In one of the last movies Nicolas Cage was in that I actually like, he shares a few scenes with Harvey Keitel. Through the course of National Treasure, several laws are broken, and Keitel is an FBI Special Agent responsible for bringing to justice those who are breaking those laws. He gets the line, frequently, that “Someone’s got to go to prison.” In the off-chance that you have listened to the critics and skipped this film, I won’t spoil how it ends for you about who goes to prison. Suffice it to say that one does not simply walk into Boston’s Old North Church.
The theme, though, is clear. When the law is broken, justice requires that a penalty be paid. Even though the film demonstrates that much of the law-breaking is done for good reasons, done with noble intentions, that law-breaking requires payment. Even the semi-unintentional kidnapping of Diane Kruger in the film requires that an arrest be made.
The truth is, when wrong is done, someone must pay for the wrong done. This is not merely the case when the victim of a crime deserves justice—after all, some crimes appear victimless, do they not? Yet the issue is not merely how things appear to us.
At issue is one of those larger questions of life. The question: If something is done that is wrong, but no one is directly harmed by it, is it still wrong? In other words, is there a persistent concept of right and wrong that is inescapable, or are human decisions only subject to the trials of peers and historians?
Leviticus 4 (link) gives us an insight into this as we go through the whole Bible. God speaks to Moses and gives him instruction about how to offer a sacrifice for the sins committed by the people unintentionally.
Catch that line? All of the detail in this chapter reflects the perfection of the offering needed and the intricacies of the process for sins that occurred even though there was no willful intent. Why?
Why would such a process be necessary?
Because sin, the doing of wrong and the not-doing of right, violates an eternal standard of right and wrong. Much of Leviticus delves into how that fleshes out. Some of those commands are for a theocratic 15th century BC society, and some are for all time, and that division requires more than mere proof-texting. However, here we are not explicitly concerned with the content of that standard.
We are concerned with its existence. If Moses heard correctly from God, then that standard exists. Otherwise, there is no point in the Sin Offering commanded in this chapter. The Sin Offering is the major Old Testament offering that does not allocate a portion to the priests: the whole sacrifice is burned up to the Lord God.
How does that matter? One can imagine that religious leadership might invent a concept that benefits them—like the annual pastoral cheeseburger offering—but it is less likely that they would imagine a concept that brings no tangible benefit to themselves or society. This idea of a sin offering for unintentional, unwillful violation of an eternal standard comes from somewhere beyond the priests of Israel.
As a Biblical conservative, I think it comes from what you see in Leviticus 4:1. This is revealed truth from God Almighty.
We would do well, then, to recognize what this means for our lives. It is not a question of whether or not anyone knows what we do. It is not a question of whether or not we only hurt ourselves with what we do. It is not even a question of what we meant to do.
It is a question of whether or not we recognize the existence of that eternal standard.
From there, life changes. If we admit there is an eternal standard, then there is an eternal source for that standard. That source should be known and consulted.
If there is no standard, then who gets to set the standard this week? Next week? What becomes the line for morality among humanity?
If there is a standard, we would do well to learn about it, its source, and its consequences.
In Leviticus, those consequences are shown to be a life for each infraction, adding up to a lot of sacrifice. In Hebrews, we see that there remains a better way.
We can see it here: there is no need for the Sin Offerings if there is no eternal standard. Let the sin that harms no one have no consequence. But it does not work that way. Never has, never will.
Today’s Nerd Note: Short and to the point: memorize “Then the Lord (Yahweh) spoke to Moses, saying” and you’ve got most of the verse 1s of the book of Leviticus.
That’s a crucial point, too: this is God’s revelation. Not man’s ideas nor man’s attempts to please God. These are God’s requirements for life in His community. Again, as we go forward, we’ll look at understanding which parts are better understood as pertaining to theocratic Israel and which parts pertain to all of us at all times. But these aren’t Moses’ ideas. He may not have even liked them.