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James W. Watts





Leviticus’ Rhetorical Presentation of the Sin and Guilt Offerings





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James W. Watts





Leviticus’ Rhetorical Presentation of the Sin and Guilt Offerings








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Leviticus’ Rhetorical Presentation of the Sin and Guilt Offerings

The transition from the chatat (חטאת) sin offering in Leviticus 4 to the asham (אשׁם) guilt offering in Leviticus 5 is sudden, even seeming to collapse them into one offering. The history of these offerings, when and why they were introduced into the Temple service, sheds light on the interpretation and structure of these chapters.


Leviticus’ Rhetorical Presentation of the Sin and Guilt Offerings

Dura Europos synagogue wall painting of the Consecration of the Tabernacle including Aaron and male attendants. 3rd c. Wikimedia

Interpreters from antiquity to the present have attempted to understand the relationship between the sin offering and the guilt offering and why the two are presented together in Leviticus 4–5. I suggest that reading Leviticus as persuasive rhetoric rather than as exact procedural instructions shows that Leviticus 4–5 is using emotional vocabulary and repetitive refrains to persuade its listeners and readers to feel obliged to bring these offerings, while implicitly encouraging them to rely on priestly experts to understand the intricacies of ritual performance.[1]

The Structure of Leviticus 1–5

The distinctive rhetoric of chapters 4–5 can be recognized best by contrasting it with the way the offerings are presented in chapters 1–3.

The first three chapters of Leviticus each give instructions for different kinds of offerings. Chapter 1 describes the olah (עלה) “rising offering,” chapter 2 the minchah (מנחה) “commodity offering,” and chapter 3 the zevach shelamim (זבח שׁלמים) “amity slaughter offering.”[2]

Each chapter is divided into three parts by different kinds of offering materials. The olah can be a bull (1:3–9); a male from the flock, i.e., a ram or a billy goat (1:10–13); or domesticated fowl (1:14–17). Similarly, the zevach shelamim can be a bull or cow (3:1–5), ram or ewe (3:7–11), or billy goat or nanny goat (3:12–16). The minchah, by contrast, consists of vegetable offerings: semolina (2:1–3), breads (2:4–10) and their possible additives (2:11–13), and raw produce (2:14–16).

At first glance, chapters 4–5 continue this pattern by describing the chatat (חטאת) “sin offering” [3] and asham (אשׁם) “guilt offering”[4] in order. But unlike chapters 1, the regulations for the chatat sin offering first distinguish three levels of social status: the high (literally, “anointed”) priest, the congregation as a whole, and the leader. They mandate both different offering materials and a different blood ritual for the high priest and the community than for other individuals. The rules for ordinary worshippers’ sin offerings allow four kinds of materials, both animal and vegetable, at three levels of expense.[5] An enumeration of the offences that require a sin offering (5:1–5) interrupts the rules for a common person’s sheep sin offering.

The asham guilt offering, by contrast, receives no ritual instructions here. (They appear instead in 7:2–5 and turn out to involve the same procedures as for a zevach shelamim.) Chapter 5 does specify that the guilt offering always consists of a ram, or its equivalent in silver, in stark contrast to the elaboration of the sin offering by gradations of social status and economic ability. It also enumerates three kinds of offences that require a guilt offering: known mistakes against sacred things or spaces (5:15–16), unknown faults possibly against sacred things or spaces (5:17–19), and recanted offences against YHWH’s sacred name by false oaths (5:20–26, Eng. 6:1–7). Both sin and guilt offerings, however, lead to the same effect: ס.ל.ח, forgiveness (4:20, 26, 31, 35, 5:6, 10, 13, 18, 26).[6]

As a result, chapters 4–5 do not lend themselves to a simple outline like chapters 1–3 do.

Outline of Leviticus 4–5

4:1–2a            Divine speech formula
4:2b                 Occasion for sin offerings
4:3–12             The high priest’s sin offering
4:13–21           The assembly’s sin offering
4:22–26          The leader’s sin offering
4:27–35           The individual’s sin offering
          4:28–31           Female goat
          4:32–35           Female sheep
                    5:1–5               Circumstances that require a sin offering
          5:6                   Conclusion to goat and sheep sin offerings
          5:7–10             Birds
          5:11–13            Semolina
5:14     Divine speech formula
5:15–16           The guilt offering for sacrilege
5:17–18           The guilt offering for unknown but possible sacrilege
          5:19        Guilt offering chant
5:20 [6:1 English] Divine speech formula
5:21–26 [6:2–7 English] The guilt offering for recanted oaths of innocence[7]

This outline shows that chapters 4–5 do not reproduce the clear three-part structure of each chapter in Leviticus 1–3. It also shows that the divine speech formulas do not mark the organization of the chapters’ contents so much as function to increase rhetorical intensity near the climax (even more so in chapters 6–7, where divine speech formulas appear five times).

Other features of Leviticus 4–5 also point to such rhetorical intensification. Whereas chapters 1–3 never give reasons for presenting their offerings, a concern for why one must present the offerings unites the descriptions of the sin and guilt offerings (4:2–3, 13, 22, 27; 5:1–5, 15, 17, 21–24). And the constant play on the vocabulary of chatat “sin, to sin, sin offering” and asham/ashama “guilt, feel guilty, guilt offering” raises the emotional stakes even higher. But why does P legislate a guilt offering as well as a sin offering?

The Purpose of the Guilt Offering

It is difficult to find a sharp distinction between the sin and guilt offerings. One common thread binding asham cases is that they are offenses against the sacred, such as misuse of objects dedicated to the sanctuary’s use, including offerings, pollution—or possible pollution—of the sanctuary premises, and false oaths that misuse the divine name (5:21–22). The Mishnah enumerates six different reasons for presenting an asham (m. Zeb. 5:5): three from Leviticus 5 and three from other places in the Pentateuch (Lev 14:12–18, 19:20–22, Num 6:12).[8]

That the asham mitigates for offenses against sacred things was already noted by Philo of Alexandria, who, in describing the Torah’s transition from sin offering to guilt offering, writes:

But since, of offences some are committed against men, and some against holy and sacred things; he has hitherto been speaking with reference to those which are unin-tentionally committed against men; but for the purification of such as have been committed against sacred things he commands a ram to be offered up (The Special Laws, 1.234).[9]

Many interpreters have noted that this may explain why, unlike the sin offering, the guilt offering always features the same offering of a ram: while most offenses, covered by the sin offering, feature a graduated penalty based on the social and economic status of the offender, offenses against sacred things require a uniform penalty. An asham offering is also required to rectify some situations that have nothing explicitly to do with sacrilege, such as purification of a person who has recovered from skin infestation (14:12, 21). However, the mere possibility that sacrilege may have occurred is enough to motivate such an offering (5:17).

Nevertheless, focusing on the differences between the sin and guilt offerings obscures the fact of that Leviticus 4–5 presents these two offerings in a single, unified literary block. The rhetoric of the chapter is designed to persuade readers to bring these offerings, while the subtle but unclear distinctions between them encourage the people to rely on the priests to tell them which are required when.

The Rhetoric of Leviticus 4–5

The repeated vocabulary of Leviticus 4–5 unites the unit thematically around חטא/חטאת “sin,” אשׁם/אשׁמה “guilt,” כפר “mitigate (atone),”[10] and סלח “forgive.” The chapters use the same words or roots from חטא and אשׁם to describe two conditions (sin, guilt), the acts that produce or manifest these conditions (to sin, to become guilty), and the offerings that correct for them (sin offering, guilt offering).

People who need to offer the sin offering are described as א.ש.מ, “guilty” (4:22, 27, 5:2, 3, 4, 5) and the word ח.ט.א, “sin” (5:15, 17, 21) appears prominently among the reasons for bringing a guilt offering. These word choices highlight the entanglement of these two offerings, perhaps most clearly in the summary of the reasons for bringing a sin-offering (5:5–6). After describing the various sins that would require such an offering, the text states:

ויקרא ה:ה וְהָיָה כִי יֶאְשַׁם לְאַחַת מֵאֵלֶּה וְהִתְוַדָּה אֲשֶׁר חָטָא עָלֶיהָ.ה:ו וְהֵבִיא אֶת אֲשָׁמוֹ לַי־הוָה עַל חַטָּאתוֹ אֲשֶׁר חָטָא… לְחַטָּאת וְכִפֶּר עָלָיו הַכֹּהֵן מֵחַטָּאתוֹ.
Lev 5:5 It is the case that if they (masc. sg.) became guilty of one of these, they must confess what they sinned against. 5:6They must bring to YHWH their guilt (payment) for their sin that they sinned … for a sin (offering). The priest will mitigate their sin for them.[11]

Refrains that introduce and conclude each set of instructions also play on the multiple referents of these words. Thus the formula, “their sin that they sinned … as a sin offering” (חַטָּאתוֹ אֲשֶׁר חָטָא… לְחַטָּאת) appears seven times (4:3, 14, 23–24, 28; 5:6, 10, 13) and also in two distinct formulations, as is typical of P’s style: אֲשָׁמוֹ אֲשֶׁר חָטָא, “their guilt that they sinned” (5:7 MT) and the odd formulation, קָרְבָּנוֹ אֲשֶׁר חָטָא, “their present that they sinned” (5:11).[12]

As the chapters progress, the concluding formulae that describe how priests mitigate (כפר) for people become increasingly varied, and the emphasis shifts from sin to guilt, that is, from the act to its consequence:

  • מֵחַטָּאתוֺ, “from his sin” (4:26, 5:6),
  • מֵחַטָּאתוֹ אֲשֶׁר חָטָא, “from his sin that he sinned” (5:10),
  • עַל חַטָּאתוֹ אֲשֶׁר חָטָא מֵאַחַת מֵאֵלֶּה “for their sin that they sinned against one of these” (5:13),
  • עַל אַחַת מִכֹּל אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה לְאַשְׁמָה בָהּ “for one of any of the things that one does that brings about guilt” (5:26).

Leviticus 4–5 balances this emphasis on sin and guilt with concluding formulas of mitigation (atonement) and forgiveness. Most of the regulations state the problem with an active and a stative verb, e.g., יֶחֱטָא… וְאָשֵׁם, “they sin … and become guilty” (4:22) and its resolution with an active and a passive verb, e.g., וְכִפֶּר עָלָיו הַכֹּהֵן וְנִסְלַח לוֹ, “the priest mitigates for them and they are forgiven” (4:31).

The stative and passive verbs express the problem as human guilt (א.ש.מ) and its resolution as divine forgiveness (ס.ל.ח). The active verbs draw a distinction between their subjects: offenders are responsible for their own sins, but forgiveness depends on priests mediating the offender’s offerings. P’s strong emphasis on priestly mediation, however, does not extend to the power to forgive: the passive verb reserves that for God alone.[13]

The Nature of Leviticus’s Ritual Language

Many interpreters have argued that the Priestly authors (P) stand out among biblical writers for their precise use of technical ritual vocabulary.[14] However, the juxtaposition of multiple meanings of the words חטא/חטאת “sin, to sin, sin offering” and אשׁם/אשׁמה “guilt, to be guilty, guilt offering” in Leviticus 4–5 shows instead that the P writers used word plays for rhetorical effect, just like the Israelite prophets, poets and story-tellers.[15]

Word play depends on writers and readers alike recognizing the ambiguity produced by multiple meanings. P’s frequent word plays show that the writers of Leviticus were more interested in achieving certain rhetorical effects than in the precise meaning of technical ritual vocabulary. It is not hard to figure out what those intended effects were: Leviticus 4–5 overtly employs the rhetoric of sin and guilt to motivate its audiences to bring offerings to the sanctuary. The vocabulary of sin and guilt was chosen for its persuasive force.

One verse that showcases P’s persuasive use of ritual vocabulary is Leviticus 5:19. The five words of this short verse include three repetitions of the root אשׁם “guilt.” The Tiberian Masoretes pointed the first as a noun, the second an infinitive absolute and the third a finite verb, thus,

ויקרא ה:יט אָשָׁ֖ם ה֑וּא אָשֹׁ֥ם אָשַׁ֖ם לַ־יהֹוָֽה:
Lev 5:19 It is a guilt offering; he has incurred guilt before the LORD (NJPS).

This translation is already anticipated by the ancient Greek Septuagint, but the meaning is redundant after the standard concluding formula of verse 18 of וְנִסְלַח לוֹ “and he is forgiven.”

Few modern commentators say much about this verse, but Rashi felt it necessary to rebut the charge that “this is a verse that is not needed” (מקרא שלא לצורך הוא). However, if we ignore the Masoretic pointing, the consonantal Hebrew text, אשׁם הוא אשׁם אשׁם לי־הוה, looks like an emphatic assertion of an offering name, as in 2:6, מנחה הוא “it is a commodity (offering),” and 4:26, חטאת הוא “it is a sin (offering).” Here it has been tripled for emphasis, like the triple proclamations of prophets (Isa 6:3; Jer 7:4) that seem to reflect temple liturgies:

Lev 5:19 (repointed)

אָשָׁם הוּא אָשָׁם אָשָׁם לַ־יהֹוָה
It is a guilt offering, a guilt offering, a guilt offering for YHWH.

Isa 6:3

וְקָרָא זֶה אֶל זֶה וְאָמַר קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ יְ־הֹוָה צְבָאוֹת מְלֹא כָל הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ.
And one would call to the other, “Holy, holy, holy! YHWH of Hosts! His presence fills all the earth!”

Jer 7:4

אַל תִּבְטְחוּ לָכֶם אֶל דִּבְרֵי הַשֶּׁקֶר לֵאמֹר הֵיכַל יְ־הֹוָה הֵיכַל יְ־הֹוָה הֵיכַל יְ־הֹוָה הֵמָּה.
Don’t put your trust in illusions and say, “The Temple of YHWH, the Temple of YHWH, the Temple of YHWH are these buildings.”

This reading of the consonantal text suggests that P’s discourse aims at persuasive emphasis no less than did these prophets, who were themselves probably echoing temple rhetoric.

In short, Leviticus 4–5 employs multiple meanings of “sin” and “guilt” to enhance the persuasiveness of its rhetoric. The P writers were more concerned with motivating compliance than with conveying precise ritual distinctions, much less their rationales. They focus instead on who owes what to the sanctuary and later, in chapters 6–7, on who gets what along with more details about how.

The Rhetorical Strategy of Leviticus 4–5

This rhetorical analysis of Leviticus 4–5 helps us answer key questions about these chapters’ interpretation:

  1. Why are the chatat and asham presented in this intertwined manner if they are distinct offerings?

Presenting the two together heightens the rhetorical effect of the whole, both by connecting the concepts of sin and guilt that underlie each, as well as by intensifying the ritual rhetoric around sin, guilt, mitigation, and forgiveness. Lest the decreasing value of the gradations of sin offerings, from a bull to a sheep to a bird to a handful of grain, give a false sense of trivializing sin, the rhetoric of guilt and instructions for the guilt offering, which is always a ram, intensify the feeling of urgency as these chapters proceed. In contrast to the carefully differentiated offering instructions of Leviticus 1–3, then, Leviticus 4–5 entwines the regulations for the sin and guilt offerings in an intensifying rhetoric about sin, guilt, mitigation (atonement), and forgiveness.

  1. Why does the guilt offering, like the sin offering, seem to cover only unintentional offenses (4:2, 13, 22, 27; 5:2–4, 15, 18)?

Concern for unintentionally offending the gods was widespread in ancient cultures, but propitiatory rituals outside Israel did not usually exclude intentional acts, such as theft. The most convincing interpretation of P’s emphasis on ritual rectification for only unintentional sins was offered by Jacob Milgrom. He argued that, in P, capital offenses could not be commuted by ritual (Num 15:26–31), but they could be recategorized as inadvertent sins if the person first confessed (Num 5:7).[16] P could thereby maintain the principal of no forgiveness for flagrant sins while simultaneously extending the scope of ritual rectification after confession and restitution.[17]

  1. Why does Leviticus work harder to motivate people to bring sin and guilt offerings than other offerings?

Many modern interpreters have concluded that the sin and guilt offerings were innovations in Israel’s ritual repertoire.[18] While rituals for expiation and purification were very common in the ancient Near East, references by name to chatat sin offerings and asham guilt offerings in the Hebrew Bible are almost entirely restricted to P and P-related literature (Ezekiel, Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles).[19]

P’s presentation of the offerings in Leviticus 4–5 confirms the impression of a ritual innovation, or at least that its audience was likely to find it innovative. Whereas the offerings described in Leviticus 1–3 were age-old and traditional, so listeners and readers could be expected to already knew when and why to present them, they apparently could not be counted on to know, or perhaps accept, that they needed to present sin and guilt offerings. Leviticus 4–5 therefore works hard to convince them.

  1. Why would the priests introduce these new offerings (or, if they were not new, need to put greater effort into selling these offerings)?

One important difference between these offerings and the olah, the minchah and the zevach shelamim: whereas the olah is offered in its entirety on the altar,[20] and the minchah andzevach shelamim are partially consumed by the person bringing them, the regulations of Leviticus 6–7 make it clear that the priests received most of the meat from sin and guilt offerings. These offerings therefore raised the priests’ incomes.

Concern about priestly graft was common in the ancient world, and in the Hebrew Bible as well (1 Sam 2:12–17; Jer 6:13; Hos 4:8; etc.). However, Judah’s political crises as depicted in 2 Kings must have raised greater concerns than usual. The Jerusalem temple seems to have been maintained, like many other large temple complexes in the ancient Near East, by royal patronage as well as by the people’s offerings. Unlike many temples in Egypt and Mesopotamia, however, it does not seem to have received land endowments that would allow it to be economically self-sufficient.

The imperial wars of the eighth to sixth centuries that reduced Judean territory and subjected the kingdom to tribute payments must have had very negative impacts on temple revenues from the palace budget. After the Babylonian Exile and return to the land, the Second Temple had to be maintained almost entirely by the willing offerings of the relatively poor Judean population, perhaps supplemented occasionally by contributions from the diaspora.

Therefore, the narratives of the Hebrew Bible lead us to expect that Judah’s temples faced increasing economic stress from the eighth century through, at least, the Persian period.[21]Introducing or emphasizing offerings that mitigate for people’s sin and guilt served to develop priestly revenue streams.

But the priests’ offer to mitigate sins through ritual offerings probably encountered popular skepticism about their effectiveness. The catastrophic history of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah from the eighth to the six centuries B.C.E. suggested that ritual offerings could not forestall divine punishment (recognized explicitly in, e.g., Isa 66:3–5; Jer. 7:3–15; Mic. 4:4; Ps. 50:8–15; 51:16–17). Despite both kingdoms sponsoring YHWH temples, they endured repeated foreign invasions before being destroyed and having their upper classes exiled—events which, according to their prophets and historians, were divine punishment for the peoples’ sins.

This catastrophic history confronted temple priests with the need to raise revenue from people whose faith in the efficacy of ritual mitigation was undermined by that same history. I think Leviticus addresses this persuasive challenge by building its claims for ritual mitigation gradually over many chapters.

The Rhetorical Structure of Leviticus 1–16

Leviticus begins with selfless, that is, economically unprofitable, offerings that express pure devotion to God (Lev 1), then describes offerings that build a divine-human community of exchange (Lev 2–3). By limiting mitigation in Leviticus 4–5 to only unintentional or confessed sins, it avoids addressing the problem that the national history shows the failure of ritual mitigation for more flagrant violations.

The following chapters also avoid the national history while asserting priestly rights to their incomes (Lev 6–7), emphasizing the legitimacy of the Aaronide priestly line (Lev 8–10), and deepening concern for ritual purification (Lev 11–15), again with sin offerings.

This section of the Priestly source ends climactically with the rituals of the Day of Atonement that mitigate for “all” of Israel’s sins (16:21–22, 30, 34). The rituals of that day are presented to sound like a summary and climax to the rhetoric that has preceded them, rather than the dramatic extension of the scope of ritual mitigation that they actually claim.


March 13, 2019


Last Updated

April 7, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. James W. Watts is Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Traditions in Syracuse University’s Department of Religion. He holds a Ph.D. from Yale University in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies and an M.Div. in New Testament Studies from the Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Among his many books are, Understanding the Pentateuch as A Scripture (2017), Leviticus 1-10 (Historical Commentary on the Old Testament, 2013), Ritual and Rhetoric in Leviticus: From Sacrifice to Scripture (2007).