Published by Worldview Publications
March 2002 

Sin and Atonement

Traditionally, humanity has been regarded as beings made under contract. Thus, the contractual laws that govern the exchange of property, goods and services have been applied to humanity as part of the created order. The ultimate role of contract has involved the command, control and possession of Creation by a higher order of uncreated self-existence. It was on this assumption — known as “grand domestication” — that all ancient civilizations emerged.

Many of these grand or overdomestication schemes began innocently enough with the full collaboration of their subjects. Efforts of defense against other grand domesticator hordes required strict organization under some kind of King of kings and God of gods. This is to say, that such great divine beings functioned in a real way as saviors of the people who, in turn, worshipped them and organized, who allied themselves and survived, under their sponsorship. Whereas warrior, headhunter, and cannibal societies already may be seen as primitive forms of grand domestication, human sacrifice, as such, represents an elaboration on advanced domesticator logic — to pay original divine owners. Human sacrifice demonstrated and symbolized the grand domesticator’s claim for absolute power over the life and death of his subjects — thus his divine right to ownership.2

In the view of grand domestication, sin is a violation of contractual law as it applies to human beings. On one hand, any failure of the grand domesticator to exercise his divine rights to command, control and possession represents a sin. On the other hand, any failure of the subordinate to submit to superior command, control and possession is a breach of contract — a transgression of the grand domesticator’s divine rights.

Under contractual law the ultimate resolution for the sin of breaking the contract — the ultimate “atonement” for sin — is the termination of the rebellious created order and a return to the uncreated, self-existent oneness of deity. So the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, declared, “The body is wicked and a plotter against the soul, and is always a corpse and a dead thing.”3 For Philo the only solution or “atonement” for sin involved the death of the body and the return of the soul to its original immortality.

It was in the context of contractual law that the Hebrew people were led out of the grasp of Egyptian grand domestication. The Exodus inaugurated an entirely new perspective on the nature of human beings. The God YHWH, who led his people out of Egypt, declared himself to be the covenantal God. YHWH was not the God of self-existent command, control and possession. Rather, YHWH was the God of covenant, the God of relationship, the God for all others.

Mounting evidence indicates that King David, with his scholars, was the first to articulate the nature of covenantal relationality. He expounded the relationality of God, of mankind and of the entire created order through various metaphors. These included the name of YHWH himself, which conveyed the threefold meaning, “I will be for others; I will become for others; I will effect (create) for others.” These metaphors further included the Temple and its services, which symbolized God’s relational dwelling with his people and their dwelling with him. The Davidic metaphors were sustained throughout the First Temple period. However, because the Chosen People failed to respond to God’s offered relationality, the First Temple was destroyed and the people taken into Babylonian captivity. Later, when the Second Temple was built under the Persian dynasty, the covenantal symbols for relationality were seriously compromised. Ezra and Nehemiah misconstrued the Torah (directions and teachings), regarding it as contractual laws that the people were required to submissively obey.

Thus, sin was defined in the historic tension between contract and covenant. In early Hebrew tradition sin was not the rejection by human beings of their identity as contractual property, goods and services. Rather, sin was the denial and rejection by human beings of their co-existent relationships — between God and humanity, between humanity and God, and between humanity and humanity.

It is from this perspective that we wish to explore the original Hebraic concept of sin (transgression). The following excerpt is from an article by Edward Lipinski in the Encyclopaedia Judaica.


“In biblical Hebrew there are about 20 different words which denote ‘sin’ . . . These words must be examined . . . [with respect to] the formulas and literary units in which they occur . . . [The t]hree most commonly used terms — he’, pesha’m and avon (’awon) . . . are often found together . . . , even in poetic parallelism. . . .

“The root h’ occurs in the Bible 459 times. The original meaning of the verb hata’ is ‘to miss’ something, ‘to fail,’ as can be seen from Genesis 31:39 . . . , which indicates that sin as denoted by h’ was originally viewed as a failure, a lack of perfection in carrying out a duty. The root h’ signifies a failure of mutual relations. . . . One who fulfills the claims of a relation or an agreement is righteous, zaddik (zaddiq); one who does not, offends (h’l-) his partner. ‘What is my offense that you have so hotly pursued after me?’ Jacob asks Laban (Gen. 31:36). . . .

“The people of Pharaoh were accused of ‘failing’ (h’) in their duty, when they did not give any straw to the Israelites so that they might make bricks (Ex. 5:16). The same applies to every deed that is in conflict with, or causes the dissolution of, a community. So Reuben acknowledged that his brothers ‘sinned’ against their brother Joseph (Gen. 42:22). When the king of the Ammonites attacked Israel, Jephthah sent him word explaining that there had always been a relation of peace between the two peoples, and he addressed to him the following reproach: ‘I have not “sinned” against you, but you do me wrong to war against me’ (Judg. 11:27). The ‘sin’ is here a breach of the covenant relation between the peoples.

“David . . . [questioned Jonathan regarding David’s relation] to Saul (1 Sam. 20:1). This relation was of such a nature that it required of David that he devote all his abilities to the service of Saul, and of Saul that he treat David as his loyal subject. The obligation was mutual as long as it was upheld by both parties. When Saul and David were in the same cave, and David was content to cut off the skirt of Saul’s robe, he called out to Saul that it was now clear that he had not ‘offended’ him (1 Sam. 24:12). Then Saul acknowledged that David was righteous and that he himself was the offender (cf. 1 Sam. 26:21), since he had not fulfilled his obligations. . . .

“When Sennacherib threatened Judah in 701, King Hezekiah sent a messenger to him, saying: ‘I have “sinned”’ (II Kings 18:14). The ‘sin’ of Hezekiah consisted in a violation of his . . . duties. A ‘sinful’ act, i.e., one of dereliction of duty, is thus a matter between two parties. The one who does not fulfill his obligations in relation to the other is a sinner with regard to the latter; he ‘sins against him,’ i.e., ‘he fails him,’ and so gives the other a claim upon him.

“According to I Samuel 2:25, failure in carrying out one’s duty can concern the relations between men or between God and man: ‘If a man offends against (h’) a man, God will mediate, but if a man offends against (h’) God, who shall act as mediator?’ This passage indicates that the ‘sin’ against God was conceived as an ‘offense,’ as a failure to fulfill one’s obligation toward God. Since the root h’ denotes an action, that failure is neither an abstraction nor a permanent disqualification but a concrete act with its consequences. This act is defined as a ‘failure,’ an ‘offense,’ when it is contrary to a norm regulating the relations between God and man. . . . The concept of h’ extends not only to juridical, moral, and social matters, but also to cultic obligations, and even to involuntary infringements of ritual prescriptions (Lev. 4-5) or of occasional divine premonitions (Num. 22:34).

“The root psh` occurs in the Bible 136 times, and it too is found in early texts. . . . Its basic meaning is that of ‘breach.’ In terms of international law, the breach of a covenant is thus called pesha` . . . In the realm of criminal law, pesha` . . . dissolves the community or breaks the peaceful relation between two parties. . . . This is also the meaning of psh` when used to express the sinful behavior of man toward God . . . The verb awah, found in the Bible 17 times, basically expresses the idea of crookedness, and thus means ‘to wrong’ (Lam. 3:9), and in the passive form (nifal), ‘to become bent’ (Ps. 38:7). The noun ’awon, from the same root, is found 227 . . . times, and designates ‘crookedness.’ The use of these words in a figurative sense to denote the transgression, the guilt incurred by it, or the punishment, is of popular origin. . . . Isaiah 59:2, for example, says that the awonot set up a wall between the Lord and the sinner.

“The nouns he’, hata’ah or hatta’t, pesha`, and ’awon, and also the corresponding verbs, denote a ‘sin’ in the theological sense of the word when they characterize a human deed as a ‘failure,’ a ‘breach,’ or a ‘crooked’ action with reference to . . . the stipulations of the Covenant. It is not the external nature of the act that makes it sinful. In biblical thought, the relation that creates the right to God’s protection also creates the sin. . . . The sinner is one who has failed in his relation to God, insofar as he has not fulfilled his obligation to God. In other words, it is a ‘sin’ to violate, or to break, the Covenant (cf. Jer. 14:20-21). The biblical doctrine of sin is thus described in Jeremiah 16:10-12 in the following way: ‘When you tell this people all this, and they say to you: “Why has the Lord threatened us with such terrible misfortune? What is our crime? What is the offense (h’) we have committed against the Lord our God?” — then answer them: “It is because your fathers forsook Me. They followed other gods, worshiping them and doing obeisance to them, and forsook Me and did not keep My . . . [torah = directions and teachings]. And you have done even worse than they did, each following his own stubbornly wicked inclinations and refusing to listen to Me.”’ Even the sin of Adam and Eve, although not described as such in the Bible, was an act that destroyed a special relation between God and man (Gen. 3).”4

In Hebraic thinking, therefore, sin is not a violation of contractual law, involving the wrongful exchange of property, goods and services. Rather, sin is a violation of personal relationship(s), defined by covenantal stipulations, directions and teachings (torah). Furthermore, in Hebraic thinking the ultimate remedy for sin is not the termination of the created order and the return of a supposedly uncreated soul to Cosmic Oneness. Nor does the remedy for sin involve the elimination of covenantal relationship. Rather, the remedy for sin involves the promise of covenantal protection in the event of transgression. In the Old Testament the concept of covenantal protection is embraced by the Hebrew term kippurim. Unfortunately, this term has been translated as “atonement” in English. The following excerpt from Fred Needham addresses the correct meaning of the Hebrew word kippurim.


“The word ‘atonement’ is a Biblical curiosity. It appeared in the English language of the 13th century as the phrase ‘at one.’ Then came ‘onement’ and ‘at onement’ or reconciliation, meaning the making of unity or harmony. Tyndale used ‘atonement’ once in his 1526 translation (2 Cor. 5:18), and it appeared once in the 1611 KJV New Testament (Rom 5:11). Today, just when ‘atonement’ has become part of every preacher’s vocabulary, it is deleted from many modern NT English translations as inappropriate anywhere. The NIV uses it five times, none of them according to Tyndale or the KJV.

“In the OT the KJV uses atonement over 80 times to translate the Hebrew verb kipper, and modern translations follow this lead. However a cursory examination shows that it ‘fits’ poorly. What do we make of ‘at onement’ with inanimate objects like the sanctuary, altar, land or a mildewed house? Why does God want to be ‘at one’ with inanimate objects, and what does the oneness mean? Is it a form of unity? Why does a mother need to renew ‘at onement’ after childbirth, especially in the case of Mary? An astonishing feature of atonement is the wide range of ‘agents’ which procure it. These include pitch, money, hangings, blood, mercy, plunder, vengeance, wisdom, prayer and incense.

“Linguistically, based on other ‘Ancient Near Eastern’ languages, the possible meanings of kipper are seen as ‘cover, ransom or wipe away,’ with sin as the object. It is quite a leap to ‘atonement’ from any of these. The principal derivatives from the Hebrew root kpr are the verb kipper and the nouns koper (ransom, bribe, pitch), kippurim (as in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement), and kapporet (mercy seat, KJV, or atonement cover, NIV). Clearly these are central objects or concepts, and any shift of meaning for them will have significant effect.

. . . [T]he true meaning of kipper is ‘to cover’ . . . [T]he cover is not for sin, resulting in ‘at onement’ or some form of unity with God. . . . The ‘cover’ is protective. It gives blessing, safety and strength to the object, or to an indirect beneficiary, usually people or the nation.

“The idea that God protects his people is familiar territory. Psalm 91 is a classic text, where God is our shelter and refuge. . . . Psalm 23 has us in safe pastures, fearing no evil, ‘dwelling in the house of the Lord for ever.’ God is our fortress, shield and stronghold. Yet as powerful as such imagery is, true ‘atonement’ reveals a level of protection far more powerful and central than we ever imagined. . . .

“The verb kipper is used 102 times in the OT. . . . [For example,] Jacob sought to ‘kipper/cover Esau’s face [literal]’ by sending him gifts. This procured safety for the beneficiaries, him and his family. . . . The making of atonement for a person healed of a skin disease signaled that he could be restored to fellowship without endangering the community. . . . The cover is [generally] spiritual . . . and normally given by God. An ‘agent’ or means of covering is usually involved, like the sacrifices in the ritual. . . . In most cases the people are the beneficiaries of the cover.

“The largest number of kipper references are in the ritual. . . . [T]he primary purpose of the ritual was . . . the cover . . . for the person, not the sin. The ritual restored the cover over the person, and forgiveness was one of the blessings which resulted.

“If the primary purpose of the ritual was to maintain a form of ‘cover,’ . . . [t]his is a significant shift of understanding. The pervasiveness of the ritual means that the provision and maintenance of this cover is arguably the central doctrine of the Old Testament. The ritual was given to maintain the nation’s relationship with God. . . .

“Other OT passages support the centrality of atonement. It is clearly stated that the ‘cover’ given by animal blood was not for sin, but for souls or lives. Outside the ritual many agents beside blood procured ‘atonement’ as already noted. Aaron used a censer and incense in Num 16:46-47; Phinehas used a spear in Num 25:13-14. Moses offered himself in Ex 32:30-32. There were different types of cover procured by different means, but always the cover gave . . . protection, rather than oneness with God. . . .

“For Israel, their covenant relationship with God was their primary focus. God gave them the tabernacle and the rituals of covering to maintain that relationship. He made them focus on the cover, which was ultimately himself, so they could be centered on him. The OT ritual mostly focused on maintaining God’s cover over the people personally. Yom Kippur focused on both that cover and the need for the nation to maintain the cover over God’s dwelling place. When they lost their focus, they lost their relationship with him.”5

In the New Testament the Greek term katallage is the equivalent of the Hebrew word kippurim. Again, katallage has been translated as “atonement.” But again, katallage does not mean or imply oneness. Rather, katallage means “a becoming other.”6 “God is not self-existent Being for himself. He is Becoming. He is for the ‘other.’ That is why God is good. That is why God is love. Love is fulfilled in reaching out in . . . reconciliation — in ‘becoming other.’”7


If made under contractual law, created human beings would ultimately be under the command, control and possession of uncreated, self-existent gods. Based on this definition of humanity, sin involves the human violation of an uncreated god’s sovereignty over all property, goods and services. The ultimate penalty for such violation is the death of mankind. Moreover, this view ultimately requires the death of the entire created order. For only the death of all “otherness” will restore the at-one-ment — the uncompromised oneness of the uncreated god and his self-existence.

In contrast, covenantal teachings define the intended relationships between God and humanity, between humanity and God, and between humanity and humanity.8 These relationships were intended to reflect mutual faith, hope and love. They were intended to image God’s own self-giving, self-limiting, self-emptying care for all others. Sin, then, is not the violation of command, control or possession. Rather, sin is the denial, disruption and dismissal of relationship with an “other.” In this context, that which has been misidentified as “atonement” is actually insurance coverage to protect and restore the threatened relationship. God himself is our self-giving, self-emptying, self-limiting (kenotic) shield, our protection, our cover (kippur) — both now and forever. In this context, God’s protection of humanity extends to death — even to the death of uncreated self-existence.9

Notes and References

  1. See “Contract versus Covenant,” Outlook (Feb. 2002). (go back)
  2. Karl W. Luckert, Egyptian Light and Hebrew Fire: Theological and Philosophical Roots of Christendom in Evolutionary Perspective (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1991), p. 23. (go back)
  3. Erwin Ramsdell Goodenough, “Philo on Immortality,” Harvard Theological Review 39 (1946): 97. (go back)
  4. Edward Lipinski, in Encyclopaedia Judaica, CD-ROM ed. (1997), s.v. “Sin.” (go back)
  5. Fred Needham, An Outline of Atonement, at varPage=documents&CategoryID=80. (go back)
  6. Lucien Richard, Christ: The Self-Emptying of God (New York: Paulist Press, 1997), p. 38. (go back)
  7. “The Most Painful Difficulty,” Outlook, no. 5 (Apr. 1998). (go back)
  8. All Old Testament references to “covenant” should be translated from the past tense to a future tense. (go back)
  9. “Sin is not the negation or diminution of some ‘endowment’ called justitia originalis but the abrogation of relationship — of all relationships; it is precisely the attempt to have our being apart from our being-with. Salvation is not a status of the entity, ‘soul,’ liberated from the physical encumberment, ‘body,’ but the gift of a new relationship, or rather a whole constellation of new relationships, in which the state of alienation is being replaced by that of reconciliation. God, even God, in this tradition is not ‘all alone,’ an Entity, the highest Entity, a Being, ‘greater than whom none can be conceived.’ God is rather the centre and source of all relatedness, the ground of our human restlessness for the other, the counterpart from whose presence creatures cannot ever wholly escape.” — Douglas John Hall, “Creation in Crisis,” Dianoia 2, no. 2 (1992). (go back)


Copyright © 2002 Worldview Publications