The Hebrew noun kofer is usually translated as "covering" or "atonement". But neither of these English words fully describes the type of "covering ritual" that happens.
When one party has an offense against another, a covering ritual is an accounting that clears an obligation by removing the cause of offense from view. In Germanic culture this ritual is called a weregeld.
The covering ritual does not require that what was damaged be fixed, or what was lost be replaced. The many times its verb form, kipayr is translated 'clean', 'cleanse', or 'purify', show that atonement is not about repayment or "buying back" but is about "cleaning the slate".
(Aside from this ritual meaning, the word kofer also refers bribes and ransoms, which are other things that use money to remove a cause of strife. But this essay only discusses the covering ritual.)
The earliest scriptural example of this covering ritual is found in Genesis 20:16, when Avimelech offers Abraham, as witness that Sarah's virtue has not been compromised, enough silver to cover her from people's eyes.
|To Sarah he said, "Behold, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver; behold, it is for you a covering of the eyes to all that are with you, and to all you are vindicated."|
In that verse the noun is kasah, not kofer, because Avimelech phrases his decree to mention the covering of witness's eyes instead of the covering of his offense. But the ritual is still the same. Avimelech physically covered Sarah with silver to as literally as possible hide his offense from view.
We see the ritual again in Exodus 21:30, in which a person indirectly responsible for murder by not properly containing a dangerous animal escapes from capital punishment with the covering ritual. The murderer covers himself (the cause of offense) from view.
|If there shall be laid on him a covering then he shall give for the ransom of his life whatever is placed upon him.|
The aggrieved party would determine whether they wanted a monetary compensation of gold, silver, or grain. Then the criminal would gather enough of that currency to completely cover himself when he lay down on the ground. The idea was that the redemption money removed criminal's obligation to the aggrieved party from sight and thus provided a clean slate.
Numbers 35:31-32 continues discussing this ritual. The covering ritual cannot be used by someone who directly commits murder. Someone who intentionally murdered cannot purchase escape from capital punishment, and someone who accidentally murdered cannot purchase escape from confinement in a city of refuge even if the aggrieved family was willing. Only someone who indirectly murdered, through the act of an animal he owned, would do the covering ritual of Exodus 21:30.
In Numbers 17:12-13 (16:47-48), Aharon literally hides the Israelites from view as a covering ritual. In Numbers 31:14-24, after the battle against the Midyanim, the officers who erred (verses 14-24) give all the jewelry and gold from the battle in a covering ritual. In Exodus 32:30-32 Moshe offers himself as a covering ritual for the people after the episode of the golden calf, but God refuses to accept that offer.
Other scriptural examples of the covering ritual can be found in Genesis 32 and 2nd Samuel 21.
How would a spiritual offense against God be covered? With a spiritual substance!
In Leviticus 17:11 God explains that that nefesh (soul) is the proper spiritual material to cover a spiritual offense, using animal blood.
|Because the soul of the flesh is in its blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar for a covering over your souls; because the blood, it, in soul, will cover.|
To the ancient Israelite mindset this would be a small conceptual adjustment. People's offenses were spiritual and not economic crimes against God. So instead of covering your physical body with physical wealth to get a clean slate in God's eyes, cover an altar (which stands in for your soul) with an animal's soul, using its blood.
This spiritual version of the covering ritual did not always require imagery so directly parallel to the physical ritual. The half-shekel census during the Tabernacle's construction provided "covering for the souls" of the Israelites although a single coin did not hide an Israelite from view. Similarly, in Isaiah 6:7 a coal cleanses Isaiah's lips with a spiritual act that doesn't hide anything from view, and in Isaiah 27:8-9 exile is called a covering Jacob's offenses.
Yeshua's covenant is remarkable because we no longer need a covering ritual to receive forgiveness from God for spiritual offenses. In Yeshua's covenant God deals with our guilt by removing our iniquity, no longer by simply overlooking the offense. Romans 4:4-8 and First John 1:9 explain that faith allows Yeshua's followers to regain a clean slate when repenting wholeheartedly because our redemption from slavery to our evil inclination lets God forgive while being just.
Scripture never claims Yeshua's sacrifice is a covering ritual. Four few verses are typically mistranslated to include the word "atonement".
Two of these verses, Romans 5:10-11 and Hebrews 2:14-18, actually discuss how Yeshua's death was an alternative and catalyst that allows God to forgive us without compromising his standards of justice (because it removed our iniquity so our guilt no longer a hindrance to intimacy with God; see Isaiah 53:10 and 59:1-2). The other two verses, First John 2:2 and 4:10, use a word that means "reconciliation" but is often mistranslated as "atonement" or "propitiation".
Scripture does include a three examples of what can count as a covering ritual in Yeshua's covenant: faith (Romans 3:24-25 and 4:4-8), charity (First Peter 4:8), and keeping others accountable (James 5:20). These bring us closer to repentance and thus closer to having a clean slate with God.
Because Yeshua's sacrifice is about removing iniquity, not about being a covering ritual to hide our offenses, we should not act as if we cannot offend God. It is certainly true that our repentant act of entering Yeshua's covenant included making use of that covenant's ability to acquire a clean slate through repentance. But we can and do commit new offenses against God, and these distance us from God until we regain a clean slate by repenting of the offenses.