To begin with, there's a shock in store: The regular sacrifices didn't atone for all sins.
- Atonement was provided in the regular sacrifices for "unintentional" sins, that is, sins involving at least some mitigating factors. This is explicit in e.g. Lev 4:2, 13, 22, etc. A sin offering is required.
- Atonement was provided in the regular sacrifices for "intentional" sins, that is, sins committed deliberately, without mitigating factors. Note e.g. Lev 5:1 (deliberate failure to testify); 6:1-7 (false oath). A guilt (reparation) offering is required.
- No atonement is mentioned in connection with the regular sacrifices for high-handed sins, and indeed the penalty described in numbers 15:30-31 (cut off from the people) implies excommunication, and quite probably death.
Moreover, Numbers 15 strongly discourages any suggestion that we should "take comfort" in the fact that we've "only" committed an "intentional" sin rather than a "high-handed" sin. As Sklar explains (pp. 482ff.), Numbers 15 deliberately omits the category of "intentional" sins, instead mentioning only the "unintentional" and "high handed" categories. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, this passage is concerned to "[underscore] the extreme danger of high-handed sin" (p. 483), which is achieves by making the starkest possible contrast with "unintentional" sin. Second, Numbers 15 is also concerned to highlight the extreme danger of intentional sin, since it is the intentional sinner who is "in danger of apostasy", for "the step from [intentional sin] to [high handed sin] is very quick and easy to take" (p. 484). It does this by omitting the category completed, and so implying that if there are not mitigating factors ("unintentional"), then the sinner is already on the road to high-handed sin and thus apostasy.
So is this is? Is there no hope for the person who has committed a high-handed sin, or his he destined to remain for ever "cut off" from his people? At this point we turn to the most significant sacrificial festival of Israel's year, the annual Day of Atonement Festival.
There's a great deal that could be said about this complex series of ceremonies. To simplify (see Sklar, Leviticus, or the other standard commentaries for more detail), the High Priest offers two pairs of sacrifices: a pair of sin offerings (a bull for himself, and a goat for the people) and a pair of guilt offerings (a ram for himself and a ram for the people). The blood from the sin offerings is sprinkled in the Most Holy Place (the only time in the year that anyone enters the inner room of the sanctuary). In between these two pairs of offerings, he conducts the famous "scapegoat" ceremony, in which a second goat is sent into the wilderness bearing the sins of the people. Alongside the High Priest's access to the Most Ho;ly Place, it is this "scapegoat" element that makes a great deal of the difference between the Day of Atonement and the regular sacrifices.
Notice a number of points about the Day of Atonement ritual:
- The "sin offering for the people" part looks like a high-octane sin offering: (1) the blood is sprinkled in the Most Holy Place; (2) Lev 16:16 is pretty comprehensive in stating that the Priests "shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins." Repeated phrases suggesting a degree of comoprehensiveness.
- However, I'm (tentatively) not sure that this "sin offering" element alone would be enough to atone for anything beyond unintentional sins. After all, sin offerings are prescribed for unintentional sins in Lev 4, and Hebrews 9:7 (which is nothing is not a commentary on the Day of Atonement ritual) highlights that it is (only?) the unintentional sins for which atonement was made by the High Priest when he sprinkled the blood in the Most Holy Place. Something else seems to be required...
- That "something else" is the scapegoat ritual. Notice:
- (1) As Michael Morales points out, the two goats are mentioned together in Lev 16:5 in a way that suggests a connection between them: the sin offering and the scapegoat are two parts of a single ritual, "as if it were one goat accomplishing two different aspects of atonement" (Who Shall Ascend? p. 179).
- (2) In Lev 16:21, when the spacegoat is sent away, two of the comprehensive-sounding terms from v. 16 are repeated in an emphatic way, "all their transgressions, all their sins", as though the scapegoat is "carrying away" the sins for which atonement was made by the sin-offering goat.
- (3) Crucially, the goat is said to "carry all their iniquities to [lit.] a land of cutting off". The goat suffers the fate of being "cut off" from the people that would have been suffered by the high-handed sinner.
- Thus the Day of Atonement ritual seems to accomplish more than the regular sacrifices: it atones not just for unintentional and intentional sins, but also for any other sin - including high-handed sins - that have been confessed and repented of. This crucial fact sets the Day of Atonement ritual apart from all the other Old Covenant sacrifices, and shows us why it was so very significant.
No surprise, then, that in Isaiah 53:8 the Suffering Servant of the LORD is said to be (guess what?) "cut off" for the "transgression" (pesha', the same word as in Lev 16:16, 21) of his people.
Jesus is just like the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement - sent away from the community to be "cut off" and to die in their stead.
There's one more connection to make between the atonement for these high-handed sins and the New Covenant sacrifice of Christ. Let's return to Sklar's article one more time. It turns out that there are seven (coincidence? I don't think so) episodes in the life of Israel that involve high-handed sin (Sklar, "Sin and Atonement," p. 486). They are:
- The golden calf (Ex 32)
- The people's complaining (Num 11:1-3)
- The rebellion after the spies returned from Canaan (Num 14)
- The rebellion of Korah (Num 16)
- The people's rebellion after the Korah-episode (Num16)
- The people's rebellion after setting off from Mount Hor (Num 21:4-9)
- The idolatry at Shittim (Num 25)
In each case, you'd expect the people to be cut off completely by the LORD. But they're not. They survive - albeit with some painful consequences and ongoing lessons in the form of discipline. Apart from the Day of Atonement, is there anything else that accounts for the LORD's mercy to his people in all these circumstances?
It turns out that there is.
In each case, a mediator intercedes between the LORD and his people, and it is at that point that the LORD shows mercy. Often the mediator is Moses; on one occasion it is Aaron; on another it is Phineas. But always, without fail, a mediator is necessary in order for atonement to be made for a high-handed sin.
Does that remind you of anyone?
I thought so.