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SBL e-journal

Yitzhaq Feder





Expiating with Blood



APA e-journal

Yitzhaq Feder





Expiating with Blood






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אין כפרה אלא בדם

Expiating with Blood

Is the book of Leviticus primitive? I believe so, though an analysis of the meaning of the word kipper suggests that these sacrificial laws may be more relevant than we often realize.


Expiating with Blood

Studies of the heads of sheep and a cow, Jan van Ravenswaay, 1848.

Oh no…here it comes. It’s that time of year again. When God “calls out” to Moses (ויקרא), heralding the beginning of Leviticus, many readers (especially those who are not anthropologically inclined) are ready to tune out the ensuing litany of animal sacrifices, bodily emissions, incest laws and other less-than-inspiring topics that occupy the Torah portions for several weeks. Indeed, Maimonides himself argued that these laws are relics from an early phase of Israelite civilization,[1] confirming our suspicions: these rules are primitive.

Actions Speak Louder: The Meaning of Sacrifices and Ritual

Perhaps here more than other Torah texts, academic biblical studies are indispensable, offering to provide historical context – and hence meaning – to these obscure and archaic sources.[2] But what does it mean to speak of “meaning” in relation to ritual texts? In addressing this question, scholars of ritual studies have pointed out that rituals appeal to a more basic non-verbal level of expression in which the body takes the place of words as the instrument of expression.[3]

Infants understand these signals (e.g. that “putting on shoes” means “leaving the house”) long before they understand verbal language, and these bodily signals continue to convey important messages alongside speech into adulthood.

For example, to take romantic advice from an expert in mammalian communication, Gregory Bateson points out that if a man says “I love you” to a woman, she’ll probably pay more attention to his body language (and intonation) than his words.[4] The following remark of Ludwig Wittgenstein helps clarify how these observations relate to ritual practice:

In magical healing one indicates to an illness that it should leave the patient. After the description of any such magical cure we’d like to add: If the illness doesn’t understand that,then I don’t know how one ought to say it.[5]

In this sense, ritual gestures are primitive, not in the sense of outdated or simplistic, but that they appeal to a more fundamental level of communication whose scope is much wider than verbal language. It is this more primal level of communication which offers a means for interacting with impersonal forces and states, such as sin, guilt and impurity.

Concretizing the Abstract

Indeed, these seemingly abstract notions are themselves conceptualized in terms of concrete images.[6] One salient image of sin is that of a burden, underlying the common biblical expression “to bear sin” (נשא עון), which can refer both to the burden carried by the transgressor as well as the act of forgiveness by which another person or God relieves this burden.[7]

An alternative metaphor for sin is that of a debt which needs to be repaid.[8] As will be shown below, this debt metaphor underlies the key term kipper (כפר), used in reference to the sin (חטאת) and guilt (אשם) offerings outlined in Leviticus 4–5, as well as the Yom Kippur ritual described in chapter 16.[9]

 “No Expiation without Blood” – The Meaning of kipper

The use of blood in the sin offering provides an illuminating illustration of the role of metaphoric thinking in biblical ritual. Though all of the biblical offerings involve some form of blood manipulation, the sin offering’s distinguishing characteristic is the smearing of blood on the horns of the altar (for offerings of individuals) and blood sprinkling in the sanctuary (for collective offerings).[10] The results of these sin offerings are stated in a fixed formula which is repeated throughout Leviticus 4: “the priest shall expiate (kipper) for him/ them and he/ they shall be forgiven” (vv. 20, 26, 31, 35).[11]

Recognizing that these blood rites are the main step in achieving expiation (expressed by the verb kipper) and forgiveness, the Rabbis coined the formula: “There is no expiation without blood” [12] (אין כפרה אלא בדם). This association raises two interrelated questions: What exactly is the meaning of kipper, and why is it related to blood? In modern research, these “bloody” questions have provoked a startling amount of ink-shed.

Semitic Etymology

The typical English translation of kipper as “atone” is not very helpful, for “atone” is not a familiar word in English outside of its biblical usages. Most scholarly attention has been directed towards apparently related terms in other Semitic languages. Whereas the biblical term – at least in ritual contexts – has an abstract usage of mitigating sin (sin is not a physical thing), the Semitic etymology lead us to a concrete sense which would could be more original, allowing a more precise rendering of kipper.

Two possible etymologies stand out:

  1. The Arabic verb kafara meaning “to cover (up).”
  2. The Akkadian verb kuppuru meaning “to wipe” (away).

Both offer suggestive images that could potentially be applied to sin. However, the problem remains that biblical Hebrew never employs kipper in such concrete usages.[13]

Here we must heed the warning of the great biblical scholar James Barr (1924-2006): “Etymology is not, and does not profess to be, a guide to the semantic value of words in their current usage, and such a value has to be determined from the current usage and not the derivation.”[14]

Biblical Context

My approach is to focus on the numerous attestations of the root k-p-r in the Tanakh.[15]Leaving aside the more abstract usages, which refer to removing sin, it is possible to identify two social situations in which these terms are used. While these usages are not as concrete as the Semitic parallels mentioned above, they nevertheless allow for a more nuanced appreciation for the meaning of k-p-r, based on its use in mundane situations:

1) appeasement of an adversary or judge (propitiation),

2) compensation for bloodguilt (expiation).

The difference between these two usages is as follows: whereas appeasement seeks to placate the subjective anger of an adversary, compensation addresses the objective loss. For example, verbal forms of k-p-r can refer to appeasement as in Proverbs 16:14:

“The king’s anger is a messenger of death, but the wise man can assuage it (יכפרנה).”

In relation to bloodguilt, these verbal forms take on a different nuance, referring to making compensation for the bloodguilt. Instead of focusing on quelling the anger of the offended party, these sources address the source of guilt, the “blood-stain” which must be removed. For example, the law in Numbers 35:33 rejects the possibility of a monetary ransom in cases of premeditated murder:

You shall not incriminate the land in which you live, for blood incriminates the land and the land will not be expiated (לא יְכֻפַּר) for the blood that was shed on it except by means of the blood of him who shed it.”

Likewise, the noun koper can refer to a bribe to avoid a negative judgment (1 Samuel 12:3), but it can also refer to a substitution payment in cases of bloodguilt (such as a habitually goring ox) in which the negligent owner would otherwise be sentenced to death (Exodus 21:30).

But why is bloodguilt associated with compensation?

The Biblical View of Homicide: Paying back with Blood

The relationship between compensation and bloodguilt can only be properly understood on the background of the biblical view of what is necessary to be done when a homicide occurs. Briefly, the fundamental belief is that innocent blood (דם נקי) demands retribution against the murderer. For example, Abel’s spilled blood calls out for vengeance against Cain (Genesis 4:10), though typically the biblical sources do not personify the blood, treating it as an invisible stain that must be removed lest collective punishment strike the community.[16] 

In particular, it is the responsibility of the victim’s kin to act as the “redeemer of blood” (גאל הדם), to free the victim’s blood from its state of discord. For this reason, it was forbidden for the relatives to accept monetary compensation to appease their (subjective) outrage, despite the fact that this was an accepted practice throughout the ancient Near East. Only by addressing the objective guilt – by repaying the blood-debt – could collective retribution be averted. As God warns Noah (Genesis 9:6): “The one who spills the blood of man, by man his blood shall be spilled” (שפך דם האדם באדם דמו ישפך).

Paying Back the Gibeonites with the Blood of Saul’s Sons

An illustration can be taken from 2 Samuel 21 in which David discovers that the famine afflicting Israel was caused by Saul’s massacre of the Gibeonites. In his appeal to the Gibeonites, David pleads: “With what can I make amends (ובמה אכפר) so that you will bless the allotment of the Lord?” They respond: “We have no claim of silver or gold against Saul and his household, and we have no claim on the life of any man in Israel… May seven of (Saul’s) male offspring be handed over to us so that we will impale them before the Lord.” The Gibeonites will not be appeased with monetary gifts; only by means of the blood of Saul’s offspring can compensation be made for the bloodguilt.

This widely-attested belief that a blood-debt can only be repaid in blood is essential for understanding the significance of blood in the sin-offering ritual.[17] In other ancient Near Eastern cultures, such as Babylonia, the use of monetary compensation in cases of bloodguilt was the norm, so much so that the Akkadian term “blood” (dāmu) was used in reference to monetary payment, i.e. blood-money. (Incidentally, this terminology also entered Mishnaic Hebrew through Aramaic influence, in the term דמים, meaning “damages” and, more generally, “payment”.[18])

However, according to the biblical conception, blood represents not only the “debt” incurred by the murderer, but also the currency by which it must be paid back. This significance of blood as a payment to remove culpability is taken up by the sin-offering ritual. It is remarkable that the common English translation of kipper in cultic contexts is “expiate” – from Latin ex-pio meaning “pay-off.” This rendering accurately captures the underlying metaphor of sin as a debt that demands compensation.[19]

Conclusion – Expiation Metaphors in Modern Times

These metaphoric notions “debt” and “payback” to depict guilt and punishment are still common in everyday speech and even in newspaper headlines.

Headline: The debt has been repaid: Israel killed the youths’ murderers.”This headline, employing a debt metaphor for blood retribution, followed the military operation to capture the perpetrators of the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers this past summer, which resulted in the terrorists’ death.

Though we may also employ more abstract terms like “justice,” these more concrete images seem to more powerfully capture the intuitive sense that misdeeds should be punished in proportion to their wickedness.[20] The sacrificial system gives credence to these intuitions, not only treating sin as an objective reality, but also providing a means of undoing its negative consequences. By invoking the imagery of blood as payment and the terminology of compensation (kipper), the sin-offering provides a means to evade divine punishment.[21] 

One may add that this approach also has therapeutic value. Instead of ignoring such feelings of guilt and ‘moving on’ with life, as would be encouraged by a modern perspective which denies that sin has any objective reality, the book of Leviticus addresses the intuitive sense that wrongful deeds demand rectification and enables the repentant person to confront his or her past not only in thoughts and words, but also through concrete actions.


March 16, 2015


Last Updated

October 18, 2020


View Footnotes

Dr. Yitzhaq Feder is a lecturer at the University of Haifa. He is the author of Blood Expiation in Hittite and Biblical Ritual: Origins, Context and Meaning (Society of Biblical Literature, 2011). His upcoming book, Contagion and Cognition: Defilement as Embodied Discourse in the Hebrew Bible, examines the psychological foundations of impurity in ancient Israel.