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David Frankel





Does an Intentional Sinner Attain Atonement?



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David Frankel





Does an Intentional Sinner Attain Atonement?






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Does an Intentional Sinner Attain Atonement?

Leviticus 16 describes how the scapegoat ritual on Yom Kippur attains atonement for all of Israel’s sins, even acts of rebellion. Numbers 15, however, states that a person who sins unintentionally can bring an offering and be forgiven, but the person who sins intentionally is cut off from the people.


Does an Intentional Sinner Attain Atonement?

Aaron casting lots. Leviticus 16:8, Detail of East Window, Lincoln Cathedral. Flicker/Jules & Jenny cc 2.0

The Scapegoat Ritual Atones for All Sins: Leviticus 16

Leviticus ends its description of the yearly purification of the Tabernacle on Yom Kippur by explaining that the day’s ritual cleanses and atones for all sins of any kind:

ויקרא טז:ל כִּי בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם מִכֹּל חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה תִּטְהָרוּ.
Lev 16:30 For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you will be cleansed before YHWH.

No distinction is made here between types of sins or types of sinners. This is also clear from the priest’s confession over the scapegoat, which also uses the word כֹּל, “all”:

ויקרא טז:כא וְסָמַךְ אַהֲרֹן אֶת שְׁתֵּי (ידו) [יָדָיו] עַל רֹאשׁ הַשָּׂעִיר הַחַי וְהִתְוַדָּה עָלָיו אֶת כָּל עֲו‍ֹנֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֶת כָּל פִּשְׁעֵיהֶם לְכָל חַטֹּאתָם...
Lev 16:21 Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities of the Israelites, and their transgressions all their sins…

The inclusion of פשע (pesha), a term that almost always refers to purposeful acts of rebellion, particularly against YHWH, makes the point extra clear. The verb פשע is used ubiquitously to indicate an act of revolt or rebellion, not an inadvertent or minor misdeed. See, for example, the parallel drawn by YHWH in Ezekiel between rebellion and pesha:

יחזקאל ב:ג וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלַי בֶּן אָדָם שׁוֹלֵחַ אֲנִי אוֹתְךָ אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל גּוֹיִם הַמּוֹרְדִים אֲשֶׁר מָרְדוּ בִי הֵמָּה וַאֲבוֹתָם פָּשְׁעוּ בִי עַד עֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה.
Ezek 2:3 He said to me, “O mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, that nation of rebels, who have rebelled against Me.—They as well as their fathers have defied Me to this very day…”[1]

The intentional and volitional character of the offense applies overwhelmingly for the noun as well.[2] Thus, the Talmud states: פשעים אילו המרדים “pesha’im—these are rebellions” (b. Yoma 36b). Thus, God warns the Israelites of the wilderness period against rebelling against his angel or messenger with the words:

שמות כג:כא הִשָּׁמֶר מִפָּנָיו וּשְׁמַע בְּקֹלוֹ אַל תַּמֵּר בּוֹ כִּי לֹא יִשָּׂא לְפִשְׁעֲכֶם כִּי שְׁמִי בְּקִרְבּוֹ.
Exod 23:21 Beware of him and obey him, do not rebel against him for he shall not forgive your rebellions, for my name is in him.

The cleansing of the people’s sins is automatic: If the ritual is done properly on the proper day, then their sins are simply erased. The people are not even active participants in the process. The priest is the one who pronounces the confession; the people say and do nothing at all.[3]

Intentional Sins Are Not Forgiven: Numbers 15

Numbers 15, contains a very different description of how to attain forgiveness for sin. The passage begins by introducing unintentional sin:

במדבר טו:כב וְכִי תִשְׁגּוּ וְלֹא תַעֲשׂוּ אֵת כָּל הַמִּצְו‍ֹת הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה. טו:כג אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְ־הוָה אֲלֵיכֶם בְּיַד מֹשֶׁה מִן הַיּוֹם אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְ־הוָה וָהָלְאָה לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם.
Num 15:22 If you unwittingly fail to observe any one of the commandments that YHWH has declared to Moses—15:23 anything that YHWH has enjoined upon you through Moses—from the day that YHWH gave the commandment and on through the ages.

The text then subdivides the offense into two categories. The first is a sin that involves the entire community (vv. 24–26)[4] and the second is an individual sin:

במדבר טו:כז וְאִם נֶפֶשׁ אַחַת תֶּחֱטָא בִשְׁגָגָה וְהִקְרִיבָה עֵז בַּת שְׁנָתָהּ לְחַטָּאת. טו:כח וְכִפֶּר הַכֹּהֵן עַל הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַשֹּׁגֶגֶת בְּחֶטְאָה בִשְׁגָגָה לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה לְכַפֵּר עָלָיו וְנִסְלַח לוֹ.
Num 15:27 In case it is an individual who has sinned unwittingly, he shall offer a she-goat in its first year as a sin offering. 15:28 The priest shall make expiation before YHWH on behalf of the person who erred, for he sinned unwittingly, making such expiation for him that he may be forgiven.

Both rituals include a set of sacrifices. In each case, the text specifies that this ritual is only for people who have sinned unwittingly, emphasizing that this rule applies to Israelites and sojourners alike (v. 29).

The text next turns to purposeful sins, and clarifies that these are not forgiven:

במדבר טו:ל וְהַנֶּפֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשֶׂה בְּיָד רָמָה מִן הָאֶזְרָח וּמִן הַגֵּר אֶת יְ־הוָה הוּא מְגַדֵּף וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מִקֶּרֶב עַמָּהּ. טו:לא כִּי דְבַר יְ־הוָה בָּזָה וְאֶת מִצְוָתוֹ הֵפַר הִכָּרֵת תִּכָּרֵת הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא עֲו‍ֹנָה בָהּ.
Num 15:30 But the person, be he citizen or stranger, who acts defiantly reviles YHWH; that person shall be cut off from among his people. 15:31 Because he has spurned the word of YHWH and violated His commandment, that person shall surely be cut off—he bears his guilt.

A person who purposefully sins has reviled YHWH and is punished with excision or “cutting off”—a punishment whose meaning is debated (see below)—with no option for offering a sacrifice and receiving forgiveness.[5] Thus, this text is in tension with Leviticus 16 and its description of how the rituals of the Day of Atonement atone for all sins. Should these two conceptions be reconciled?

Blocking the Offender Until Yom Kippur: Jacob Milgrom

Jacob Milgrom (1923–2010) thinks so. He tries to solve this contradiction by arguing that Numbers 15 requires the Israelites to bar premeditated offenders from the Temple, so that he will not be able to offer a sacrifice of atonement. This leaves the sinner exposed and susceptible to being “cut off,” i.e., death and extirpation of the family line at the hands of God (in Milgrom’s understanding).[6]

Hope for this individual, however, is not lost. If Yom Kippur arrives before YHWH inflicts the sinner with karet, when the high priest performs rituals of atonement on everyone’s behalf, it will atone for the purposeful sinner as well.[7]

A Forced Reading

Milgrom’s reading of Numbers 15 is forced. The passage says nothing about barring a person from offering a sacrifice. Moreover, the singular and emphatic phrase הִכָּרֵת תִּכָּרֵת הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא, “that person shall surely be cut off” sounds like a command, i.e., something the Israelites are required to do to the person, not something YHWH is threatening to do himself (and with sufficient leisure that he might not get around to it by Yom Kippur).

It is more likely that the clause refers to an obligation on the part of the community to excommunicate the offender, as the Qumran community indeed understood.[8] As noted by Baruch Levine (1930–2021), this is the basic meaning of the phrase: “The penalty originally meant banishment from one’s clan or territory.”[9] Banishment from membership in the Temple community is a muted form of the death penalty.[10]

Lastly, Numbers 15 seems completely oblivious to Yom Kippur’s existence. It fails to consider the possibility of allowing the sinner, or disallowing him, to wait for Yom Kippur and obtain atonement then.

Numbers 15:22–31 likely precedes the establishment of Yom Kippur as it now appears in Leviticus 16. Furthermore, the revision of the text of Leviticus 16, making the sporadic purification of the Tabernacle into the yearly atonement ritual of Yom Kippur, might even be taken as a considered rejection of Numbers 15:22–31 and its approach to sin and atonement.[11]

In any event, the two texts clearly stand at opposite poles of the theological spectrum on the issue of sin and atonement. According to Numbers 15, all sins committed knowingly are tantamount to flagrant rebellion and are thoroughly unpardonable, while the text in Leviticus 16 offers yearly atonement for every violation. This difference stems from contrasting views of the nature of sin and whether the priestly ritual is meant to achieve סליחה “forgiveness” (Num 15) or כפרה, “atonement” (Lev 16). Let us explain.

Intentional Sin Is Unacceptable and Unforgivable: Numbers 15

Numbers 15 views “sin” as a personal offense against YHWH,[12] which is why the text speaks of the need to receive סליחה, “forgiveness” from YHWH (see verses 25–26, 28). Its view is that forgiveness is attainable only if the offense was inadvertent. Individuals who knowingly rebel against any of God’s laws immediately lose their right to life; any intentional sin is thoroughly unacceptable and punished with karet.[13] This is considerably more severe than the approach found elsewhere in the Torah, where karet is assigned to specific violations that constitute symbols of the covenant as a whole: the failure to perform circumcision (Gen 17:14), observe the Sabbath (Exod 31:14b) or perform the Passover sacrifice at the proper time (Num 9:13).[14]

Numbers 15:22–31, however, posits that there can be no hierarchy amongst the commandments since they all derive equally from the divine lawgiver. Numbers 15:22—31 represents an elevation of every single commandment to the level of a symbolic embodiment of the covenant as a whole.

This contrasts sharply, however, with the depiction of circumcision in Genesis 17, where the person who refuses to perform circumcision is “cut off” because of breaking God’s covenant:

בראשית יז:יד וְעָרֵל זָכָר אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִמּוֹל אֶת בְּשַׂר עָרְלָתוֹ וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מֵעַמֶּיהָ אֶת בְּרִיתִי הֵפַר.
Gen 17:14 And if any male who is uncircumcised fails to circumcise the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his kin; he has broken My covenant.

According to Num 15:31, however, the person who knowingly disobeys any commandment is cut off because, דְבַר יְ־הוָה בָּזָה וְאֶת מִצְוָתוֹ הֵפַר, “he despised my word and broke my commandment.”

Maintaining the Community’s Standing with YHWH

The second part of the formulation וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מִקֶּרֶב עַמָּהּ, “that person shall be cut off from his people” (v. 30) is crucial: It shows a concern with the wholeness of the community. The sinner must be removed from the society in which he lives. This reflects not only a concern with the implementation of justice, but also with maintaining the purity and well-being of the community.

To maintain its good standing with God, and protect itself from misfortune, the community must root out the sinful individuals from its midst. This leaves a limited role to rituals meant to obtain divine forgiveness, which are only available to the inadvertent sinners.[15]

Intentional Sin Is Inevitable but Must Be Atoned For: Leviticus 16

The theology of Leviticus 16 stands in marked contrast to this. Its view of sin is closer to that expressed in Ecclesiastes:

קהלת ז:כ כִּי אָדָם אֵין צַדִּיק בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה טּוֹב וְלֹא יֶחֱטָא.
Eccl 7:20 Surely there is no one on earth so righteous as to do good without ever sinning.

Everyone sins at least once in a while, and not merely unwittingly![16] Even the high priest must obtain atonement for himself and his household before he can provide atonement for others (cf. vv. 6, 11, 17). And what is true of each individual is also true of Israel as a collective unit.

Sin and Impurity

Leviticus 16 views rebellious sin as inevitable. This is indicated by its presentation side-by-side of sinful disobedience with physical impurities:

ויקרא טז:יז וְכִפֶּר עַל הַקֹּדֶשׁ מִטֻּמְאֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וּמִפִּשְׁעֵיהֶם לְכָל חַטֹּאתָם וְכֵן יַעֲשֶׂה לְאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד הַשֹּׁכֵן אִתָּם בְּתוֹךְ טֻמְאֹתָם.
Lev 16:16 In this way he will make atonement for the Most Holy Place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been. He is to do the same for the tent of meeting, which is among them in the midst of their uncleanness.

Most impurities, such as those that come from contact with the dead, childbirth, genital emissions, etc. are impossible to avoid. They are part and parcel of the cycle of life. The implication of verse 16 is that the same is true of intentional sin—it is part and parcel of the yearly cycle of life.

Not a Matter of Repentance or Remorse

The understanding of sin that underlies Leviticus 16 explains why the biblical Yom Kippur includes no teshuvah “repentance” pronouncement of the kind formulated by Moses Maimonides: :ולעולם איני חוזר לדבר זה “I will never do it again.”[17] The implicit assumption of Leviticus 16 is that sinners will repeat their sins. That is why Yom Kippur will return the following year to remove the sins one more time!

For this reason, furthermore, Leviticus 16 says nothing about either sorrowful remorse or divine forgiveness. It is difficult to be deeply remorseful over sinful behavior, or overly offended by others who rebel, when sinful behavior is understood as natural and inevitable. This, in turn, implies something fundamental about humanity. Leviticus 16 would concur with the verdict of Jeremiah

ירמיה יז:ט עָקֹב הַלֵּב מִכֹּל וְאָנֻשׁ הוּא מִי יֵדָעֶנּוּ.
Jer 17:9 The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?[18]

Since individuals will sin repeatedly, endangering their own lives and the well-being of the community, a system is needed that will deal with the problem on a recurring basis and for all time (v. 31: חוקת עולם). This is the basis of the legislation for Yom Kippur in Leviticus 16: sins are expelled instead of sinners, and the entire community gets a clean slate.

From the perspective of Leviticus 16, Numbers 15 is overly exacting, utopian, and impossible to live by. The demand to continuously remove each and every intentional sinner from the collective (alongside the demand that each inadvertent sinner make atonement for each and every inadvertent sin) in order to maintain a pristine and secure community of the Godly ignores the realities of human nature and threatens to degenerate into an oppressive and divisive society.

Atonement not Forgiveness

This is why Leviticus 16 says nothing about סליחה, “personal forgiveness” and speaks only about כפרה, “atonement.”[19] The text appears less concerned with achieving a reconciliation between God and Israel on the interpersonal level than with cleansing YHWH’s earthly abode and its surrounding human environment.[20]

In Leviticus 16, the priest recites the sins of the people while placing his hands on the head of the scapegoat, thereby loading the sins onto the scapegoat. The goat is then forever sent away from YHWH and the people (vv. 21–22).[21]

Underlying this ritual is an understanding that sinful acts create a kind of toxic waste that clings to the sinners as well as to the sanctuary and its vessels, the place where God’s presence abides.[22] The accumulation of sin, like that of physical impurity, could potentially elicit divine wrath, ending either in God’s complete abandonment of his earthly abode, or in a lethal strike against the source of the noxious toxicity—the people living in YHWH’s domain, where YHWH’s sanctuary is found.

The biblical God can often hold an entire community accountable for the offenses of lone individuals.[23] Yom Kippur’s “atonement” thus preempts the unleashing of divine retribution on the community by removing the sins and impurities from the sanctuary, and from the people at large, once a year. It makes little sense to exclude severe sins from this atonement/sin-removal, since these are the sins that pose the greatest threat to the community!

The lack of interest in the rehabilitation of the personal bond of trust between God and the people in Leviticus 16 accords with the failure to require of the people dramatic displays or verbal expressions of serious remorse—the main features of the rabbinic Yom Kippur. Overt expressions of remorse are appropriate when attempting to pacify or woo an offended party. They are largely irrelevant to the mechanics of atonement, whose positive effects are assured from the outset.[24]

Two Communities in the Persian Period

Scholars have noted that the Persian period gave rise to two antithetical approaches to peoplehood within the restoration community. One approach was open and strongly inclusive while the other was closed and highly exclusivist.[25] I would suggest that the tension between Numbers 15 and Leviticus 16 broadly fits this framework.

Numbers 15 represents an elitist approach which, in its attempt to maintain constant purity, is isolationist, exclusionary, perhaps even proto-sectarian. Yom Kippur as reflected in Leviticus 16, in contrast, represents a moderate, tolerant and inclusive approach. No one is excluded from the community of Israel. Since absolute purity cannot be maintained on a constant basis, it is achieved once a year, every year, allowing the broader community as a whole to carry on.


The Development of Yom Kippur: Mediating Between the Two Approaches

It is important to note that the Yom Kippur that developed in the late Second Temple and rabbinic periods does not reflect the extremely liberal approach of Leviticus 16. Rather, various early interpreters insisted that the Yom Kippur atonement was restricted or limited in significant ways.

According to the book of Jubilees, Yom Kippur would not atone for those who sinned with full knowledge and intent:

Jub 5:18 It has been written and ordained that he will have mercy on all who turn from all their errors once each year.

Jub 34:19 This day has been ordained so that they may be saddened on it for their sins, all their transgressions, and all their errors; so that they may purify themselves on this day once a year.[26]

Similarly, the rabbis emphasize the importance of repentance. Thus, they state that Yom Kippur cannot atone for sins committed against another person, unless that person has granted forgiveness:

משנה יומא ח:ט עֲבֵירוֹת שֶׁבֵּין אָדָם לַמָּקוֹם, יוֹם הַכִּיפּוּרִים מְכַפֵּר, וְשֶׁבֵּין אָדָם לַחֲבֵירוֹ, אֵין יוֹם הַכִּיפּוּרִים מְכַפֵּר, עַד שֶׁיְּרַצֶּה אֶת חֲבֵירוֹ.
m. Yoma 8:9 Since between a man and God, Yom Kippur can atone for. Interpersonal sins, Yom Kippur cannot atone for, until the offended party has been pacified.

Notably, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah goes on to prove this midrashically from Leviticus 16:30 that states that they are cleansed of their sins לִפְנֵי יְיָ “before God,” showing how extensively the rabbis reread this text. Moreover, the rabbis state that the Yom Kippur cannot atone for people who do not repent in earnest:

תוספתא יומא ד:ט חטאת ואשם ומיתה ויום הכפורים כולן אין מכפרין אלא עם התשובה, שנ׳ אך בעשור וגו׳, אם שב מתכפר לו, ואם לאו, אין מתכפר לו,
t.Yoma 4:9 The sin offering, the guilt offering, death, and Yom Kippur—all of them only atone if a person has repented, as it says (Lev 23:27): “But on the tenth…”—if he repents, it atones for him, if not, it does not atone for him.
ור׳ לעזר אומ[ר] ונקה, מנקה הוא לשבים, ואין מנקה לשאין שבים.
Rabbi Lazar says: “‘And he wipes clean’ (Exod 34:7)[27]—[God] wipes clean the slate for those who repent, but he does not wipe the slate clean for those who do not repent.

The medieval sage Moses Maimonides (1138–1204) ruled that Yom Kippur did not fully atone for sins that were particularly severe: those subject to the karet penalty (“death from heaven” in rabbinic interpretation), death by the courts, or those that involved the desecration of the name of heaven.[28]

Numbers 15 and Leviticus 16: Mutually Corrective

What we see in the development of Yom Kippur in the Jewish tradition is how the contradictory viewpoints of Numbers 15 and Leviticus 16 serve as correctives to each other.

Leviticus 16’s near-automatic, yearly, cancellation of individual and national sins threatens to undermine any real and painful confrontation with serious failures that demand attention of the most serious kind. As a corrective to this, Numbers 15 reminds us that intentional sin is unacceptable, and that even unintentional sins must be dealt with carefully, on a one-by-one basis.

On the other hand, Numbers 15’s severity threatens to lead to dangerously negative sentiments, such as despair or self-hatred on both the personal and national levels. And it also threatens to develop into communal intolerance and heated fragmentation.

As a corrective to this, Leviticus 16 reminds us that as unacceptable as sins and wrongdoings truly are, we are flawed and wanting like everyone else, for iniquity is part of the human condition. This should not be taken as a free pass, but it should help us to temper unrealistic expectations of ourselves, our people, and the other individuals and groups within and around us.

May we succeed this Yom Kippur in striking this balance.


October 4, 2022


Last Updated

April 12, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Rabbi David Frankel is Associate Professor of Bible at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches M.A. and rabbinical students. He did his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Prof. Moshe Weinfeld, and is the author or The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School (VTSupp 89) and The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel (Eisenbrauns).