Sacrifice and Confession

Did the Israelites actually confess their sins when they brought their sin offerings to the sanctuary?

The answer to your question is debated among scholars, mainly because we don’t have explicit evidence affirming that all sin offerings included a confession of sin. I will begin with cases of related biblical practice; then examine some passages, mainly from the Psalms; and conclude with some general comments.

1. Confession and Sacrifices: The first reference to confession and the sin-offering is found in Leviticus 5:5. The context is about atoning for deliberate sins related to an unwillingness to testify in court (verse 1), delaying to perform a cleansing rite (verses 2, 3), and delaying the fulfillment of an oath (verse 4). In Numbers 5:7 confession and restitution are required for ethical violations considered sacrilegious. These are not rebellious/defiant sins, but since they include an element of intentionality the legislation explicitly requires public acknowledgment on the part of the sinner.

The last case is Leviticus 16:21, when, during the Day of Atonement, the high priest lays his hands on a goat and confesses all the sins of Israel. Since this is a unique ritual, and the goat is not offered as a sacrifice, some argue that it does not support the idea that confession of sin always accompanied the sin offering.

The question is “Why is confession of sin not mentioned in other passages dealing with the sin offering” (Lev. 4)? Perhaps in Leviticus 5:5 and Numbers 5:7 confession is emphasized because of the deliberate nature of the sins committed. But this wouldn’t apply to the confession in Leviticus 16:21. Frankly, we don’t have a clear reason for the omission of confession in other passages dealing with sin offerings.

This textual omission does not automatically rule out the practice. The fundamental theological principle behind confession is this: “Whoever conceals their sins [any sin] does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy” (Prov. 28:13, NIV). This principle must have been operative in all sin offerings.

2. Sacrifices, Sound, and Speech: The Psalms indicate that Temple rituals were accompanied by sound and speech. After deliverance from some oppression the worshipper says, “I will sacrifice with shouts of joy; I will sing and make music to the Lord” (Ps. 27:6, NIV). Instructions for the peace offering (Lev. 7:16) do not say anything about spoken words, but according to Psalm 54:6 they were accompanied by praises to the Lord. When thank offerings were brought, people were exhorted to “tell of his works with songs of joy” (Ps. 107:21, 22; Lev. 7:12). The ritual experience was a joyful one, even for repentant sinners who confessed their sin, offered the sacrifice, and went home justified and blessed by the Lord (Ps. 24:5; 32:1, 2, 5, 7, 11). The psalmist confesses her or his sin (Ps. 51:3-5), asks for divine cleansing (verses 7, 10), recognizes that sacrifices by themselves are ineffective (verse 16), and finally acknowledges that when they are the physical embodiment of an inner broken heart, God accepts sacrifices (verses 17, 19). It is highly unlikely that a sin-offering would have been brought in total silence.

3. Significance of Confession: Through confession sinners recognized their violation of God’s will, and that they indeed deserved the penalty (cf. Lev. 16:21). They also knew that by confessing and abandoning sin they would find divine mercy (Prov. 28:13). In the Bible, confession is associated with covenant renewal (e.g., Neh. 10:18, 19, 28, 29), suggesting the possibility that the confession associated with the sin-offering constituted a renewal of the covenant relationship that had been broken through sin. In other words, the forgiveness of sin by the Lord meant the restoration of a broken relationship (e.g., Ex. 34:1-10). Repentant sinners confessed their sin to the Lord in His presence, and sought reconciliation with the person they offended.

So to answer your question, I would say that the passages in which confession is explicitly emphasized deal primarily with deliberate sins that had to be brought to light. This does not mean that since no confession is mentioned in the regular sin offering there was none. In the case of peace offerings, no verbal expression was required; but, as we saw, they were accompanied by spoken words.