Sunday, February 15, 2009

Investigation: Etymology of "Expiation" and "Propitiation"

Yom Kippur in the Synagogue (1878)
(Image from Wikipedia)

Etymology doesn't usually get us very far in understanding theological concepts since words pick up a lot of baggage through the centuries along their way to us, but I promised my Bible study class that I'd look up "expiation" and "propitiation" to check their roots.

According to the Online Etymological Dictionary:
expiation: 1482, from L. expiatus, pp. of expiare "make amends," from ex- "completely" + piare "propitiate, appease," from pius "faithful, loyal, devout."
Interesting. The root piare is defined as "propitiate." Anyway, let's check this dictionary for "propitiation":
propitiation: 1388, from L.L. propitiationem (nom. propitiatio) "an atonement," from L. propitiare "render favorable," from propitius "favorable, gracious, kind," from pro- "forward" + petere "go to" (see petition). Earliest recorded form of the word is propitiatorium, "the mercy seat, place of atonement" (c.1200), transl. Gk. hilasterion. The verb propitiate is attested from 1645, from L. propitiatus, pp. of propitiare. Propitious "favorable" is from 1447.
Both "expiation" and "propitiation" have been used to translate the Greek term hilasterion, which translates the Hebrew kapporeth, as can be seen in Exodus 25:18, courtesy of the Blue Letter Bible:
καὶ ποιήσεις δύο χερουβιμ χρυσᾶ τορευτὰ καὶ ἐπιθήσεις αὐτὰ ἐξ ἀμφοτέρων τῶν κλιτῶν τοῦ ἱλαστηρίου

וְעָשִׂיתָ שְׁנַיִם כְּרֻבִים זָהָב מִקְשָׁה תַּעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם מִשְּׁנֵי קְצֹות הַכַּפֹּֽרֶת׃
As we see, the terms hilasteriou (ἱλαστηρίου, the genitive of hilasterion) and kapporeth (כַּפֹּֽרֶת) occur in the Greek translation and the Hebrew original of Exodus 25:18. In this verse, however, the Greek and Hebrew terms refer not to an abstraction rendered by either "expiation" or "propitiation," but to a part of the Ark of the Covenant. My sentimental choice, the King James Bible, translates this verse from the Hebrew as:
And thou shalt make two cherubims [of] gold, [of] beaten work shalt thou make them, in the two ends of the mercy seat. (KJV)
But the New International Version has this:
And make two cherubim out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover. (NIV)
The Hebrew term kapporeth is identified in the Blue Letter Bible's "Lexicon Results" as "the slab of gold on top of the ark of the covenant which measured 2.5 by 1.5 cubits; on it and part of it were the two golden cherubim facing each other whose outstretched wings came together above and constituted the throne of God." In its function, this is "the golden plate of propitiation on which the High Priest sprinkled the seat 7 times on the Day of Atonement symbolically reconciling Jehovah and His chosen people."

The root of kapporeth is kaphar, which is defined in the Blue Letter Bible's "Lexicon Results" as:
to cover, purge, make an atonement, make reconciliation, cover over with pitch

a) (Qal) to coat or cover with pitch

b) (Piel)

1) to cover over, pacify, propitiate

2) to cover over, atone for sin, make atonement for

3) to cover over, atone for sin and persons by legal rites

c) (Pual)

1) to be covered over

2) to make atonement for

d) (Hithpael) to be covered
There is, however, a lot of disagreement over the definition of this root kaphar and whether it really means "to cover" or "to wipe away" (cf. pdf), but I won't go into that since I know too little and lack the time to investigate properly. I would look briefly at hilasterion in Exodus 25:18, but the Blue Letter Bible hasn't yet finished developing its pages on the Septuagint, i.e., the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures.

This exercise in etymological investigation hasn't gotten me very far, but I didn't expect it to do so.

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At 7:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am no Bible scholar, but the book of Hebrews speaks of sins being covered until the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross removed sins forever for the believer. It states that the Old Testament offerings could never take away sins, but that only the blood of Christ could do so in a once for all offering.
So my thought is that covering is the essential meaning of atonement, expiation, or propiation when it refers to the Old Testment offerings.
This is my two cents worth, which is likely an over evaluation.

At 7:47 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Uncle Cran, if you'll give me the verse reference, I'll check the Greek.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"......My sentimental choice, the King James Bible......"

Mine too.

At 8:10 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Christopher, when I was growing up, simple farmers could pray spontaneously in King James English. They were 'bilingual' without realizing it.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In Romans 4:5-8; Paul, referring to Psalm 31:1,2, states (KJV):
But to him that worketh not but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness,
Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works,
Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.

The thought seems to me to be that the one who confesses his sin, usually over the sacrificial offering is forgiven, and the sin is covered, not removed, in anticipation of the future sacrifice of the lamb of God, Jesus Christ.

Hebrews 10:1-18 deals with the Old Testament sacrifices, and states that they could not make the offerers perfect.
"For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins." (Heb 10:4).

"And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifics, which can never take away sins:
But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, st down on the right hand of God:"

It seems to me that the OT offerings could not 'wipe away,' but only cover temporarily.
Only the finished work of Jesus Christ could do so.

In Hebrews 1:1-3 (KJV):
God who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets.
Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds:
Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express imate of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, st down on the right hand of the Majesty on high;

To sit down signified a completed action, not requiring any other action.
The priests stood daily offering the same sacrificies that could never take away sin.

This, in my opinion, shows that covering, not wiping away was the primary thought of the OT offerings.


At 5:08 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Uncle Cran, I'll look into these passages.

Jeffery Hodges

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