Sin and Atonement: Lessons from the Pentateuch -- By: Jay Sklar
BBR 22:4 (2012) p. 467
Sin and Atonement:
Lessons from the Pentateuch
Covenant Theological Seminary
This essay explores atonement in the Pentateuch, focusing especially on Exodus–Numbers. Because the means of atonement differs according to the category of sin being addressed, I begin by describing the number and nature of these categories. I then consider which categories may be atoned for by means of sacrificial atonement, which categories may be atoned for by other means, and what lessons about sin and atonement are being communicated in each instance.
Key Words: atonement, sin, high-handed sin, unintentional sin, intentional sin, sacrifice, Num 15:30-31, biblical theology
Growing up, I held to a fairly straightforward understanding of how atonement for sin worked in the OT: when Israelites committed sin, they would bring a sacrifice, confess their sin, and be forgiven. But then I began to read the OT more carefully and realized that, while this understanding was true for many passages, there were several others for which it was not. In Num 14, the Israelites are forgiven a great sin without making any sacrifice. The same happens again in Exod 32-34 and Num 16. And Num 15 mentions certain sins—“high-handed” sins—for which forgiveness by sacrifice is not possible (vv. 30-31).
The goal of this essay is to begin to develop an understanding of sin and atonement in the OT that has room for the types of passages noted above. I will not address the entire OT’s teaching on sin and atonement but focus on the Pentateuch, particularly on Exodus through Numbers, because this portion forms the foundational understanding of sin and atonement on which the rest of the Bible builds, and this portion also provides the highest concentration of material on matters related to sin and atonement as well as the most explicit discussions of it.1
After a brief definition of the terms sin and atonement, I first consider sin and atonement from the perspective of sacrifice and argue that there
BBR 22:4 (2012) p. 468
are three different categories of sin: unintentional sins, intentional but not (necessarily) high-handed sins, and high-handed sins. The differences between these three categories are identified, not only in relation to one another, but especially in relation to sacrificial atonement, which applies to the first two categories but not the third.
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