Yom Kippur: What does atonement mean?

heart w bandaidToday is Yom Kippur, Judaism’s day of atonement. It’s a day for fasting, repentance, and healing. Atonement is a concept that Christianity inherited from Judaism. Jesus’ cross is our Yom Kippur for our sins. The Hebrew word kippur means most literally “to cover.” In English, atonement is a compound of three words: at-one-ment. So what is being made “at one” with atonement? And how does being “covered” by something make us “at one”?

For the mainstream evangelical Christian theology that I grew up with, the “at-one-ness” of atonement is understand in economic terms. We have a balance sheet with God on which our sin has put us in infinite debt. When we “believe in” Jesus’ death on the cross, the debt and Jesus’ blood payment on the cross become “at one” and cancel each other out, so that the balance sheet is brought back to zero and the buzzer doesn’t sound when we try to walk through the turnstile at heaven’s pearly gates.guy fawkes

Mainstream evangelical Christian theology likewise has a particular understanding of how we are “covered” by Christ’s sacrifice. It’s taken to mean that Jesus’ blood hides our sin from God. Evangelical pastors say things like “when God looks at you, He doesn’t see you anymore; He sees Jesus.” In this view, Jesus’ atonement functions as the spiritual equivalent of the Guy Fawkes mask popularized by the Anonymous movement.

My problem with both of these conceptions of atonement is their entirely impersonal abstraction, which seems to be more a product of the alienating social mechanisms of modern culture than the ancient Israelite context of atonement’s original meaning. They make God seem more like a DMV bureaucrat than an intimately loving Father. And ultimately I don’t think they are Biblical.

Leviticus 17:11 is a key verse in the Torah that explains the role of animal blood in atonement: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement.” If it’s as life that blood makes atonement, then to be “covered” by the blood of Jesus clearly means something different than to be “hidden” by it. Life heals things; it doesn’t hide them.

In our antiseptic, germ-phobic age, seeing blood means that someone is exposed to infection and thus unclean. But for ancient Israelites, in a sacrificial context, since blood was the source of life, it was the ultimate medicine for the curse of sin. So to be covered in sacrificial blood is more akin to having ointment rubbed over the wounds of your sin than wearing a Jesus mask over your face to trick God into letting you into heaven.

Now it’s true that there is a sense in the ancient meaning of atonement that God’s people need kippur as protection to enter into God’s presence. It was commonly believed that nobody could survive seeing God face to face. When Isaiah sees God in the Jerusalem temple in Isaiah 6, he is terrified by the experience, saying “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isaiah 6:5).

It is only after a seraph has given him kippur by purifying his unclean lips with a fiery coal that Isaiah can accept his prophetic vocation with confidence, telling God, “Here am I; send me” (v. 8). But again, kippur is not about hiding anything from God. It’s about being purified so that facing God’s perfect holiness is not an awful threat that makes us panic but a joyful beauty that inspires worship.

I don’t think atonement merely refers to our relationship with God; we also have a need to be made “at one” with each other which Christians believe that Jesus’ cross is supposed to address. I witnessed an example of this aspect of atonement in a post today from a Palestinian woman in facebook group called Palestine Loves Israel:

When I first got into a real deep conversation with a Jewish woman, Michal from Israel-Loves-Iran, we both felt something was happening with us. We were talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and about our family history. We talked about the pain that we felt for our people, Palestinians and Israelis.

We told each other about our feelings, about our fears and sorrows. Nothing was left unsaid, the Holocaust, the Nakbah, the first and second Intifada, the wars on Gaza, the occupation – we talked about everything. In the end, we were both crying. And then, suddenly, we felt the strong impulse to say sorry to each other. There was no need because I did nothing to her and Michal did nothing to me but we felt so sorry about each other’s pain and fears. So out of nothing, we just said – I’m sorry!

This was amazing. Because it healed something. Like when somebody puts a plaster on an open wound… Saying sorry doesn’t mean to be defensive. It just means to recognize the other’s pain. That’s enough for the beginning. It’s Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement. So just let me say: I’m sorry for your pain. I’m sorry for our pain. I’m sorry. This is my plaster to your wound.

Joujou, Palestine Loves Israel

One of the most difficult things to do as a human being is to say you’re sorry with sincerity. We apologize perfunctorily for face-saving reasons when we get caught doing something wrong. My four year old son says “Sorry” all the time preemptively just in case he might be in trouble. It’s different when you say you’re sorry not because you think you have to, but because you’ve actually seen beyond yourself enough to be moved by another person’s pain.

I know that there are theological critiques that could be made against the simple perspective voiced by this Palestinian woman Joujou. But the amazing reconciliation that she experienced with an Israeli woman from the other side of their terrible conflict (however “correctly” she expressed it) is a power that Jesus’ cross is supposed to make Christians capable of. We are not merely supposed to be blameless in our rule-following before God. We are supposed to be healers who have been covered by the healing blood of Jesus so that we might go and apply its ointment to the wounds of the world.

Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:18 that Christians have been given a “ministry of reconciliation.” We are atoned by Christ’s blood in order that we might become a means of atonement for the world. The kippur that we are given by Jesus’ cross is a gift to share. This doesn’t mean that we go around exalting ourselves by telling other people how awful they are and how much God will continue to hate them until they become like us. It rather means that we bear witness to the power of Jesus’ cross through our healing presence in others’ lives. Imagine if instead of being known for our hate, Christians were known for our healing. That would be quite an atonement.

11 thoughts on “Yom Kippur: What does atonement mean?

  1. Great post Morgan. I have been an avid lurker for a better part of a year and would just like to say that I have learned a great deal from you and your honest manner in which you wrestle with issues. Your writing conveys a sincerity and earnest passion that is refreshing.

    Concerning the Atonement I have often thought much of what you have said here–even using the medical imagery in explaining the process myself. But one question has always stuck out at me concerning Yom Kippur: If the atonement is the central theme in the death of Jesus towards us why didn’t Christ die on that day instead of Passover? I think we tend to look over this too quickly. I can’t explain all the mystery of the Atonement and the many doctrines that have formed from it over the centuries, but I can readily grasp the meaning of Passover. It is liberation from bondage. Without taking away the importance of the Atonement day and act, I think the Freedom act is more important. Being take from the land of sin into the Kingdom and that journey being through Life giving blood seems to be something we would do well to incorporate into our understanding of what Jesus has done for us. Your thoughts?

    • Very good point about the connection to Passover rather than Yom Kippur. Never thought of that.You’re absolutely right that it’s at least as much if not more about our liberation from captivity.

  2. Yom Kippur is The Day of Atonement.
    It is the day God seals the Book of Life and Death for the year.
    It is the a day set aside exclusively for God.
    Yom Kippur is a day of reflection, fasting, personal purity, frequent trips to the synagogue and dedication to God. It is a day of prayer shawls, white dress, & continual confession of sin.
    It is a day of pouring ones heart out to God and ends with the closing of the gates to heaven.
    “Praised is His name, whose glorious kingdom for ever and ever,” is repeated 3 times.
     “The Lord is King, The Lord was King, and the Lord will be King is recited.
    (The Shema)
    Followed by the sounding the shofar reflects guaranteed forgiveness of sin by the divine.
    “The Lord is God” is repeated seven times acknowledging there is one God and one God only.
    All idolatry is rejected when repeating of “The Lord is God.”
    (1 Kings 18:39).

    Blood represents the high price that is paid for mans sin. The price is Life itself in some form and the spilling of blood is grievous to God.
     Philo who was educated in both Jewish and Greek explains:
    “The fully consecrated must be pure in words and actions and in life; for words are judged by hearing, the hand is the symbol of action, and the foot of the pilgrimage of life.” (The Works of Philo, The Special Laws 1)
    That is how Philo explains the blood relationship reflected in the ceremonial acts of Leviticus 8:23 , Lev:14

    The Book of Life & Death is also found in The New Testament books of Philippians and Revelations. Isn’t it amazing how the Old and New Testament compliment each other, draw from the same themes and reflect the same truths over thousands of years?

    • I’m not sure it’s entirely accurate to think of the blood of animal sacrifice as a “price” for sin. My suspicion is that we are anachronistically projecting onto ancient Israel a modern economic way of thinking about sacrifice. If it were simply a payment, then it wouldn’t matter that the animals be unblemished. It’s purification, not payment.

      • The price of sin is death.
        1 john 5:17 Romans 6:23
        Either sin is overtaken by the Spirit of God or sin overtakes and rules man and death is assured.
        Romans 8:12-14

  3. Do you think this conception of blood as an ointment/medicine rather than as a blanket/mask would help to redeem (pun not intended) the bad image that certain kinds of “bloody/washed in the blood” atonement theology have among more progressive Christians?

    • Absolutely. We have to look closely at the grammar of Romans 5:9-10, it says, “Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.” The wrath doesn’t have an “of God” on it in the Greek. It’s true that the blood “justifies” us and “reconciles” us to God, but the grammar Paul is using here actually makes Jesus’ blood only indirectly related to the wrath. It is “his life” that “saves” us from “the wrath” if we look at the grammar, which means that “the wrath” in this context does not have to do with justification but with the curse of sin that requires healing (which is the second meaning of soteria, salvation, in Greek). You can’t say that justification is equivalent to salvation if Paul felt it necessary to say that not only we are justified by Jesus’ blood but also we are saved from the wrath by Jesus’ life.

  4. Really thoughts here. I like the point about the blood “as Life”. I don’t remember noticing that before. To say that we are “in the blood” is basically the same as being “in Christ”. This also impacts how we see the eucharistic meal. When we take the emblem of blood/cup, we take in His life. Thank you!

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