Numbers 15:22-31 – Intentional and Unintentional Sins


Numbers 15:22-31


Unintentional breaking of God’s commandments can be forgiven through an atoning sacrifice. Intentional sin, however, cannot.


Interestingly, the term for intentional or “high-handed” (Hebrew) sin is sometimes translated “boldly”: on the exodus, the Israelites were going out “boldly” or “high-handedly” (Exodus 14:8; Numbers 33:3). Though the verbal link is perhaps accidental, the reader is reminded of Martin Luther’s well-known counsel to “sin boldly.” Luther, of course, was not urging “high-handed” sin, but precisely the “bold” entry into God’s journey that characterized the exodus. In a 1521 letter to Philip Melanchthon, Luther wrote:

God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong [in many translations, “sin boldly”], but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2. Peter 3:13), are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign.

(Translation by Erika Bullman Flores at

Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood both Luther and the spirit of Israel’s “bold” entry into the exodus, when he wrote:

“Sin boldly”–that could be for Luther only the very last bit of pastoral advice, of consolation for those who along the path of discipleship have come to know that they cannot become sin-free, who out of fear despair of God’s grace. For them, “sin boldly” is not something like a fundamental affirmation of their disobedient lives. Rather, it is the gospel of God’s grace, in the presence of which we are sinners always and at every place.

(Bonhoeffer, Discipleship [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003] 52)

That same divine grace is present in God’s providing for ritual atonement in Numbers 15 and in God’s re-creation of the repentant sinner, apart from sacrifice, in Psalm 51.