Leviticus 5 prescribes a trespass offering for various sins in which a person violates God’s holy things or His holy name. But then there is also a requirement of a trespass offering when someone steals from a fellow Israelite. Many follow Jacob Milgrom in claiming that there is a violation of holiness when a thief swears falsely in the holy name of Yahweh, but in his contribution to The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology Richard Averbeck rightly rejects this view. Instead, he says, “the violation of the neighbor’s property . . . was the essential reason for bringing the guilt offering” and this was required “because the people of Israel were the Lord’s ‘sancta’ too. So violating (or desecrating, or trespassing against) them was to violate the Lord’s sancta” (51).

Averbeck (53) also points to the fact that the rite of cleansing from skin disease (Leviticus 14) requires a use of the blood of a trespass offering in a manner reminiscent of the use of the blood of the ordination ram (Leviticus 8). In both cases, blood is smeared on the “horns” of the person - ear, thumb, and toe. The same logic is at work: Because the “leper” is a member of the holy priesthood, his skin disease is a “desecration” of holiness, a trespass upon Yahweh’s holy things (i.e., himself). By the trespass offering, the “leper’s” violation of his status as a member of the holy people is repaired and he returns to the community.

Averbeck then applies this pattern to the use of asham /trespass offering in Isaiah 53:

“Like the one who trespassed against the Lord’s sancta and needed to make reparation along with a guilty offering to make atonement for the desecration (Lev. 5:14-16), and like the defiled Nazirite who needed to make reparation with a guilt offering in order to be restored to his votive Nazirite condition (Num, 6:12), and especially like the healed skin-diseased person, who had been expelled (i.e., exiled) from the Israelite camp (Lev. 13:45-46) and needed to offer a guilt offering in order to be restored to the camp and the tabernacle presence of the Lord (Lev. 14:12-18), similarly, the Servant in Isaiah 53 offered himself as a ‘guilt offering’ (Isa. 53:10b) to make reparation and atonement on behalf of Israel for its sin and corruption so that they could come out of exile to be restored to their Holy Land and to their holy ‘servant’ status. This is what the term asham when rendered as ‘guilt [reparation] offering’ brings to the interpretation of the passage, not just redemptive atonement and reparation, but actual restoration .” Through the suffering of the Servant the Lord’s will prospers (v 10d, p. 53-4).

Averbeck points to other details that support the reference to the asham : The Servant is “struck,” a word used over sixty times to describe skin disease in Leviticus 13-14. The deformity of the Servant sounds like a description of a leper (54-55).

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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