Meaning of Kafar – “Atonement”
by Tim Hegg
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The meaning of the verb כפר and the nouns associated with it (כפר, כפרים, כפרת) has been a matter of dispute among the scholars. The older scholarship (represented in BDB) took the view that the Hebrew verb ¯ÙÎ was founded upon a semitic root represented in the Arabic kafara, “to cover, conceal, deny, disbelieve, be ungrateful,” and thus was used in the religious cult of Israel in the sense “to cover transgression,” “to conceal sin.” From this came the theological idea that the sacrificial cult of Israel “covered” sin but did not take it away. The removal of sin from the transgressor awaited the final sacrifice of the Messiah.
But this view came under heavy scrutiny. The root kpr is attested in the Akkadian base stem kaparu, meaning “wipe off, smear on.” This is classified with kaparu II, “pour bitumen over” and koper II, “pitch, tar, bitumen” and with the so-called D stem kuppuru, “to wipe off, clean, rub, ritually purify.”
The idea that כפר has its base meaning “to cover” was strengthened by the fact that the same root is used one time in the Tanach to mean “to cover with pitch,” Gen 6:14. In this case, the verb appears in the Qal stem. However, every other place the verb is found in the Tanach, it is in either the Piel, Pual, Hitpiel, or the rare Nitpiel. Averbeck notes that “from a methodological point of view, linguistically the same root in a different stem is a different word.”1 As such, the qal should not necessarily be taken to indicate the meaning for the piel and other stems. Thus, the suggestion that כפר has as its base meaning “to cover” has been discarded by many current scholars, including evangelical scholars.
The root kapar is used some 150 times. It has been much discussed. There is an equivalent Arabic root meaning “cover,” or “conceal.” On the strength of this connection it has been supposed that the Hebrew word means “to cover over sin” and thus pacify the deity, making an atonement (so BDB). It has been suggested that the OT ritual symbolized a covering over of sin until it was dealt with in fact by the atonement of Christ. There is, however, very little evidence for this view. The connection of the Arabic word is weak and the Hebrew root is not used to mean “cover.” The Hebrew verb is never used in the simple or Qal stem, but only in the derived intensive stems. These intensive stems often indicate not emphasis, but merely that the verb is derived from a noun whose meaning is more basic to the root idea.2
In general, the scholarly work on this verb has given rise to three suggested root meanings: (1) to cover, (2) to ransom, (3) to wipe away. Obviously, these suggested meanings have some overlap. We may expand the idea of these three as follows:
1) to cover = to hide the sin or transgress from the sight of the deity in order to avert his anger.
2) to ransom = to make some kind of payment to the deity for the transgression in order to appease His anger.
3) to wipe away = to expunge the transgression and to restore the status of sanctum (holiness) whether to an individual, a group, a holy object, or a holy place/region.
Averbeck, in seeking to establish the meaning of the verb כפר, notes:
It seems that the place to start is neither with the cognate languages nor with other associated words from the same root with Hebrew. Instead, the best place to start is with the simplest and most straightforward internal biblical syntactic structure in which the verb kpr is used. This is the occurrence of the verb with a direct object as opposed to an oblique object (e.g., objects introduced by prepositions) or no object at all (see, e.g., Lev 16:32). It is interesting to observe that out of the 13x when the verb has a direct object, six of them are clearly in ritual contexts (Lev 16:30, 33[2x]; Ezek 43:20, 26; 45:20) and seven are not (Gen 32:20; Deut 32:43; Ps 65:3; 78:38; Prov 16:14; Is 47:11; Dan 9:24). They are mutually supportive of a particular base meaning of the piel verb: to wipe away, wipe clean, purge.3
If we accept Averbeck’s viewpoint, that the primary meaning of כִּפֵּר (the piel stem) is to be found in those places where the verb has a clear direct object, then it’s base meaning is to be found in connection with Yom Kippur, for the verb with direct object occurs only in Lev 16 and the comparable passages in Ezek 43 and 45. If this is the case, then the base meaning is “to wipe away,” for in these contexts כפר has a direct effect on sancta—it “wipes” sancta “clean,” meaning it restores the status of sanctum to that which had been defiled. In this way, the qal meaning of the verb, “to cover with pitch” is connected to the meaning of the piel, “to wipe (with blood).”
In Gen 6:14 we find an instrumental בְּ like that in Lev 17:11, but in Gen 6:14 it means “to cover with” pitch whereas in Lev 17:11 it means “to wipe clean with” blood. The pitch was a paint-like sealant. The blood was a detergent-like cleanser. Therefore, kpr does not derive from “cover” any more than from “ransom.” The meaning “cover” belongs to the same verbal root but in another stem. As noted above, the same root in a different stem is a different word.4
Thus, the various words used to translate the verb in English translations (“forgive,” “ransom,” “atone,” etc.) are derivative rather than actual. The sinner is “forgiven” because that which besmirched a “holy” object (whether of things or persons) has been “wiped clean” by the blood. Since the Israelite is to be holy before God (“you shall be holy because I am holy,” cf. Lev. 11:44-45; 19:2; 20:7, 26; 21:6,8), it is necessary that he be “wiped clean” of his sin through the action of כפר, kafar. The same is true of the sancta involved in the Tabernacle/Temple, as well as to the nation of Israel as a whole, as well as the Land given to her by covenant. Everything that has been defiled is “wiped clean by the blood” of sacrifice.
The two texts which bear most significantly on this discussion of כפר are Lev 17:11 and the parallel in Ex 30:11-16.