Commentary on the Bible, by Adam Clarke, , at sacred-texts.com
The law concerning the sin-offering for transgressions committed through ignorance, Lev 4:1, Lev 4:2. For the priest thus sinning, Lev 4:3-12. For the sins of ignorance of the whole congregation, Lev 4:13-21. For the sins of ignorance of a ruler, Lev 4:22-26. For the sins of ignorance of any of the common people, Lev 4:27-35.
If a soul shall sin through ignorance - That is, if any man shall do what God has forbidden, or leave undone what God has commanded, through ignorance of the law relative to these points; as soon as the transgression or omission comes to his knowledge, he shall offer the sacrifice here prescribed, and shall not suppose that his ignorance is an excuse for his sin. He who, when his iniquity comes to his knowledge, refuses to offer such a sacrifice, sins obstinately and wilfully, and to him there remains no other sacrifice for sin - no other mode by which he can be reconciled to God, but he has a certain fearful looking for of judgment - which shall devour such adversaries; and this seems the case to which the apostle alludes, Heb 10:26, etc., in the words above quoted. There have been a great number of subtle questions started on this subject, both by Jews and Christians, but the above I believe to be the sense and spirit of the law.
If the priest that is anointed - Meaning, most probably, the high priest. According to the sin of the people; for although he had greater advantages than the people could have, in being more conversant with the law of God, and his lips should understand and preserve knowledge, yet it was possible even for him, in that time in which the word of God had not been fully revealed, to transgress through ignorance; and his transgression might have the very worst tendency, because the people might be thereby led into sin. Hence several critics understand this passage in this way, and translate it thus: If the anointed priest shall lead the people to sin; or, literally, if the anointed priest shall sin to the sin of the people; that is, so as to cause the people to transgress, the shepherd going astray, and the sheep following after him.
Lay his hand upon the bullock's head - See Clarke's note on Lev 1:4.
Seven times - See Clarke's note on Exo 29:30. The blood of this sacrifice was applied in three different ways:
1. The priest put his finger in it, and sprinkled it seven times before the veil, Lev 4:6.
2. He put some of it on the horns of the altar of incense.
3. He poured the remaining part at the bottom of the altar of burnt-offerings, Lev 4:7.
Without the camp - This was intended figuratively to express the sinfulness of this sin, and the availableness of the atonement. The sacrifice, as having the sin of the priest transferred from himself to it by his confession and imposition of hands, was become unclean and abominable, and was carried, as it were, out of the Lord's sight; from the tabernacle and congregation it must be carried without the camp, and thus its own offensiveness was removed, and the sin of the person in whose behalf it was offered. The apostle (Heb 13:11-13) applies this in the most pointed manner to Christ: "For the bodies of those beasts whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest for sin, are burned without the camp. Wherefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered without the gate. Let us go forth therefore unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach."
If the whole congregation of Israel sin - This probably refers to some oversight in acts of religious worship, or to some transgression of the letter of the law, which arose out of the peculiar circumstances in which they were then found, such as the case mentioned Sa1 14:32, etc., where the people, through their long and excessive fatigue in their combat with the Philistines, being faint, flew on the spoil, and took sheep, oxen, and calves, and slew them on the ground, and did eat with the blood; and this was partly occasioned by the rash adjuration of Saul, mentioned Sa1 14:24 : Cursed be the man that eateth any food until evening.
The sacrifices and rites in this case were the same as those prescribed in the preceding, only here the elders of the congregation, i. e., three of the Sanhedrin, according to Maimonides, laid their hands on the head of the victim in the name of all the congregation.
When a ruler hath sinned - Under the term נשיא nasi, it is probable that any person is meant who held any kind of political dignity among the people, though the rabbins generally understand it of the king.
A kid of the goats was the sacrifice in this case, the rites nearly the same as in the preceding cases, only the fat was burnt as that of the peace-offering. See Lev 4:26 and Lev 3:5.
The common people - עם הארץ am haarets, the people of the land, that is, any individual who was not a priest, king, or ruler among the people; any of the poor or ordinary sort. Any of these, having transgressed through ignorance, was obliged to bring a lamb or a kid, the ceremonies being nearly the same as in the preceding cases. The original may denote the very lowest of the people, the laboring or agricultural classes.
The law relative to the general cases of sins committed through ignorance, and the sacrifices to be offered on such occasions, so amply detailed in this chapter, may be thus recapitulated. For all sins and transgressions of this kind committed by the people, the prince, and the priest, they must offer expiatory offerings. The person so sinning must bring the sacrifice to the door of the tabernacle, and lay his hands upon its head, as in a case already referred to, acknowledging the sacrifice to be his, that he needed it for his transgression; and thus he was considered as confessing his sin, and the sin was considered as transferred to the animal, whose blood was then spilt to make an atonement. See Clarke on Lev 1:4 (note). Such institutions as these could not be considered as terminating in themselves, they necessarily had reference to something of infinitely higher moment; in a word, they typified Him whose soul was made an offering for sin, Isa 53:10. And taken out of this reference they seem both absurd and irrational. It is obviously in reference to these innocent creatures being brought as sin-offerings to God for the guilty that St. Paul alludes Co2 5:21, where he says, He (God) made him to be sin (ἁμαρτιαν, a sin-offering) for us Who Knew No Sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God - holy and pure by the power and grace of God, in or through him. And it is worthy of remark, that the Greek word used by the apostle is the same by which the Septuagint, in more than fourscore places in the Pentateuch, translate the Hebrew word הטאה hattaah, sin, which in all those places our translation renders sin-offering. Even sins of ignorance cannot be unnoticed by a strict and holy law; these also need the great atonement: on which account we should often pray with David, Cleanse thou me from secret faults! Psa 19:12. How little attention is paid to this solemn subject! Sins of this kind - sins committed sometimes ignorantly, and more frequently heedlessly, are permitted to accumulate in their number, and consequently in their guilt; and from this very circumstance we may often account for those painful desertions, as they are called, under which many comparatively good people labor. They have committed sins of ignorance or heedlessness, and have not offered the sacrifice which can alone avail in their behalf. How necessary in ten thousand cases is the following excellent prayer! "That it may please thee to give us true repentance; to forgive us all our sins, negligences, and ignorances; and to endue us with the grace of thy Holy Spirit, to amend our lives according to thy Holy Word." - Litany.