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Hebrew Thoughts

kâphar - כָּפַר (Strong's #3722)
Cover, atone

כָּפַר kâphar is a root verb meaning "to cover" (Strong's #3722, x102) in a practical sense with either pitch or hair, in an ethical sense by extension, "to atone". It occurs most frequently in this latter regard in the books of Leviticus (x44) and Numbers (x15). It is arguable, that if anything, the verb may have come from the noun כּפֶר kôpher (Strong's #3724, x17) "pitch" and by application "ransom" or "appeasement", covering for something via a bribe, gift or compensation. From it is derived כִּפֻּר kippûr (Strong's #3725, x8) occurring just 8 times always in the plural כִּפֻּרִים kippûrîym "atonement(s)" and where it seems the plural implies more completeness than number.

Whilst the most common translation in its 100+ instances is "make atonement" (e.g., Exodus 30:10), its first use in in regard to "covering" the ark with bitumen, or in older versions "pitching it with pitch". The covering was to be full and complete making it watertight. Some degree of complete covering, atonement and compensation, seems to be implied in its uses as opposed to simply or inadequately being covered by a branch from the shade of the sun, there a dozen or more other Hebrew words than can convey general covering.

Isaiah 28:18 speaks of "your covenant with death" being "disannulled, cancelled, disolved, annulled". Here the image is of a written agreement being obliterated by being covered over with further ink, literally covering over and blotting out the text or signature of a legal document.

The visual image of a watertight substance, or obliterating ink, is further seen in metaphors of a land that cannot be "cleansed/atoned" because it is already covered in blood (Numbers 35:33). A dozen times the word appears in verses with "blood", e.g., Deuteronomy 21:8 in which it occurs twice, at the end of the verse in terms of blood being atoned for, often translated as "forgiven" and at the beginning of the verse similarly translated as "be merciful", but really meaning, "atone", which the NIV and ESV render more consistently in both cases.

The derived כָּפָר kâphâr is twice translated "village" (Strong's #3723, x2) in both of its occurrences in 1 Chronicles 27:25 and Song of Songs 7:11. It is an apt derivation and one from which we can see the sense of somewhere that provides a covering, shelter, protection from the elements and foes.


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KJ Went has taught biblical Hebrew, hermeneutics and Jewish background to early Christianity. Their "Biblical Hebrew made easy" course can be found at

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