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Hebrew Corner 14: Atonement (kipper)

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In our discussion several weeks ago of Cain and Abel’s sacrifice, we made passing reference to the Hebrew word kipper usually translated as "atone for." In fact, however, this is a complicated ritual term that needs close examination.

When we begin to explore the contextual situation of this verb, we should particularly note the grammatical objects and indirect objects. Most commonly the grammatical structure indicates that kipper will be done to a sacred object (e.g., altar, veil, mercy seat) on behalf of an individual or group. This immediately raises a question—how could one "atone" the altar? We find that the agent of kipper is most often the blood of the sacrificed animal, and that is going to be key.

But before we proceed, there is an interesting side note that must be addressed. It is not uncommon to hear that atonement (and thus kipper) means most literally "to cover." How is that conclusion arrived at? The most frequent evidence given in support of this understanding is from Genesis 6:14. Here, however, we have to proceed with caution. In the blogs of the last few weeks we have been discussing the Hebrew stems. In a word study of a verb, each stem must be treated as a separate word until study suggests that the meanings of each stem are directly related to one another. Then they can be grouped together. Here is a case in point for that caution. The ritual contexts use the stem referred to as the piel. Genesis 6 uses the stem called the qal (and is the only occurrence of a qal). Both use the root kpr, but one has to be careful about the possibility that there are two separate roots (homonyms that would typically be designated kpr I and kpr II). If they are homonyms, they definitely should not be treated together, and, in this case, that is precisely what we have. In a related Semitic language, Akkadian, we find that the root kpr is used for covering with tar/tarring. This is the root used in Genesis 6, as the context indicates, and is a totally different root (though a homonym) from the ritual texts that use the piel. This means that the "literal" meaning "cover" has been imported from a different root and should be discarded.

Now, back to our ritual term. In context, this verbal action is accomplished by applying blood to something sacred (sancta). It is applied because there has been some desecration or defilement of the sancta through impurity or sin. The blood accomplishes kipper by eliminating that defilement. Thus the blood is an agent of elimination, and when it does so, this act is described as kipper. The sacrifices that did this most often had their effect, then, on the sancta, not on the person, suggesting that it restored the sancta to its pristine state as if the defilement had never occurred. It may be more appropriate to consider this act closer to what we call justification, accomplished by means of expiation, rather than atonement. The end result of kipper is that the person bringing the sacrifice may then be forgiven, i.e., restored to relationship. As Hebrews indicates, the blood of bulls and goats could never take away sin, but it could restore the purity of the sancta and thus provide a means for the people to enter into the relationship that God had made possible through the covenant.

One final note of interest—just as in the Old Testament the blood eliminated the defilement on the sancta so that God’s presence could be preserved, so when we are ready to become the temple (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19), the blood of Christ cleanses us from all sin, preparing us to become sacred space housing the presence of God.

Waltonjpic John H. Walton (PhD, Hebrew Union College) teaches Old Testament at Wheaton College Graduate School. He is the author or coauthor of several books, including Chronological and Background Charts of the Old Testament and the forthcoming A Survey of the Old Testament (Third Edition).

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