Atonement is not really a biblical word. It is a middle English coined phrase (being at one with God or at-one-ment). The biblical word is more like cleansing or wiping away, as in the blood wiping away the pollution of sin.
And that’s only one of many subtle misunderstandings that many have about atonement. It’s not that I am against the word. I am not. I think it accurately describes the effect of cleansing from sin, which is a necessary step in our becoming at one with God (not “one with God” as in the Hindu or Buddhist ideal).
In this excerpt from my book, Feast (see it here), I also explain that the sacrifices of the temple had a more limited purpose than the atonement that comes via Yeshua’s death on the cross for our sins. Most Christian theologians, I would argue, have missed seeing this and have gone in a less than helpful direction imagining the sacrifices as lesser and more temporary versions of the cross — temporary means of forgiveness from sin and cleansing for the sinner.
In this excerpt, I do not seek to prove my point. I simply articulate it. You will find other posts under the category “Sacrifices and Purity” in which I seek to prove my point. But here I hope you will appreciate the rich connection as part of your meditation on (or education about) the upcoming Holy Day, Yom Kippur . . .
For most people, atonement is a vague concept. We know a little about it—that it’s something we need from God, and that it’s something serious and holy.
What does the word atonement mean to you?
The actual term atonement is a made-up word from the early days of English Bible translation. It is coined from the words “at” and “one.” Put them together and you get “at . . . one . . . ment.” The Hebrew word, kipper, means “cleansing” or “purging of sin.” That’s a big part of making us “at one” with God.
God taught Israel that sins and impurities polluted His temple. Like pollution that traveled through the air and made the altar in the temple dirty, sin was something that needed to be cleaned out.
Jewish theology was that God lived in the midst of Israel. His glory dwelt in the back of the temple. And God is holy, meaning He is separate from sin and death. He does not choose to dwell in the midst of the unclean. Israel had to keep the temple clean so God would not leave.
But in 586 B.C.E., God did leave in a sense. Ezekiel 10 describes God’s glory lifting off of the ark in the holy of holies. Ezekiel has a metaphorical vision of the future. In that vision, the glory left Israel in God’s mysterious chariot drawn by cherubim. Back in the real world, the Babylonians came and destroyed the temple, fulfilling what Ezekiel has seen.
We can draw from this tragic period in the history of Israel that atonement is a serious matter. Atonement is something we desperately need because without it, God does not remain.
Does the concept of atonement change your view of the sacrifice of Jesus? How?
The sacrifice Jesus made for us on the cross was similar to but not exactly like the temple sacrifices. Those sacrifices made the temple clean; Jesus’ sacrifice makes us clean. Those sacrifices were so that God could remain in the middle of the people; Jesus’ sacrifice was so the people could stand before God. The old sacrifices were a hint that something greater was needed—a final sacrifice that would eliminate the need for continual, regular sacrifices.