Ritual Embraces and the Atonement

The word “atonement” looks for all the world like a Greek or Latin theological term, but it really is pure English. It is derived from the Middle English verb atonen, “to become reconciled,” which in turn comes from the prepositional phrase at on, lit. “at one” or “in harmony.” Therefore, dividing the word up as at-one-ment is not as ridiculous as it looks and really is instructive. To get the sense of the word, consider Tyndale’s rendering of 2 Cor. 5:20: “We pray you in Christes stede that ye be atone with God” (KJV says “reconciled”).

The word “atonement” appears 69 times in the KJV OT (and only once in the KJV NT!) Most commonly this is a rendering of the Hebrew verb kaphar “to cover,” which is usually translated something like “to make an atonement.” The noun appears as a plural, kippurim (lit. “atonements”). In Modern Hebrew, the archaic plural has been replaced by a singular, such as we see in the expression Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

How do we get from “cover” to “atonement”? To “cover” sin has the unfortunate connotation in English of “hiding” sin, or perhaps of repenting in only a superficial way (cf. the expression “a cover-up”). Consider 1 Pet. 4:8: “And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins.” The JST changes “shall cover” to “preventeth,” so as to keep the passage from being misconstrued in English. Something like the JST is probably necessary to keep the passage from being misconstrued in English; cf. the NEB: “because love cancels innumerable sins.” But if we understand the Semitic origin of the expression there should be no misunderstanding. You can kind of see the sense in English by thinking of the expression “to cover a bet,” which does not mean to hide anything.

Nibley, in his Ensign series on “The Atonement of Jesus Christ” (see July, August, September and October 1990 Ensigns for this four-part series) connected this conception of atonement to ritual embraces. From the basic sense of covering or encircling with the arms comes the Arabic kafata or suppliant embrace, which he sees as underlying 2 Nephi 4:33: “O Lord, wilt thou encircle me around in the robe of thy rightesousness!” For visual representations of such embraces, he points to the ritual embrace (hpt) of the Egyptian funerary texts (for illustrations, see here). And, of course, although Nibley doesn’t explicitly make the connection, he certainly intends for us to extend the concept to our own ritual form of embrace, which we experience in the temple.

Such an embrace represents a return to the presence of our Father, a reunion, where we may be reconciled to him and once again be “at one” with him.


  1. I spoke on exactly this topic last week, and I quoted from the Bible Dictionary (which I almost never do in talks) the following:

    By his selection and fore-ordination in the Grand Council before the world was formed, his divine Sonship, his sinless life, the shedding of his blood in the garden of Gethsemane, his death on the cross and subsequent bodily resurrection from the grave, he made a perfect atonement for all mankind.

    I love the fact that we classify the Atonement as including the beginning and the end and everything in between – not “just” the cross, and not “just” the Garden of Gethsemane. I think too many members (in reaction to the general Christian emphasis on only the cross) focus exclusively on the Garden, but I think this is way too narrow. (Note that “perfect atonement” can be translated as “complete atonement” – based on Matthew 5:48.) I like seeing everything He did to unite us with the Father as part of the atonement, from the pre-mortal offer to the work He is doing still – and will continue to do. That’s why I’ve said that denying the concept of ongoing revelation (independent of our own claims) is, in a very real way, limiting His Atonement.

  2. In the “robe of thy righteousness” phrase (2 Nephi 4:33), Nephi is not merely requesting that the Lord draw close to him. The context of the poetry here is clearly one of redemption and deliverance from sin (see especially verse 31). Very interesting.

  3. I recently had the opportunity to go to Hawaii and while there visited the Polynesian Cultural Center. At the presentation on the Hawaiian islands the presenter explained the origin of Aloha. Anciently Hawaiians were taught that when God put man on the earth He embraced the first man (they were nose to nose)and God

    breathed (alo)


    into man.
    I hope I got the details correct. If not, I believe they are close. It was fascinating and, of course, made me think of the temple.

  4. 3

    ‘Aloha’ most likely did not come into usage until after white men arrived on the islands. It was most likely derived from a base polynesian word meaning simply ‘love’. The ‘breath of life’ definition is just folk etymology, and the God creating man myth you heard was probably just an added Mormon myth transferred to the PCC.

  5. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 3
    I’m pretty sure the word aloha basically means ‘peace’ in a greeting sense, kind of like shalom in Hebrew. You may have heard some folklore at the PCC, Jones. I sure did. Still a great place to visit and learn about Polynesia though.

  6. The Right Trousers says:

    “Cover” isn’t all that bad even with its usual meaning, as long as the context is right. When we’re baptized we not only take Christ’s name but also “put him on” like a garment – so that we’ll be judged as if we were him.

    Thanks for this, Kevin. I like going to bed thinking about topics like this.

  7. Kevin, as always, the Master of bringing scriptural depth and gospel clarity to the common man. Thanks for the insight.

  8. Here are some links to Nibley’s series.

    Part 1
    Part 2

  9. Part 4

    The article got put together and reprinted as “The Meaning of the Atonement” in Approaching Zion.

    Cf. Todd Compton, “The Handclasp and Embrace as Tokens of Recognition.” By Study and Also by Faith 1:611-643.

    And what’s the deal with a limit on 3 links per comment? Spam protection?

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    I don’t know, Monk, but my guess is it’s spam protection. About a tenth of the time my own comments get caught in the spam trap, and I’m a perma here!

  11. john willis says:

    I appreciate the post. In the March Ensign President Packer has an article in which he suggests that the reason the word atonement appears many times in the Old Testament and only once in the New Testament King James Version was a deliberate omission by wicked translators and transmitters of the text. Kevin has provided a much more plausible explanation for the fact that atonement appears only once in the New Testament King James Version. I wish President Packer had consulted with Kevin before he wrote the article. I know it is too much to expect that the Ensgin will publish a correction.

  12. #10

    Pres. Packer also fails to realize that in the Book of Mormon the words ‘atonement’ and ‘atone’ appears at least 35 times prior to Christ’s birth and only twice following that. Jesus doesn’t even use the word during his visit to the Americas. I’m sure Packer would not propose his conspiracy theories there.

  13. Terry Foraker says:

    Actually, regarding Nibley’s articles on the Atonement, my understanding is that his original version (which appeared as the final chapter in Approaching Zion) made more explicit use of temple imagery. However, on the advice of Neal A. Maxwell (who really pushed to get the articles published in the Ensign), Nibley toned down the temple rhetoric a bit, allowing those with “ears to hear” to discern what he was really getting at.

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for that nuance, Terry.

  15. “From the basic sense of covering or encircling with the arms comes the Arabic kafata or suppliant embrace, which he sees as underlying 2 Nephi 4:33: “O Lord, wilt thou encircle me around in the robe of thy rightesousness!””

    I am unfamiliar with this use of “kafata” in Arabic. Hans-Wehr gives the basic form of the verb as meaning “to restrain, detain, turn away, prevent, hold back”, which I suppose could indicate an older meaning along the lines Nibley refers to. However, despite that confusion, there is clearly a linkage hear to Kufta, the delicious Syrian dish of wheat-and-meat-balls. In which case we might interpret 2 Nephi 4:33 as something more along the lines of “O Lord, wilt thou send us thy most righteous and tasty Kufta, for that manna stuff thou didst send our fathers in the wilderness grew most bland with great swiftness”. Indeed, the entire psalm of Nephi might be viewed as a coded Kufta recipe with hidden hints of Thyme undoubtedly to be found in the footnotes. A theory that grows more likely when one considers the clear Tabboule analogies of the verdant shrubbery surrounding the waters of Mormon and the Hummus-infused prose of Samuel the Lamanite.

  16. Kevin Barney says:

    Jamal, if you want to give a learned commentary on Nibley’s point, you should interact with the actual text. I’ll quote the key material below. If he is wrong in his treatment of the Arabic, that’s fine, by all means please critique his usage for us, but please do so in a serious way befitting a serious scholar:

    In Semitic languages, where one root can have many meanings, the first rule is always to look for the basic or literal of the word, which in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic usually takes us back to early days and simple homely affairs of life in the desert or the countryside. One simple physical act often triggers a long line of derivatives, meanings that are perfectly reasonable if one takes the most obvious steps from one to the next, but which can end up miles from the starting place. The basic word for is kaphar, which has the same basic in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic, that being “to bend, arch over, cover; . . . to deny, . . . to forgive, . . . to be expiated, . . . renounce.” fn 5 The Arabic kafara puts the emphasis on a tight squeeze, such as tucking in the skirts, drawing a thing close to one’s self. Closely related are Aramaic fn 6 and Arabic kafat, fn 7 a close embrace, which are certainly related to the Egyptian hpet, fn 8 the common ritual embrace written with the ideogram of embracing arms. It may be cognate with the Latin capto, fn 9 and from it comes the Persian kaftan, fn 10 a monk’s robe and hood completely embracing the body. Most interesting is the Arabic kafata, fn 11 as it is the key to a dramatic situation.

    It was the custom for one fleeing for his life in the desert to seek protection in the tent of a great sheik, crying out, “Ana dakhiluka,” meaning “I am thy suppliant,” whereupon the Lord would place the hem of his robe over the guest’s shoulder and declare him under his protection. In the Book of Mormon, we see this world as a plain, a dark and dreary waste, a desert. We see Nephi fleeing from an evil thing that is pursuing him. In great danger, he prays the Lord to give him an open road in the low way, to block his pursuers, and to make them stumble. He comes to the tent of the Lord and enters as a suppliant; and in reply, the Master, as was the ancient custom, puts the hem of his robe protectively over the kneeling man’s shoulder (katafa). This puts him under the Lord’s protection from all enemies. They embrace in a close hug, as Arab chiefs still do; the Lord makes a place for him and invites him to sit down beside him—they are at—one (2 Nephi 4:33; Alma 5:24).

    This is the imagery of the Atonement, the embrace: “The Lord hath redeemed my soul from hell; I have beheld his glory, and I am encircled about eternally in the arms of his love” (2 Nephi 1:15). “O Lord, wilt thou encircle me around in the robe of thy righteousness! O Lord, wilt thou make a way for mine escape before mine enemies!” (2 Nephi 4:33). “Behold, he sendeth an invitation unto all men, for the arms of mercy are extended towards them, and he saith: Repent, and I will receive you” (Alma 5:33).

    fn 5 Regarding kaphar, see Marcus Jastrow, A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature, 2 vols. (New York: Pardes, 1950), 1:661-62.

    fn 6 Regarding the Aramaic kafat, see William Gesenius, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, tr. Edward Robinson (Oxford: Clarendon, 1974), 1097; defined as “bind (…Syr. form knots,…twist into a knot, Ar. draw together….II. bring together); … they were bound…bind…bound.”

    fn 7 Regarding the Arabic kafat, see Ed Stanley Lane-Poole, Arabic-English Lexicon, 2 vols. (London: Williams and Norgate, 1885), 1 (7): 2618-23, defined as “He drew the thing together to himself,…and contracted it, grasped it or took it…. It [a garment] was drawn up, or tucked up, and contracted…. He took the whole of the property to hiimself.” (The general idea seems to be that of an embrace.)

    fn 8 [Omitted]

    fn 9 [Omitted]

    fn 19 [Omitted]

    fn 11 Regarding the Arabic kafata, see Poole, Arabic-English Lexicon, 1 (7): 2618-19.

  17. Kevin Barney says:

    Here is a non-LDS website that gives “embrace” as one of the meanings of kafata; is it wrong?

  18. Hans-Wehr gives the basic form of the verb as meaning “to restrain, detain, turn away, prevent, hold back”, which I suppose could indicate an older meaning along the lines Nibley refers to.

    Hans Wehr, as its title indicates, is very much a lexicon of “Modern Written Arabic.” We were discouraged from using it in reading ancient Arabic texts in my Arabic coursework, as it either lacks the vocabulary or the proper semantics for the time period.

    Do you have access to Lane (referred to in v. 7 as Nibley’s source) or anything older? I do not at the moment.

  19. Note- Nibley was certainly wrong at times with his Arabic, as pointed out in a lengthy FARMS paper here.

    Having done multiple years of it myself, I can say that Arabic is an amazingly difficult language with extremely broad semantic ranges. The joke goes that every word in Arabic has 4 meanings- the normal meaning, its opposite, something having to do with camels, and something having to do with sex :)

  20. Come now, no room for a laugh here and there? I am not for the record “a serious scholar”, just someone who knows a couple things here and there others sometimes miss, and someone who occasionally sees some humor in it. That said, Nitsav, my Arabic and piles of dictionaries are almost purely modern of various Fusha and Amiya varieties (I heard a variation early on of of your joke as well as every Arabic word having 3 meanings: itself, its opposite, and to make love). So Kevin, yes, perfectly possible that’s an older usage of the word. My Abdullah Yusuf Ali Qur’an gives an English interpretation for the verson on the Nabulsi.com site as “Have We not made the earth (as a place) to draw together the living and the dead”. “a-lam naj3al al-arD kifaataan a7ya’aan wa-amwaataan”.

  21. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks, Jamal. Of course there’s plenty of room for a laugh (we do a lot of laughing at this blog, which is one of its charms), and I got a chuckle from your comment. I was just trying to figure out whether there was a serious problem with Nibley’s rendering. I genuinely wanted to know (like the Brian Hauglid piece Nitsav linked to, I too have disagreed with Nibley from time to time, and I don’t want to play a role in circulating bad arguments).

  22. Oooooooh, I so don’t want to see the camel sex google searches that are going to land here now.

  23. Kevin Barney says:

    I took that as a challenge, Kristine, and googled arabic camel sex. This was the number one return.

  24. See no evil, see no evil, see no evil…

  25. Forest Simmons says:

    I agree with Ray in the first comment. It is useful to think of the atonement of Christ as everything he has done and is doing towards the fulfillment of his intercessory prayer, that we may be one with him as he is one with the father.

    It seems to me that the anguish that he suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane was caused by a vision of the full extent of the mess (especially man’s inhumanity to man) that he was being asked to clean up. Would he or would he not take upon himself the responsibility of fixing all of the broken relationships, etc.?

    The Lord works by means, not magic. It takes real work to save the creations of his hands. When we pollute the environment, we make more work for the Lord in renewing the earth so it can receive its paradisiacal glory.

    As we take his name upon him, we get enlisted in his work, too. His yoke is not a one person yoke. We get involved by doing our own small part in the great work of bringing to pass the immortality and eternal life of mankind.

    When we are all of one heart and one mind, like the people of Enoch and the people of the Celestial Kingdom, then we can say that the Lord’s intercessory prayer has been largely answered, that the at-one-ment has been accomplished, that the Lord has completed the awful responsibility of saving us (to the degree that we are amenable to his entreaties) that he took upon himself so long ago.

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