Tuesday, January 8, 2013

"Mercy Seat" or "Atonement Cover"?

Biblegems #117
Question: Why does the NIV use the term “atonement cover” in Exodus 27:17, when the KJV and most other translations use the term “mercy seat”?

Here is the verse in question:
         Ex. 25:17 Make an atonement cover of pure gold—two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. (NIV)
         Ex. 25:17 And thou shalt make a mercy seat of pure gold: two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof, and a cubit and a half the breadth thereof. (KJV)

The answer is a matter of both translation and principles of biblical interpretation.

First, the Translation
The Hebrew term we translate into English as either “mercy seat” or “atonement cover” is the noun “khapporet.” The basic meaning of the Hebrew word is “to make an atonement.” Neither the word “seat” nor “cover” is actually involved in the fundamental meaning of the word “Khapporet.” We’ll look at that under Interpretation.

Behind the noun “khapporet” is the verb “kapar,” which means “I, make an atonement, make reconciliation”. [i] The idea of “cover” or “conceal” stems from a similar Arabic word, but that meaning is not native to the Hebrew. Kapar is the same Hebrew word that is behind the name of the familiar Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur, “Day of Atonement.”

Then, The Interpretation
As was mentioned earlier, the word “seat,” “lid” or “cover” is not present in the Hebrew. Nevertheless, the object we commonly know as the “mercy seat” was the lid on the Ark of the Covenant that is described in verse 17. The English word “seat” can be used in a variety of ways. The sense intended by the translators of the KJV was probably “position” or “place,” not a place to sit down. In other words, the Ark of the Covenant was the place of atonement, the place where God extended mercy toward sinners, and the lid was the focus of that atonement because it is there, above the cover, where God would speak with Moses (Ex. 25:22).

The Greek translation (the LXX) of this passage in Exodus translates khapporet as the hilasterion, meaning the “propitiatory covering” or “place of forgiveness,” and the New Testament follows this Greek translation in Hebrews 9:5. The translators of the KJV followed the LXX and its New Testament counterpart, but worded “propitiatory covering” as “mercy seat.” That is decision of interpretation, not translation.

The translators of the NIV chose to follow the more literal Hebrew in Exodus 25:17, rather than the LXX translation. They also chose to follow the literal Greek in Hebrews 9:5, staying with “propitiatory covering.” Both the KJV and the NIV had to supply the word “cover” or “seat” where it is only implied in Exodus 25:17.

As we have seen before in Bible Gems, translation and interpretation can be a tricky business, and the lines between the two can easily become blurred. But nothing is lost in either translation. The Ark of the Covenant, a foreshadowing of the cross of Christ, is where atonement (propitiation) is made for sin, and where mercy is received by those whose sins are washed clean by the shed blood of the Lamb!

[i] Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, #1023.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post.Very inspiring.We have learned to earn, grow, and live a fulfilled and happy life in the Spirit.I think interpreting our lives would mean on how we live our christian life more than any translation agency could ever offer.