Sounds like: kaphar, kopher, kippur
Yom Kippur (Yom=Day, Kippur=Atonement) begins Tuesday at sundown. It is the most solemn date on the Jewish calendar… a day of fasting and prayer and great confession, when the sins of the people are laid out before God. According to Jewish tradition, the Book of Life is opened on Rosh Hashanah and closed on Yom Kippur, giving a window of time to right your wrongs, wiping the slate clean to begin a fresh new year. Many of these traditions come out generations of customs and Rabbinical writings, not Biblical text.
However, the Bible does speak often about atonement and it does, as we will see, set up the call for the observance of this commemorative day. But first, what does the word atonement mean?
According to the Oxford Dictionary, atonement is “the action for making amends for a wrong or injury.” Strangely enough, the first time we see this word in the Bible it appears to have nothing to do with the Oxford Dictionary definition. Instead the word is associated with boat-building:
Then God said to Noah, “The end of all flesh has come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence because of them; and behold, I am about to destroy them with the earth. “Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood; you shall make the ark with rooms, and shall cover it [w-kaphar’ta] inside and out with pitch.”
Covering the ark, inside and out, with pitch was an action that would save the people. No pitch and the boat would take on water and sink. Atonement worked in the same way, it covered the problem. Without atonement, we would sink and die.
Atonement, therefore, is a covering, a ransom, a payment for our wrongs… but in a way it’s also forgiveness, and it is sometimes translated as such.
Atonement and the Book of Life
To the Jewish people the Book of Life gets closed, for another year, on Yom Kippur, but in the Old Testament (Tanakh) Biblical narrative atonement was only connected to the Book [of Life] once.
After spending time with YHWH, Moses came down from the mountaintop to discover that while away the Hebrew people built an idol and began worshiping it. Moses was devastated but he continued to stand as an advocate for his people. He wanted to save them:
On the next day Moses said to the people, “You yourselves have committed a great sin; and now I am going up to YHWH, perhaps I can make atonement [a’kap’rah] for your sin.”
Then Moses returned to YHWH, and said, “Alas, this people has committed a great sin, and they have made a god of gold for themselves. But now, if You will, forgive their sin—and if not, please blot me out from Your book which You have written!”
YHWH said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against Me, I will blot him out of My book. But go now, lead the people where I told you. Behold, My angel shall go before you; nevertheless in the day when I punish, I will punish them for their sin.”
Basically, Moses asked how he could save the people, and God replied, “You can’t”. Moses was willing to have his name removed from the Book of Life, to save the people, but God wouldn’t accept this. Moses could not atone for the people, they would have to pay for their own sins. There would be only one who could cover the sins of the people… and Moses wasn’t him.
Grief and Pain
Over and over the Hebrew people turned their back on YHWH, their Redeemer:
And they remembered that God was their rock, and the Most High God their Redeemer. But they deceived Him with their mouth and lied to Him with their tongue. For their heart was not steadfast toward Him, nor were they faithful in His covenant.
But He, being compassionate, forgave [covered/ransomed/atoned: y’kapper] their iniquity and did not destroy them; and often He restrained His anger and did not arouse all His wrath. Thus He remembered that they were but flesh, a wind that passes and does not return.
How often they rebelled against Him in the wilderness and grieved Him in the desert! Again and again they tested God, and pained the Holy One of Israel. They did not remember His power, the day when He redeemed [ransomed] them from the adversary…
These words, grief and pain, were inflicted onto YHWH by the insensitive and thoughtless behaviour of humans. YHWH knew that the final act of atonement would be painful and grievous, and yet the plan was never altered.
Ram of Atonement
The giving of guilt offerings, outlined in Leviticus 5-7, was a regular occurrence in ancient Jewish society. A ram was the guilt sacrifice of choice:
‘He shall bring his guilt offering to YHWH to the doorway of the tent of meeting, a ram for a guilt offering. The priest shall also make atonement [w-kipper] for him with the ram of the guilt offering before YHWH for his sin which he has committed, and the sin which he has committed will be forgiven him.’
According to the ancient Jewish people, something had to die to cover the sins; the guilt offering of a ram was the temporary band-aid solution. There had to be recompense… some sort of payment for damages. The guilt needed to die with the sacrifice, so that one could live free from the guilt and shame.
With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that in Genesis 22 God provided a ram for the sacrifice, as a substitute for Isaac:
Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of YHWH called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” Then Abraham raised his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram and offered him up for a burnt offering in the place of his son. Abraham called the name of that place YHWH Will Provide, as it is said to this day, “In the mount of YHWH it will be provided.”
Guilt offerings were given all the time, but YHWH called for there to be a single day in the year, a holy convocation, where the High Priest would enter the inner sanctuary of the Temple and make an atonement offering on behalf of all the people. This Day of Atonement tradition comes directly from Leviticus 23:
YHWH spoke to Moses, saying, “On exactly the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of [the] atonement [yom ha-kippurim]; it shall be a holy convocation for you, and you shall humble your souls and present an offering by fire to YHWH. You shall not do any work on this same day, for it is a day of atonement [yom kippurim], to make atonement [l’kapper] on your behalf before YHWH your God. If there is any person who will not humble himself on this same day, he shall be cut off from his people. As for any person who does any work on this same day, that person I will destroy from among his people. You shall do no work at all. It is to be a perpetual statute throughout your generations in all your dwelling places. It is to be a sabbath of complete rest to you, and you shall humble your souls; on the ninth of the month at evening, from evening until evening you shall keep your sabbath.”
This was a serious summons. It called for humility, complete rest, and dedicated offering, but it was also a protest poster for victorious living. Out of atonement came life, free from guilt. It was standing up to sin and saying, you have no hold on me!
We can’t make a deal with the Grave
The act of atonement was very much connected to death and life. Sin and iniquity strengthened the grasp that chaos had on a person; it chained them to death. Seeking atonement was asking to live! It was asking God to cover the sins and to pay the ransom (because payment must be made) so that death couldn’t tighten the shackles:
Why should I fear in days of adversity, when the iniquity of my foes surrounds me, even those who trust in their wealth and boast in the abundance of their riches?
No man can by any means redeem his brother or give to God a ransom [kaph’row] for him— For the redemption of his soul is costly, and he should cease trying forever— that he should live on eternally, that he should not undergo decay.
For he sees that even wise men die; the stupid and the senseless alike perish and leave their wealth to others. Their inner thought is that their houses are forever and their dwelling places to all generations; they have called their lands after their own names. But man in his pomp will not endure; he is like the beasts that perish.
Humans have this insatiable desire to control death, to find their own way to immortality. As much as we try to push the boundaries, we cannot succeed; our bodies will perish like all other beasts on this planet. These ridiculous strivings for eternal life have all been in vain. Our bodies were not designed to live forever, but eternal life for the soul was always part of YHWH’s plan… the work has already been done. We are called to be stewards and caretakers of this planet, and so we should not be wasting our time and talents on the elixir of immortality when there’s so much more impactful work to be done for those living NOW.
Therefore, hear the word of YHWH, O scoffers, who rule this people who are in Jerusalem, because you have said, “We have made a covenant with death, and with Sheol we have made a pact. The overwhelming scourge will not reach us when it passes by, for we have made falsehood our refuge and we have concealed ourselves with deception.”
Therefore thus says the Lord YHWH, “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a tested stone, a costly cornerstone for the foundation, firmly placed. He who believes in it will not be disturbed. I will make justice the measuring line and righteousness the level; then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies and the waters will overflow the secret place. Your covenant with death will be canceled [covered/atoned: w-kuppar], and your pact with Sheol will not stand.”
You can’t make a deal with death. You can’t cheat it. Sheol (the Grave) won’t cut you a break. Only God can remove the finality of death. The Adversary is the promoter of death and chaos and God is the champion of order and life, but it is our sins that chains us to the grave. Only through YHWH can the chains be broken; only through Him are we free to truly live, and live eternally.
Do not remember the iniquities of our forefathers against us; let Your compassion come quickly to meet us, for we are brought very low.
Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of Your name; and deliver us and forgive [cover/atone: w’kapper] our sins for Your name’s sake.
Then I said, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, YHWH of hosts.”
Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a burning coal in his hand, which he had taken from the altar with tongs. He touched my mouth with it and said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away and your sin is forgiven [atoned for/covered: t’kuppar].”
The seraphim purified Isaiah with a hot coal and said that his sins were atoned for… Isaiah could live. Even after seeing God, face to face, he could live, and live eternally. This was the kind of atonement humanity needed, not a once a year clean slate, but an expunged record… a full, forever and ever, redemption.
But now, thus says YHWH, your Creator, O Jacob, and He who formed you, O Israel, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine! When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, nor will the flame burn you.
For I am YHWH your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour; I have given Egypt as your ransom [atonement: ka-p’r’ka], Cush and Seba in your place. Since you are precious in My sight, since you are honoured and I love you, I will give other men in your place and other peoples in exchange for your life.
Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and gather you from the west. I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’ And to the south, ‘Do not hold them back.’ Bring My sons from afar and My daughters from the ends of the earth, everyone who is called by My name, and whom I have created for My glory, whom I have formed, even whom I have made.”
As for the official Day of Atonement, Leviticus 23 outlined the dates and its importance, but Leviticus 16 gave the details of what the priest was to do. This was to be the one day of the year when the High Priest would enter the most sacred space in the Temple (the Holy of Holies), behind the great curtain. There he would face YHWH and ask for the sins of the nations to be forgiven (atoned for). But before that there was a particular ritual that had to be set up:
“He shall take from the congregation of the sons of Israel two male goats for a sin offering and one ram for a burnt offering. Then Aaron shall offer the bull for the sin offering which is for himself, that he may make atonement [w-kipper] for himself and for his household. He shall take the two goats and present them before YHWH at the doorway of the tent of meeting. Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats, one lot for YHWH and the other lot for the scapegoat. Then Aaron shall offer the goat on which the lot for YHWH fell, and make it a sin offering. But the goat on which the lot for the scapegoat fell shall be presented alive before YHWH, to make atonement [l-kapper] upon it, to send it into the wilderness as the scapegoat…
Afterwards, Aaron was to take the bull and sacrifice it as an atonement for himself and his family before preparing coals and incense to create a cloud over the mercy seat which was on the Ark of the Covenant. (The Hebrew word for “mercy seat” [ha-kapporet] comes from the root word for atonement). Without this cloud, Aaron would die in the presence of YHWH. So even on this single day of the year, when the High Priest could go behind the curtain, he would still need to create a veil of sorts so that he would not come into full contact with the Creator.
Leviticus 16:12-13, 16:15-16a
“He shall take a firepan full of coals of fire from upon the altar before YHWH and two handfuls of finely ground sweet incense, and bring it inside the veil. He shall put the incense on the fire before YHWH, that the cloud of incense may cover the mercy seat that is on the ark of the testimony, otherwise he will die…
…Then he shall slaughter the goat of the sin offering which is for the people, and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, and sprinkle it on the mercy seat [ha-kapporet] and in front of the mercy seat [ha-kapporet]. He shall make atonement [w-kipper] for the holy place, because of the impurities of the sons of Israel and because of their transgressions in regard to all their sins.”
The final action on this day was to deal with the scapegoat:
Leviticus 20-26 , 29-31
When he finishes atoning [mi-kapper] for the holy place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall offer the live goat. Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and he shall lay them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who stands in readiness. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a solitary land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness.
Then Aaron shall come into the tent of meeting and take off the linen garments which he put on when he went into the holy place, and shall leave them there. He shall bathe his body with water in a holy place and put on his clothes, and come forth and offer his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people and make atonement [w-kipper] for himself and for the people. Then he shall offer up in smoke the fat of the sin offering on the altar. The one who released the goat as the scapegoat shall wash his clothes and bathe his body with water; then afterward he shall come into the camp…
…This shall be a permanent statute for you: in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall humble your souls and not do any work, whether the native, or the alien who sojourns among you; for it is on this day that atonement [y-kapper] shall be made for you to cleanse you; you will be clean from all your sins before YHWH. It is to be a sabbath of solemn rest for you, that you may humble your souls; it is a permanent statute.”
The word scapegoat is a mash of two hebrew words az (goat) azal (to go) or the “gone-goat”/“sent-away-goat”/“goat-to-go”. Some scholars have considered this word as a name: “Azazel”. In later texts (apocryphal books, extra-canonical books, and rabbinic literature) Azazel was the name of a demon (see Book of Enoch). This shakes up the interpretation of this text significantly.
The “Goat-to-Go” was sent away carrying the sins of the people. It was sent to the wilderness and banished from the sacred space of the Temple.
Many see this goat as the Messiah, who was sent out of the Temple by the people who controlled it, to carry the sins of everyone on His back and to face the wilderness alone on the cross. He went back to the beginning of creation when it was formless and void/wilderness and wasteland and carried the entire weight of the history of humanity’s horrible choices on his back… to die, utterly alone with God’s face turned away from Him.
Others see this goat as the Adversary (in the form of Azazel) dragging the sins to the wilderness and banished by God from His presence. The Messiah, rather, is represented by the goat that was chosen, by lot, to be sacrificed on the altar.
This is a deep well we could dive into… but I leave it to your own studies and contemplation. Regardless of your thoughts on which goat is who, the story of Jesus’ trial offers some parallels to Leviticus 16.
Pilate sat on the judgement seat as high commissioner of his calling… much like the High Priest had to perform his duties on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). Pilate had two men before him that needed judging. One was to be killed, the other released. Although Pilate saw Barnabas as the guilty one, the choice was ultimately given to the general population:
While he [Pilate] was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent him a message, saying, “Have nothing to do with that righteous Man; for last night I suffered greatly in a dream because of Him.” But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to put Jesus to death. But the governor said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Messiah?” They all said, “Crucify Him!” And he said, “Why, what evil has He done?” But they kept shouting all the more, saying, “Crucify Him!”
When Pilate saw that he was accomplishing nothing, but rather that a riot was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this Man’s blood; see to that yourselves.” And all the people said, “His blood shall be on us and on our children!” Then he released Barabbas for them; but after having Jesus scourged, he handed Him over to be crucified.
Pilate washed his hands to demonstrate his innocence in the whole matter… just as the High Priest and the man who stood in readiness to take away the “sent-goat” were to wash their hands of the deed.
When Yeshua died (as the sacrificial ram/lamb/goat), the symbolism of the Day of Atonement was meant to come flooding back to your brain. On Yom Kippur the High Priest was to go behind the great curtain, or veil, into the inner sanctuary where God’s presence was tangible on earth, but the moment Yeshua died that great, thick, curtain split in two:
And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth shook and the rocks were split. The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.
Yeshua’s death broke the barrier between humans and God; everyone could come face to face with God because Yeshua paid the costly ransom to free people from the chains of death. Matthew highlighted the price Yeshua paid to conquer death by pointing out that many tombs opened and the dead were raised. Yeshua’s death immediately freed those under the bondage of the Adversary and ushered in the beginnings of the New Creation.
Yeshua: the Great Sacrifice AND the High Priest
The Greek equivalent word to atonement is hilaskomai/hilasmos/hilasterion/hileos… It is the idea of mercy, redemption, and forgiveness. The NASB uses the fancy word propitiation.
The author of the Book of Hebrews had a central theme around atonement, outlining Yeshua as the Great Sacrifice and the empathetic High Priest:
Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He [Jesus] Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives. For assuredly He does not give help to angels, but He gives help to the descendant of Abraham. Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation [atonement] for the sins of the people. For since He Himself was tested in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tested.
The author of the Book of Hebrews reflected on the ancient custom of the Day of Atonement:
Now even the first covenant had regulations of divine worship and the earthly sanctuary. For there was a tabernacle prepared, the outer one, in which were the lampstand and the table and the sacred bread; this is called the holy place. Behind the second veil there was a tabernacle which is called the Holy of Holies, having a golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden jar holding the manna, and Aaron’s rod which budded, and the tables of the covenant; and above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat; but of these things we cannot now speak in detail. When everything had been prepared in this way, the priests entered regularly into the first room to perform their sacred duties. But only the high priest entered the second room, and then only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance.
The author continued and connected, in detail, the Day of Atonement with the life of Yeshua.
For this reason He [Jesus] is the mediator of a new covenant, so that, since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. For where a covenant is, there must of necessity be the death of the one who made it. For a covenant is valid only when men are dead, for it is never in force while the one who made it lives. Therefore even the first covenant was not inaugurated without blood. For when every commandment had been spoken by Moses to all the people according to the Law, he took the blood of the calves and the goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, “This is the blood of the Covenant which God commanded you.” And in the same way he sprinkled both the tabernacle and all the vessels of the ministry with the blood. And according to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”
Someone had to atone for the people. Animals, as sacrifice, were just band-aids to the problem. Yeshua was the solution.
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Messiah Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation [an atonement] in His blood through faith.
Yeshua knew that his death, and resurrection, was a gift of grace… but He was also hyper-aware that grief, to those closest to Him, would cloud over the gift at the beginning. Understanding this, Yeshua took final steps to ensure the safety of his mother in her time of sorrow at losing her son:
But standing by the cross of Jesus were His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus then saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” From that hour the disciple took her into his own household.
After this, Jesus, knowing that all things had already been accomplished, to fulfill the Scripture, said, “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there; so they put a sponge full of the sour wine upon a branch of hyssop and brought it up to His mouth. Therefore when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished!” And He bowed His head and gave up His spirit.
It was hyssop that was used to paint the blood on the door frames, so that the angel of death would passover the marked homes during the trials of Egypt. Hyssop was also used to sprinkle the blood of the sacrifices made by the priests, and hyssop was used at the crucifixion to fulfill the prophecy of thirst (Psalm 22 & Psalm 69)… This was a thirst that would only be satisfied through bitter swallowing.
John, the disciple, stood in front of the cross, witnessing the horror. In the final minutes before Yeshua died, John received Yeshua’s last command: “Behold, your mother!” John was to become Mary’s son of atonement… he would stand in, and cover, as her son. It was a band-aid solution, but it would, perhaps, alleviate the grief… for both of them.
Overwhelmed by Yeshua’s sacrifice and lovingkindness, John wrote a love letter to the whole world:
1 John 2:1-2
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus the Messiah the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation [the atonement] for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.
Ultimately Yeshua’s sacrifice was the embodiment of the guilt offering and the sin offering, but really it was a love offering:
1 John 4:7-14
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation [the atonement] for our sins.
Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit. We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world.
Of course Yeshua (Jesus) didn’t die just to cover sins… he came to usher in the New Kingdom. His atonement for the sins of the people was not His only role. His death and resurrection was just the beginning… the New Heaven and the New Earth was the fulfilment of the Covenant. Yeshua didn’t just atone for our sins, He put an end to the spiritual exile when we were unable to see YHWH face to face. But now, since the final atonement shattered the barrier and tore the curtain, we are free to live and love in His presence. When all is said and done, YHWH will be yours to see.
Next week: to Dwell