The Trespass Offering

Dr. John Boyd, Holywood, N. Ireland

Part 6 of 7 of the series The Levitical Offerings


In the levitical economy the sin and trespass offerings were closely associated. Both were for sin, the former emphasising the sinner’s need for cleansing and reconciliation to God, whilst the latter kept prominent the idea of satisfaction for the wrong done. These two offerings were distinct from the burnt, meat and peace offerings in that these latter were sweet savour offerings, whilst the former were essentially intended for the expiation of sin, and to secure the offender’s restoration to God.

The Hebrew word translated “trespass offering” in the Authorised Version and “guilt offering” in the Revised Version is ’asham. It is used of (i) the trespass, Ps. 68. 21, (ii) the trespass offering, Lev. 5.18, and (iii) the compensation paid for a trespass, 1 Sam. 6. 3. This word ’asham carries the idea of a default, a wrong done to another, an injury. It is very difficult at times to separate trespass from sin, chattath, Gen. 18. 20, for all trespass is sin. Sometimes the terms are used interchangeably. See Leviticus 5. 6, where however “trespass offering” should be rendered “for his guilt”, R.V. marg. But it would seem that ’asham is the wrong done, the result, whilst chattath is the doing of the wrong, the act.

A trespass is quantitative, Ezra 10. 10, and the trespass offering has to do with those sins in which there is measurable debt. It is concerned not only with atonement and expiation, but also with the reparation for the material damage done to another. It was ordained for a specific type of sin, described as committing a trespass, Lev. 5. 15; 6. 2. In these verses, a different word is used for trespass, one that suggests acting in an underhand manner, implying that the sinner has taken an unfair advantage of another. This trespass was divided into two groups, (i) in the things of the Lord, Lev. 5. 14-19, and (ii) in the things of his neighbour, 6.1-7. The trespass in the things of the Lord is further subdivided into (i) things that he should have done but failed to do, e.g., the paying of tithes, or of firstfruits, Mai. 3. 8-9, (ii) something done that he ought not to have done, e.g., eating the fat of the peace offering, or sacrificing unsound animals whose blemishes later came to his notice, Mal. 1. 8. Idolatry is also described as a trespass under this category, 2 Chron. 28. 22-23. This advantage in the things of God had been taken unwittingly, as stated expressly in Leviticus 5. 15, 18.

Need we remind ourselves that it is possible for believers today to trespass “in the holy things of God”? We can withhold from God His just demands on our time, purses and energy. These things may be done unwittingly, but we should readily confess them, restoring that which we have denied God and adding a fifth. Christ is our “ram of the trespass offering”, by which our atonement is made and our sin forgiven.

The nature of the trespass against a neighbour is outlined in Leviticus 6. 1-3 - dealing falsely in the matter of (i) a deposit left in his keeping, (ii) bargaining, (iii) stealing, (iv) defrauding, (v) stealing by finding, and (vi) swearing falsely. In each case the distinguishing feature is the appropriation of what belonged to another. Possibly these trespasses were also done unwittingly, for Exodus 22. 1-15 mentions much greater punishments for wilful acts of dishonesty. Note that the trespass against his neighbour was also against the Lord, Lev. 6. 2. Thus in every case the ram must be brought to expiate this trespass against God. This offering was essentially an individual offering - a satisfaction rendered to another for wrong done and to God whose law had been broken. It was never offered on holy days nor by the congregation, as was the sin offering.

The Ritual

The ritual of the trespass offering was in two parts, (i) the confession of the trespass, Num. 5. 7, the assessment of the damage and its restitution, (ii) the offering of a ram to God. The assessment was done by the priest, estimating the damage in silver according to the standard weight of the sanctuary, Lev. 5. 15, the shekel of twenty gerahs. The shekel was a weight of about half an ounce. Not until after b.c. 140 was this term used of a coin. It was the appointed standard by which God’s rights were measured - it seems to have been a heavier shekel than that of the merchant, Gen. 23. 16, and that of the king, 2 Sam. 14. 26. The variation in the trespasses was met by the different assessments of the priest in the amounts to be restored. To this estimation one-fifth was added, and the whole made good to the neighbour who had been wronged. If perchance the offended party had died since the offence was committed, and had left no heirs, then the restitution money must be given to the priest, acting on behalf of God. The adding of the fifth would prevent the wrong-doer gaining any pecuniary or other advantage in retaining the principal for a time.

Then and only then could the ram be brought. With God there was no question of forgiveness until a full reparation had been made. Unlike the sin offering, one animal only could be brought for a sacrifice in the trespass offering. In the sin offering, there was a grading of the sacrifice, but in the trespass offering the one specified sacrifice indicates that there is no respect of persons with God, Rom. 2. 11. All who have defrauded must make restitution, and, by bringing a ram, must acknowledge that God has been wronged. This ram must be without blemish, a symbol of the sinlessness of Christ known to God. The purpose of the sacrifice was to make atonement for the sinner, since in every case the trespass, whether against God or against his neighbour, was regarded as unfaithfulness to God, Lev. 6. 2. This is the sense in which David said, “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned”, Ps. 51. 4. Even though he had committed a trespass against Uriah, he had sinned against God; cf. Luke 15. 18, 21. May we thus be ever conscious that when we trespass against our fellowmen we are sinning against God.

The ram was killed where the burnt offering was slain, on the north side of the brazen altar, Lev. 1. 11. The blood was sprinkled on the altar. In the sin offering the blood was applied with the priest’s finger in more elaborate detail. The different ritual in the matter of the sprinkling of the blood arose from the fact that in the sin offering everything affected by the sin must be cleansed. In the trespass offering the reparation of the wrong was the most important feature, and the sprinkling lay in the background.

The fat was then removed from the ram, as in the peace and sin offerings, Lev. 3. 9; 4. 31. This was burned on the altar - a firing unto the Lord, 7. 3-5. What remained of the animal became the priest’s. It was eaten only by males, and in the holy place. Like the sin offering the trespass offering was most holy, a term applied to those portions which could only be eaten by the priests, 2. 3.

The Truth Set forth by the Offering

The term ’asham was used prophetically of the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ on Calvary, Isa. 53. 10. The purpose of God had been frustrated by the fall; man had sinned, and had trespassed against God, having withholden that which was God’s right. God’s honour had been injured; His throne had been slighted; His glory had been sullied. But Christ, who ever honoured the Father, more than paid the recompence in His sufferings on the cross. The cross revealed God’s throne, God’s honour and God’s glory in a way that had never been seen before. There Christ’s obedience unto death gave honour to God; His sufferings manifested the glory of God; His enduring the cross vindicated the justice of the throne of God. Hence the redeemed in eternity will be able to sing of the love of God more fully because of its greater revelation at Calvary.

Christ indeed was the One who for us restored that which He took not away, Ps. 69. 4. Note the use of the words “much more” in Romans 5. In verse 15, grace abounded much more than the trespass, and in verse 17 the reign of life is seen to exceed much more the reign of death. Paul sums it up in verse 20, “where sin abounded, grace did much more abound”. Christ’s death met all the satisfaction demanded by the justice of God.

On Calvary, the Lord paid in full the debt that our sins had incurred, but His sacrifice was primarily towards God - to make expiation for us Godwards. God assessed our trespasses according to His own standard, “the shekel of the sanctuary”. That price the Lord Jesus paid, on Calvary. Thus Christ presented Himself to God as a trespass offering (note the R.V. marg. of Isaiah 53. 10, “when his soul shall make an offering -a guilt offering”). The Lord’s experience there was more than a sacrifice, more than death. It was “the death of the cross”, Phil. 2. 8; it was the death that included as well the shame, the scoffing, the solitude. Thus He added the fifth on our behalf.

Today we are only too conscious that the believer can commit a trespass, and invade the rights of his fellows. He acts falsely in many business dealings; he takes advantage of another’s reduced circumstances to drive a hard bargain; he steals his employer’s time; he oppresses his servant by withholding his rightful wages, Jas. 5. 4; he fails to restore to its proper owner what he finds. What must he do? The trespass offering would teach him that he cannot expect forgiveness for his sin until he has given satisfaction to him whom he has wronged. Let him confess his trespass, be it ever so humiliating. Let him make amends where possible, and more than repay the debt incurred. In making restitution he must do it according to the teaching of God’s Word, not accepting the lower standards often allowed by the laws of men. Let him not hide behind the cover of the bankruptcy court which allows a man to compound with his creditors. God’s Word insists that the whole debt be paid; until that is done reparation has not been fully made. The trespass must thus be estimated “after the shekel of the sanctuary”. Then let him present to God as his trespass offering Christ, the Lamb without spot or blemish, the Lamb that beareth away the sin of the world. Thus will he exercise himself “to have always a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward men”, Acts 24. 16.