Atonement in the Pentateuch

Peter_Kirk at Peter_Kirk at
Mon Sep 28 22:47:00 EDT 1998

Paul Zellmer seems to suggest that the underlying meaning of KPR is 
"cover up", and perhaps thence to cover and/or remove a spiritual 
stain, normally by the application of blood, hence ritual purification 
or purging. This is certainly an attractive possibility, and one with 
a long pedigree. The KPR-ing of Noah's Ark with pitch can be taken as 
a symbolic purification of the ark and its contents so that it was 
preserved from judgment. And the KAPPORET or "mercy seat" of the Ark 
of the Covenant was simply its covering or lid, though of course this 
also had a symbolic significance.

However, Harris, Archer and Waltke reject this view and put forward an 
alternative, already implicit in BDB, that the basic form of the word 
is KOPER meaning "ransom", and the verbal forms (all Piel and Pual) 
are derived from this noun. Now we may be into a "chicken and egg" 
type argument here, as where did KOPER come from? It of course also 
means "pitch", the covering of Noah's Ark. This versatile word also 
means "henna" or "village", but that's probably a red herring (sorry, 
enough cliches). It even means "bribe" (by extension of the meaning 
"ransom"), in 1 Samuel 12:3; Amos 5:12.

So I looked in Van Gemeren's new dictionary and found a 20 page 
article on this root by Richard E. Averbeck (vol.2 pp.689-710)! No 
time for me to read it fully now, but (having partly rejected the 
above two derivations) it seems to go for an underlying meaning 
(following Akkadian and Arabic) of KPR (Qal) as "smear on" and KPR 
(Piel) as "wipe away" - which latter also gained a secondary meaning 
"ransom" from which that meaning of KOPER was derived.

There is also a good but shorter treatment in Hartley's Word 
commentary on Leviticus.

Interestingly, the Arabic KAFFARA (the double F corresponding to the 
Hebrew PIEL doubling of the P) means something like "perform a 
religious act (e.g. almsgiving, fasting) in order to have one's sins 
forgiven". Some words don't change their meanings very much in a long 
time. But KUFR means "unbelief" and KAFIR "unbeliever", perhaps 
derived from "cover" > "conceal" > "deny".

Peter Kirk

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