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What is Atonement (Propitiation)?

by Dr. Eitan Bar
2 minutes read

Atonement is a central concept in the Hebrew Scriptures, intricately tied to the relationship between humanity and God. The Hebrew term for atonement, “כפר” (kipper), appears over a hundred times in the Old Testament, most notably in the context of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Understanding the nuances of this term requires delving into its linguistic roots and exploring the theological implications of its usage throughout the Scriptures.

Atonement: Linguistic Roots and Interpretations

Two primary interpretations of the root “כפר” (kaphar) have emerged from both medieval and modern scholarship, each offering a unique perspective on the essence of atonement:

Cleansing and Removal

According to one school of thought, the root “כפר” fundamentally denotes the act of cleansing, wiping, or removing, suggesting a connotation of erasing or neutralizing. Scholars favoring this view draw parallels to the Akkadian terms “kuppuru” and “kapāru,” which signify cleansing and purification.

Covering and Concealing

The alternate interpretation posits that “כפר” originally meant to cover, hide or conceal, akin to its cognate in Arabic. Biblical examples bolstering this view include the “כַּפֹּרֶת” (kaporet), the cover of the Ark of the Covenant, and the substance “כֹּפֶר” (kofer), used for waterproofing Noah’s Ark (Genesis 6:14). This perspective suggests that atonement involves covering sins, thereby shielding or protecting the sinner.

Theological Implications

Each interpretation of “כפר” offers a different theological understanding of atonement:

  • Erasure and Restoration: If atonement is understood as the erasure of sin, it implies a complete removal of guilt and a restoration of the sinner to a state of innocence. This view is echoed in passages like Isaiah 44:22, “I have blotted out your transgressions like a cloud,” and Zechariah 3:4, “See, I have taken away your sin.
  • Covering and Protection: Conversely, if atonement signifies covering sin, it suggests that while the sin remains, it is hidden from sight, allowing the sinner to avoid punishment. This concept is reflected in verses such as Psalm 32:1, “Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered,” and Psalm 85:3, “You forgave the iniquity of your people and covered all their sins.”

Atonement in the Biblical Context

Regardless of its original meaning, “כפר” in the Hebrew Scriptures consistently denotes an act aimed at nullifying the effects of sin. In many biblical contexts, particularly in sacrificial rites, atonement facilitates forgiveness: “The priest shall make atonement for the whole Israelite community, and they will be forgiven” (Numbers 15:25). In later Hebrew, the distinction between atonement and forgiveness often becomes blurred, with “כיפר” being used synonymously with “סָלַח” (forgive) and “מָחַל” (pardon) in Jewish liturgy: “Forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

Atonement and Jesus

The concept of atonement reaches its culmination in the New Testament, where both interpretations of “כפר” find their ultimate fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus.

  • Jesus as the Cleanser: Jesus’ sacrificial death is portrayed as a cleansing act that removes the stain of sin, restoring believers to a state of purity. The Apostle John writes, “The blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:7), echoing the biblical theme of atonement as erasure and purification.
  • Jesus as the Covering: Simultaneously, Jesus’ atoning work is seen as a covering that shields believers. Paul articulates this in Romans 3:25, where he describes Jesus as a “sacrifice of atonement” (hilasterion), a term that can be understood as a covering or propitiation.

In summary, the multifaceted concept of atonement in the Hebrew Scriptures, possibly encompassing both cleansing and covering, finds its complete expression in Jesus. His life, death, and resurrection provide the ultimate atonement, addressing both the removal and concealment of sin, thus reconciling humanity to God.

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Dr. Eitan Bar
Author, Theologian, Activist