One of the difficulties of working through James Milgrom’s commentary, Leviticus, is that he goes over the same ground that I have already written about. He states an opinion and he backs it up more fully later.
In my last post I noted that he believes that the priests provided a way to use confession to transform deliberate sins into inadvertent ones. Now I am in a position to see more clearly how he comes to that conclusion.
First, he sees that the priestly position stated in Numbers 15:31 is that the person who sins deliberately or defiantly brings upon himself the condition of being utterly cut off from the temple.
Second, Milgrom argues that this applies to what the priests called “sacrilege” Sacrilege denoted one or both of two things: the violation of a sacred vow or the desecration of a sacred place. He brings up a Hittite text attributing a plague to this kind of offense against the storm god. So the idea of sacrilege was a part of the religious mind-set of the ancient Near East, not just Israel’s priests. The death penalty often goes with sacrilege.
Third, given the first two points, Leviticus 6:1-7 presents a paradox. Milgrom translates “trespass” (KJV) in verse 1 as sacrilege. He takes the “swearing falsely” in verse 3 to mean the violation of a sacred oath. He considers the possibility that the “robbery” spoken of in the passage might be temple robbery. At any rate, the paradox is that a person can commit sacrilege and yet be forgiven by confessing before bringing the right sacrifice–contrary to his utterly cut off condition in Numbers.
The shocking and powerful thing about this is that the priests think they can undo a sacrilege. Milgrom cites the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous as an illustration of the priest’s thinking. When you commit a sacrilege then perhaps by confessing, making restitution and bringing a sacrifice you can undo the effects of what you have done . Like the AA program, Leviticus 6:1-7 follows a certain progression. One recognizes an offense against God (or your Higher Power) and damage to people. Then one confesses to both. Finally, one makes full restitution.
The problem with really hurtful sins is that they are isolating. The person who commits a sacrilege is “cut off”. The alcoholic isolates himself (or herself). It is this isolation effect that needs to get undone.
Milgrom complains that people often see the sacrificial system of Leviticus as legalistic. Yet the priests went as far as they could against the legal strictures of their own system. Sacrilege cut one off from God and the temple. But unintentional sin could be covered by sacrifice. So the priests found a way to transform and reduce sacrilege to the level of unintentional sin. Thus they took a big step toward the later prophetic doctrine of repentance.
Milgrom even cites Jesus in Matthew 5:23-24. If you go to the altar with a sacrifice and remember that your brother has something against you, then leave your gift at the altar and go be reconciled. Jesus was thinking within the Levitical system. The validity of your sacrifice depended on undoing the problem between you and your brother. The assumption of Jesus was that the sacrifice would cover your sin if you took care of your relationship with your brother first.