By Sam Shamoun
In this article I will be responding to the claim made by some that Leviticus 5:11,
“But if he cannot afford two turtledoves or two young pigeons, then he shall bring, as his offering for the sin which he has committed, a tenth of an ephah of fine flour for a sin offering; he shall put no oil upon it, and shall put no frankincense on it, for it is a sin offering.” Revised Standard Version (RSV)
And Exodus 30:15,
“The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than the half shekel, when you give the Lord’s offering to make atonement for yourselves.” RSV
Demonstrate that shedding blood isn’t the only means of making atonement. The chief reason why these texts are cited is to show that the book of Hebrews is wrong in its following assertion,
“Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” Hebrews 9:22 RSV
Since these particular OT passages make it absolutely clear that God prescribed other ways to atone for sins besides the shedding of blood.
We therefore turn our focus to answering this objection by seeking to unpack the correct meaning of these particular verses.
Here is the immediate context of v. 11 so we can get a better understanding of what this text is really all about:
“If any one sins in that he hears a public adjuration to testify and though he is a witness, whether he has seen or come to know the matter, yet does not speak, he shall bear his iniquity. Or if any one touches an unclean thing, whether the carcass of an unclean beast or a carcass of unclean cattle or a carcass of unclean swarming things, and it is hidden from him, and he has become unclean, he shall be guilty. Or if he touches human uncleanness, of whatever sort the uncleanness may be with which one becomes unclean, and it is hidden from him, when he comes to know it he shall be guilty. Or if any one utters with his lips a rash oath to do evil or to do good, any sort of rash oath that men swear, and it is hidden from him, when he comes to know it he shall in any of these be guilty. When a man is guilty in any of these, he shall confess the sin he has committed, and he shall bring his guilt offering to the Lord for the sin which he has committed, a female from the flock, a lamb or a goat, for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin. But if he cannot afford a lamb, then he shall bring, as his guilt offering to the Lord for the sin which he has committed, two turtledoves or two young pigeons, one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering. He shall bring them to the priest, who shall offer first the one for the sin offering; he shall wring its head from its neck, but shall not sever it, and he shall sprinkle some of the blood of the sin offering on the side of the altar, while the rest of the blood shall be drained out at the base of the altar; it is a sin offering. Then he shall offer the second for a burnt offering according to the ordinance; and the priest shall make atonement for him for the sin which he has committed, and he shall be forgiven. But if he cannot afford two turtledoves or two young pigeons, then he shall bring, as his offering for the sin which he has committed, a tenth of an ephah of fine flour for a sin offering; he shall put no oil upon it, and shall put no frankincense on it, for it is a sin offering. And he shall bring it to the priest, and the priest shall take a handful of it as its memorial portion and burn this on the altar, UPON THE OFFERINGS BY FIRE (eshshe) TO THE LORD; it is a sin offering.” Leviticus 5:1-12 RSV
The context makes it clear that flour was only given in cases where the individuals were too poor to offer animal or bird sacrifices, since the preferred method of procuring atonement for any guilt that one had incurred was to sacrifice a lamb. And, as the context itself shows, the reason why the flour was an acceptable substitution for blood is because the priest would then add it to/upon the sacrifices, which were being burnt upon the altar as an offering to the LORD.
With that said, let us see how some of the Jewish translations render v. 12:
“He shall bring it to the priest, and the priest shall scoop up three fingers full as a memorial portion. He shall burn [this portion] as a sin offering on the altar along with God’s [other] FIRE OFFERINGS.” Aryeh Kaplan (The Living Torah)
“And he shall bring it to the priest, and the priest shall take his handful of it as the memorial-part thereof, and make it smoke on the altar, upon THE OFFERINGS OF HASHEM MADE BY FIRE; it is a sin-offering.” Jewish Publication Society 1917 (JPS)
“He shall bring it to the priest, and the priest shall scoop out of it a handful as a token portion of it and turn it into smoke on the altar, with THE LORD’S OFFERING BY FIRE; it is a sin offering.” Jewish Bible: The New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text (NJPS)
And here are some verses that employ the word eshshe, and which give us an idea of how the Tanakh employs this specific term:
“He shall remove all its choice parts, just as he removed all the choice parts of the sheep brought as a peace offering, and burn them on the altar along with THE FIRE OFFERINGS dedicated to God. The priest will thus make atonement for the sin the person committed and he will be forgiven.” Kaplan
“And all the fat thereof shall he take away, as the fat of the lamb is taken away from the sacrifice of peace-offerings; and the priest shall make them smoke on the altar, upon THE OFFERINGS OF HASHEM MADE BY FIRE; and the priest shall make atonement for him as touching his sin that he hath sinned, and he shall be forgiven.” JPS
“And all its fat he shall remove just as the fat of the sheep of the sacrifice of the well being is removed; and this the priest shall turn into smoke on the altar, over THE LORD’S OFFERINGS BY FIRE. Thus the priest shall make expiation on his behalf for the sin of which he is guilty and he shall be forgiven.” NJPS
“With his own hands, he must bring the choice parts presented as A FIRE OFFERING to God on top of the [animal’s] chest . He shall wave the chest in the prescribed motions as a wave offering before God.” Kaplan
“His own hands shall bring THE OFFERINGS OF HASHEM MADE BY FIRE: the fat with the breast shall he bring, that the breast may be waved for a wave-offering before HaShem.” JPS
“his own hands shall present THE LORD’S OFFERINGS BY FIRE. He shall present the fat with the breast, the breast to be elevated as an elevation offering before the LORD;” NJPS
“The hind leg for the elevated gift, and the chest for the wave offering, shall be brought on top of the choice parts designated as THE FIRE OFFERING. [It is all] to be waved in the prescribed motions of the wave offering. [The leg and chest] are meant to be a portion for you and your descendants for all time, as God commanded.'” Kaplan
“The thigh of heaving and the breast of waving shall they bring with THE OFFERINGS of the fat MADE BY FIRE, to wave it for a wave-offering before HaShem; and it shall be thine, and thy sons’ with thee, as a due for ever; as HaShem hath commanded.” JPS
“Together with the fat of FIRE OFFERING, they must present the thigh of gift offering and the breast of elevation offering, which are to be elevated as an elevation offering before the LORD, and which are to be your due and that of your children with you for all time–as the LORD has commanded.” NJPS
Leviticus 21:6, 21
“They must be holy to their God, and not profane their God’s name. Since they present God’s FIRE OFFERINGS, the food offering for their God, they must remain holy… Any descendant of Aaron the priest who has a blemish may not approach to present God’s FIRE OFFERINGS. As long as he has a blemish, he may not approach to present his God’s food offering.” Kaplan
“They shall be holy unto their G-d, and not profane the name of their G-d; for THE OFFERINGS OF HASHEM MADE BY FIRE, the bread of their G-d, they do offer; therefore they shall be holy… no man of the seed of Aaron the priest, that hath a blemish, shall come nigh to offer THE OFFERINGS OF HASHEM MADE BY FIRE; he hath a blemish; he shall not come nigh to offer the bread of his G-d.” JPS
“They shall be holy to their God and not profane the name of their God; for they offer THE LORD’S OFFERING BY FIRE, the food of their God, and so must be holy… No man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect shall be qualified to offer THE LORD’S OFFERING BY FIRE; having a defect, he shall not be qualified to offer the food of his God.” NJPS
“The Levitical priests [and] the entire tribe of Levi shall not have a territorial portion with [the rest of] Israel, and they shall [therefore] eat God’s FIRE OFFERINGS and [their] hereditary gifts.” Kaplan
“The priests the Levites, even all the tribe of Levi, shall have no portion nor inheritance with Israel; they shall eat THE OFFERINGS OF HASHEM MADE BY FIRE, and His inheritance.” JPS
“The levitical priests, the whole tribe of Levi, shall have no territorial portion with Israel. They shall live only off THE LORD’S OFFERING BY FIRE as their portion,” NJPS
“Only unto the tribe of Levi he gave no inheritance; THE OFFERINGS OF HASHEM, THE G-D OF ISRAEL, MADE BY FIRE are his inheritance, as He spoke unto him.” JPS
“No hereditary portion, however, was assigned to the tribe of Levi, their portion being THE FIRE OFFERINGS OF THE LORD, THE GOD OF ISRAEL, as He spoke concerning him.” NJPS
1 Samuel 2:28
“And did I choose him out of all the tribes of Israel to be My priest, to go up unto Mine altar, to burn incense, to wear an ephod before Me? and did I give unto the house of thy father all THE OFFERINGS of the children of Israel MADE BY FIRE?” JPS
“and I chose them from among all the tribes of Israel to be My priests–to ascend My altar, to burn incense, [and] to carry an ephod before Me––and assigned to your father’s house all OFFERINGS BY FIRE of the Israelites.” NJPS
Now let’s see why all of these Jewish versions rendered eshshe as fire offerings/offerings made by fire:
NAS Exhaustive Concordance
AN OFFERING MADE BY FIRE
fire (5), OFFERING BY FIRE (45), OFFERINGS (3), OFFERINGS BY FIRE (15).
Brown-Driver-Briggs אִשֶּׁה noun masculine Joshua 13:14 AN OFFERING MADE BY FIRE (> Wetzst in DePsalmen, ed. 4, 889 derive from √ II. אנשׁ, means to friendly relations between God & man; compare LagBN 190) Exodus 29:18 32t.; construct אִשֵּׁה Leviticus 1:9 14t.; plural construct אִשֵּׁי Leviticus 4:35 15t.; suffix אִשַּׁי Numbers 28:2, אִשָּׁ֑י Leviticus 6:10; USED CHIEFLY OF OFFERINGS OF ANIMALS, but also of the מִנְחָה Leviticus 2:11, and of the sacred bread and frankincense Leviticus 24:7,9 which was placed on the table as a memorial, and finally went to the priests. The word is used in Deuteronomy 18:1; Joshua 13:14 (D) 1 Samuel 2:28; elsewhere in P Leviticus 6:10; Leviticus 10:15; Leviticus 22:22; Numbers 28:2,3, especially in phrases אִשֵּׁי יהוה Leviticus 2:3 11t., אִשֵּׁה רֵיחַ נִיחֹחַ ליהוה Leviticus 1:9 14t., ריח ניחח אשׁה ליהוה Exodus 29:18 6t., אשׁה ליהוה ריח ניחח Leviticus 23:13, אשׁה לריח ניחח Leviticus 3:16; Numbers 18:17, אשׁה (הוא) ליהוה Exodus 29:25; Leviticus 2:16; אִשֶּׁה ליהוה accusative after verbs of offering Exodus 30:20 14t., אִשֶּׁה עֹלָה ליהוה Numbers 28:19, קָרְבָּן אִשֶּׁהליהוה Leviticus 22:27; Numbers 15:25.
Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance
offering, sacrifice, made by fire
The same as ‘eshshah, but used in a liturgical sense; PROPERLY, A BURNT-OFFERING, BUT OCCASIONALLY OF ANY SACRIFICE — (OFFERING, SACRIFICE), (made) by fire.
see HEBREW ‘eshshah (Bible Hub; capital emphasis ours)
It is now beginning to make sense. It was the animal sacrifices that made the flour efficacious, NOT THE FLOUR ITSELF. This is further confirmed by the fact that there isn’t a single verse that says flour makes atonement in and of itself, apart from its being added to the animal sacrifices on the altar.
We now turn our focus to the next verse used to undermine the claim of Hebrews.
Here also is the immediate context of v. 15:
“God spoke to Moses saying: When you take a census of the Israelites to determine their numbers, each one shall be counted by giving an atonement offering for his life. In this manner, they will not be stricken by the plague when they are counted. Everyone included in the census must give a half shekel. This shall be by the sanctuary standard, where a shekel is 20 gerahs. It is half of such a shekel that must be given as an offering to God. Every man over 20 years old shall be included in this census and give this offering to God. The rich may not give more, and the poor may not give less than this half shekel. It is an offering to God to atone for your lives. You will take this atonement money from the Israelites AND USE IT FOR THE COMMUNION TENT. It will thus be A REMEMBRANCE FOR THE ISRAELITES BEFORE GOD to atone for your lives.” Exodus 30:11-16 Aryeh Kaplan
Now compare this with how the following Jewish versions translate v. 16:
“And thou shalt take the atonement money from the children of Israel, AND SHALT APPOINT IT FOR THE SERVICE OF THE TENT OF MEETING, that it may be A MEMORIAL FOR THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL BEFORE HASHEM, to make atonement for your souls.” Exodus 30:16 JPS
“And thou shalt take the atonement money from the children of Israel, AND SHALT APPOINT IT FOR THE SERVICE OF THE TENT OF MEETING, that it may be A MEMORIAL FOR THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL BEFORE HASHEM, to make atonement for your souls.” NJPS
The context highlights the reason why God accepted half a shekel for atonement. The money would be used to construct the tent of meeting, which would be the place where the priests would offer up animal sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins.
This once again shows that, much like the flour, the only reason why God accepted money in the place of blood is because of its connection to the animal sacrifices that would be offered in the tent of meeting, which the money would be used to construct.
In other words, it is the sacrifices that once again made the money efficacious and acceptable to God, since God would remember Israel’s monetary offering that went to make the tent of meeting so that animal sacrifices could be made for the forgiveness of their sins.
Therefore, the book of Hebrews is absolutely correct since neither OT text contradicts its assertion that blood is necessary to obtain forgiveness when one correctly interprets these passages.
For those interested, here is the link to the translations of both Kaplan and JPS 1917.