Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Just what do you mean... ATONEMENT?

One of my children recently learned about compound words. It was fun to see the lights go on and the connections made. Sunshine is the light that the sun shines. The mailman is the man who brings the mail.

I can remember a similar light-bulb moment in my life, when a deacon in the Worldwide Church of God explained that the Day of Atonement is when believers will finally achieve at-one-ment with God. It sounded good. Of course, back in elementary school, I didn't know that the Bible wasn't originally written in English.

To be fair, this wordplay is a connection that some even outside the Churches of God try to draw out of Leviticus 23. Unlike other arguments that have come out of Armstrongism, the idea that "atonement" allows sinful man to be reconciled with a Holy God makes sense. But just what is atonement, and what does the Day of Atonement picture?

COGWA, one prominent Armstrongist splinter, calls the symbolism of the Day of Atonement "unique, intriguing and often misinterpreted."
"But considered in conjunction with with the prophetic timeline in Revelation, the meaning becomes clearer," COGWA posits
ABD's translation: Traditional understandings of the Day of Atonement are misinterpretations. You probably misunderstand it yourself. But when you marry our correct interpretations with our brand of speculative prophecy, the meaning is clear and rock-solid.

COGWA's explanation gives low-billing to Jesus Christ in its article about the Holy Day plan of salvation, mentioning only that event the Day of Atonement pictures is after His return. According to COGWA, this day is all about breaking Satan's hold on humanity. Not surprisingly, the sacrificed goat gets little more than a mention, despite the fact that at least half - if not more - of the holy day ritual focused on goat whose blood is shed. (Since COGWA mostly focuses on the meaning of "atonement" and the symbolism of the goats, I will do the same. I assume that those who are reading this are familiar with the Old Testament rituals of fasting, the high priest's individual sacrifice, his entrance into the Holy of Holies, etc.)

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. First, let's make sure we understand what's meant by "atonement."

Some sources say that the English word comes from the idiomatic phrase "one-ment"  (an idiom is commonly-used expression whose meaning does not relate to the literal meaning of the individual words in it) that can be traced back to the 13th century. Others believe it came about in the 16th century and owes its origin to the Latin word adunamentum, or "unity." William Tyndale's 1534 New Testament uses the word in 2 Corinthians 5:19 to express the idea of reconciliation and restoration, concepts which the original Greek text encapsulates. Just a few decades after Tyndale, William Shakespeare used the term "atonement" to explain reconciliation of characters in his play "Richard the Third."

This is all good background information to keep in mind, but if we are really going to understand what the Day of Atonement pictures, we need to go back to the Hebrew language of Leviticus 23. This book was written about two thousand years before the earliest traces of English and several centuries before the earliest forms of Greek language appeared on the scene.

Looking at Leviticus 23:27, we see the word used in "Day of Atonement" is the Hebrew hakkipurim. It is derived from the Hebrew words kopher and its close relatives, koper, kapar and kippur, which we see reflected in the Hebrew name for the day, Yom Kippur. These words communicate the concept of ransom or "price of a life."

The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament expounds further. Kopher, for example, is parallel to the word "redeem." It is occasionally used in the negative to describe the concept of bribery. The Theological Wordbook states that the verb is always used in connection with the removal of sign or defilement, except for 3 instances where it refers to appeasement with a gift.
"It seems clear that this word aptly illustrates the theology of reconciliation in the OT. The life of the sacrificial animal specifically symbolized by its blood was required in exchange for the life of the worshiper," according to the Theological Wordbook (p. 453). "This symbolism is further clarified by the action of the worshiper in placing his hands on the head of the sacrifice and confessing his sins over the animal which was then killed or sent out as a scapegoat." 
Right. About that scapegoat. What did it symbolize? And why was it sent into the desert rather than killed?

The United Church of God, another splinter, aptly explains the symbolism Herbert Armstrong attached to the Day of Atonement through the lens of speculative prophecy, for which he was famous. Armstrong claimed that the scapegoat released in the wilderness pictured Satan being be bound and thrown in the bottomless pit, as described in Revelation 20. Removal of the devil would allow man to achieve "at-one-ment" with God, they say.
"This sending away into the desert is part of the reason for translating Azazel as scapegoat, or goat that escapes. But many scholars identify Azazel as the name of a demon inhabiting the wilderness," UCG explains. "It stands to reason that Azazel is one in stark contrast to the Lord—indeed, the ultimate enemy Satan the devil."
This explanation sounds good until you examine the context and timing of Leviticus versus the literature that names Azazel as a demon. The primary source scholars use to support the Azazel theory is the Book of Enoch. Scholars believe the Book of Enoch was written between the 300s B.C. and the first century A.D. because it includes late Aramaic names not present until that time period, according to The Expositor's Bible Commentary. It is likely that the Book of Enoch used Leviticus, which is believed to date to the 1440s B.C., as a source. Not vice-versa. The demon of the wilderness likely got its name from lore related to this ancient ritual, according to both Expositor's and the Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon. The ritual did not borrow a name from a figure that appears in literature at least a thousand years later.

Further, the COGs have traditionally rejected non-canonical sources such as the Book of Enoch. In fact, the Living Church of God disfellowshipped members last year for reading and discussing the Book of Enoch. So the Azazel teaching puts the COGs in the precarious position of placing faith in a book that it tells its own members is heretical.

COGWA, UCG and LCG put forth several other arguments about the Day of Atonement, the Azazel goat and Satan. But all depend upon Armstrong's speculative prophecy regarding the Hebrew holy days and the relatively modern designation of Azazel as a demon. Unless the Book of Enoch really did come from Noah's great-grandfather, unless it was preserved on the Ark, AND unless Herbert Armstrong's prophetic speculations have been shown to hold water, there is no point in discussing them further.

The Expositor's Bible Commentary offers an explanation that avoids time travel. Many biblical translations do not alter Azazel - they translate it as one word. But literal, word-for-word translations like the King James Version and New American Standard Bible, based in the Septuagint, explain the concept as the "goat of departure."
"The first part (`az) can mean "goat" and the last part ('azel) is from a verb that means "go away," Expositor's explains. "Compound nouns like this are rare in ancient Hebrew, but new evidence for them is turning up in Ugaritic. It is simply the designation of the goat to be taken away, the escape goat."
Expositor's notes that Numbers 29:11 also describes the scapegoat as "the sin offering for atonement." But how is this possible? This goat was not slaughtered.

The goats were opposite sides of the same coin. Both goats pictured both pictured aspects of Jesus' sacrifice. One goat was killed as a sin offering. The other one took the Israelites' sin out of their presence.
"The two goats thus symbolized both propitiation for sins by death and complete removal of the sins for which atonement was made," according to Expositor's.
Many believe that the Hebrew holy days were given as a picture of what Jesus Christ would accomplish for humanity. This is what Colossians 2 means when it discusses observances as shadows. These shadows have value in that they teach us about the Savior, but we are meant to embrace Him, not the shadows. The Day of Atonement - the priest, the sacrifice, the goats and the mercy seat - pointed to what Jesus would do - die in your place and remove your sins.

Theologian John MacArthur concurs.
"This goat pictured the substitutionary bearing and total removal of sin which would later be fully accomplished by Jesus Christ" (MacArthur Bible Commentary, p. 154).
Psalm 103:12 gives us a poetic picture of what the Azazel goat accomplished.

"As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us."

Remember, the priests confessed the sins of Israel over the goats. But the goat charged with the sin was falsely accused - just like Jesus. Satan would would not be falsely accused, especially according to COG theology.

"In contrast, Satan bears the blame for sin as he was the first to lead mankind astray in the Garden of Eden and continues to deceive humanity today," UCG states.

False Armstrongist teachings about the Day of Atonement subtly prop up HWA's teachings about
man's tabula rasa nature. This theory, which originated with Aristotle, contradicts multiple scriptures by teaching that man is born morally neutral. According to HWA's teachings, Satan broadcasts his evil, subversive thoughts through the air like radio waves, silently influencing mankind to sin.

Now, I'm not going to argue that Satan doesn't influence mankind. He clearly does, as both the Bible and anyone who spends a day observing news outlets can see. But HWA claimed that humans were capable of changing their "tuning" back to God's if they just tried hard enough. Oh yeah, you somehow use the Holy Spirit to do it. And you must do it to an acceptable degree to maintain the justified state that Jesus' sacrifice bought for you. And if you don't do a good enough job, God will abort you.

This teaching has led to scores of suicides in the COGs and has landed even more members in lifestyles of despair and depression. On many levels, it is what keeps many of you in your seats, even though you no longer believe what Armstrong taught or his ministers perpetuate. It is what keeps you in fear. It is what allows the ministry to keep on dividing you from your friends and family - fear that following the wrong splinter will land you in the Lake of Fire. And it is what leads you to continue to hand in your tithes and keep their dying organizations on life support.

The symbolism of the Day of Atonement - the substitutionary sacrifice and removal of sin pictured by the two goats - did produce "at-one-ment" with God, in both the ancient Hebrew and the modern English sense of the word. Fasting denoted the symbolic gravity of the solemn day that the Savior died.

But that day, the day of the atonement, is finished. Jesus rose victorious. He paid our ransom. We are redeemed. We are reconciled to God now. We have no reason to remain in the shadows of mourning.

(Psalm 30:11-12) You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you have put off my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness. To the end that my glory may sing praise to You and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; )
Acts 17:11


Brian said...

Thanks for this article. So much of the COG view of "God's plan" force-fits the meanings of their annual holy hays into the COG interpretation of Revelation. They skip the actual NT references for the Day of Atonement where Paul makes clear that the focus should be on Jesus and his sacrifice and instead they take imagery from Revelation as what the day is about. No focus on Christ, mostly Satan.

Anonymous said...

The problem with Armstrongism is that it is steeped in physical rituals and is rather devoid of what one would consider spiritual depth of Christianity. They would rather have Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 rather than Matthew 5, 6 & 7 because they don't really understand spiritual values.

And so it is with the Day of Atonement -- they must have a physical fast (what did Jesus say -- that his disciples would not fast while he was with them?) and speak of physically putting away Satan and talk of goats. Redemption? A rather foreign concept. Herbert Armstrong made everyone feel that no matter how much they did and no matter how much they overcame, that the Kingdom of God was still just barely out of reach for the average member. In fact, he made it clear that none of his followers could be in the Kingdom, except as they supported him. He was the Apostle. He got a free pass to the Kingdom. The rest of us, not so much. We were all continually guilty (of at least something>).

This is always a problem with a one man show -- it's always a cult, dedicated to the lowest common denominator and who has the best prophecy.

David Sager said...

Found your blog by chance.
Thought you should know that In Orthodox Judaism it is known that the Azazael was pushed off a cliff, not left alive wandering in the wilderness.

ekklesia said...

As I sat in my seat at COGWA this past Atonement, I recognized that both goats represent Christ and that the minister was tripping all over himself to explain it otherwise. I actually wonder if God's Spirit wasn't acting on him as he fumbled his words so much. Maybe he will recognize this later. It saddened me to think that force fitting the goats to Revelation wound up focusing on Satan rather than Jesus Who not only died for our sins but He forever removed them from us.

xHWA said...

So ekklesia,

I'm just curious, how has that realization affected your interpretation of prophecy? Would you say this realization moves you out of alignment with COGWA's interpretation (and by extension the traditional interpretation of Herbert Armstrong)?

Martha said...

David, yes, I had read about the fate of the Azazel goat. Didn't mention it because it's tradition and not purely scriptural. But yes, Azazel's life expectancy wasn't much longer than that of the sacrificed goat.


Your experience is very interesting. Thanks for sharing. I know there are a lot of COG ministers who get a bad rap, for good reason. But there are also some who are sincere, well-intentioned men caught in a bad system. It pained me to hear them fumble, especially when I asked direct questions challenging the Ambassador College narrative, like you mentioned. I hope the Holy Spirit continues to act on him.

Ekklesia said...

Regarding prophecy, I'm not that big on it. I believe prophecy is and will generally be used in hindsight, that everything was written right there, but we missed it looking forward. It should build our faith looking back.

Perhaps this would change the view of the last Great Day. It's been a long time since I put much weight on the "holy day plan". I have viewed it as a maybe. The Spring Holy days fit well, but the Fall not as much. God knows the plans He has for us. That is good enough for me.

xHWA said...

I couldn't agree more, Ekklesia.