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In the tabernacle, the incense is offered as prayers before God. In Numbers 16:46,47 we see Moses telling Aaron to take his censer and run through the assembly to make atonement for them. I understand offering prayers to God on behalf of these people, but it states that this was to make atonement for them.

And Moses said to Aaron, "Take your censer, and put fire on it from off the altar and lay incense on it and carry it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them, for wrath has gone out from the LORD; the plague has begun." (Numbers 16:46, ESV)

What does "atonement" mean in this context?

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I found a very plain explanation by J. Milgrom, in the JPS Torah commentary. Quote below:

The verb כפר in this context carries the connotation of “make appeasement.” In the cults of the ancient Near East, incense served to appease and soothe divine wrath. This is strikingly illustrated by the Egyptian reliefs depicting Canaanite ruler-priests standing on the parapets and offering incense to the Pharaoh, who towers over the city slaughtering its inhabitants. The offering of incense serves both to acknowledge Pharaoh as god and to implore his mercy.

There are some footnotes in the original, for the illustrations. See the full reference: J. Milgrom, Numbers. English and Hebrew; commentary in English. The JPS Torah commentary, 1990, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, p. 142.

This comment can be supported by Jeremiah 6:20:

What do I care about incense from Sheba or sweet calamus from a distant land? Your burnt offerings are not acceptable; your sacrifices do not please me.

The context is more or less the same as in Numbers 16: in Jeremiah 6 the people would bring incense and sacrifices in order to appease the Lord's wrath, only that in this case their effort is found unacceptable.

Yet the same idea: incense offering in order to appease divine wrath.

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The original written Hebrew word here is כפר (kpr), which interpolates to the Masoretic כָּפַר (kā·p̄ǎr). The word which appears in the Greek Septuagint is ἐξιλάσκομαι (exilaskomai), related to the word ιλεως, meaning "gracious" or "merciful".

"Atonement", according to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (11th ed.) is "reparation for wrong or injury", but this is actually a meaning that came to be imputed to the word long after the King James Bible was published.1 (The word "atonement" is also used in the earlier Coverdale and Tyndale Bibles.) In the 1590's it meant "to be in harmony, agree, be in accordance". The word "atone" literally comes form the conjunction of "at" and "one", used in the Middle English verb "atonen" - to make one (again). It wasn't until the 1680's - decades after the King James Bible was published and over a century after the first Modern English Bibles - that the word "atonement" took on a meaning of "make reparations". This latter meaning was imputed retroactively to the word's appearances in the King James Bible and has been carried forward to subsequent English versions with a meaning not intended by the original translators.

Futhermore, the scope of the Hebrew word kā·p̄ǎr is broader than the scope of the English word "atonement" - in either the archaic or modern sense. Examples from the King James Version:

By mercy and truth iniquity is purged: And by the fear of the LORD men depart from evil (Proverbs 16:6)

But he, being full of compassion, forgave their iniquity, and destroyed them not: Yea, many a time turned he his anger away, And did not stir up all his wrath (Psalm 78:38)

And so thou shalt do the seventh day of the month for every one that erreth, and for him that is simple: so shall ye reconcile the house (Ezekiel 45:20)

1. See, e.g., historical usage of "atonement" at Oxford English Dictionary

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The Hebrew word translated "make atonement" is chafar and means "to cover," specifically to cover over sin. (See, for example, Gesenius' Hebrew lexicon). Thus, this censing of the people constituted an atonement, specifically for their sin on that occasion of grumbling against Moses and Aaron because God had executed the rebellious Korah and his associates for trying to usurp the priesthood. It is a simple matter that any means God ordains for bringing about atonement will be effectual!

Theologically, however, this may cause problems for us Christians because we are used to the atonement provided by Jesus through his blood. In the NT the writer to the Hebrews states: "And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without the shedding of blood is no remission." (Heb. 9:22) That was the usual requirement of the Law, but the guilt incurred in the grumbling over Korah's rebellion and its remedy did not involve a standard requirement of law, but was dealt with according to God's specific instructions on that occasion.

According to Hebrews even the provisions of the old Law were only satisfactory up to a point. "For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God." (Heb. 9:13-14) We might say, then, that those provisions made for typical justification, but not the final atonement provided through Christ. That would also be true of Aaron's censing the people on the occasion under consideration.

Then how could it be said that the censing was atoning at all? In that it was done by the high priest. It was not any Israelite simply praying for the people, it was the high priest. And who is our High Priest? Jesus Christ! When he intercedes for us before the throne of God, he is asking that the benefits of his atonement be applied on our behalf. (Rom. 8:34) That is the antitypical incense.

So to answer your question, Yes, when Aaron censed the people on that particular occasion, he was making atonement and foreshadowing the good things to come.

By the way, the Hebrew word for "atone" which I could not incorporate into my text is כקר

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Atonement has always been designed by God as a means whereby He may be propitiated, or, brought into a favorable position to forgive.

The incense was holy, like God, and was of a sweet-smelling savor. Moses instructed Aaron to wave the censer over God's people to try and quell God's wrath against them by offering up something holy, of a sweet-smelling savor, hoping that such an action would cover the people while at the same time, placate God.

Aaron, as High Priest, was making intercession between God and Israel. He used the censer and the incense inside of it, as a way of, if you will, distract God (not a literal possibility of course).

An imperfect analogy might be a boss on the warpath who is fed up and about to fire every underling on the job when a supervisor steps in, gets in the boss's way, and tries to calm him or her down by distracting him or her with some good news, so the boss will chill out and back off on the notion of canning the whole lot of employees who've pushed his or her buttons too many times.

That has ever been the function of a priest in God's economy, to make intercession as a means to cause God to relent and back off on the notion of destroying the whole lot of His people who have provoked Him too much.

In particular, the High Priest, who alone went into the Holiest of All on the Day of Atonement, could perform this intercession (Note, too, how anyone who had fled to a city of refuge had to stay there until the death of the High Priest, because His death worked atonement for the manslayer).

See: https://www.biu.ac.il/JH/Parasha/eng/matot/ben.html

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  • "Atonement has always been designed by God as a means whereby He may be propitiated, or, brought into a favorable position to forgive." This would imply that God is not immutable which would contradict other Scriptures, e.g. James 1:17, Malachi 3:6 – user33515 Nov 18 '17 at 6:36
  • I don't see how this contradict's God's immutability. Perhaps you can show how? In fact, in the OT, there are several examples of God changing His mind about actions He intended to take. For example: Exodus 32:14, 2 Samuel 24:16, Jeremiah 26:13, Joel 2:13-14. Additionally, Hezekiah's healing demonstrates clear evidence that God changes His mind (Isaiah 38:1-5). The immutability that the Scriptures speak of pertains to the ontological nature of God's being, His eternality, His holiness, and etc. It does not speak to His activity. Otherwise, prayer and supplication serve no purpose. – The Votive Soul Nov 18 '17 at 17:50
  • Your interpretation of those verses seems to preclude the possibility that the repentance, prayer, and supplication was for the spiritual benefit of those repenting, praying and supplicating and not for God's benefit. God is omniscient and sees all things - past, present and future; including His own actions with man. One cannot suppose that at different points He is going down certain paths but then diverted due to man's actions. God "changing His mind" is no less an anthropomorphism than His walking in the Garden of Eden. – user33515 Nov 18 '17 at 23:11
  • Yes, but, consider Isaiah, being told Hezekiah was going to die, a promise from God Himself, only to have God immediately tell you otherwise; if you were Isaiah, would you think in the terms you've given, or would you opt for the more parsimonious answer: God changed His mind. Words have meaning and many verses use specific words to indicate that God had a change of heart. If we don't interpret those verses through an a priori theological model, we'd understand them just as the writers did, in the simple terms with which they penned them. Otherwise, those words become disingenuous. – The Votive Soul Nov 19 '17 at 4:02
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One of the gravest mistakes made in Christian commentary is the notion that an "atonement" was an "effectual" sacrifice. God likewise reproved the Jews for such a concept:

NET Bible, Isaiah 1: 11“Of what importance to me are your many sacrifices?” says the Lord. “I am stuffed with burnt sacrifices of rams and the fat from steers. The blood of bulls, lambs, and goats I do not want. 12When you enter my presence, do you actually think I want this – animals trampling on my courtyards? 13Do not bring any more meaningless offerings; I consider your incense detestable! You observe new moon festivals, Sabbaths, and convocations, but I cannot tolerate sin-stained celebrations! 14I hate your new moon festivals and assemblies; they are a burden that I am tired of carrying. 15When you spread out your hands in prayer, I look the other way; when you offer your many prayers, I do not listen, because your hands are covered with blood. 16Wash! Cleanse yourselves! Remove your sinful deeds from my sight. Stop sinning! 17Learn to do what is right! Promote justice! Give the oppressed reason to celebrate! Take up the cause of the orphan! Defend the rights of the widow! 18Come, let’s consider your options,” says the Lord. “Though your sins have stained you like the color red, you can become white like snow; though they are as easy to see as the color scarlet, you can become white like wool. 19If you have a willing attitude and obey, then you will again eat the good crops of the land. 20But if you refuse and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.” Know for certain that the Lord has spoken.

The purpose of an atonement was to:

  • express remorse
  • appeal to God for mercy and forgiveness

NASB Psalm 51: 16For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; You are not pleased with burnt offering. 17The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.

The purpose of the incense was to:

  • allude to the altar where the sacrifices of a broken heart were to be made
  • symbolically cause the prayers of contrition and cries for mercy to ascend to God

This same imagery is seen in Revelation 8

BSB Revelation 8: 3And another angel having a golden censer came and stood at the altar, and much incense was given to him, that he will offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne. 4And the smoke of the incense went up before God, with the prayers of the saints, out of the hand of the angel.

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