The Sin Offering and Forgiveness



The death of Jesus Christ was undoubtedly the climax and fulfillment of the Old Testament sacrificial service.

Gerhard Pfandl

Leviticus 4 and 5 provide a detailed description of the sin offering for sins done unintentionally or negligently. The ritual in Leviti­cus 4 distinguishes between four classes of people: the anointed priest (vss. 3–12), the congregation (vss. 13–21), a prince or tribal leader (vss. 22–26), and a common Israelite (vss. 27–35).1 Three kinds of animals were used for the sin offering: a bull for a priest (vs. 4) and the congregation (vs. 14), a male goat for a tribal leader (vs. 23), and a female goat or sheep for the common Israelite (vss. 28, 32). The climax of the action for the sin offering was the blood manipulation by the priest and the burning of the fat upon the altar in the courtyard.

Beginning with the Septuagint in the third century B.C. until recent times, the Hebrew term in Leviticus 4:3, 8, 14, 20, 21, 23; 5:6–8, etc. has always been translated as sin offering in most Bible trans­lations and commentaries. In 1971, the Jewish scholar Jacob Milgrom began advocating the translation “purification offering” instead of “sin offering.”2 In subsequent articles and in his Leviticus commentary,he developed his reason for the change. He argued that such an offering was required not only of those guilty of sin, but also of those who had been cleansed of major physical impurities, e.g., women who recovered from childbirth (Lev. 12:6) and individuals who were cleansed from skin diseases (14:19) or abnormal bodily discharges (15:15). Furthermore, an offering was required of those completing a Nazarite vow (Num. 6:11), of people who had come in contact with a carcass (5:2, 6) or corpse (Num. 19:14-17), and when a newly con­structed altar was dedicated (Lev. 8:14, 15). “In other words,” Milgrom wrote, “the [purification offering] is prescribed for persons and objects who cannot have sinned.”4

A number of modern interpreters have followed Milgrom in calling the “sin offering” a “purification offering.” However, Milgrom’s change of terminology has not gone unchallenged. Walter Kaiser Jr. has pointed out that in Leviticus 4, the verb translated “to sin” ap­pears four times (vss. 2, 3, 23, 28). “Therefore, this offering deals with sin and its consequences in many, if not most, situations.”5 Hyam Maccoby claims that Milgrom’s grammatical analysis is not compelling that blood may sometimes function as a cleansing agent; at other times, it is the atoning power that matters. In Leviticus 4, whenever the sin offering is mentioned, “the atonement is easily explained as relating to the sin of the offerer, rather than to the defilement of the altar.”6 Be­cause of this dual function of the sin offering, M. Boda calls it “sin-purification offering.”7 Depending on the context, the atonement for sin is predominant in some texts; in others, the emphasis is on the purification aspect of the offering. In a 2003 monograph, Nobuyoshi Kiuchi argued that the verb means to “hide oneself (to God)” in a spiritual sense, describing the overall situation of a human being who turns from the Lord.8 Therefore, “the noun [for ‘sin offering’] describes the state of hiding oneself.”9 This is a novel interpretation, but it has found little echo in the scholarly world.


Who or What Is Cleansed by the Sin Offering?

According to Milgrom, the sin offering did not cleanse the person because the sinner was cleansed by his or her repentance. The function of it was to cleanse the temple and the sacred objects that had become contaminat­ed by the transgressions of Israel, endangering the continued presence of God in the sanctuary.10 For Milgrom, a major argument for changing the translation “sin offering” to “purification offering” is the Yom Kippur ritual in Leviticus 16, in which it plays an important role. The blood of the goat for the Lord was taken into the Most Holy Place, where the high priest sprinkled it “on the mercy seat . . . and before the mercy seat” seven times (vs. 14). This was done to “make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions” (vs. 16, italics in original). In the Holy Place, the high priest put some of the blood on the horns of the altar of incense to “consecrate it from the uncleanness of the children of Israel” (vs. 19). Throughout the year, some of the blood of the sin offering was placed on the horns of the altar of incense; the rest was poured out at the base of the altar of sacrifice in the courtyard (4:7). Never, and this is Milgrom’s argument, was the blood of the sin applied to a person.11 “The priest purges the most sacred ob­jects and areas on behalf of the person who caused their contamination by his physical impurity or inadvertent offense.”12

Angél Rodriguez, in his doctoral dissertation, argued that apart from the Day of Atonement it was the individual—not the sanctuary—that was cleansed through the sin offering.13 He cited the case of the woman after childbirth (Leviticus 12) and the case of the leper (Leviticus 14). In both cases, the text clearly indicates that the person was cleansed (12:8; 14:20). “Nothing is said or implied about cleansing the sanctuary.”14 Contrary to Milgrom, who believed that whenever an Israelite sinned wantonly or inadvertently, the sanctuary was contaminated,15 Rodriguez argued that the sanctuary was contaminated whenever the law of purification was not obeyed, when a high-handed sin was committed,16 and through the sacrifices involving the laying on of hands. The ritual of the laying on of hands on the animal indi­cates how the people’s sins were transferred to the sanctuary, where they remained until their final removal on the Day of Atonement.

Noam Zohar also takes issue with Milgrom’s position that only the sanctuary was purified by the sin offering. He cites Leviticus 17:11, “‘For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul,’” to indicate that the atoning power of the blood also applied to the “nephes [awareness] of the sinner,”17 which Milgrom denied.18 Zohar then argues that by laying his hands on the sacrificial animal, the repentant sinner’s sin-contamination was transferred from the person to the animal: “The sin­ner procures an animal and transfers his sin-contamination to it.”19 Thus the sin offering ritual, according to Kiuchi, not only cleansed the sanctu­ary, but also the repentant sinner.20

Finally, Roy Gane, although accepting Milgrom’s change of terminol­ogy from “sin offering” to “purification offering,”21 disagrees with Mil­grom’s theory that the purification offering only cleansed the sanctuary. He maintains that “purification offerings throughout the year remove evils from their offerers rather than from the sanctuary and its sancta.”22 He quotes Leviticus 7 and Numbers 8:21 to support his point: in Le­viticus 12:6 and 7 that a “purification offering” together with a burnt offering remedied the physical impurity of a woman who had just given birth, and in Numbers 8:21 a “purification offering” coupled with a burnt offering purified the Levitical workforce. He concludes by stating, “One who com­mits a sin for which a purification offering is required can receive divine forgiveness only when the sacrifice is accomplished; there is no indica­tion that repentance alone can result in forgiveness.”23


Unintentional Sins

Sin offerings in Leviticus 4:3, 14, 24, and 28 are generally understood to have made amends for sins committed “unintentionally” (CSB, NAS, NIV, NKJV), “inadvertently” (NAB), or “unwittingly” (RSV)—arising from negli­gence or ignorance. “Either the offender knows the law but involuntarily violates it or he acts knowingly but is unaware that he did wrong.”24 An example of the first case would be the accidental homicide in Deuteron­omy 19:4 and 5; an illustration of the second is the story of Abimelech and Sarah (Gen. 20:1–9), in which Abimelech took Sarah into his house without realizing that she was already married.

The problem with the traditional translation (“unintentionally”), Wal­ter Kaiser says, is the fact that the root of the original word means “‘to err,’ ‘go astray,’ ‘to wander.’ Never is the idea of intent part of the meaning.”25 He, there­fore, suggests the translation “in error” or “by mistake” rather than “unintentionally.”26 However, the additional explanations that “the thing is hidden from the eyes” (Lev. 4:13), “if his sin . . . comes to his knowl­edge” (vss. 23, 28), or “they become aware of the sin” (vs. 14, NIV), and the re­peated statement that “he is unaware of it” in Leviticus 5:2 to 4 indicate that the sins committed were done unwittingly. The exception seems to be Leviticus 5:1, in which a person neglects or avoids coming forward as a witness. This is generally seen as a deliberate sin because the phrase “he is unaware of it” is missing. However, other scholars dispute this. Bernd Janowski, for example, considers the sins in Leviticus 4:1 to 5:13 done unintentionally,27 and Baruch Levine believes the failure to testify may be more a matter of negligence than a conscious decision not to testify.28 A. Noordtzij similarly refers to the sins in Leviti­cus 5:1 to 4 as “arising from negligence or thoughtlessness.”29 Klaus Koch concludes that the sin offering was “used only for unintentional sins . . . that are later made known (by lot or prophetic oracle? Lev. 4:14, 23) or for kinds of impurity that come unavoidably (Lev. 12:6, 8; 14:13, 19, 22, 31).”30 For him, the guilt or trespass offerings (5:15, 16, 18, 19) “atone primarily for deliberate transgressions.”31

Rodriguez believes that Leviticus 4 deals with unintentional sins and Leviticus 5:1 to 4 with intentional sins.32 This means he has to change the meaning of the phrase in Leviticus 5:2 to 4 generally translated by a passive phrase such as “without being aware of it” (NAB, NIV, NKJV) or “it is hidden from him” (KJV). This phrase, says Rodriguez, must mean he “hides or conceals his sin,”33 but why would Moses use this when he meant to say “he hides or conceals his sin”? In the other two texts where the phrase is used (Lev. 4:13; Num. 5:13), the meaning is clearly passive. It seems more consistent to assume the sin offering dealt with unintentional sins of varying degrees, because of ignorance, negligence, or human frailty.


The Day of Atonement

The high point of the cultic year of the Israelites was the Day of Atone­ment. Throughout the year the sanctuary could be contaminated by (a) ceremonially unclean persons who entered the sanctuary (Lev. 15:31; 21:12; Num. 19:13); (b) descendants of Aaron who had physical defects, e.g., who were blind, lame, or deformed (they were not allowed to ap­proach the tabernacle [Lev. 21:23]); (c) idolatry (20:1–3); and (d) sacrifices throughout the year by which the Israelites transferred their sins to the sanctuary. The ritual of laying on of hands transferred the sins from the offerer to the sacrificial animal (Lev. 4:4, 15, 24, 29), which became the sinner’s substitute, and the blood ritual deposited the sins in the sanctuary (4:6, 17, 25, 30). “Sin was transferred to the sanctuary in order to bring it under the controlling power of Yahweh.”34

On the Day of Atonement, a special ritual (Lev. 16:15, 16, 19–22) cleansed the sanctuary from the ritual defilement and sins of the people that had accumulated throughout the year (16:30). John Calvin correctly saw this as a yearly reaffirmation on the corporate level of expiation that had already been granted to individual Israelites throughout the year.35

It is important to remember that only the sins deposited in the sanc­tuary were blotted out through the Day of Atonement ritual. So-called “high-handed sins” that could not be deposited in the sanctuary were therefore not dealt with on the Day of Atonement.


Forgiveness of High-handed Sins

According to Leviticus 4 and 5, sin offerings were for sins committed through ignorance or negligence. People might commit a sin and not know it (Lev. 4:13; 5:2–4). However, when they discovered their sin, or when it was pointed out to them, they were to bring an offering for it. But this could not be done for a sin committed in rebellion against God. In cases of presumptuous sins, in Hebrew called “sins done with a high hand,” the offender was to be killed (Num. 15:30, 31). Such was the case with the man gather­ing sticks on the Sabbath (vss. 32–36) and with Achan, who refused to admit his theft until God pointed him out (Joshua 7:24, 25).

“The laws of the To­rah did not permit Israelites to expiate intentional or premeditated offenses by means of sacrifice.”36 It would have cheapened the enormity of the sin, if a person after committing murder, adultery, blasphemy, etc., simply had to bring an offering to have his deed wiped out. “The mistaken notion that ritual worship could atone for criminality or intentional religious desecra­tion was persistently attacked by the prophets of Israel, who considered it a major threat to the entire covenantal relationship between Israel and God.”37

However, this does not mean that a person committing a high-hand­ed sin could not be forgiven. Sins, even presumptuous sins, could be and were forgiven, as they are now, by confession and repentance. A classic example is David’s adultery and murder. In his penitential psalm he wrote, “You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering” (Ps. 51:16) because there were no sacrifices for such sins. What God wanted was a “broken and a contrite heart” (vs. 17). For­giveness in such cases was not granted because of a sacrifice brought, but only in view of the cross of Christ, which all the Old Testament sacrifices foreshadowed. It would have devalued the enormity of high-handed sins if an ox or a lamb could have been brought to atone for such sins. This is one reason that the author of Hebrews wrote that it was “not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats could take away sins” (Heb. 10:4). Only the sac­rifice of Jesus Christ on the cross provided for the taking away of all sins, “but now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (Heb. 9:26).


The Sin Offering and Christ

Milgrom’s theory that only the sanctuary was cleansed by the sin offering destroys its typological significance, which is irrelevant for Jews but crucial for Christians. Every Old Testament offer­ing pointed to Christ, but the sin offering in particular was a symbol of Christ’s death. Although Jesus observed the ceremonial system—e.g., He told the cleansed leper to go and show himself to the priest, and “‘offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them’” (Matt. 8:4)—He knew that according to prophecy, the sacrificial system would come to an end with His death (Dan. 9:26, 27). He interpreted His own death as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28); and on the eve of the crucifixion, He saw himself as the substitute for sinners (John 15:13). John the Baptist identified Jesus as the “‘Lamb of God’” (1:29), and Paul stated that God presented Jesus “as a sacrifice of atonement” (Rom. 3:25, NIV)—“a sin offering” (8:3, NIV) for all humanity.

In 2 Corinthians 5:21 Paul made the same point when he wrote, “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” In this text, Paul used the word that the LXX uses for sin offering in Leviticus 4:21, 24, 32, 34, and in a number of other texts. In 1 Corinthians 5:7 Paul identified Jesus with the Passover Lamb, “For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us,” and in Ephesians 5:2, he described Jesus’ death as “an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.”

There are numerous references to Christ’s blood in the New Testa­ment, also suggesting a sacrifice: “God set [Jesus] forth as a propitiation by His blood” (Rom. 3:25); we are “justified by His blood” (5:9); “In him we have redemption through His blood” (Eph. 1:7); we “have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (2:13); He has reconciled “all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross” (Col. 1:20), and the author of He­brews says that Jesus “entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:12, NRSV).

Peter emphasized that believers are redeemed by the blood of Je­sus (1 Peter 1:18, 19), and John affirmed that His blood “cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7) and that Jesus is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2; 4:10). Throughout the New Testament, the concept that Jesus is the fulfillment and culmination of the Old Testament sacrificial service is clearly stated.



The Israelite sacrificial service was, in a sense, a kindergarten illus­tration of the Creator’s plan of salvation. Through it, Israel should have learned to understand what the God of the universe was going to do for the salvation of humanity. It should have taught them the holiness of God, the enormity of sin, and how far God would go to redeem them and the rest of humanity.

The sin offering was designed to teach them that sin has consequenc­es. When they departed from the will of God, an innocent animal had to take their place and give its life for their sins. The sin offering had both an atoning and purifying function. The individual Israelite's sins were atoned for when the sin offering was brought throughout the year, and the sanctuary was purified or cleansed on the Day of Atonement.

Presumptuous or high-handed sins could not be atoned for by a sacri­fice; they were forgiven through confession and repentance in view of the cross of Christ. It is to this cross that all the Old Testament offerings pointed forward. The death of Jesus Christ was undoubtedly the climax and fulfillment of the Old Testament sacrificial service.


Gerhard Pfandl, PhD, retired, is former Associate Director of the Biblical Research Institute at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A.




1. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture references in this article are quoted from the New King James Version of the Bible.

2. Jacob Milgrom, “Sin-Offering or Purification-Offering?” Vetus Testamentum, 21 (April 1971), 237–239.

3. __________, Leviticus 1-16, Anchor Bible 3 (New York: Doubleday, 1991).

4. Ibid., 253.

5. Walter C. Kaiser Jr., “Leviticus,” The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1994), 1:1033.

6. Hyam Maccoby, Ritual and Morality (Cambridge: University Press, 1999), 180.

7. Mark J. Boda, A Severe Mercy: Sin and Its Remedy in the Old Testament (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2009), 52.

8. Nobuyoshi Kiuchi, A Study of Ḥàṭà’ and Ḥaṭṭā’t in Leviticus 4-5, Forschungen zum Alten Testament, 2. Reihe (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003), 25, 26.

9. Ibid., 41.

10. Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, 258.

11. Ibid., 255.

12. Ibid., 256.

13. Angél Rodriguez, Substitution in the Hebrew Cultus, Andrews University Seminary Doctoral Dissertation Series 3 (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 1979), 104, 105.

14. Ibid., 104.

15. Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, 256, 257.

16. Rodriguez, Substitution in the Hebrew Cultus, 105, n. 1.

17. Noam Zohar, “Repentance and Purification: The Significance and Semantics of Ḥaṭṭā’t in the Pentateuch,” Journal of Biblical Literature 107:4 (December 1998): 611.

18. Jacob Milgrom, Studies in Cultic Theology and Terminology (Leiden: Brill, 1983), 36:96–103.

19. Zohar, “Repentance and Purification,” 614.

20. Kiuchi, “The Purification Offering in the Priestly Literature,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 56, 65.

21. Roy Gane, Cult Character (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2005), xx; Leviticus, Numbers, NIV Application Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2004), 96.

22. Ibid., 104.

23. Ibid., 105.

24. Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, 228.

25. Kaiser, “Leviticus,” 1,033.

26. Ibid., 1,034.

27. Bernd Janowski, Suhne als Heilsgeschehen, Wissenschaftliche Monographien zum Alten und Neuen Testament [Scholarly Monographs on the Old and New Testament] 55 (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Ver­lag, 1982), 255, 378.

28. Baruch A. Levine, Leviticus, The JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia, Penna.: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 27.

29. A Noordtzij, Leviticus, Bible Student's Commentary (Grand Rapid, Mich.: Zondervan, 1982), 63.

30. K. Koch, “תטא chāṭa” in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich. Eerdmans, 2021), 4:318.

31. Ibid.

32. Rodriguez, Substitution in the Hebrew Cultus, 97.

33. Ibid., 95.

34. Ibid., 142.

35. John Calvin, Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2009), 2:340.

36 Levine, Leviticus, The JPS Torah Commentary, 3.

37. Ibid., 3.