Pitch Perfect, Part 2
Rethinking Atonement From Scratch
Where should we begin in our quest for a sound articulation of atonement? Given the intense controversy surrounding it, perhaps 21st century Christendom could stand to rethink it from scratch; prudence suggesting that we go back and see exactly where the concept originated. H. Clay Trumbull, renowned editor, author, and pioneer of the Sunday School Movement, concurs:
As a rule, the earlier words chosen for the expression of an idea are more likely than later ones to suggest the main thought seeking expression. Hence there is often a gain in looking back among the Greek and Sanskrit and Hebrew and Assyrian roots carried forward by religion or commerce into our English words and idioms, when we are searching for the “true meaning of an important custom or rite or thought. Yet this will ordinarily be confusing rather than clarifying to an exact scholar. Only as a person is intent on the primal thought back of the chosen word is he likely to perceive the true meaning and value of the suggestions of the earlier word or words found in his searching.
Propitiation, expiation, ransom, reconciliation, forgiveness, mercy and all of the atonement-related words we read about in the Old and New Testament (the wrangling of which fill countless volumes) find their conceptual origins in a rather simple Hebrew word, כּפר ka-phar. The verb kaphar means to pitch, representing the action, while the noun kopher, meaning pitch resin, represents the substance itself. These are first seen in Genesis 6:14, where God instructs Noah,
Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood, make rooms in the ark, and כּפר kaphar it inside and out with כּפר kopher.
Appearing only this once, the nature of the mysterious gopher wood has been widely debated. It is thought by some to be related to cedar or cypress, which themselves may have etymological roots in kopher. The Egyptians were known to have used cedar pitch both for shipbuilding and mummification purposes. Another possibility is that gopher was not speaking of a species of tree, but was descriptive of wood that was to be laminated — in other words, a synonym of kopher that has since been lost.
Note the copious shadows and types in Dr. Tas B. Walker’s explanation of the pitch-making process:
How did [Noah and his helpers] make pitch before the growth of the petroleum and coal industries? Their first step was to obtain resin from evergreen trees growing in dense forests. A herringbone pattern of cuts was gouged into the tree trunk and, as the resin ran down the grooves, it was collected in a pot at the base of the tree.
When the resin had finished flowing, the trees were chopped down, covered in soil or ash, and burned slowly to produce a lightweight black pure form of carbon called charcoal. The last step in the process of making pitch was to add the powdered charcoal to the boiling pine resins. Different proportions of charcoal would produce pitch of different properties. It was this pitch which was used to waterproof the large ocean-going wooden ships.
Walker concludes that, while he cannot say for sure that Noah obtained pitch for the ark exactly in this way, anyone who had to cut down as many trees as Noah and his helpers for the ark’s manufacture would certainly have found out about tree resins.
Already, some things stand out in unexpected profundity.
The Whipping Post
Christ, on Pilate’s orders, was bound to a wooden post and subjected to a flogging by soldiers attached to the local Roman garrison. Just like the herringbone pattern of cuts gouged into the trunk in order for the sap or “blood” of the tree to run down the grooves, so he, fulfilling Isaiah 53:5, was “wounded for our crimes, crushed for our transgressions. The chastisement that restored our well-being he bore, and through his bruising we were healed.”
[Note: Forty lashes minus one is a Jewish prescription, not a Roman one, which renders the teaching equating one kind of disease for each whip lash as fantastical and genetically unfounded.]
From the Inside Out
In the Noah story, waters erupting from above and below the earth represent death and destruction for the world. Just a few chapters earlier, in Genesis 1 we see the Holy Spirit brooding over similar waters, representing chaos, the antithesis of God’s created light (representing order). In response, Noah was to completely cover the ark, and by extension himself and his family, both inside and out. The obvious danger was on the outside — the floodwaters — however the threat of moisture existed inside as well.
An often-circulated story goes that The Times once sent out an inquiry to famous authors asking the question, “What’s wrong with the world today?”
G.K. Chesterton (it is said) responded,
God’s offer of preservation and rescue is not for the external only. More often than not, we are the problem. In fact, at times we are our own worst enemy. We doubt ourselves, lie to ourselves, deny ourselves — even betray ourselves. But Jesus died to not only redeem us from the debilitating effects of the world and its woes, but from those corrupted elements inhabiting our inmost personality. He saves us by covering us inside and out, from the inside out.
In 1 Peter 3, the apostle rather suddenly writes of Noah’s ark as prefiguring baptism. We can see that although the eight souls were not overwhelmed by the flood, they were not spared it either. In other words, God did not transport Noah’s family to heaven to wait out the storm. Instead, they were told to enter the ark, not as a means of sin removal, the washing away of dirt, but as an emphatic answer, an oathed pledge.
An answer to what?
Baptism is a yes and amen to a covenant which promises resurrection. In effect, Peter is saying look, the essence of baptism is not about bad and good, clean and unclean, it is about death and life. It is not a matter of wiping the dirt and tears away and giving a second chance. It is about killing off the old and recreating the new, real you. A you that is replete, Peter says, with a pure conscience.
This idea is also found in the Bible’s other story of rescue-by-water-borne-vessel — infant Moses in the basket of bulrushes. Although at first glance the underlying words for pitch are different, Rashi, the medieval Jewish commentator clarifies:
Kopher is an Aramaic term for the Hebrew zepheth… In the case of the ark (cradle) in which Moses was placed, since the waters were not rapid it sufficed that it should be daubed with slime [chemar] inside and with pitch [zepheth] outside. (Sotah 12a).
Like Noah, Moses was not whisked away to a heavenly safe-house at the first “drop” of tribulation. Rather, he was “baptized” down the river into the heart of the very kingdom that sought to destroy him — and not of his own will either. In the same way, neither are we immersed into Christ as an escape hatch from the world.
This is, in fact, Jesus’ prayer in John 17:
I pray not that you should take them out of the world, but that you should keep them away from the wicked one.
Rather, we are baptized and sent directly into the heart of the problem as the solution to that problem. In other words, we are not inoculated against the poisons of this world to sit in quarantine. Better, we are the syringe and Christ the antivenin. No wonder Jesus responds in this way to those disciples who wanted the nearest seats in his kingdom:
Can you… be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?
Thereafter, kaphar and kopher gradually received wider application in Hebrew society as they became culturally enriched beyond the original meaning of “pitch.”
The word כּפּרת kapporeth, often translated mercy seat, but more accurately, covering seat, is derived from it. Fittingly, this links Noah’s ark directly with Moses’.
The Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, is another derivation, being the all-important covering day for the priests and the nation. Note the wording from Brown-Driver-Briggs’ dictionary:
On it, and a part of it, were two golden cherubim facing each other, whose outstretched wings came together, overshadowing it above and constituting the throne of Yahweh. When the high priest entered the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement it was necessary that this highest place of atonement should be enveloped in a cloud of incense. The blood of the sin-offering of the atonement was then sprinkled on the face of and seven times before it.
We see that, in the Old Covenant, three forms of covering were used to atone for sin. But what of the New Covenant? What about us?
In Jesus’ economy, there is something that now takes the place of pitch, gopher wood, holy days, cover-seats, cherubim wings, incense, sacrificial blood, fig leaves, and all the rest. Solomon mentions it briefly in Proverbs 10:12, but Peter opens wide the gates:
Above all, have fervent love for one another, for love covers over a multitude of sins. (1 Peter 4:8)
But how, one might ask, are we to love? How are we to pitch, caulk, cover, preserve, redeem and rescue one another from the destruction and chaos that, though dwindling, continues to hinder our progress on this planet? Peter continues, explaining,
Be hospitable to one another without murmuring, Serve one another — each as he has received a gracious gift — as good stewards of God’s manifold grace.
Taking all of this into account, what do we do with Hebrews 2:17’s propitation? I believe the following better retains the basic cultural meaning:
It was necessary [for Jesus] to become like his brothers in all things, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest of God’s affairs, in order to cover over with love the people’s sins. For, inasmuch as he himself has suffered in being tried, he is able to help those enduring trials.
There seems to be, however, an element of כּפר kaphar we have overlooked. One that goes deeper even than covering. For what Noah’s pitch did, essentially, was create a living space. In the midst of one kind of environment, another appeared. This is the idea I want to explore next, for in it I believe lurks the potential for a grand, unifying theory — not only for atonement, but for the entire biblical narrative.
The more I learn, the more I discover just how vast a landscape of histories, languages and cultures are featured in the Bible. It’s not easy! Where do you start? That’s why I made a deck of ultra-convenient cards unlocking a rooted understanding of the world’s most treasured book, one card at a time. And, while you’re at it, become a patron and get all kinds of useful New Covenant merch sent to you.
N E X T → The True Golden Chain
Pitch Perfect, Part 1 ← P R E V I O U S