AT THE BEGINNING OF LEVITICUS 6, the Lord lays down through Moses what must take place when someone in the covenant community has lied to a neighbor about something entrusted to him, has cheated him, has lied about recovered property so that he can keep it, or has committed perjury or a range of other sins. Two observations will clarify what these verses (6:1-7) contribute to the unfolding legal and moral structure.
(1) Readers of Leviticus, not least of the NIV, have by now become familiar with the distinction between unintentional sins (e.g., much of Lev. 4) and intentional sins. Some interpreters have argued that there are no sacrificial offerings to pay for intentional sins. Those who sin intentionally are to be excluded from the community.
Part of the problem is with our rendering of intentional and unintentional. Intentional commonly reflects a Hebrew expression meaning “with a high hand”; unintentional renders “not with a high hand.” That background is important as we think through Leviticus 6:1-7. The sins described here are all intentional in the modern sense: one cannot lie, cheat, or commit perjury without intending to do so. There are God-given steps to be followed: restitution where possible (following the principles laid out in Ex. 22), and prescribed confession and sacrifices.
Of course, some unintentional guilt is gained when one is unaware of committing an offense (as in 5:3); there is still guilt, for the action is prohibited, even though the offender may not have been personally aware of committing an offense. Other unintentional guilt does not refer to guilt accumulated unknowingly, but to guilt consciously accumulated even though the offense was not committed “with a high hand.” Many is the sin committed because one is attracted on the instant to it, or because one has been nurturing resentments, or because it seems less risky to lie than to tell the truth. This is still not the yet more appalling sin “with a high hand,” where the sinner looks at the sin directly, self-consciously reflects that this defies God, and openly and brazenly opts for the sin in order to defy God. As far as I can see, the old covenant does not prescribe atonement for such defiance, but judgment.
(2) Even the sins mentioned in this passage — all sins against some other human party — are treated first of all in relation to God: “If anyone sins and is unfaithful to the LORD by deceiving his neighbor” (6:2, italics added). The guilt offering is brought to the priest; the offender must not only provide restitution to the offended human, but must seek the Lord’s forgiveness. Defiance of God is what makes wrongdoing sin, what makes sin odious.