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Numbers 15:22-31 – Intentional and Unintentional Sins


Unintentional breaking of God's commandments can be forgiven through an atoning sacrifice. Intentional sin, however, cannot.


For the discussion of this passage, see "Unintentional and intentional sin" in Theological Themes. Interestingly, the term for intentional or "high-handed" (Hebrew) sin is sometimes translated "boldly": on the exodus, the Israelites were going out "boldly" or "high-handedly" (Exodus 14:8; Numbers 33:3). Though the verbal link is perhaps accidental, the reader is reminded of Martin Luther's well-known counsel to "sin boldly." Luther, of course, was not urging "high-handed" sin, but precisely the "bold" entry into God's journey that characterized the exodus. In a 1521 letter to Philip Melanchthon, Luther wrote:

God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong [in many translations, "sin boldly"], but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2. Peter 3:13), are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign. (Translation by Erika Bullman Flores at

Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood both Luther and the spirit of Israel's "bold" entry into the exodus, when he wrote:

"Sin boldly"-that could be for Luther only the very last bit of pastoral advice, of consolation for those who along the path of discipleship have come to know that they cannot become sin-free, who out of fear despair of God's grace. For them, "sin boldly" is not something like a fundamental affirmation of their disobedient lives. Rather, it is the gospel of God's grace, in the presence of which we are sinners always and at every place. (Bonhoeffer, Discipleship [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003] 52)

That same divine grace is present in God's providing for ritual atonement in Numbers 15 and in God's re-creation of the repentant sinner, apart from sacrifice, in Psalm 51.

Numbers 15:22-31

22 But if you unintentionally fail to observe all these commandments that the Lord has spoken to Moses— 23everything that the Lord has commanded you by Moses, from the day the Lord gave commandment and thereafter, throughout your generations— 24then if it was done unintentionally without the knowledge of the congregation, the whole congregation shall offer one young bull for a burnt-offering, a pleasing odour to the Lord, together with its grain-offering and its drink-offering, according to the ordinance, and one male goat for a sin-offering. 25The priest shall make atonement for all the congregation of the Israelites, and they shall be forgiven; it was unintentional, and they have brought their offering, an offering by fire to the Lord, and their sin-offering before the Lord, for their error. 26All the congregation of the Israelites shall be forgiven, as well as the aliens residing among them, because the whole people was involved in the error.

27 An individual who sins unintentionally shall present a female goat a year old for a sin-offering. 28And the priest shall make atonement before the Lord for the one who commits an error, when it is unintentional, to make atonement for the person, who then shall be forgiven. 29For both the native among the Israelites and the alien residing among them—you shall have the same law for anyone who acts in error. 30But whoever acts high-handedly, whether a native or an alien, affronts the Lord, and shall be cut off from among the people. 31Because of having despised the word of the Lord and broken his commandment, such a person shall be utterly cut off and bear the guilt.

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