The guilt offering was effectively a special case of a sin offering (Lev 7:7, cf. Lev 4:13, 2 Kgs 12:16), itself an adaptation of the peace offering (see Chapter 26). It therefore followed the rules for acceptable peace offerings (Lev 5:6-7), but, as for the sin offering, only the priesthood eat the flesh.
The rules for it (Lev 5:1-19) repeatedly emphasize that guilt arises due to ‘it being hidden’, hence they also stress confession, i.e. acknowledging a sin, as an essential prerequisite to atonement. This sense of atoning in circumstances where the truth had been hidden set the guilt offering apart from a sin offering. Thus, one was required whenever someone sinned but, at the time, they did not know:
how to make the proper offering when they could not afford it (Levi 5:7, cf. Lev 12:8, 14:21, 15:141);
a commandment that they would have obeyed (Lev 5:17);
that fulfilling an oath required them to sin (Lev 5:4)2;
that an apparently innocent action broke a command, e.g. because a thing they touched was unclean (Lev 5:2).
A guilt offering was also required of someone who sinned by hiding the truth from others, as in fraud, embezzlement (Lev 6:2-3), failure to come forward as a witness Lev 5:1) or taking sexual advantage of a slave (Lev 19:203). To become a guilt offering (Isa 53:10) therefore suggests the sort of transaction entered into by Cain, who sacrificed his freedom in atonement for a crime whose sinfulness was apparently hidden from him (Gen 4:9-15).
If the hidden offence rendered a holy item useless (Lev 5:15-16), this was effectively a theft from God, so when bringing their guilt offering, the penitent was not only to make full restitution, but also demonstrate their sincerity by taking a ‘double’, i.e. twice the normal tithe (cf. Gen 43:12), of one fifth. Where the offence was against another person, the same precedent was applied (Lev 6:2-5)
Guilt offerings also feature in connection with some of the cleansing procedures. In some cases, such as restoration from a discharge (Lev 15:13-15), the guilt offering, assumes poverty, replacing a lamb with two birds (Lev 5:7). In the reinstatement of a leprous priest, a guilt offering of a male lamb replaces, or more probably doubles as, the ram of ordination (Lev 14:12-14, cf. Exod 29:19-20). The same guilt offering of a male lamb is present in the reinstatement of a Nazirite after contact with a dead person (Num 6:12), again as part of a re-ordination.
Some element of hiddenness is also to be expected with the cleansing procedures that required a guilt offering. As it happens, exclusion, a feature that those procedures have in common, creates the sort of legal conflict that elsewhere calls for a guilt offering. It remained a mystery, i.e. hidden, how an individual could be excluded from the camp for at least seven days, yet present in his or her place, i.e. in the camp, on the Sabbath (Exod 16:29). When keeping the Law involved breaking it, deliberately ignoring one, whilst making a guilt offering, provided a means of circumventing the problem.
Outside the Pentateuch and Ezekiel’s re-visitation of its procedures, the guilt offering is seldom encountered. The most notable is the one the Philistines offered after realising that they should not have stolen the Ark of the Covenant. They returned this two-piece golden object, together with a corporate guilt offering of two cows and a restitution fifth of two gold objects a piece (1 Sam 6:2-15). Although the offering brought itself to Beth Shemesh (Josh 21:16, 1 Chr 6:59), Israel’s unclean land made it unsafe for the Israelite priests to eat a share of it. They therefore gave their share to God, making their activities resemble the burnt offering4, the Chronicler describes.
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1 It seems the long-term unclean were assumed to be poor, in keeping with their reduced potential for work.
2 It seems unlikely a person could add an oath to a promise without knowing they had done so, hence what remains hidden here must be the impact of the oath.
3 The offence was against the owner rather than the slave; therefore this was treated as theft rather than adultery (cf. Gen 4:15).
4 A guilt offering could be female but a burnt offering could not (Lev 3:1, 5:6).