There are several problems with this view of atonement as we look at the biblical record. In fact, we will show that atonement often operates outside of the moral realm of which sin is a part. But before we get to that we need a working definition of atonement or, in Hebrew, rpK kippor. It means to cover, purge, make an atonement, make reconciliation, to pacify, to cover over with pitch. This word or a form of it is used a lot in the scriptures with the variety of meanings indicated.
As we stated, the popular understanding of kippor is that when we sin we require forgiveness through atonement. Sin is, of course, a moral quality, it is a consequence of free moral choices made contrary to what G-d desires. The difficulty with equating atonement with incorrect free moral choices is that the vast majority of scriptures dealing with atonement involve either intimate objects that are incapable of moral choice or actions done by people that are not defined in moral terms. Here is a short list of things that are atoned for in the Torah: the land, Israelites, the altar, houses, people, ceremonial defilement, unintentional sin against the holy things, breaking commands, lying, discharges, a woman’s monthly flow, tzaria afflictions, corpse impurity, the sanctuary, and error. The methods of atonement are just as varied. They include money, animal sacrifice, the destruction of idolaters or idolatry, giving jewelry, righteousness, prayer, loyalty and faithfulness and the Messiah.
In fact, Yom Kippor itself is a day of atonement for the sanctuary because of the sins of the people (Lev 16:16). With such a variety of things for which kippor is required and a plethora of methods, we need an understanding of atonement broad enough to encompass all these areas. To do that we need an answer to the question of why an inanimate object would require atonement. Look at the following scriptures to find the common denominator.
Exodus 29:33 They themselves shall eat the food by which atonement is made, to ordain and consecrate them, but no one else shall eat of them, because they are holy.
Exodus 29:36 Also every day you shall offer a bull as a sin offering for atonement. Also you shall offer a sin offering for the altar, when you make atonement for it, and shall anoint it, to consecrate it.
Exodus 29:37 Seven days you shall make atonement for the altar, and consecrate it, and the altar shall be most holy; whatever touches the altar shall become holy.
Leviticus 8:15 and it was slaughtered. Moses took the blood and with his finger put some on each of the horns of the altar, purifying the altar; then he poured out the blood at the base of the altar. Thus he consecrated it, to make atonement for it.
I am sure you noticed the connection between atonement and the consecration of an object for service to G-d. What atonement does is elevate ordinary earthy things to a high spiritual level at which time they will become useful in service to the Almighty, blessed be He. It applies to people as well as objects, by taking ordinary physical reality, cloth and metal and flesh, and covering it with a ‘veneer’ of spiritual perfection. It is a way of elevating the ordinary to the holy.
What sorts of things does this veneer cover? Ceremonial defilement, touching contaminated objects, not properly following through with oaths, unintentional sin against the holy things of G-d, and unintentional breaches of the commands, either negative or positive. Few, if any of those things, can be defined as moral choices to sin yet atonement has to be made. Think of this analogy. You have been out cleaning the septic tank due to an emergency, and it happens to be your anniversary. Your wife has cooked a wonderful meal and your are going to have a quiet dinner by candlelight. After you finish in the tank do you just come in and plop yourself down for dinner? Of course not, you go get cleaned up first. You didn’t do anything wrong by getting dirty, but it is appropriate for you to be cleaned up before you sit down with the love of your life. It is the same with G-d. We come into contact with spiritual dirt every day and we miss the mark occasionally. Before we come into His presence, the presence of the King of kings, we need to be cleaned up. The process He has decided upon is what we know as atonement.
What about intentional sin, is there atonement provided for that? No, wickedness and rebellion cannot be covered through the process of atonement. Why do I make this statement? Because the process of atonement provided the opportunity for true intimacy with G-d for those who are in covenant relationship with him. The wicked and rebellious are outside that covenant relationship and intimacy is impossible. This does not mean the wicked are without hope, the possibility of repentance is always there. But repentance is not part of atonement, it is a prerequisite. Once repentance is made and the evidence of it is accepted, then atonement can be provided.
Atonement operates on the level of the nefesh, the physical, that part of our nature we share with animals, and, in a sense, with the inanimate objects that require atonement. The flesh needs to be covered or consecrated in order to participate in spiritual things and operate on a spiritual level. This is why, for us, blood and sacrifice is the basis for atonement (Lev 17:11). It symbolized the death of the flesh. When our physical bodies die we are raised in perfection and we will see G-d face to face-true intimacy. Blood is the life of a body, without it the body dies. By shedding the blood of a substitute, as G-d has ordained, our physical bodies take on the characteristics of perfection that happen after our death and therefore we can have intimacy with G-d without our death.
Ultimately what atonement does is make communion with G-d possible. It does so by protecting us from His awesome holiness, the power of which would consume every person in an instant should they approach in filthy rags covered with dirt. The first place the root KPR appears is in reference to Noach covering the ark with pitch. The pitch protected the ark from the water with was the method of G-d’s judgement. Atonement does the same for us. As the redeemed people of G-d we are covered so we can be with Him and be useful in His service.
Finally, if we look at the ancient pictograph meaning of kippor we will confirm our assumptions about the purpose of atonement.
rp;K' Kaph-palm, cover, open, allow
Peh-mouth, edge, open, blow
Resh-head, man, first, top
Combining these things we come up with kappar being “the covering that opens up communication with the head”, the head being G-d. Kappar reconnects us with the head and removes everything that would hinder our interaction with Him. Kappar restored the possibility of intimacy on a level not seen since the garden of Eden. And although we do not have a Mishkan or temple in which to have atonement provided, we have Messiah and through his blood we are covered (I Jn 4:10) and consecrated, changed from the ordinary to the most valuable and prized possession of the King.