Christian Leadership Center



Old Testament Word Studies




"Atone, Expiate, Propitiate"




At the heart of biblical theology is the atonement; and foundational to the understanding of this doctrine is the word kipper, most often translated "atone."  But the series of English words used to translate the Hebrew verb in its many forms are baffling to most people who read the Bible somewhat casually.   Words like this call for more careful study.



There are a number of different explanations for the history of this Hebrew word, and although that history is not critical to the determination of the meaning of the word in the Bible, it does provide a framework for analyzing then usage.  No particular view of the origin of the word has proven completely satisfactory; a more thorough discussion can be found in the major word books for those interested.


Dictionary Definitions

The standard Hebrew dictionaries (BDB, KBL, and Holladay) conclude that kipper has meanings of "cover, hide, wash away, rub off, appease, atone for," and "be removed."  KBL further adds "smear (tar on a ship), make good (for guilt punishment," and "be brought to exemption from punishment."   This is quite a list; we must see if we can simplify the basic idea.



This word seems to be a well-used word in most of the Semitic languages.  In the earliest, Akkadian, a word kuppuru (D stem) means "to wipe off, to rub out."  The basic word kaparu can be used for smearing on paint or some other liquid.  But the D stem is of greatest interest since that is the equivalent of the Hebrew piel (kipper).  In Akkadian texts it means "wipe off, clean (objects), rub to purify (magically)," and "expiate."  Some have suggested that this was the ancient idea behind the Hebrew word.  The idea of averting evil, especially punishment, is present in the ancient ritual described by this Akkadian word.  Of course, people accomplished their aim of expiation by various ritual acts in the sanctuaries.  

The Aramaic word kepar  means "wash away, rub off."  Was this the understanding of atonement and its obliteration of guilt and sin?   The meaning of the Aramaic word is carried forward into the Rabbinic writings.

In Arabic kafara  means "cover, hide."   The letters correspond to the Hebrew word, but the meaning of "cover, hide" may not belong to the semantic notion of to "expiate, atone."  While some suggest this is at the heart of the idea, it is probable that in Hebrew we are dealing with two separate roots, homonyms, which unfortunately have been put together under one heading in the dictionaries.[1]  There was a word kapar which meant "cover," and another which meant "atone, expiate, propitiate."[2]  In the Old Testament there is only one passage where the qal form of the verb is used with the meaning "cover, pitch," and that is Genesis 6:14.  When Noah built the ark, he pitched it, covered (the leaky areas) with bitumen.  On the other hand, there are over ninety passages where the piel form is used with the idea of "expiate, atone, propitiate" or the like.  So we have two roots that must be kept separate.


Hebrew Derivatives

The best known noun from this root is kippurim, as used in the technical sense for "the Day of Atonement"--yom hakkippurim.[3]   Obviously, the study of the verb will contribute to the interpretation of this title.  But the events on the Day of Atonement will also help us think through the meaning of the verb.  The Day of Atonement was designed to effect atonement, that is, to enable the sinner to have sins forgiven and removed completely and to be made acceptable to God.  There were two parts to the ritual, according to Leviticus 16.  One animal was to be sacrificed at the altar of the sanctuary and burned on that altar.  God's wrath, symbolically represented by the fire on the altar, was appeased when the fire consumed the substitutionary sacrifice.  The other animal, called the "scape goat" in early translations, was used in the ritual of riddance.  After the confession of the sins was made over this goat, it was led out of the sanctuary and city to die in the wilderness.  The twofold ritual taught the Israelite faithful that God was appeased through the death of the substitute and the sin was completely removed.  This is what is meant by "atonement."

We have another word that is used in the Old Testament, especially in conjunction with the ritual of atonement.  It is the word kapporet, which may refer to the solid slab of gold on the ark of the covenant, the lid of the ark (or to the wider area of the place of atonement).  It was translated early on as "mercy seat"; but the Bible makes it clear that the ark was the footstool for God (see Ps. 132:7).  So a better translation would be "propitiatory" or "place of propitiation."   The meaning of the verb will obviously inform the meaning of this word.   But again, the symbolism of the day is helpful: the High Priest sprinkled the blood on the kaphoret, at the feet of God, as it were.

There is a noun kopher, "ransom price."  In the Bible this word refers to a sum paid to redeem a forfeited life.  It may be a secondary development from the basic verb, because it is used in a more specific way. Exodus 21:28-32 tells of the man whose ox gored another man, and whose life was forfeited--"The ox shall be stoned, and his owner also shall be put to death."  But he permitted to avoid this judgment against him by paying a kopher, a ransom price that was laid on him.   This word can also be used in the negative sense of "bribe," as in Amos 5:12 (see also 1 Sam. 12:3).

We have then one word kapar which means "to cover."  It appears to be cognate to Akkadian "smear" (in both languages used for the caulking of the ship for the flood) and the Arabic "cover, hide."  We have another word used predominantly in the piel and related systems, kipper, which means "expiate, purge, atone, or propitiate."  This word too has cognates in the Akkadian and Aramaic languages; but while the word is used in Akkadian for purifying something, it involves a magical purgation.  Its object is the person or thing purified, whereas in Hebrew the sin is purged or removed.



The word can be used with either humans or God as the subject, although most of the uses concern God's atonement of a sinful humans.  


1.       Appease Wrath, Pacify

One of the clearest samples of this category comes in Genesis 32:20.  Jacob, returning from Laban's place, heard that Esau was coming to meet him with 400 men.  The last time he was with his brother his life was in danger.  Thus, he sought to appease his brother by sending him a present of some 550 animals.  He reasoned, "I will appease him with the present that goes before me . . . , perhaps he will accept me." 

In 2 Samuel 21:3, 4, David sought to have peace with the Gibeonites, and it could only be done by appeasement.  He said, "How can I make atonement that you may bless the inheritance of the LORD?"  They had no concern for silver or gold, and so they requested that the seven sons of Saul be hanged.

In a few passages there is this same emphasis on appeasing God and removing the possible or threatened punishment.  According to Numbers 25, when the Israelites were involved in fornication with the Moabites and a plague broke out in the camp, Phinehas stopped the plague by spearing the copulating couple Zimri and Cozbi.  Of this act God said, "Phinehas . . . has turned away my wrath from the Israelites . . . he was jealous for his God, and made atonement for the Israelites" (25:11-13).   It is "atonement" because it involved turning away from the people the divine wrath.


2.                  Removal of Sin, Purify

The word does not only have the idea of the appeasement of wrath, it also includes the idea of the removal of sin, the very thing that prompted the wrath.  This could be explained as the effect of atonement, but it seems more tightly connected to the act of atonement itself.

In Isaiah 6:7 the LORD declared to the young prophet at the altar, "your iniquity has been removed, your sin atoned (tekuppar)."  Similarly, Psalm 79:9 records a prayer of the people for God to deliver them from their plight at the hands of the nation by removing their sins.  They prayed, "Help us O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us and make atonement (kapper) for our sins for your name's sake."

This idea of atonement as purifying or cleansing appears with material objects as well.   For example, Numbers 35:33 states that no atonement can be made for the innocent blood shed in the land except by the death of the murderer.  Homicidal blood polluted the land.  Something had to be paid to cleanse it.

Leviticus 14:53 states that atonement was to be made for a house that was recovered from the contamination of a plague or disease.  The ritual was similar to that of the Day of Atonement.  One bird was to die, its blood sprinkled seven times, and the other bird set free after being dipped in the water and the blood.  The place and the people in it were thus cleansed.

According to the Bible the Holy of Holies and the Altar had to be atoned, that is, purified or cleansed, because of the sinfulness of the people who would be there for the ritual (Lev. 16:16-19).   


3.                  Make Atonement, Pay Ransom

There are some passages where the verb or its nouns are used to emphasize the payment for the appeasing of God or the purifying of the person.  According to Exodus 32:30 Moses told the Israelites that he would go and try to make atonement ('akapperah) for them for their sin of the golden calf.  This he did by offering himself to die in their place. 

In Exodus 30:12-16 the Israelites were to pay the half-shekel to the sanctuary as a "ransom" in order that there be no plague on them.  The idea is that of making a payment for a man's life.  The money is referred to as the ransom (kopher) for his life (v. 12) and "atonement money" (keseph hakkippurim; v. 16).



The ancient Greek version usually chose hilaskesthai and its nouns hilasmos and hilasterion to render the cultic uses of the word kipper.  It is as difficult to define this Greek word as it is to offer a good, balanced definition of kipper.  Katharizo, "to cleanse," is also used in translation. 



The difficulty of studying this word is often compounded by the inclusion of critical views in the discussions.   Since the word "atone" is used so frequently in Leviticus, the critical view that such texts were late, written during the exile, often skewers the discussion of the etymology concerning what was early and what was late.  The student will have to evaluate all such comments.

Whatever the etymology of the word, and however the word should be translated in the English texts, it basically describes the transaction that takes a person who is not in a right relationship with God because of sin and puts that person in the right relationship by the removal of the sin and the appeasement of the wrath of God.  The person is said to be atoned, that is, freed from all the consequences of his wrong-doing and at peace with God.           




[1] It is true that the word is paralleled with the verb kasah, "to cover," in some places, but this seems to refer to related ideas and so the passages should be taken up individually.

[2] Wenham in his Commentary on Leviticus (p. 59) and Harris in the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (2:452, 3) doubt there is a connection between the Hebrew word and the Arabic.  See further their discussion.

[3] The word is put in the plural to reflect the fullness and complexity of the day with all the ritual activities that would have been going on.