Question: "What is a trespass offering / guilt offering?"

Answer: The trespass offering (KJV, NKJV) or guilt offering (NIV, ESV, NASB) is described in Leviticus 5:14–19; 7:1–7; and 14:12–18. Two practical instances that would require a guilt offering are described in Leviticus 19:20–22 (a man sleeping with a slave who is engaged to another man) and Numbers 6:9–12 (a Nazarite who accidentally violates his vows). This offering should not be confused with the sin offering.

The trespass/guilt offering was required when a person unintentionally violated some of the Lord’s holy things. “Holy things” would normally refer to things that had been dedicated to the Lord—anything from the sanctuary itself to the portion of the offerings that were normally reserved for the priests. How this could happen inadvertently is not spelled out, but perhaps a person forgot to fulfill a vow, made some mistake in the fulfilling of it, accidently ate food that was reserved for the priests, or mistakenly ate a firstborn animal from his own flock. In these cases the offender had to bring a sacrificial animal (an unblemished ram or male lamb) to offer and also compensate the priests an extra 20 percent for what they had been deprived. (The priests and Levites were the recipients of many of the offerings that were offered to the Lord—this was the provision that the Lord made for their support as they had no land of their own.) The offender could also bring, instead of an animal, the price of the animal in silver. When a person with a very sensitive (perhaps oversensitive) conscience thought that he might have sinned against holy property, he could bring the trespass/guilt offering “just in case,” but in that situation no restitution was made to the priests.

The trespass offering was also brought when a person had committed a violation against another person. In this case the offender had to repay damages plus 20 percent in addition to making the animal sacrifice.

In a trespass offering, the ram or male lamb was slaughtered; the blood was splashed on the altar, and some of the blood was applied to the right ear lobe, right thumb, and right big toe of the one making the offering. Then oil was applied to the same places, and the head of the one making the offering was anointed. Most of the sacrificial animal was burned; however, the priests were able to eat some portions while they were in the sanctuary.

The trespass or guilt offering is primarily about making reparations. It demonstrates the seriousness of violations against God (even accidental ones) and against one’s fellow man. An atoning sacrifice has to be made before God, and restitution has to be made to man. The trespass offering was a bloody demonstration of atonement and reconciliation, but it was also a demonstration of grace as provision was made for reparations for the wrongdoing. This Old Testament sacrifice was not the final solution. It pointed to the ultimate sacrifice of Christ by which sinners can be restored to fellowship with God and with each other (Hebrews 9:15).