… Purity expressed in what is sacred and responsibility in taking an oath… This twofold nature of biblical religion is reflected in the Ten Commandments, which begin with one’s personal relationship with God and then move to one’s relationship to others” (Rooker 2000, 118). However, these two aspects, personal relationship with God and relationship to others, are more intertwined than Robert puts forth. Relationship with God can only take place within a community in which one relates to others, hence the editors willingness to unite the issue of oaths and testimony to cleanliness for proximity to God’s holiness through an ancient poetic device.

In conclusion, Leviticus 5:1-4 expresses the absolute importance of people and God. Apart from maintaining purity, which has been interpreted differently throughout the centuries (cf. Kazen 2010), one is unable to truly be part of the people of God. In effect he is cut off from the people of God. At the same time, one must maintain honesty and integrity with his words and witness because it directly affects the public sphere and relations with others. Even within this day and age, the same thing should be sought after within churches and synagogues: purity with God must be maintained simultaneously with purity towards others. Only in doing so is one truly able to adhere to the commandments of God.


Feder, Yitzhaq. Blood Expiation in Hittite and Biblical Ritual: Origins, Context, and Meaning. N.p.: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011.

Kazen, Thomas. Coniectanea Biblica. New Testament Series. Rev. ed. Vol. 38, Jesus and Purity Halakhah: Was Jesus Indifferent to Impurity? Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2010.

Rooker, Mark F. Leviticus. Vol. 3A. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman &Holman Publishers, 2000.

Posted by William Brown


Leviticus as a Window to Ancient Israel

Too often Leviticus is overlooked because 21st century interpreters are generally unable to connect with the cognitive environment of Leviticus. Unfortunately, this results in a skewed and simplistic view of Leviticus and the entire sacrificial system. In reality, the sacrificial system offers insight to the societal organization and cognitive environment. While the ethical standards of Leviticus are most clear in displaying ancient Israel to the modern reader (cf. Lev 18-19), the environment can also be grasped through the sacrificial system.

Take, for example, the arrangement of sin offerings (Lev 4). In it, the sin offerings are grouped in two categories, communal and individual. Each of these categories break into two more sub-categories, for a total of four sub-categories.

  • Communal – Anointed Priest
  • Communal – Community as a whole
  • Individual – Ruler
  • Individual – Common Israelite

In Leviticus 4:3-12, the sin of an anointed priest is described as “bringing guilt on the people” (Lev 4:3, NRSV), hence its categorization as communal. Also communal, Leviticus 4:13-21 discusses the process of a sin offering “if the whole congregation of Israel errs unintentionally” (Lev 4:13, NRSV). Both communal sacrifices require a bull to be brought before the Lord and involve the sprinkling of blood seven times before the curtain.

The second category, individual, involves the actions for a ruler, or judge, who sins or the ordinary person. The individual category simply requires a male goat for the judge and female goat, or sheep, for the ordinary person. Additionally, the blood is not sprinkled seven times before the curtain. The individual category does not imply any need for communal cleansing in response to the actions of an individual, whether ruler or ordinary person.

Distinction by the text of the communal and individual illustrates the cognitive environment and  society of ancient Israel. Additionally, it provides an essential key to interpreting biblical texts, especially texts of more Priestly oriented tradition. Leviticus 4 demonstrates that ancient Israel, while fully aware of the individual, placed much more significance upon the community. First, the communal sin offerings required far greater sacrifice, a bull. In contrast, the individual sin offerings only requires a goat or sheep. Secondly, unlike the individual sin offerings, the communal sin offerings required the priest to spring blood seven times before the curtain. The curtain was the closest that one could move towards the center of the sanctified space because it was the Holy of Holies. So, by the priest sprinkling blood for atonement before the curtain in order to attain atonement for communal sin offerings, Leviticus suggests that sanctification of the entire community is more important than the individual sanctification. While the text clearly suggests that the individual is important, the community take precedence.

In conclusion, this brief examination of Leviticus 4 and ancient Israel’s sin offerings exemplifies how Leviticus holds essential keys to understanding the world and mind of ancient Israel. While such observations in Leviticus are not always immediately noticed by the modern reader, they are present if one is willing to set aside his/her presupposed ideas about Leviticus. By doing so, they will avoid abrogating the meaning and intention of the text and provide it autonomy from the 21st century cognitive environment (cf. John Walton 2015, 15-23). After all, a proper reading of Leviticus results in far richer results of the Bible than are generally expected.

Walton, John H. The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2015. Print.