There’s nothing that brings out the theological nerd in me more than unpicking the true meaning of a word in scripture, and this one is a doozy! Atonement!
For a start, it’s not really a biblical word, but was coined by the bible translators for a Hebrew word for which they felt there was no near English equivalent.
Wikipedia helpfully explains:
In translating the Bible, Tyndale introduced new words into the English language; many were subsequently used in the King James Bible:
Passover; Scapegoat; and Atonement is also sometimes ascribed to Tyndale. However, the word was probably in use by at least 1513, before Tyndale’s translation. Similarly, Tyndale is said to have coined the term mercy seat. While it is true that Tyndale introduced the word into English, ‘mercy seat’ is more accurately a translation of Martin Luther’s German Gnadenstuhl. [Source]
The International Standard Bible topic is a bit more harsh, saying:
It is obvious that the English word “atonement” does not correspond etymologically with any Hebrew or Greek word which it translates. Furthermore, the Greek words in both Septuagint and New Testament do not correspond exactly to the Hebrew words; especially is it true that the root idea of the most frequently employed Hebrew word, “cover,” is not found in any of the Greek words employed. These remarks apply to both verbs and substantives. The English word is derived from the phrase “at one,” and signifies, etymologically, harmony of relationship or unity of life, etc. It … takes its meaning, not from its origin, but from theological content of the thinking of the Continental and Latin-speaking Schoolmen who employed such English terms as seemed most nearly to convey to the hearers and readers their ideas. Not only was no effort made to convey the original Hebrew and Greek meanings by means of English words, but no effort was made toward uniformity in translating of Hebrew and Greek words by their English equivalents.
They then add “It is at once clear that no mere word-study can determine the Bible teaching concerning atonement”.
Onwards and Upwards
Defying this, I determined to find out what the original Hebrew word meant. One site tells us in no uncertain terms that “Atonement: kaphar – The Hebrew word kaphar means ‘to cover over'” (in the sense of forgiving wrongdoing).
However, another more deeply researched article says this:
In the Old Testament, atonement and related phrases, such as sacrifice of atonement, most often translates the Hebrew piel verb kipur and two related nouns, one, kippurim, found always in the plural and signifying the noun equivalent of kipur, and the other, kapporeth, meaning the so-called mercy-seat or the place where the sacrifice of atonement happens. … Atonement is provided for inanimate objects such as a mildewing house, the altar in the temple, the sanctuary (i.e., the Holy of Holies within the Tent of Meeting), the holy place, and the tent of meeting/temple itself. In one place atonement is also provided for an animal, the scapegoat used in the atonement rituals found in Leviticus 16.
Sacrifice accomplishes atonement “for sins” in many places, though these passages always mean atonement for people “because of” their sins rather than atonement “on behalf of” sins, as if sins were being personified and therefore in need of redemption. Of course, the majority of all the references are to atonement on behalf of people, either individually or as members of the community of Israel.
The Words for Covering
Going to a Lexicon we find that the Verb Kaphar means “to cover, purge, make an atonement, make reconciliation, cover over with pitch” specifically (Qal) to coat or cover with pitch, (Piel) to cover over, pacify, propitiate; to cover over, atone for sin, and (Pual) to be covered over, to make atonement for; (Hithpael) to be covered.
Thus we are to believe that the basic concept of “covering over” – the word [translated pitch] is used of the covering of Noah’s Ark – is the original meaning in the bible.
Was the Pitch Tar?
Let me sidetrack for a moment into a discussion I found recently regarding the “pitch” used on Noah’s Ark. Some have argued that, since fossil fuels were created BY the Flood, that Noah would not have been able to use pitch (aka TAR) on the boat.
However, that argument is overthrown by the knowledge that, at the time of the bible’s translation into English, pitch was derived from a tree – what we today call the Pitch Pine.
The Pitch Pine
Pitch Pine acquired the name because its sap was used as pitch. Pitch is a viscous liquid that appears solid. It was used to caulk ships in ancient times. See here.
I find it interesting as yet another allusion to the covering/ransom provided by the Lord Jesus in the atonement, since Jesus in figure is the Tree of Life, and it was the blood that flowed from his body that provided the covering from sin. It is thus an even more perfect symbol of redemption that the sap flowing from the tree covered the Ark!
Also, was the Ark itself created from this tree?? The mysterious “gopher wood” used to build the Ark might be what we call the Pitch Pine For the word Gopher seems to derive from the Hebrew Kopher. See here.
Here is the derivation of kopher:
- Strong’s Number: 3724
- Kopher – Noun Masculine
- Definition: price of a life, ransom, bribe
- asphalt, pitch (as a covering)
- the henna plant, name of a plant (henna?)
- village – see below!
- translated as bribe 1, bribes 1, ransom 11
That does not get us any further down the road! For the Strong’s Number 3725 for Kaphar (atonement) lists as its root word Kopher – meaning RANSOM.
Were The Translators Incorrect?
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
ATONEMENT: kaphar; chaTa’; ratsah, the last employed only of human relations (1 Samuel 29:4); The root meanings of the Hebrew words, taking them in the order cited above, are, to “cover,” hence expiate, condone, cancel, placate; to “offer,” or “receive a sin offering,” hence, make atonement, appease, propitiate; “effect reconciliation,” i. e. by some conduct, or course of action.
The most frequently employed Hebrew word, kaphar, is found in the Prophets only in the priestly section (Ezekiel 45:15, 20 Daniel 9:24) where English Versions of the Bible have “make reconciliation,” margin, “purge away.” Furthermore, it is not found in Deuteronomy, which is the prophetic book of the Pentateuch (Hexateuch). This indicates that it is an essentially priestly conception.
Ministry Magazine [careful! this is Seventh–day Adventist] has some useful additional thoughts, including pointing out that the word kaphar is also translated as “village” which might seem odd until you realise the concept is also that of providing a covering.
Great Words of the Bible—No. 9: Atonement (by William T. Hyde, Associate Professor of Religion, Pacific Union College)
The thought of covering, which the previous article showed to be a valid meaning of the word so often translated “to make an atonement,” is continued in the words related to kaphar. The nouns, kaphar, kephir, and kopher, are used to describe little collections of farm huts and shelters in which the farmers lived while working on their farms, their real homes being in the walled towns and cities. Such huts were often little more than coverings from sun and rain.
The meaning assigned to kopher, which makes it one of the great, though little-known, words of the Bible, is “ransom.” …Christ is said to have been a ransom for His people…But it is not a true ransom. Kopher is basically a cover, and it is used where it cannot mean “ransom.”
When it describes gifts to cover the eyes of a judge to prevent him from seeing evil, it is translated bribe (1 Sam. 12:3; Amos 5:12). But no gift will blind the eyes of a wronged husband to the harm he has suffered (Prov. 6: 35)…In Exodus 21:30, the word translated “ransom” in the K.J.V. is NOT from kopher, but from pidyon, which does mean “that which redeems.” Kopher appears in the same verse, but is translated “a sum of money” in the K.J.V.
The theories based upon kopher as meaning what ransom came to mean in the Christian Era must find other support or fall to the ground.
So – Atonement or Ransom?
I ended up more confused than ever by these arguments. While the root word Kopher in Hebrew can mean a bribe or ransom, its derivative Kaphar, atonement, is not used in that sense but is more closely connected to the words meaning “to cover”.
What are we to believe? No wonder the bible translators decided to invent a word ‘at-one-ment’ to describe the reconciliation of sinful man with holy God, firstly by animal sacrifices and offerings, and ultimately by means of the sacrifice of the Son of God.
Yet they failed to explain how the reconciliation, the making ONE of man and God, can come about by means of a covering over (kaphar). That would suggest the sin remains, but is hidden from the Father by the covering of the blood of Jesus Christ. Perhaps that is the nearest we will get to a biblical answer.
To Whom Was the Ransom Paid?
Some have suggested, over the years, that the concept of a ransom paid by Jesus to his Father, a sacrifice for sin, is therefore at odds with the bible text. Yet the bible plainly states that: “God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol…” [Psalm 49:15] and that “…the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” [Mark 10:45]
This article then complicates matters by asking “to whom was this ransom paid?” and I will leave you to explore that question yourselves by reading the article at your leisure.