Roger D. Isaacs
New Interpretations of the Hebrew Bible

Yom Kippur: Not for Atonement or Fasting

Kleuske / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)
Kleuske / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Yom Kippur has only one purpose: rest. In this respect it joins the other festivals of Passover (Pesach), Feast of Weeks (Shavuot), Festival of Booths (Sukkot), and the first day of the seventh month (Rosh Hashanah). Here is the traditional translation:

“In the tenth day of the seventh month, you will afflict your souls, and do no work… for on this day he [the priest] will atone for you, to cleanse you from all your sins before the Lord, and you will be clean. It is a Sabbath of rest to you, and you will afflict your souls, and any work you will not do…and he [the priest] will atone for the holy sanctuary and the tent of meeting and the altar and for all the people…to make atonement for the Israelites from all their sins once in a year.” (Leviticus 16:29–34)

This seems like a reasonable translation until it appears to be saying that the sanctuary, the tent of meeting, and the altar also need atoning. Something must be wrong with the translation.

I have placed in bold the suspect words in the passage.

The first is afflict. The Hebrew word for afflict is anah, which is always translated in connection with Yom Kippur as meaning “to fast.” Strong’s Concordance shows many other meanings, such as “abase self, deal hardly with, humble, ravish,” and the Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament says it means “to be wretched, emaciated, submit to, bowed, weak, humiliate, castigate oneself.” Logic says that combining “doing no work” and “resting” with fasting, humbling, or castigating oneself makes no sense. How can you both rest and punish the body at the same time?

Second, it is the soul that is central to the command for the rest day: “Afflict (anah) your souls.” (Leviticus 16:29) The Hebrew word for soul is nephesh, which is a substance and has a specific location. “The soul (nephesh) of the flesh is in the blood.” (Leviticus 17:11) The priest burns animal blood as a sacrifice to atone for the soul: “And I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement for your souls.” (Leviticus 17:11)

Third, the word translated atonement is the Hebrew kaphar, meaning “cover.” Kaphar is usually used with al, “on,” and this is another clue that atone for is not the correct translation. The true translation of Leviticus 17:11 should be, “The soul of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to cover on your souls, for it is the blood that covers in [“in” is the proper translation] the soul.”

Kaphar leads us to the main point of this explanation of Yom Kippur. Kaphar is directly related to kippur of Yom Kippur. Therefore, the actual translation and purpose of Yom Kippur should be Day of Covering, which is accomplished by resting the body along with its soul (Leviticus 16:29). Continuing the very straightforward translation, resting leaves the soul refreshed or naphash in Hebrew, the word from which nephesh, soul, is derived.

Exodus 23:12 says animals, too, are to rest. There is even a suggestion that the soul substance is present in the Lord. Leviticus 26:11 has the Lord saying, “And I will set My dwelling in the midst of you, and My soul will not reject you.” Therefore, when the Bible says the Lord rested on the seventh (Sabbath) day of creation in Genesis 2:2, perhaps it is referring to the Lord resting His soul like people and animals.

Now, as to what is done on Yom Kippur, translating anah as “afflicting” doesn’t make sense when combined with the soul, nephesh. However, the related ancient languages of Akkadian and its variety Middle Assyrian provide logical concepts for “rest.” The exact cognate enû in the Akkadian translates “to shift, to change.” One associated quote attesting to the rest concept in the Middle Assyrian nomenclature is, “Like the dead, (lie still and) do not change the side [lit. “kidney”] on which you sleep” [1]. So rather than afflicting the soul, anah from the Akkadian may suggest changing the position of the body by resting to affect the soul. That makes sense. It might be something like, “You will change your soul and all work you will not do, a Sabbath of rest it will be to you, and you will change your soul.” This would be a direct statement that resting leads to changing or altering the soul substance to a calmed condition.

The real bombshell from this passage that unearths a whole can of worms for the world’s major religions is the mistranslation of “sin,” the last of the questionable words in the command for Yom Kippur. On this day the priest is to use animal blood to cover on the people from all their “sins.” Let me leave you with this thought and ask you to find out the whole story and the true meaning of “sin” in my book Talking With God, pages 249-254. If sin is wrongdoing, why don’t an apology or punishment suffice? Why perform an animal sacrifice to fix the problem, and what effect does that have on mitigating it?

[1] Gelb, I., Jacobsen, T., Landsberger, B. and Oppenheim, A., 1958. enû. In: The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 6th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p.176.


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About the Author
Roger D. Isaacs is an independent researcher specializing in Hebrew Bible studies and the author of two books, "Talking With God" and "The Golden Ark". Isaacs' primary research site was the archives of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, where he is a member of the Advisory Council. He also conducted research at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Studies, as well as digs, museums, and libraries in many countries, including Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, Israel, and England.
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