Spiritual Significance of the Imposition of Hands

Spiritual Significance of the Imposition of Hands

A careful reading of this article may alter your concept of an Old Testament sanctuary ritual. It gives deeper mean­ing to the act of confession.

C. G. TULAND, Pastor, Illinois Conference

This study is dedicated to one of the great rit­uals of Old Testament times—the imposition of hands and its spiritual significance. While the laying on of hands in both the Old and the New Testament was used on many different occa­sions and for many dif­ferent purposes, this study is limited to its use for the presenta­tion of sacrificial offerings. What did the laying on of the hands of the sinner upon the head of the sacrificial animal signify? When was it practiced and what was its purpose? The concept of our denomina­tion from its inception seems to be quite uniform and in agreement with traditional interpretation.

Seventh-day Adventists on account of their specific teachings of the sanctuary have always entertained the "typical expo­sition," i.e., they have taught that the Old Testament rituals have found their deep­est spiritual meaning and historical fulfill­ment in the life and ministry of Christ. Much of our literature was and is dedi­cated to this subject of the sanctuary and its services, consequently touching upon the meaning of the imposition of hands. The problem has been discussed by Stephen N. Haskell. He said concerning the imposition of hands: "The sinner, with his hands laid upon the head of the lamb, confessed over it all his sins, and then with his own hand he killed it. Lev. 4:29; Num­bers 5:7. . . . The sinner, by confessing his sins over the lamb, in type and shadow transferred them to the lamb."—The Cross and Its Shadow, p. 124.

"The individual making the offering [whole burnt-] laid his hands on the head of the animal, confessing his sins, Lev. 1:4; Num. 8:12."—Ibid., p. 134. Haskell is not quite exact in the interpretation of these texts, for Leviticus 4:29 speaks only of an imposition of hands, without mentioning confession of sins. Numbers 5:7 does not refer to the sacrifice but to the confession only resulting in restitution.

The Denominational Position

The idea of the transfer of sin by laying on of hands is firmly accepted by this de­nomination. M. L. Andreasen who ably presented the meaning of Old Testament ritual in the light of New Testament fulfill­ment, also repeatedly discusses the trans­fer of sin: "The laying on of the hand was an old custom in Israel, a symbolic act whereby something possessed by one was conveyed to another."—The Sanctuary Service, p. 146. "He [man] has already by confession placed his sin upon the inno­cent animal."—Ibid., p. 144. "He lays his hand upon the head of the animal, and by this act conveys his sin to the innocent lamb, who now bears his sins."—Ibid., p. 147. There are a number of statements in the writings of Ellen G. White expressing the same thoughts. "The most important part of the daily ministration was the serv­ice performed in behalf of individuals. The repentant sinner brought his offering to the door of the tabernacle, and placing his hand upon the victim's head, confessed his sins, thus in figure transferring them from himself to the innocent sacrifice."—Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 354. Similar statements are found on pages 374, 376, and 378 of the same book.

No Uniformity

A comparison of this position with texts relevant to our subject presents the oppor­tunity for deeper study. It seems that our interpretation follows, to some extent, rab­binical thought which presupposed or im­plied that one part of the ceremony—the imposition of hands, included always the other, i.e., the confession of sin, although the individual texts do not clearly state this concept. Another striking factor is the com­plete absence of a "pattern" that would justify a rigid interpretation of the man­ner in which sin was transferred. There was apparently no absolute uniformity, but a diversity of ceremonies indicating the transfer of sin. Finally, to limit the imposi­tion of hands and its significance to the transfer of sin fails to express the depth and spiritual significance of the ceremony.

The Mosaic system presents a variety of sacrificial offerings, each with a significance of its own, each one having its specific form, and each one representing a specific phase of the ministry of Christ. There were holocausts, expiatory and eucharistic sacri­fices which we know as burnt-, sin-, tres­pass-, peace-, drink-, meat-, and other offer­ings, some of which involved sin, while others did not. The surprising fact is that there was imposition of hands, although the sacrifice did not involve sin, and there was transfer of sin in other cases, but no imposition of hands. The burnt offering which was originally not a sin offering re­quired the laying on of hands (Lev. 1:4). The evening and morning sacrifice be­longed to the same type of offerings, yet there was no imposition of hands (Ex. 29: 38-42). The peace offering involved no sin, yet there was laying on of hands (Lev. 3:1, 2, 8, 12). In the case of sacrifices for sin in their different forms again the ritual does not follow a fixed pattern. Although sin is involved in every case there is only laying on of hands, but never a confession of sin (Lev. 4:4, 15, 24, 29). When it comes to the trespass offering, which involves sin, there is confession of sin, but no laying on of hands (Lev. 5:5).

These facts preclude a uniformistic or mechanical interpretation of the ritual. It is probably for this reason that Bible inter­preters followed rabbinistic reasoning and thought according to which the laying on of hands and confession belonged together, although it is not stated in the Scriptures. The rabbis had their troubles with this problem, offering different explanations. Aaron Ben Chajim said: "Where there is no confession of sins, there is no imposi­tion of hands; because imposition of hands belongs to confession of sin."—Disserta­tion on Sacrifice, pp. 182/4, from Ad Siphra in Dibur. Hachat. fol. 95, Edit. Venet. Yet his position is not tenable, since there was laying on of hands without sin being involved, as has been shown above. The same can be said about Mai­monides who likewise lacks the support of the Biblical text: "Every person places both his hands between the horns of the victim, and makes confession of sin over a sin offering, and of trespass over a trespass offering; and over a burnt offering he con­fesses those things which have been against affirmative precepts, or against negative precepts which are inseparable from affirm­ative ones."—Maase Korban, c. 3. What Maimonides does is that he merely states Jewish tradition but not Biblical exegesis, for there is not one sacrifice that required simultaneously imposition of hands and confession of sin. There is but one case when the service in the Old Testament sanc­tuary required this in order to realize a transfer of sin, but that was not a sacrifice. The occasion was the ritual on the Day of Atonement when the high priest transferred the sins of Israel upon the goat for Azazel (Lev. 16:10, 21).

The Spiritual Significance

It seems that no adequate explanation has been found to elucidate the meaning of the formal differences of the ritual, if such differentiation was intended at all. It also seems to be much more important to comprehend and to apply its spiritual significance in relation to our religious ex­perience, without excluding our denomina­tional concept according to which the lay­ing on of hands in certain sacrifices de­noted transfer of sin. In this study it has been pointed out that the ritual did not always indicate transfer of sin, a position that is supported by its frequent use at other occasions. Jacob blessing the sons of Joseph (Gen. 48:14), Moses transferring his office and spirit to Joshua (Num. 27:18­20, 23; Deut. 34:9), and many references in the New Testament attest its wider meaning. In many cases it has the signifi­cance of a gift be it a blessing, power, office, healing, or some kind of present. Inasmuch as sacrifices were offered to God, they, too, expressed a gift by transfer. When a man placed his hands upon the victim's head he enacted the presentation of the whole man, individual, or congregation, independent of his condition, to God. Thus the ritual became the symbol of a total surrender of man unto God, and a complete dedication of the entire being, eliminating our pres­ent problems of interpretation for the different types of sacrifice or the specific mean­ing of the laying on of hands in each case. Then the symbol becomes more mean­ingful for him who offers the sacrifice, be it as a repentant sinner or as a justified be­liever. The ritual is thus understood in the following terms: when a man approached God with a sacrifice as a sinner he not only asked for the forgiveness of his sins but he also expressed the surrender of his whole sinful life under the judgment and mercy of God: "I give myself, my all, my every­thing, with my sins, to thee, Almighty God." And when as a justified believer he placed his hands upon the head of the offering after his sins were forgiven, he still ex­pressed the same desire of a complete sur­render: "I dedicate myself anew, my all, my cleansed heart, my mind and my body, freed from sin, to thee, my God and my Redeemer." This concept makes it under­standable why there was an imposition of hands in the sacrificial system of the Old Testament, even when there was no sin involved.

Justification and Sanctification

The ritual attains its deepest and widest significance in the light of the New Testa­ment and the ministry of Christ, who is the fulfillment of all types of sacrifice. His vi­carious death is for the justification of the repentant sinner who has placed his sins upon the Lamb of God. But the work of re­demption does not end here. The same offering that justifies man from his trans­gression is also the one through which he is sanctified, "By the which will we are sancti­fied through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all" (Heb. 10:10). It is therefore suggested that the imposition of hands in the Old Testament cult was a rit­ual that expressed in our New Testament interpretation two successive phases of our Christian experience—the justification and the sanctification of every soul who ac­cepts by faith the gift of God, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Redeemer.

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C. G. TULAND, Pastor, Illinois Conference

August 1965

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