The Verb Kipper and Sin

Previously Sklar argued that the verb kipper comes from the noun kopher (at least in some instances) which is best translated as “ransom.” The third chapter examines passages where the topic is sin and kipper is mentioned in order to “understand the verb kipper in contexts of sin” (80). His examination includes two words or phrases used in conjunction with kipper, namely the verb “to forgive” (salah) and the phrase “to bear sin” (nasa’ ‘avon).

The verb “to forgive” is used often in the priestly literature, and usually, it is in the passive voice, such as “and he shall be forgiven,” or “it shall be forgiven to him.” Working from the English definition of “forgive,” Sklar suggests this definition:

requital claimed for the wrong of the guilty is released, or an offense which the guilty has committed is pardoned. This latter sense of forgiveness also implies that the person granting the forgiveness has some authority over the guilty party, insofar as the guilty party is dependent upon this person’s forgiveness in order to avoid the consequences of their wrong (83).

Sklar uses Num 14:11-25 to illustrate his point. The passage records Israel’s rebellion against God by refusing to take the promised land by faith. God, speaking to Moses, threatens to destroy the entire nation, but Moses asks God to forgive their sin. God promises to forgive their sin, and he will prohibit the rebels from entering the promised land (Num 14:20, 29-30). From this passage, Sklar concludes that kipper, when forgiveness is needed, refers to the “paying of a kopher” (86).

The second phrase that Sklar examines is “to bear iniquity” in two special contexts: when the person wronged is the one who bears the iniquity, or when a priest bears the iniquity for someone else. When the person wronged is the subject of the verb, the verb is translated “forgive” (89). This forgiveness is similar to salah, and refers to “the remission of the original penalty” (92). The priests are said to bear the iniquity of the people through the means of various rituals (Lev 10:17; Lev 16:10, 21-22; Exod 28:38). Instead of referring to the remission of the original penalty for the sin, it means “the sin of the sinner being taken away so that the sinner does not suffer the original penalty which their sin deserves” (100). Therefore, Sklar concludes, “the verb kipper in sin contexts refers to the effecting of a kopher on behalf of the guilty party” (101).

Sklar demonstrates again in this chapter an ability to write clearly and to argue well. Nonetheless, this chapter is not without its problems. First, he bases his argument on an English definition of “forgive,” which he then seems to import into the Hebrew texts. Scholars generally caution against this method for word studies.

Secondly, Sklar’s implication that the offended party must have authority over the guilty party presents a couple difficulties. On the one hand, in contexts of sin where kipper is performed, God is always the person sinned against, and he always has authority over someone. On the other hand, the offended party does not have authority over the guilty party, per se. Rather, the law itself is the authority; it sets the boundaries of acceptable punishments. In Sklar’s discussion of the goring ox in chapter 2, he does not mention authority explicitly, although he states that the guilty person does not have a choice in the punishment meted out (51). Exodus 21 includes many laws in addition to the goring ox, and they all are examples one principle: the law of retribution. For example, if a master injures the eye of his slave, he must grant the slave his freedom. The slave, however, does not have authority over the master. Rather, if necessary, he may appeal to the law which is the governing authority.

Thirdly, his translation of kipper combines two different ideas which he does not justify but assumes. He uses the English phrase “effecting of a kopher.” If kopher is a payment, perhaps a financial term would make more sense. For example, it could be said that the priest accepts payment, although this renders awkwardly the Hebrew phrase that follows “on his behalf.” Perhaps a better translation would be “to transact the payment” on behalf of the guilty party. Thus lending this notion: the priest takes the payment, processes it, and returns a receipt to the guilty party: the original debt is forgiven.

Fourthly, and significantly, Sklar mentions in passing Milgrom’s view that inadvertent sins defile the sanctuary. This interpretation is essential to Sklar’s conclusion. Yet, he deals with it superficially and almost always with the qualifiers (87-88). Gane published his book Cult and Character the same year (2005), where he argues strongly that Milgrom is wrong on this point. Sklar later published a lengthy review and critique of Cult and Character but remains unconvinced by Gane’s argument. To Sklar, the fact that the hattat sacrifice cleanses the sinner in a couple of instances does not preclude the fact that it may also cleanse the sanctuary.

Finally, Sklar contradicts himself in the section discussing the phrase “to bear iniquity.” He states clearly that when the person wronged is the subject of the verb, the meaning is that the original penalty for the sin is removed or mitigated, just like salah. (See pp. 89-92). In his conclusion on the priest’s role in bearing iniquity for the people, he states that the phrase has the same meaning in both of these circumstances (the person wronged is the subject and the priest is the subject). Not only is the original penalty removed, but also the sin that caused the penalty is removed (95).

Aside from these weaknesses, Sklar contributes to the conversation on the understanding of kipper in contexts of sin. Kipper in these contexts can be viewed in relation to kopher, especially if kopher is understood as a payment. If so, kipper is the process of transacting that payment-an important idea to keep in mind when reading the next part of Sklar’s book.

Sklar, Jay. Sin, Impurity, Sacrifice, Atonement: The Priestly Conceptions. Hebrew Bible Monographs 2. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2005.



Jay Sklar, Kopher Defined

In the second chapter, Sklar meticulously investigates not only the best interpretation for the Hebrew word kopher, usually translated as atonement, but he also suggests the best English rendering of it. Sklar briefly reviews the four main interpretations of kipper, the verbal cognate of kopher. The traditional interpretation is that from the Arabic, kafara, meaning “to cover.” The second interpretation, made popular by Janowski (Sühne als Heilsgeschehen), is that “the emphasis of atonement is upon the worshipper [sic] symbolically dedicating their [sic] life to the holy through the atonement process” (45). The third interpretation is that atonement is “characterized by cleansing in at least some sin contexts” (46). The final approach is that atonement is related to kopher, meaning ransom.

In order to define the noun kopher, Sklar utilizes a method consisting of two approaches: the concept-oriented approach and the field-oriented approach. The concept-oriented approach determines the “lexical sense of the word present in any given contexts in which the word is used” (48). The field-oriented approach compares the word in question “with other terms that are within the same semantic field” (61).

Sklar concludes that four concepts are included in the lexical meaning of kopher. Kopher includes the delivery of a guilty party from punishment. It is dependent upon the person wronged to accept it. It mitigates the penalty the guilty party should have received. And it includes an appeasement of the injured party. From these four concepts, Sklar develops the following working definition:

Positively, a kopher is a legally or ethically legitimate payment that delivers a guilty party from a just punishment that is the right of the offended party to execute or to have executed. The acceptance of this payment is entirely dependent upon the choice of the offended party is a lesser punishment than was originally expected, and its acceptance serves both to rescue the life of the guilty and to appease the offended party, thus restoring peace to the relationship (60).

In his field-oriented approach, Sklar examines two words with similar semantic ranges, pdh and g’l. The noun pdh, is usually translated as rescue or redemption, although it is used in the context of ransoming the firstborn (Num 3). Likewise, the noun q’l also means the legal right of redemption. Sklar concludes that kopher is similar to these terms in three ways: “(1) it concerns delivering one party from the authority of another; (2) this is done by means of a payment of some item of value; and (3) the payment and subsequent deliverance of one party is stipulated by the party in authority” (66).

Notwithstanding Sklar’s excellent scholarship, I cautiously offer two criticisms, or at least raise two questions about his method. First, Sklar’s method assumes that all OT uses of kopher are equivalent. That is, he takes for granted that the word did not develop or change over time, nor that various authors used it differently, nor that it is used differently in various genres. Citing a few of the passages he examines demonstrates this point: Exod 21:28-32, Num 35:30-34, Ps 49:8-9, Prov 6:20-35, Isaiah 43:3-4, Job 33:24. Secondly, that kopher is used in legal contexts where many events are happening does not mean that the entire context is included in the lexical meaning of the word (as pointed out in the block quotation above). The word kopher is not comprised of four concepts. Rather, it is a payment. As a payment, it may result in delivering a guilty person from capital punishment. Sklar’s evidence itself is clear that kopher is not always used in contexts where someone is delivered from capital punishment (See Sklar’s discussion of Prov 6:20-35, pp. 56-58). Thus, it might be better to say that kopher is the payment itself, and the payment is found in various circumstances and has various results.

Sklar, Jay. Sin, Impurity, Sacrifice, Atonement: The Priestly Conceptions. Hebrew Bible Monographs 2. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2005.

Jay Sklar and The Consequences of Sin

In my previous post, I gave a general introduction to Jay Sklar’s publication, Sin, Impurity, Sacrifice, Atonement: The Priestly Conceptions. The first argument that Sklar makes is that sin always has a consequence, punishment, or penalty. In Old Testament, ancient Near Eastern studies, or Hellenistic studies, this statement could be considered a truism. Sklar observes, in addition, that “the Old Testament in using terms for sin or guilt refer not only to the wrong itself, but also to the consequences for the wrong” (12). Many passages demonstrate this principle, and two particular Hebrew terms, to bear one’s sin (nasa’ ‘avon) and to suffer the consequences of guilt (asham) are commonly used in this way.

After briefly reviewing the connection between sin and punishment, Sklar spends the majority of the chapter discussing four biblical consequences of sin: death, kareth (cut off), bearing sin, and guilt (asham). While death is an obvious consequence of sin, Sklar spends a couple pages on the meaning of the Hebrew word mavot which is “used to describe the execution of the brazen sinner” (15). The word “cut off” is highly debated in Old Testament studies. In some passages death is implied, while in others excommunication from the covenant community is indicated. Sklar concludes that this penalty “was not simply that the sinner would die prematurely, but further that the sinner’s name might be cut off” that is, “their line being extinguished from the people of Israel” (17, 20; emphasis mine). The third consequence is to bear one’s sin or to bear the consequences of one’s sin. This phrase in English is just as ambiguous as it is in Hebrew. Sklar states that it is “a way of saying that a person will suffer the consequences of their [sic] sin, whatever those consequences might be” (22).

The ambiguity of bearing one’s sin leads naturally to the fourth consequence, asham. Sklar spends over half of the chapter discussing this fourth point because it is the most crucial to his overall argument in the chapter, that sin has consequences. Scholars have proposed four major interpretations of asham in the chapters of Lev 4-5, and Num 15. The traditional view is that asham is best understood as objective or judicial guilt. A person who sins is thus guilty. The second view, championed by N. Kiuchi (The Purification Offering in the Priestly Literature, 1987) , is to realize one’s judicial guilt. One may sin without knowing it, and asham is the realization of one’s sin and guilt. Jacob Milgrom prefers the third view that asham should be equated with the guilty feelings someone has when he or she sins, which cause that person to repent.

Sklar prefers the fourth view that asham means “to suffer guilt’s consequences” (39). This interpretation makes the best sense in Lev 4:22-23, “When a leader sins, doing unintentionally [Heb. shagag] any one of the all the things that by the commandment of the LORD his God ought not to be done, and suffers guilt’s consequences, or the sin which has committed is made known to him, he shall bring as his offering a goat, a male without blemish.” Sklar points out that this legal code includes two possible conditions. Either, the leader sinned without knowing it and suffered some consequence because of it, or someone told him he sinned. How would he know to bring an offering if he had no knowledge or suspicion that he sinned? Sklar’s argument is that some adversity made him consider the idea of sin, and this notion has precedent in the Old Testament (cf. 2 Sam 21:1, Josh 7:6-11).

Finally, Sklar’s view is consistent with Lev 5:23, “if he has sinned and has realized his guilt (asham) and will restore what he took by robbery or what he got by oppression or the deposit that was committed to him or the lost thing that he found or anything about which he has sworn falsely, he shall restore it in full and shall add a fifth to it, and give it to him to whom it belongs on the day he realizes his guilt (asham).” In the case of robbery, the person who took what did not belong to him knew that he was sinning. This sin is not an unintentional sin nor a sin of ignorance (he knew the law.). When the thief began to suffer the consequences for his action, he repented of his sin, and he made restitution.

Sklar summarizes his position on asham this way, “the most appropriate translation for asham in the priestly literature is a general consequential one; that is, it refers to the general consequences brought on by the guilt of sin and may be translated with ‘to suffer guilt’s consequences'” (41). In order for Sklar’s interpretation to work, guilt must refer to an objective state, and the asham refers to the sentence meted out on the guilty party. If this is what Sklar means by “guilt’s consequences,” then his conclusion seems to be the best alternative.

Sklar, Jay. Sin, Impurity, Sacrifice, Atonement: The Priestly Conceptions. Hebrew Bible monographs 2. Sheffield, [Eng.]: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2005.


Jay Sklar, Sin, Impurity, Sacrifice, Atonement

Jay Sklar, who currently teaches at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, published his dissertation, Sin, Impurity, Sacrifice, Atonement: The Priestly Conceptions in 2005. Sklar had the distinct privilege of studying under Gordon Wenham, who was then at the University of Gloucestershire in Cheltenham, England. After completing his Ph.D. in 2001, he has taught for Covenant Seminary. Other than his published dissertation, he authored the Leviticus commentary in the Tyndale series and contributed to the Bible study notes for the ESV on Leviticus and the NIV on Numbers.

Sklar’s work, Sin, Impurity, Sacrifice, Atonement, addresses the nature of atonement (kipper) in the priestly literature by means of juxtaposing the relationship between atonement and sin, on the one hand, and atonement and impurity, on the other. Both Jewish and Christians scholars have debated this question for centuries, and recently, this question has received much attention. Recent attention, however, has focused on the division between sin and impurity, and therefore, do not often speak of them in relationship to one another. Sklar’s juxtaposition of the question, of re-examining it from such a perspective, helps clarify the elusive meaning of kipper in the ritual contexts of Leviticus and Numbers.

The introduction sets the question in context and intimates Sklar’s answer. The question rises naturally as one reads Leviticus, that “sacrifices of atonement address sin in some contexts, and impurity in others, and in so doing lead to atonement for the one presenting the sacrifice” (1). How is it, then, that atonement is required in both contexts of sin and impurity? Sklar briefly introduces four main interpretations of kipper in the Old Testament which he will expand on in Chapter 1. Two interpretations are particularly important to Sklar’s thesis: ransom and purification. In some contexts, kipper as ransom makes better sense, while in other contexts kipper as purification makes better sense. Still, in other contexts, the meaning is unclear as to which is the better choice. Therefore, Sklar suggests that the answer is not either/or, nor is it both/and. Rather, kipper is “better understood as holding both of these together” (7).

My hope is to outline Sklar’s argument in greater detail through a couple more essays, and to demonstrate how his conclusion works in the priestly text.

Sklar, Jay. Sin, Impurity, Sacrifice, Atonement: The Priestly Conceptions. Hebrew Bible Monographs 2. Sheffield, [Eng.]: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2005.

The Book of Leviticus by Gordon J. Wenham

Gordon Wenham is a well-respected, Old Testament scholar. For many years he has been a tutor in Old Testament at Trinity College, Bristol, and serves as professor emeritus at the University of Gloucestershire. He continues to contribute to Old Testament studies. Though published in 1979, his commentary on Leviticus is considered a standard in the field.

Leviticus is not merely a manual for the priests, but is equally, if not more, concerned with the requirements of lay people. It dictates what they are to bring for offerings, when they are to bring them, and how they are to live holy lives in the promised land. The material in the book is organized topically and reflects these various topics. One point that Wenham emphasizes is the over-arching narrative structure of the laws in Leviticus. The narrative structure can be seen where Leviticus is located between Exodus and Numbers historically, and in the repeated statement, “The Lord spoke to Moses.” This narrative and historical elucidates the provenance of the book: to address issues as the people wandered through the wilderness, and also to prepare them for settling in the promised land.

Wenham outlines four theological themes in the book of Leviticus. He prefaces his theological remarks by noting a bit of historiography. “[Leviticus] tells us about God’s character and will, which found expression in his dealings with Israel and in the laws he gave them” (16). Because Exodus and Numbers frame the book of Leviticus, they also lend a theological significance to Leviticus. The four main themes are 1) the presence of God; 2) holiness; 3) the role of sacrifice; 4) the Sinai Covenant.

The Presence of God
The presence of God is certainly one of the major themes of Leviticus. Wenham demonstrates this theme in four different ways. First and foremost, God is present in worship. The sacrificial laws note the presence of the Lord, whether the sacrifice is before the Lord, or to the Lord, or the presence of the Lord in the tabernacle. Secondly, not only is God present in worship at the appointed place of worship, he is also present in the mundane duties of life. Wenham observes that “Leviticus knows of nothing that is beyond God’s control or concern” (17). Thirdly, God’s presence was visible at the Tent of Meeting and the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle. Finally, God’s presence in the Tabernacle was the sign of the covenant relationship established on Mt. Sinai (Exod 29:43-45).

One theme repeated throughout the book is holiness. For example, 11:44-45 states, “Be holy, for I am holy,” while Lev. 10:10, summarizes the duties of the priesthood: to teach the people to distinguish between the holy and common and unclean and clean. In brief, holiness is that which characterizes God and all things that belong to him (22). In contrast, anything not holy is common, and anything common may be clean or unclean. Clean is the normal or neutral state, while uncleanness signifies something abnormal or unusual (21). Clean, while it may be sanctified and become holy, may be defiled through something unclean. Unclean can never come into contact with the holy. Both holy and unclean are contagious.

Seeing that uncleanness and holiness could not co-exist, a means was necessary to restore uncleanness to the realm of clean and orderly. Referencing D. J. Davies, Wenham asserts, “anything that disturbed this order, e.g., death, disease, or sin, was a potential threat to the whole community, and sacrifice was the principal means for remedying the disruption and restoring harmony into the community” (26). Although he appreciates Davies’s position, he believes that it is insufficient. “According to Leviticus, then, sacrificial blood is necessary to cleanse and sanctify” (26). Sacrifice does more than merely restore order, theologically it allows the holy God to meet with and dwell with sinful people (26). Although atonement was sacrificial, Wenham translates forgive as cleanse.

Sinai Covenant
The covenant is the umbrella under which the other three themes find their meaning. Wenham, noting the broader context of Exodus-Leviticus-Numbers, comments, “All that follows Exodus is a working out of the covenant” (29). The covenant, recorded in Exod 19-24, is followed first by the building of the tabernacle and then the Levitical code which maintains the relationship between God and his people.