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Why were the people guilty for a priest’s sin?

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Question: "Why were the people guilty for a priest’s sin?"

Leviticus 4:3 says, “If the anointed priest sins, bringing guilt on the people, he must bring to the LORD a young bull without defect as a sin offering for the sin he has committed.” If it was the priest that sinned, why were all of the people of Israel considered guilty?

Two possibilities are typically presented to explain how the people are considered guilty for the sin of the priest. First, it is possible that the priest’s sin impacted the people because he is a leader as well as one of the people. In this case, the idea is that the sin of a leader influences everyone under him negatively.

The second possibility is that the sin of the priest would lead other people into sin. This principle is certainly seen elsewhere in Scripture. Hosea 4:6, in particular, condemns ungodly leadership by the Jewish priests: “My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also reject you as my priests.” Second Chronicles 15:3 rues the fact that “for a long time Israel was without the true God, without a priest to teach and without the law.” The lack of godly spiritual leadership had led to an ungodly society.

There is another consideration in determining why the Israelites were guilty when the priest sinned. In Leviticus 10:17 Moses asks Aaron the priest, “Why didn’t you eat the sin offering in the sanctuary area? It is most holy; it was given to you to take away the guilt of the community by making atonement for them before the LORD?” The priest had to make atonement on behalf of the people. If the priest was sinful or unable to perform this duty, atonement could not be made, and the people would be in sin as a result.

When a priest sinned, the sacrifice he was to bring was the same as the sacrifice made for the entire assembly (Leviticus 4:13). The takeaway principle is this: the sin of a leader negatively impacts those under his leadership. By the same token, a godly leader can provide tremendous positive influence. This is one reason 1 Timothy 2:1–2 calls believers to pray for their leaders: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (ESV).

Recommended Resource: Leviticus, New International Commentary on the Old Testament by Gordon Wenham

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Related Topics:

Who were Nadab and Abihu?

What is the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur)?

What was the significance of the anointed priest?

Why did God restrict the age that a priest could serve (Numbers 8:24–26)?

Why did God require animal sacrifices in the Old Testament?
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Why were the people guilty for a priest’s sin?

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