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What does the O.T. word "atonement" mean?
There is hardly a student of Scripture worthy of the name who does not know that the
Hebrew word translated atonement means "to cover". It may therefore be deemed a
waste of time to ask the question again. Yet when we say "to cover", are we sure that we
all mean the same thing? "To cover" may mean "to hide", or "to conceal"; it also may
mean "to shelter or protect". It further means "to be sufficient for", "to comprehend"
and "to include", "to compensate for damage done". Which of these meanings do we
intend when we say that atonement means "to cover"? That question can only be
answered by an examination of the original words and their varied usage.
The words translated "atonement".
Every occurrence of the word atonement in the O.T. is a translation of kaphar, or
one of its derivatives. Both the noun and the verb occur together for the first time in
Gen. 6: 14, where the words are used in a non-doctrinal sense, and are therefore all the
"Make thee an ark of gopher wood . . . . . thou shall pitch (kaphar) it within and
without with pitch (kaphar)."
The LXX renders the words in question: "asphaltoseis auten te asphalto", which
words are easily recognized as our English asphalt or bitumen. We need be no students
of divinity to understand why Noah was instructed to use "pitch"; it was simply to keep
the water out. Another non-doctrinal use of the word is found in I Sam. 6: 18,
where it is translated "village", and answers to the Arabic khephre, which is
observable in Caper-naum, and Chephar-haammonai in Josh. 18: 24. Yet another use
of the word is found in Song of Sol. 1: 14, and 4: 13, where kopher is translated
"camphire". This is an odoriferous shrub named henna in almost universal use in Egypt
and many parts of the East for "staining" the skin and the nails. We have therefore the
idea of protecting from a deluge, as in the pitch used on the ark, a shelter or home as in
the village, and a stain as in the henna plant.
We now come nearer to the doctrinal meaning of the word by noticing the way in
which kopher is used in connection with the law. We have "a sum of money" laid upon a
man for the ransom of his life (Exod. 21: 30); a "ransom" described as "atonement
money" (Exod. 30: 12, 16); a "satisfaction" for a life forfeited (Numb. 35: 31, 32);
a "bribe" (I Sam. 12: 3 and Amos 5: 12). In none of these passages is there the idea of
"covering" in the sense of concealing, but "covering" in the sense of compensating for
damage done, and in the sense of a "bribe" covering the eyes of the judge as Deut. 16:
19 declares: "for the gift doth blind the eyes." The plural form kippurim is translated
atonement or atonements in all passages, and for the sake of exactness, users of
Young's Analytical Concordance should note that the second entry in some editions
(Exod. 30: 10) is inserted in error; there are only eight references. To complete the
score of translations we must add:--