Lessons from Leviticus: Part 6, Guilt, Restitution, and Stereotypes

Stereotypes are everywhere, and we even have stereotypes of books of the Bible. When I say "Leviticus" what comes to your mind? Bizarre commands. Sexual abominations. Bloody rituals. Stoning malefactors.

But as we know, stereotypes miss a great deal, so much so they can be misleading. And the same goes for Leviticus. Consider Leviticus 6.1-7:

The Lord said to Moses: “If anyone sins and is unfaithful to the Lord by deceiving a neighbor about something entrusted to them or left in their care or about something stolen, or if they cheat their neighbor, or if they find lost property and lie about it, or if they swear falsely about any such sin that people may commit—when they sin in any of these ways and realize their guilt, they must return what they have stolen or taken by extortion, or what was entrusted to them, or the lost property they found, or whatever it was they swore falsely about. They must make restitution in full, add a fifth of the value to it and give it all to the owner on the day they present their guilt offering. And as a penalty they must bring to the priest, that is, to the Lord, their guilt offering, a ram from the flock, one without defect and of the proper value. In this way the priest will make atonement for them before the Lord, and they will be forgiven for any of the things they did that made them guilty.”
You've likely missed the import of this passage.

When it comes to sins against the community in the book of Leviticus, a key distinction is between intentional and unintentional sins. Unintentional sins can be repaired. When made aware of your unintentional sin a guilt/sin/offense (translations differ here) offering is proscribed: 
The Lord said to Moses: “When anyone is unfaithful to the Lord by sinning unintentionally in regard to any of the Lord’s holy things, they are to bring to the Lord as a penalty a ram from the flock, one without defect and of the proper value in silver, according to the sanctuary shekel. It is a guilt offering." (Leviticus 5.14-15)
Intentional sins, however, are a whole different issue. Intentional, willful sin--naked, prideful rebellion against God--cannot repaired and the offender must be excluded from the community:
But if one of you does wrong on purpose, whether Israelite or foreigner, you have sinned against me by disobeying my laws. You will be sent away and will no longer live among the people of Israel. (Numbers 15:31).
Which brings us back to the interesting case of Leviticus 6. If you read that passage again, with the contrast of intentional versus unintentional sins in mind, you can see the issue. Clearly the offender being described has a guilty mind, their actions are very intentional. They are extorting, stealing, lying, and swearing falsely. Such sinners have to know what they are doing is wrong. It's all very intentional.

And yet!

And yet, the offender can repent. A person can act with intentional malice yet still find a way to remain within the community. By doing two things. First, they have to offer the guilt offering. Same as the unintentional sinner. But the second, additional thing is restitution: They must make restitution in full, add a fifth of the value to it and give it all to the owner on the day they present their guilt offering. 

How to make sense of this? 

Jacob Milgrom argues that the critical issue is guilt, pubic confession, and a willingness to make restitution. Our stereotype that Leviticus is rigid, unbending, and unforgiving needs to be amended here. There are ways to make amends. There are routes toward rehabilitation. One is put in mind of Zacchaeus, a prototype of the willful sinner who extorted and stole:
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
We often think of Jesus' mercy as being opposed to or overturning the rigid exclusions of Leviticus. But the seeds of Zacchaeus's social rehabilitation, being welcomed back as a "son of Abraham" through his admission of guilt and willingness to make restitution, are sown in the book of Leviticus. There is a way back into community if you are willing to admit your guilt and make amends.

It's right there in Leviticus. Stereotypes can be misleading.

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