Expiation (in the Bible)

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A blotting out or removal of sin; hence, the renewal of communion with God. The supreme act of expiation is Christ's death on the cross, the meaning of which is illuminated by a number of Old Testament themes. This article deals first with the idea and practice of expiation in Old Testament times, then with relevant New Testament texts.

In the Old Testament. In Israel a strict correlation is observable between expiation and sin, and the sense of both is controlled by the covenant. Sin is the breaking of the covenantal stipulations, whether moral or ritual; expiation is the wiping out of sin so as to restore the covenantal relationship between the sinner or the sinful people and Yahweh. This stands in pointed contrast to the religions of the world that surrounded Israel during the whole Biblical periodthe polytheistic nature-religions of the ancient Near East and the Greek and Hellenistic religions of the Mediterranean. Outside Israel, religion consisted in coming to terms with the gods so as to assure the well-being of the people or of the individual, and the direct purpose of expiatory acts was to allay the gods' often capricious wrath. (see sacrifice, ii). Here as elsewhere, the faith of Israel may be said to account for its own uniqueness inasmuch as it consciously defines itself as a response to the self-revelation of Yahweh, a moral God and Lord of history.

Terminology and Ritual Expiation. In the vocabulary of expiation the Hebrew verb kippēr has first importance. Twice in the Old Testament it occurs in a profane sense according to which one placates an angry or ill-disposed man (Gn 32.21; Prv 16.14). As a religious term it has two uses. God expiates sin, i.e., He wipes out, removes, or forgives it; in passive forms of the verb, sin is expiated, i.e., wiped out, removed, forgiven. In liturgical usage kippēr means to expiate or to perform expiatory rites. The subject of the verb is Moses, Aaron, or the officiating priest. The object is the sin that is wiped out or the person or place that is cleansed of sin. The object is never God, and the meaning to placate God or His anger is not found.

Despite the relatively late redaction of the Levitical code, expiatory rites are of great antiquity in Israel (see Mi 6.67). This is clear from the archaic features in the concept and rite itself of the aāt, or sin offering,e.g., the idea of the expiatory efficacy of blood that supposed the association of the animal's blood with its life; since the life, which is sacred and a divine gift par excellence, was considered to be in the blood, blood was regarded as peculiarly apt to expiate, i.e., to purify or to win forgiveness. The most important text, Lv 17.11, is part of the Law of holiness, but the concept was certainly much older. [see sacrifice, iii (in israel)].

The expiatory ceremonies prescribed in the Book of leviticus are of interest not only in themselves, but also for the light they throw on certain aspects of the New Testament theology of expiation. In the Old Testament ritual, the sin offering is distinguished from other sacrifices by the ritual disposal of the blood (Lv 4.57, 1618, 25, 30, 34; 5.9), of the fat or choice portions (4.810, 19, 26, 31, 35), and of the remainder of the victim (4.1112; etc.). If the sacrifice was offered to expiate the sin of the high priest or of the whole people, the blood was brought into the Holy Place [ see tent of meeting; temples (in the bible)] and sprinkled before the veil of the holy of holies, smeared on the horns of the altar of incense, and the remainder poured out at the base of the altar of holocausts. The fat was burned on the altar of holocausts, and the ashes were carried outside the camp to a "clean place" where the rest of the victim was burned. If the sacrifice was offered for the sin of an individual lay person, the blood was smeared on the horns of the altar of holocausts and the remainder poured out at the base of the altar. The fat was burned on the altar of holocausts, and the remainder was consumed by the priest or priests. There is no evidence that the sacrifice was conceived as a substitute for the sacrifice of the life of the offerer, nor that the shedding of the victim's blood in any way signified a vicarious punishment; and from the disposal of its remains it is clear that the victim was considered holy rather than impure and laden with sin (Lv 6.1822).

Expiation assumed an ever more dominant role in Israelite religion from the exilic period to the end of the Old Testament period. Nearly half the later legislation on sacrifice was concerned with expiatory offerings: the ancient sin offering (aāt ) and guilt offering (āšām ) and the holocaust, which was now given an expiatory significance (Lv 1.4). The same tendency is evident in the importance attached to the Day of atonement (Lv 16.134), distinguished by its expiatory sacrifices, the confession of the people's sins, and the driving of the sinladen scapegoat into the desert. However, rites alone do not automatically win forgiveness. Without inner conversion, as the Prophets and later the rabbis frequently insisted, cultic rites are meaningless.

The Servant of the Lord. The peak of the Old Testament theology of expiation is reached in the fourth of the Deutero-Isaian Songs of the suffering servant (Is 52.1353.12), where the religious tradition stream of ransom and redemption [see redemption (in the bible)] converges with that of expiation. The term āšām, which occurs in Is 53.10, had the sense of expiatory offering to God or expiatory sacrifice long before the redaction of the priestly code, as may be seen in 1 Sm 6.34, 8, 17. As indicated above, much of the material in the Levitical legislation is very ancient, so much so that, although a distinction of sorts is made between the sin offering (aāt ) and guilt offering (āšām ), the original distinction (if there was one) had been forgotten by the time of the priestly code's last redaction. Although the LXX changed the meaning of Is 53.10, āšām was nevertheless understood in terms of expiatory sacrifice. In this passage, the suffering and death of the Servant is vicarious, undergone for the sake of others, and so takes on the sense of a ransom for their redemption.

In the Septuagint (LXX) translation of the third century b.c., kippēr is rendered mainly by έξιλάσκεσθαι; but the meaning of έξιλάσκεσθαι in profane Greek, "to render propitious," is lost, and the word is used to express the meanings of kippēr discussed above. Other renderings of kippēr are γιάζειν (to sanctify), καθαρίζειν (to purify), and φαιρε[symbol omitted]ν (to take away). In the three passages in which ξιλάσκεσθαι has God for its object (Mal1.9; Za 7.2; 8.22), the Hebrew verb so rendered is illâ (to implore favor), not kippēr.

Last Stages of Development. The acute consciousness of sin in late Old Testament Judaism inspired an intense concern with means of expiation. Cultic expiation continued to have first importance, although certain movements on the margin of "official" Judaism repudiated the efficacy of the Temple cult (see qumran community). Judaism, in the last centuries before Christ, attributed an expiatory value to fasting, alms, prayer, sufferings, and, above all, death, but the efficacy of expiatory sacrifice and of these other means of expiation was understood to depend on the sinner's inner conversion. Death, as the greatest of sufferings, could expiate sin, and the death of the Jewish martyrs had expiatory value for all Israel. It is remarkable, however, that in Judaism this concept remained unrelated to the figure of the Servant of Yahweh until the second Christian century. The idea of a messiah whose suffering and death would have vicarious expiatory value seems to have remained foreign to Jewish thought. The apocrypha attest the expectation that eschatological Israel would be purified of sin, but this is understood to be the result of the messianic judgment; that is, the messiah is pictured not as destroying sin by winning its forgiveness, but as condemning and destroying the sinners themselves.

In the New Testament. The whole mission of Jesus was concerned with the redemption of man from sin [see redemption (in the bible)]. His exorcisms, cures, and other miracles were aimed at subverting the dominion of Satan and inaugurating the eschatological kingdom of God. Above all, Jesus conceived His mission as the fulfillment of the role of the Servant whose expiatory death would ransom the world (Mk 10.45; Mt 20.28). This is underscored in the words of institution in the Last Supper accounts, where, beside the theme of the Servant's expiatory self-sacrifice for "the many," i.e., for all (cf. Mk 14.24 with Is 53.12), the death of Jesus is alluded to as the sacrifice that seals the covenant. Conscious reference to the sacrifice of Jesus as passover lamb is also probable. As the covenant sacrifice is at the same time an expiatory offering, the qāhāl, or eschatological community, born of this covenant is essentially defined by the forgiveness of sins.

The combination of motifs in Is 52.1353.12 accounts for the diversity of ways in which references to this text find expression in the New Testament. In Mk 10.45 Jesus says He has come to give His life as a ransom (λύτρον) for the world (see 1 Tm 2.6); elsewhere the idea of ransom is replaced by that of expiatory sacrifice (e.g., in Rom 3.25). In either case Jesus freely offers His own life for the forgiveness of the sins of men. This central affirmation was early epitomized in catechetical formulas that drew on the Servant oracles for two motifs: the "handing over" of Jesus (Gal 2.20; Rom 4.25; 8.32) and His death "for our sins" (1 Cor 15.3) or "for us" (Rom8.32; Eph 5.2). The Servant theme was apparently a significant element in early Christian preaching (Acts 3.13, 26; 8.3235), and the messianic blessing of the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2.38) no doubt supposes consciousness of the expiatory value of Christ's death, although this theme was not exploited in the early kerygmatic discourses. Christ's definitive expiation of sin is a substantial datum of the theology of St. paul, St. John (Jn 1.29;10.1115; and passim ), and the Epistle to the Hebrews (7.27 and passim ). It is "in his blood" that we are justified and saved (Rom 5.9); it is "the blood of Jesus" that "purifies us from all sin" (1 Jn 1.7; Heb 9.14).

The New Testament writers, in speaking of the expiation of the sins of the world by Christ, understand this to be the work of God Himself in faithfulness to His promises of salvation. The New Testament nowhere depicts Christ as a victim of the Father's anger or displeasure. Christ is never compared to the sin-laden scapegoat, nor is the sacrifice of His life conceived as a punishment reserved for sinners to which He submits in their place. Expiation is seen rather as man's return, in and through Christ, to the Father. It is the forgiveness and reconciliation that only Christ can accomplish and that He does accomplish, out of love and in His blood, for men.

See Also: romans, epistle to the.

Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. By l. hartman (New York 1963) 167175. w. kornfeld et al., Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiberg 195765) 9:115256. a. mÉdebielle, Dictionnaire de la Bible, suppl. ed. l. pirot, et al. (Paris 1928) 3:1262. k. koch et al., Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Tübingen 195765) 6:136873. e. sjÖberg, Gott und die Sünder im palästinischen Judentum (Stuttgart 1938). j. jeremias, "Das Lösegeld für Viele (Mk. 10, 45)," Judaica 3 (1948) 249264. l. moraldi, Espiazione sacrificale e riti espiatori nell'ambiente biblico e nell'Antico Testamento (Rome 1956). s. lyonnet, "De notione expiationis," Verbum Domini 37 (1959) 336352; 38 (1960) 6575, 241261; "Expiation et intercession," Biblica 40 (1959) 885901. e. lohse, Märtyrer und Gottesknecht (2d ed. Göttingen 1963).

[b. f. meyer]