What does it mean to atone for sin?

The Western Wall

Growing up in a Christian environment I would hear teachers mention atonement many times in there presentations. However, very seldom did they give a comprehensive explanation on just what it meant. Usually it was coupled with Jesus atoning for everybody’s sin, only how he atoned was confusing. Over time I learned what they were referring to. The atonement was Jesus dying and shedding his blood on the cross for everyone’s sin. No longer did anyone need to go to the Temple with a sacrifice to be offered up, because with Jesus death and shedding his blood, atonement has been done once and for all of time.

This explanation is assuming that atonement requires blood to be shed, that one person can atone for another’s sin, and can be accomplished with a human sacrifice. These factors do not align with the Hebrew Bible and Judaism.

What Does the Hebrew Bible Say?
The Hebrew word Kippur (כפר) is translated as atonement. If you look up atonement in the dictionary, you may find the following definition.
• reparation (to make amends) for wrong doing.

The Hebrew word Kippur has a similar meaning but yet a little different. Kippur means to cover, overlay, to patch. An example may be “to kippur the gouge in the plaster on the wall”. This would mean to patch the gouge on the wall. How does this apply to sin? When we sin, we have created a gouge, to get rid of this gouge, (or to kippur it), we need to apply a patch. This patch is atonement. Once the patch is applied, the gouge no longer exists.

Kippur appears in the Hebrew Bible six times prior to Mt. Siani.
Genesis 6:14 (cover it), 32:(C)20 (H)19 (appease), 40:10 (budded), 44:18 (Pharaoh)
Exodus 16:14 (frost), 21:30 (Christian Bible: some of money, Hebrew Bible: atonement)

I feel that from the above Scriptures we can see examples of covering, overlay, and patching. This foundational setting establishes the meaning for kippur in the remaining verses in the Torah. Atonement or kippur may be defined as a means of patching, covering or perhaps repairing a sin we have committed. At this point, we may be asking the question, “how is this done?”. The answer can be found in the Holy Scriptures, the Torah.

The first few chapters of Leviticus gives us a lot of information on the sacrificial process. Looking at chapters four and five of Leviticus describes the procedure for “unintentional sin”. A sacrifice is not required for “intentional sin”. If a an intentional sin is committed, the person is required to recognize their sin and repent turning from it. However unintentional sin requires an offering. The offering depends on what you can afford. If you can afford a lamb or goat, if not then turtledoves will work, if you can’t afford the Turtledove’s then a grain offering will suffice. If you are bringing a lamb, goat or turtledoves, the blood will need to be drained, because life dwells in the blood, this is were the soul dwells. ( Lev. 17:11) As you can see blood is not a requirement, only it needs to be drained, it cannot be consumed with the meat when it is eaten. The blood is applied to the alter, before the meat is placed on it. If a person has decided to prepare a meat meal for dinner, part of the preparation would be to drain all of the blood and bury it in the ground, for the same reasons as used for sacrifices.

In the fall on the 10th. of Tishri our Heavenly Father, provided us with a Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur. This is the day when all of our unintentional sins are patched, or covered (atoned).

Today we don’t have the Temple to provide us with the means to utilize the sacrificial system. Prayer today has taken the place of the sacrificial system, as described by Hosea 14:3. Also read Hosea 3:4&5.

According to Jeremiah 31:29 & 30, each person is accountable for their own sins, one cannot pay for another’s sin. When we miss the mark (or sin), and if it is unintentional all we need to do is pray asking for forgiveness. The prayer provides the atonement in place of the sacrifice. If it was an intentional sin then repentance is needed, because the person new it was wrong, so they need to repent and turn from the wrong behavior.

Contrasting the two explanations may go like this:

Christian View:
Jesus becomes a once and for all substitute sacrifice for atonement.

Jewish View:
The G-d of Israel does not ask for human sacrifice.
His death was at Passover, not at Yom Kippur, the day of atonement.
The Passover sacrifice has nothing to do with forgiveness or atonement.
Nothing with his death is related to how or where the ritual slaughter would be done.
A human is not kosher.
Everybody is accountable for their own sin.
Nobody can substitute for another’s sin.
There is no Scripture referring to a one time atonement sacrifice for all of time.
Jesus’s death was accomplished by the Romans, not by the Levitical Priest.
After he died he was not placed on the alter and roasted.

This list is not all inclusive, but it gives us a general idea of how Jesus’s death by the Roman’s was just that, and nothing else relating to atonement.

I see atonement as, when we miss the mark, something is damaged that needs to be repaired, so atonement is the repairing, that restores and brings us back to where we were, before the mark was missed and damage was done. The act was unintentional, it was not our heart to miss the mark, but it happened, and now its restored.

by Jim Behnke

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