Cleansing Offering (in Leviticus)

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Jacob Milgrom's work on Leviticus and the priestly material more generally suggest that atonement results from a process of purification. Milgrom has also suggested that the sacrifice normally called a sin offering (ḥaṭṭaʾt) is better understood as a cleansing offering because this is what it does—cleanses the altar (Milgrom: 253–69, 1079–84). The case rests on the following points:

First, the so-called sin sacrifice is offered in rituals where no sin was committed and no forgiveness is sought. The purification rituals in chapters 12–15 illustrate this point. In these chapters, this sacrifice occurs in rituals for cleansing the altar, thereby restoring purity to a person who has become impure.
Second, the blood cleanses objects. Moses takes the blood from this sacrifice and places it on the horns of the altar, thereby cleansing or sterilizing the altar to hallow it (8:15; cf. 9:15). Likewise, on the Day of Cleansing, Aaron's application of the blood from a sin offering, a ḥaṭṭaʾt sacrifice, is to cleanse it and to consecrate it from the uncleanness of the Israelites (Lev 16:19). This cleansing of the altar is an end in itself; no impurity or sin of an individual is mentioned.
Third, the noun ḥaṭṭaʾt (cleansing [traditionally, "sin"] offering) comes from the piel form of the verb ḥaṭaʾ, which in that form most often means "to purify, cleanse," as in the references above. The blood of the purification or cleansing sacrifice is applied to the altar to make cleansing of the altar possible (Lev 8:15; DCH). Moses purifies (ḥiṭṭeʾ) the altar by using the blood from a cleansing (ḥaṭṭaʾt) offering. In this reference, no sin is mentioned nor is forgiveness its aim. It is about cleansing. So also in 9:15.
Fourth, the so-called sin sacrifice (ḥaṭṭaʾt) almost always occurs in conjunction with the verb kipper (to cleanse or purge) in Leviticus 1–16 (see the exceptions in 8:15 and 9:15). Because of this coupling with kipper, this sacrifice (ḥaṭṭaʾt) provides the necessary blood for cleansing the altar.

In this commentary, when the ḥaṭṭaʾt offering is used either in a ritual of forgiveness, such as in Leviticus 4:1–5:13, or in a ritual for purification, such as in Leviticus 12–15, it is called a cleansing offering or cleansing sacrifice. For purging rituals, which do not have to do directly with specific human sins or ritual impurities—notably the installation of the priesthood (ch. 8), the dedication of the sanctuary (ch. 9), and the Day of Cleansing (ch. 16)—the term cleansing ritual is used.


  • Dictionary of Classical Hebrew (DCH). Edited by David J. A. Clines. 9 vols. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 1993–2014.
  • Milgrom, Jacob. Leviticus 1–16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Bible 3A. New York: Doubleday, 1991.