What does the English word 'atonement' mean in Leviticus 1:4 ?

4 And he shall put his hand upon the head of the burnt offering; and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him. [KJV]

Does it correctly translate the Hebrew word kaphar ?

Do we see a similar word in the Greek scripture ?

[Edited with the permission of the OP]

2 Answers 2



I can only give an overview in this answer. The details and proof are such that it runs to ten pages which simply cannot be reproduced here.

LINK : The full explanation, containing all references and texts, is available from my website as a PDF to view online HERE or to download.


The word has been used to translate two Hebrew words, kaphar and kippurim. Little notice has been taken of the fact that kippurim is a plural word. Attempts have been made (particularly by means of Masoretic 'pointing') to add an extra 'p' to kaphar to make it look as though it is the same word as kippurim, which it is not.

'To make an atonement' is not a satisfactory way to translate a verb. Kaphar is a verb and has a meaning all of its own. To translate with an infinitive and a noun phrase is just unscientific.

The same kind of treatment is true of the word 'redemption' which is used to translate both gaal and padah in Hebrew and used to translate both the lutron group (lutrosis/lutrotes/apolutrosis) and the agora group (agoratso/exagoratso) in Greek. This is just unscientific, they are different concepts.


Atonement supposedly means, quite literally, 'at-one-ment', a vague concept of (perhaps) "unity by reconciliation". It has been used in the KJV, once, to translate katallage which usually is translated 'reconciliation'. But this is clearly inappropriate.



Kaph means hand. Or the sole of the foot. It is not the working hand or fighting fist, which is expressed by yod. Kaph is the cupped hand such as is used to convey water to the mouth. It is a containment.

Following the word kaph through Genesis reveals what kaph conveys spiritually. Pharaoah's integrity and Jacob's afflictions are all gathered up in the nuance of the word as its use develops through scripture. Cleanness of hand and sensitivity of purpose combine in the meaning of kaph.

On Horeb, God's kaph protected Moses in the cleft of the rock as Deity passed by, that he might not perish. Moses was contained within the personal hand of God from what Deity is by nature in relation to fallen humanity.


Fenced Village

The noun form, kopher, describes a fenced village. A misunderstanding has caused a mistranslation and the progression of settlement/fenced village/city/citadel has been disrupted because it was not appreciated that the chaotic lifestyle of Philistines led to their careless lack of fencing to protect their womenfolk and little ones.

Understood properly, kopher means a protected settlement. It is contained.

The Ark

When Noah and his sons built the ark he was told to 'kaphar the gopher with kopher'. Gopher is not a botanical description - it means molten. Lava and pitch (gophrith) may both be described as 'molten'. Both result from judgement; both are high in sulphur and thus get inside the lungs and burn; both are very hot (when molten) and both burn the exterior skin.

The wood was to be steeped in molten (almost certainly pitch) first to penetrate the very fibres of the wood. Once steeped it becomes 'gopher' or 'gopher wood'. It does not refer to the botanical species it refers to the treatment of the wood. Only then was it smeared, inside and outside, with 'kopher'.

Kopher refers also to what was almost certainly pitch, but in a different way. The steeping is inward, the outer cladding is a matter of containment.

This is all a practical matter of waterproofing but it also conveys spiritual concepts which are only fully revealed in the New Testament scriptures consummate upon the sufferings, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Part of what occurred at Golgotha is a matter of containment. He was made sin. Sin was contained.

This containment is seen right at the beginning of scripture when Adam and his wife were clothed with skins. The skin of another was about them. They were contained within the skin of another.

I am crucified with Christ, says Paul. Nevertheless he lived.


Purah is foliage. It is the 'rush' (branch and rush); twigs and leaves, basically. Kippah is the main branch as used in scripture. Kippurah - the entire branch with foliage - is a word never used in the Hebrew scriptures. Kippurim is its plural form. It means (living) 'branchings'. It has immense spiritual implications. The kippurim concept and the kippurim word are not the same as that of kaphar. They are different words and they are different concepts.


Kaphar is a matter of containment and kippurim is a matter of 'branchings'. They are different concepts and both are expressed in the Greek scriptures as different concepts. I am the Vine, ye are the branches conveys one concept. He was made sin conveys another.

Branchings and containment.

  • 1
    Explosively illuminating. The body of Christ has contained and sealed in sin (we die with Him). The risen Christ is an ark of safety from the flood of judgement (we rise with Him). We, the church, are living branchings (we live in Him). Dec 24, 2020 at 13:42

The English word "atonement" is most commonly understood in the modern context as reparation for a wrong or injury (e.g. Concise Oxford English Dictionary). This does not capture the entire scope of the word, however, in either contemporary or archaic usage. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary provides the following expanded definitions:

1 Unity of feeling; harmony, concord, agreement.

2 a Restoration of friendly relations between persons, reconciliation. b Theology. Reconciliation between God and humankind.

3 Settlement of (differences, strife, etc.)

4 Expiation; reparation for wrong or injury; amends; Theology propitiation of God by expiation of sin.

The word has been in use in English translations of the Hebrew text since the Tyndale Bible, published in 1535, wherein Leviticus 1:4 reads:

And let him put his hande apon the heed of the burntsacrifice, and fauoure shalbe geuen him to make an attonemet for hym

The later 1599 Geneva Bible also used the word:

And he shal put his hand upon the head of the burnt offring and it shalbe accepted to the Lord, to be his atonement.

According to the SOED, the fourth usage of "atonement" above did not arise until the early 17th century. The other three usages arose during the early 16th century. This could lead one to argue that whatever כפר (kpr) was understood to mean by the earliest English translators of the Hebrew, it was likely not understood to mean reparation for wrong or injury. According to both the SOED and the complete OED, the verb "atone" can be traced back to the Middle English or Germanic "atonen", which literally means "to make one".

In the Greek Septuagint, a Jewish translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek completed in the 2nd and 3rd centuries BC, the word used to translate kpr in Leviticus 1:4 and elsewhere is ἐξιλάσκομαι (exilaskomai), for which many lexicons simply offer the loaded suggestion, "make atonement for". It is related to the adjective ιλεως (hileōs), meaning "gracious" or "merciful".

The Greek word ἐξιλάσκομαι appears over 100 times in the Septuagint. The latest book it appears in seems to be Sirach (e.g. 3:3), which was probably written in the late 2nd century BC. ἐξιλάσκομαι does not appear in the New Testament at all.

Curiously, the English word "atonement" appears 82 times in the King James Bible, but only one of these occurrences is in the New Testament, in Romans 5:11:

And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement.

where it translates not ἐξιλάσκομαι, but a different Greek word, καταλλαγή (katallagē), usually defined as "reconciliation" (see, e.g., ESV, NASB). This hints, perhaps, that the King James translators also understood the word "atonement" in terms of reconciliation and not reparation.

Two related English words are sometimes understood to be more or less synonymous with atonement: "propitiation" and "expiation". The SOED offers atonement as a synonym for propitiation, and offers "a means by which atonement is made" as one definition of expiation. Thus, both words suffer from the same ambiguity as "atonement".

  • Propitiation appears three times in the KJV - all in the New Testament all translating words related to "mercy" (hileōs): ἱλαστήριον (hilastērion) in Romans 3:25 and ἱλασμός (hilasmos) in 1 John 2:2 and 4:10. Hilastērion is the word used in the Septuagint to translate "mercy seat" (כַּפֹּ֫רֶת; e.g. Exodus 25:17). Hilasmos translates כִּפֻּרִים (kip·pǔ·rîm) - the act of atonement (e.g. Leviticus 25:9).

  • Expiation does not occur in many English Bible translations, but it does appear frequently as a definition for some of the above words in lexicons. It appears on occasion in the RSV (e.g. in place of "propitiation" to translate Romans 3:25 and 1 John 2:2,4:10).

To summarize an answer to your question, I think one could say that "atonement" is a technically correct translation of kpr in Leviticus 1:4 and elsewhere, but not necessarily in the sense of reparation. This may very well be imputing a meaning to the Hebrew word that is simply not there.

I think I addressed your question regarding the Greek Scriptures. It seems to me that here, too, the Greek words used in both the Septuagint and New Testament may very well not convey a sense of reparation.

I think these are controversial points. A lot of theological arguments over Scripture hang on imputing certain meanings to Greek and Hebrew words that may or may not actually be there.

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