Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
What is an unintentional sin (Lev. 4:2)?
The main biblical terms for unintentional sin in the Old Testament are the noun shagagah (“mistake, error”) and the verb shagag/shagah (“to err, to lead astray, to do wrong”). The meaning of these terms is to some extent a matter of debate. Let’s examine the use of both the noun and the verb, and I’ll comment about the phrase “high-handed sin.” This may help clarify the meaning of an unintentional sin.
1. The Noun Shagagah: Phrases involving this noun has been translated in different ways: “through ignorance” (KJV), “inadvertently” (NAB),1 “unintentionally” (NIV, NASB),2 “unwittingly” (RSV),3 “straying unintentionally” (NET).4 The tendency is to understand it as expressing the idea of ignorance or lack of intent. This view finds support in some of the parallel expressions used in conjunction with the word. In some cases we are told that the person did not know (Lev. 5:17) or was without knowledge (Joshua 20:3), or was unaware of the sin committed (Lev. 5:2), or that he or she afterwards learns of it (verse 3).
But the noun shagagah is also used in the context of conscious sinning; as when a person is aware of the fact that he or she has sinned (e.g. Lev. 4:22, 23). The element of intentionality may have been present in this particular case but not in others (Num. 35:11; Deut. 19:4, 5). This suggests that the noun designates an involuntary sin or one committed in ignorance of the law, an unwitting or even inadvertent sin. It does not necessarily exclude awareness and intentionality.
2. The Verb Shagag/Shagah: This verb refers to unconscious sinning (Job 6:24; 19:4; Eze. 45:20). But it more often designates sin as an error that, although avoidable, was not avoided. Isaiah uses it in parallel with the verb “to stagger,” describing the staggering of a person who is drunk (Isa. 28:7, NIV). This is an involuntary conduct because, as a result of the alcohol, the person is unable to walk straight. In another case, the absence of shepherds or leaders causes the sheep to go astray, to wander (Eze. 34:5). They lack inner self-control and orientation. Proverbs states that the lack of discipline results in the person being led astray (Prov. 5:23; cf. 19:27). This also happens when one is indifferent to God (Ps. 119:67; cf. verse 21). These texts seem to describe a common human condition that can be improved only through self-discipline. In a sense this kind of behavior is unintentional; on our own we simply go astray, err, and do what is wrong. This type of sin is not only a sin of ignorance. Saul, after realizing that David spared his life, tried to make peace with him and confessed: “I have sinned . . . I will no more do thee harm . . . [I] have erred [shagah] exceedingly” (1 Sam. 26:21, KJV). He called his attempt to kill David an error, although he intentionally sought to take his life. It was his lack of self-control that led Saul to attack David.
3. High-handed Sin: “Unintentional” sin is contrasted with high-handed sin (Num. 15:30, 31), which represents a defiant and rebellious attitude against God manifested in total disregard for Him and His will. For this type of sin there is no atonement, and the person is permanently disconnected from God’s people. It may have been intentional or unintentional, but the primary concern of the verb is the fact that the person erred and is in need of atonement.
“Unintentional” sin seems to designate sins committed as a result of a human nature that is weak and unable to control itself. The person was not breaking with the Lord because the sin was the result of human frailty. In that condition they sinned unknowingly, unwittingly, unaware of what they were doing. Perhaps we can refer to them as inadvertent sins. Lack of self-control or intentionality or even ignorance does not excuse this sin, but forgiveness is always available for it (cf. 1 John 2:1, 2). The Lord can give us victory over our fallen nature: “I seek you from all my heart; do not let me stray [shagah] from your commands” (Ps. 119:10, NIV).
1 Scripture texts credited to NAB are from The New American Bible, copyright © 1970, by the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C., and are used by permission of copyright owner. All rights reserved.
2 Scripture quotations marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
3Bible texts credited to RSV are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, 1971, by Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
4 Scripture quotations credited to NET are from the New English Translation Bible, copyright © 1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.