Archive for September, 2015

Let’s bomb Syria

Posted: September 28, 2015 by J in General

We don’t normally do straight political/current affairs posts at The Grit. But one of the great humanitarian disasters of the age is unfolding right now, we are involved, and it deserves our attention.

It’s nice to hear that France has joined the Coalition dropping bombs on Syrian towns and cities. The United States, Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates have been at it for a year now. Australia has recently joined in. It’s been so good that now France wants a piece of the incendiary action.

The purpose of the operation is to ‘degrade and ultimately destroy’ the IS and thus bring safety to the world. Sounds good doesn’t it? But here’s a strange thing: after all the bombing deaths, and around $1 billion worth of bombs so far, the Coalition is now admitting that IS seems to be as strong as ever, if not stronger. Not degraded that much, really, let alone destroyed.

Why not?

Because, since the bombing began, more and more foreigners have been flooding in to join the fanatical group. And more and more money is flooding in too.

Why is this happening?


click on picture to enlarge

The most obvious reason is to do with IS’s apocalyptic vision of its own role. It has set itself up as the true Caliphate, the bastion and defender of Islam against its enemies – in particular against the West. IS tells a story in which the hatred of Allah’s enemies everywhere is focussed on the Caliphate in a devastating war – a war from which the Caliphate emerges victorious. In the pursuit of this narrative the IS openly invites confrontation with the US and her allies. In fact, this confrontation is necessary to legitimate the story IS is spinning to young muslims everywhere via the Internet.

To provoke this war the IS has conducted and inspired terrorist attacks and attempts in various countries around the world, including France, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Tunisia, Italy, the US and many others.

These attacks have achieved two main goals:

First, they have led to Western leaders declaring the IS ‘a real threat’ to Western civilisation – music to IS’s ears. Its stature grows with every announcement of this sort – Western governments and media are doing its advertising for it free of charge. “FBI says IS is a bigger threat than Al Qaeda” – that sort of thing. Those are the headlines IS longs for. We’ve promoted them very quickly to the role of ‘biggest bad guy on the block’. Left to themselves they would have taken years to achieve this reputation.

Second, and most important of all, the attacks have led to retaliation. Like a kid throwing rocks at a wasps nest, IS has stirred up the wasps. They have effectively drawn the US and others into the very conflict they have been preaching. The West and its buddies have flown straight at ’em. In doing so they have of course entered into the IS apocalyptic narrative, and are now playing the part assigned to them.


Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, head of the IS

In other words the Coalition bombing campaign is convincing muslims around the world that IS’s vision is coming true. After all, the US is saying it will spend between $5-10 billion dollars on this conflict. If the West is taking it so seriously, it seems the Caliphate must be the real deal. And a $5 billion conflict is the kind of large-scale battle scenario the IS envisions. It’s happening just like they said it would. Baghdadi preaches the doomsday sermons, and the US provides him with the real-life illustrations.

The retaliation also tells muslims that the IS are in control of events, pulling the strings, orchestrating the actions of their enemies. They put out the bait, and we bit – and bit, and bit. We take the bait every time.

This stuff feeds straight into the IS’s promotional material. And that promotion is working: IS is looking better and better to young Sunni Muslims around the world. Even as we bomb the hell out of the current crop of IS fighters, that very bombing is enabling them to successfully recruit a larger crop to take their place. And to attract more and more funding from the oil-rich Middle Eastern muslim communities, such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.


IS promotional material

We’re like the old lady who fixed the holes in her blanket by cutting them out: every time we act, we make the problem bigger.

Countries like the US (and Australia) are aware of this situation and have said that they will stop their citizens emigrating to join the IS. Deal with the problem at both ends: cut off the supply of fighters and weed out the existing ones using high-tech weaponry. Sounds like a plan.

Trouble is, it hasn’t been working. Turns out we can’t control our citizens the way we thought we could. More and more have been leaving to head to Syria. Not even the US has been able to stop this at home, let alone stopping it in other countries. And no one can stop or even trace the flow of money.

Also our high-tech weaponry hasn’t been as good at singling out militants as we were led to believe. More and more reports of civilian deaths from Coalition bombs are coming through – which of course turns the population further against the west and towards the IS. After all, who is killing their children? We are. Turns out that if your enemy is in a town, bombing is not a very effective way to root him out without harming the civvies. It’s fundamentally a blunt instrument.  Who knew?

The Western governments involved are starting to look rather foolish. Guilty of over-confidence and over-reach all the way down the line. Acting the parent figure, asserting their will on foreign soil, controlling their own people with totalitarian thoroughness. Arrogant, ineffective, hapless, out of their depth and overwhelmed by complex human dynamics that bombing just can’t deal with.

States as powerful as our modern western nations are apt to fall into the delusion that they are all-powerful. Our societies lack any real belief in god, but nature abhors a vacuum. The state inevitably moves in to take up the role, playing god themselves, announcing what they will allow and not allow, stating in advance what they will achieve. Somehow no matter how many times the reality doesn’t match up to the dream, yet the delusion remains. You might think that after Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, a bit of humility would have set in. But no, the military machine is so vast that it seems to generate unlimited quantities of hubris.

Let’s take a step back a consider a few key facts about bombing Syria:

  1. There is an effectively unlimited supply of muslim fighters for the IS, because the pool they are recruiting from is so vast: hundreds of millions.
  2. There is a bottomless purse of money available to fund the IS so long as it captures the hearts of Middle Eastern muslims.
  3. Closing borders to prevent fighters reaching Syria is non-achievable.
  4. Stopping the flow of funds funds is non-achievable.
  5. Western bombing makes this recruiting and fundraising more effective not less.
  6. The West has a virtually unlimited supply of ordnance. It can bomb indefinitely.

Where will all this end? It won’t. It’s a cyclic structure. We’re talking escalation: endless cycles of escalation is the trajectory we are currently on. A bigger and bigger war in Syria.

Which is exactly what the IS wants to see happen.

syria-image2Of course we know that eventually the US and friends will get tired of it all and pack up and go home, like they did in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. But what sort of Syria will be left by then?

Take a moment, then, to think about Syria itself – the towns and cities of Syria; the ordinary, non-fanatical people of Syria. They have been getting bombed and shelled and generally shot to pieces for four years now. By the government hitting at the rebels. By the many and various rebel groups, hitting at the government. By the rebel groups fighting each other. By the IS. By the government attacking the IS. By the rebel groups attacking the IS. And so on.

They’ve endured chemical weapons. The government has employed cluster bombs and scud missiles against its own people, as well as barrel bombs of TNT and napalm-like fuel-bombs dropped from helicopters. Rebels have used numerous suicide bombings, as well as mortars, rockets and Howitzer-type cannon. Also tanks captured from the Syrian Army.

Stuff is exploding everywhere in Syria. So many people are firing weapons in so many directions, it must be very confusing for the citizens to know who is firing at them at any particular time. The place is in chaos. 4 million have fled the country. 7 million others are displaced within Syria. Just stop and think about those figures. They tell a story of misery on a scale hard to imagine.

And what contribution has the West decided to make to this catastrophe? More bombs. I’m guessing most Syrians would feel that more bombs at this stage were not altogether helpful. That they had a sufficient amount of bombing of their own going on, and foreign bombing was surplus to requirements. I think if the Coalition leaders were to take the trouble to survey the ordinary people of Syria, asking them ‘would they like more bombs dropped on their country?’ they might be surprised by a certain lack of enthusiasm among the natives.


None of this is new. Everything here has been said before.

So why are our governments continuing to bomb Syria? 

Because it feels good to be doing something, that’s why. We can’t do much, we can’t make any sense at all out of the crazy complex puzzle of warring factions in Syria and the Middle East generally. We can’t dismantle one terrorist group without three others springing up as a result. We can’t stop young muslims at home being radicalised and acting out.

But there’s one thing we know how to do well: we know how to drop bombs! And when you’ve spent as much on military toys as the West has, it feels good to be playing with them. It feels right. It validates all the military expenditure, if you actually get to use it. We did it in Libya, and look how well that turned out!

And anything seems better than admitting that we are powerless. Anything. Even playing right into the hands of IS seems better than admitting we can’t fix things. Bad stuff is happening over there. Bad stuff is threatening us at home. Taking the fight to its source feels hopeful. It helps us feel powerful for a bit longer. Contributing to the smashing of Syria into little bits seems a small price to pay.

syria_whose_side_cartoon_468_clippedOk so we don’t have much actual strategy about how bombs are going to help resolve the massively complex civil war raging there. Ok so the bombing is not working so far. But you know what, I can think of a great way to improve on our efforts there. We need to try harder. And longer. It’s only been a year. Yes, that’s right, thinking all this over, putting together the pieces, I think it all points in one direction. There’s only one logical, reasonable way forward here:


Lots more.

When I put it like that, isn’t it obvious?



It’s nice to know that Putin is reading this blog. Just days after we posted, he’s taken up our advice and brought Russia in to join the bombing! Sure, he’s bombing different guys, some of the other rebel groups, to help Assad, you know the guy who we want to see removed (though we hate his enemies even more than him). Whatever. The main thing is, more bombs falling!

I’d like to think that Australia has helped generate international interest in this exciting bombing campaign. We’ve led by example, making it that much easier for timid nations like Russia to join the fray.

lamb_thumbThe Cross of Christ is never described as a propitiation in the NT. At least not using hilas-. That’s the conclusion we’re going to come to at the end of this study. Just letting you know in advance – if you don’t want to come to that conclusion you might want to stop reading now.

When we turn to the NT, there are only a handful of instances where the apostles use the hilas- word group. This scarcity should give us pause. If the term is so vital for understanding the Cross, as is often claimed, then it is strange that it is used so rarely. I would suggest that on the contrary these occurrences of hilas are not intended to do the heavy lifting of our atonement theology. Rather they provide one metaphor among many in the apostolic vocabulary of atonement.

Let’s take a look at the few occurrences there are in the NT.

In Luke 18:13 the tax collector in Jesus’ parable says ‘God be hilaskomai for me a sinner’. Here God is the one acted on by the passive verb. Propitiation would seem to be in view. ‘God let your anger be turned away from me.’

In Hebrews 9:5 hilasterion is the mercy seat, a piece of Levitical furniture.

The other four occurrences refer more clearly to Jesus, and are of particular interest to us.

In Hebrews 2:17 the high priest is chosen ‘to hilaskesthai the sins of the people.’ Here we have a sacrificial context, and no personal direct object for the verb. God is not acted on: the sins are. This is the typical Levitical usage (see previous post): no surprise in a letter like Hebrews! Cleansing is in view.

In 1 John 2:2 we read “and Jesus Christ is the hilasmos concerning our sins”. The context is sacrificial: a few verses earlier we read:

“and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin… If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will release from us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Here we have cleansing through blood sacrifice: a Levitical context. In keeping with this setting the hilasmos is directed not at God but at our sins: “He is the hilasmos concerning our sins.” An expiatory sense is indicated. The other occurrence in 1 John 4:10 is very similar. God is not pictured here as alienated and needing to be placated, but rather as overflowing with love and goodwill. In his goodness he provides us with a hilasmos, a sacrifice to put away sin.

In both these instances John sees hilasmos as an ongoing reality: Jesus, post-resurrection, is now our cleansing.

The last occurrence is Romans 3:25: “whom God set forth as a hilasterion through faith, by his blood…” This comes at a pivotal moment in Romans. This is the verse usually made to bear most weight in the case for the Cross as a propitiation.

It is also extremely difficult to translate. Paul has compacted many concepts and images into a single sentence: this is not Paul at his clearest! It’s a pity to hang too much of your theology on such an opaque sentence. Let’s have a go at understanding it.

This passage in Romans is absolutely dripping with OT references. We are deep in Scripture territory here: in the past four verses Paul has referenced the law of Moses (twice), the prophets and redemption – all classic OT themes. Now in v.25 he pictures God as setting forth a blood offering. The verb protitheimi is a standard term for making certain sorts of offering in the LXX Torah, especially the showbread. We are in a traditional Hebrew context here: try to imagine Paul speaking with a thick Jewish accent!

The offering which God sets forth here is a blood offering. It is his Son, Christ, who is set forth as crucified.

Paul invites us to consider Jesus’ death in the light of a Levitical offering or sacrifice. But Paul does not use the metaphor with strict precision. For one thing, protitheimi is not normally used of blood offerings. Also here God himself provides the offering. This is reminiscent of the story of Abraham and Isaac on Mt Moriah, where Yahweh provides the sacrifice in place of Isaac (Genesis 22).

Paul adds one further word to complete his picture: God sets Christ forth as a hilasterion in blood. This word hilasterion is the word we are investigating. Some evangelical scholars tell us it should be translated ‘propitiation.’ But this is curious, because hilasterion never refers to propitiation in the LXX version of the OT. In secular Greek usage the word could be used to mean this. But it is hard to believe that in this hyper-Jewish context, Paul would go against the traditional Jewish meaning and import one from a foreign context. We would do better to exhaust all other options for interpretations before settling for such an unlikely solution.

In Levitical usage this word always refers to the mercy seat, the cover over the ark which relates to atonement. It is the place where blood is sprinkled on the day of atonement, i.e. it is part of the sacrificial system. Given the sacrificial context Paul has created, we cannot help thinking of this mercy seat and day of atonement when he uses hilasterion here. Probably he is suggesting that we should understand what happened with Jesus’ blood in those terms: as a kind of day of atonement event.

As we have seen (in the previous post), this Levitical imagery has little to do with propitiation and everything to do with cleansing.

However, Paul handles his images quite loosely. For in the Levitical system it is supposed to be the offering, not the mercy seat, that is set forth. It is set forth (at least the blood is) on the mercy seat. But Paul says ‘God set forth the mercy seat’Perhaps in this highly compact sentence he is using a kind of shorthand, eliding and condensing ideas, leaving out connecting words. If we were to expand it, it might read:

…whom God set forth to be our day-of-atonement offering, altar and mercy seat, through his blood shed for us at the cross.

So how should we translate this term hilasterion in Romans 3:25?

If we are right about Paul’s shorthand approach, then it’s not going to be easy to translate it. But if we pull back and look at the whole sentence, the sense is clear enough:

“The righteous salvation of God has been revealed for both Jew and Gentile, and it has come apart from the Mosaic law. For Jew and Gentile are on the same footing, as sinners deprived of the life of God. But now they are put right and rescued from that sin and guilt freely through Jesus Christ. God set him forth instead of altar, ark or sacrifice, as the place where our sins are taken away. Jesus’ blood, not that of animals, cleanses sinners. It cleanses all who place their trust in him, observance of the law notwithstanding.”

This is a paraphrase. How would we do a stricter translation of Romans 3:25? I would probably still paraphrase slightly:

“whom God set forth as a place of atonement through faith, by his blood…”

It doesn’t yield its meaning immediately, does it. But then, neither does Paul’s Greek version, so that’s ok by me. Really, there is no good translation of this difficult verse. Sorry.

I think the NRSV and NIV do pretty well here, reading ‘as a sacrifice of atonement’. The Holman’s reading, ‘as a propitiation’, is without linguistic justification.


We’ve done a pretty simple word-study of ‘hilas-‘ in Scripture, using some of the basic tools of lexical semantics: circles of context, fields of meaning, buddy words, semantic range (for more on these, see Post 3). All these tools were well understood by the 1960s when Morris was doing his work. They’re not hard to use. They protect us from committing a whole bunch of exegetical fallacies. In this case they have also yielded a clear result to our inquiries.

What have we found?

In the four cases where the hilas- word-group is applied to Jesus, it is used in a Levitical context, and should be given the Levitical sense of ‘cleansing’. We have found no instances in the NT where hilas- is used to describe the Cross as a ‘propitiation.’ This is consistent with the NT view of the atonement, that ‘in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). He does not need to be propitiated: he is the one doing the reconciling! It is us who need to change.

Giving a nod back to the place we started from – the idea that propitiation-terms describing the cross are evidence for a Satisfaction Theory of the atonement – we can say, this is not true of the hilas- word-group.

Blood 1So what does hilas- actually mean? Morris didn’t have the linguistic chops to do the word-study. What would it look like if he had?

We are going to employ some of the basic tools of lexical semantics, nothing too technical, and see what we can learn about this term. (For a brief Dummies Guide to the tools we’ll be using, see here.)

Getting set up

First, we need to keep in mind that we are doing a word-study not a theological study. So at the end we are not going to be ready to answer the question in the title. Sorry. But hopefully we will be able to say what hilas- means in the NT.

Second, we are studying a Greek term, not an English one: hilas- not ‘propitiation’. So we don’t know what it means yet. And there’s no one we can ask. The only authority on NT Greek alive today is Jesus of Nazareth, and he is not currently taking questions. There is no authoritative book of definitions we can fall back on. We just have to figure out what it means from the way it’s used. Just like the guys who write the lexicons. So it’s all about usage, folks.

Third, there is probably more than one meaning for this term. There usually is. This is called a word’s semantic range. And when we look at the hilas- word group, there certainly seems to be a range of meanings. So we’re not going to end up with a tidy one-word answer that will make a nice chapter-title. Again, sorry.

sacred texts

sacred texts

Fourthly, we need to choose our territory. We are particularly interested in what hilas- means in the New Testament. But Morris was right to start his study in the LXX – because this is the literary context in which the NT documents were written. These are their sacred texts: they are massively influential. Simply put, the apostles’ writings are saturated with the language and imagery of the LXX. The NT documents are Jewish writings through and through. If you think in terms of concentric circles of context, the LXX is a close-in circle of context. Other domains, such as pagan/classical usage, are much further out and less influential. So we are going straight to the LXX to find our meanings there.

In the Old Testament LXX

Scholars agree that in the LXX hilas- very often conveys the sense of ‘cleansing’ or ‘expiation’. Here’s why: because it often has ‘sin’ as its object. In the usage, generally hilas- acts upon sin to make it better in some way. In other words, we’re talking cleansing, forgiveness, purification, purging – something of that sort is demanded by the usage.

However in some contexts a propitiatory sense seems to be in view, and at times perhaps both meanings are present. We will return to this.


a network of buddy-words

Nearly half of all the occurrences of hilas- in the LXX version of the OT are concentrated in two books: Leviticus and Numbers (76 out of 166 occurrences). The most frequent form of the word in the OT is exilaskomai (96 occurrences). So we will start with this term as it is used in Leviticus and Numbers.

In this context exilaskomai hangs out with buddy words like ‘sin’, ‘offering’, ‘release of sins’, ‘priest’, ‘blood’, ‘slaughter’, ‘altar’, ‘clean’, ‘purify’. These words create a field of meaning: they become a context for each other that influences the meaning of each word in the field. In these books, exilaskomai has a specific Levitical meaning, a strongly sacrificial flavour. It is practically a technical term for priestly operations.

One piece of grammar is very revealing here: in this priestly setting exilaskomai never has a personal direct object: i.e. there is no offended party in view being acted on. Rather it is the sins of the people which are acted upon: exilaskomai is what happens to their guilt. The categories at work are clean and unclean, not wrath and peace. Here exilaskomai means ‘cleansing from sin’ or ‘expiation’.

The other main forms of hilas- that occur in this Levitical context also relate to sacrifice. The hilasterion is a part of the ark: the ‘mercy seat’ or ‘atonement cover’ where blood offerings are sprinkled once a year on the day of atonement. And that day itself is called the day of hilasmos: ’the day of cleansing/atonement.’ This was a special day for acknowledgement of sin and sacrifices of cleansing. On this day offerings taken into the hilasterion achieve exilaskomai. So the three terms are closely linked, centred around the Levitical system of sacrifices and especially the day of atonement.

So we can say that in these sacrificial contexts in the LXX, hilas- nearly always refers to cleansing not propitiation: the removal of sin, not the turning away of wrath. This reflects the role the Levitical sacrifices have in the life of Israel. Leviticus/Numbers makes it very clear that the sacrificial system is established for the cleansing of unintentional sins:

When anyone sins unintentionally in any of the LORD’S commandments about things not to be done, and does any one of them: … he shall offer for the sin that he has committed            (Leviticus 4:1-3 – see also the comment on this in Hebrews 9:7).

In the Torah, these sins in ignorance are never said to arouse God’s wrath. God’s wrath is only ever aroused through Israel’s deliberate unfaithfulness. But dealing with rebellion like this goes well beyond the paygrade of the sons of Aaron. Sacrifice is not adequate to propitiate an angry God. It was never intended for this purpose.

Elsewhere in the OT, on occasions when God’s wrath is aroused, hilas- terms can be used to mean ‘propitiation’. Compare the very different use of hilaskomai in Exodus 32:14. Moses is on the mountain pleading for the people: a non-sacrificial context. The people have deliberately sinned with the golden calf, and Yahweh plans to destroy them. But then we read:

And Yahweh was hilasthe concerning the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

Note the differences here: there is a direct personal object: Yahweh. The verb affects him: God is turned away from the evil he had planned for Israel. Here it is not cleansing which is in view: it is all about God’s anger. This purely propitiatory usage is fairly rare.


circles of context

We have seen two outer limits of the usage of hilas-: simple cleansing and simple propitiation. In most other occurrences of this wordgroup in the OT, things are not so simple. Sin, not God, is usually the object, the thing acted on. This suggests a widespread expiatory meaning. However it is often possible to argue (as Morris does) that ideas of wrath are hovering about in the wider context, flavouring hilas- with a ‘background’ propitiatory sense.

How strong is that flavouring? In terms of our concentric circles of context, the strength of the influence will depend on proximity: propitiatory ideas nearby (say in the same verse or chapter) will influence the sense of hilas- more, while those in the wider context (say, elsewhere in the same bible book) would be in an outer circle, and so flavour hilas- only slightly. In other words, even when the term means ‘cleansing’, the sense of propitiation can be overlaid on this to varying degrees.


This brief survey of hilas- in the LXX has yielded some helpful results. It has identified the ‘home ground’ of the group: Leviticus/Numbers, and its most common semantic territory – Levitical cleansing. It has also given us two outer limits of the word-group’s meanings: simple ‘cleansing’ and simple ‘propitiation’. We have also seen how these meanings can be combined and sit together in a single occurrence.

That’s our OT survey. Now we are ready for the main event: how is hilas- used in the NT?

Tomorrow: hilas- in the New Testament

confess(In the previous post we began our assessment of the work of Leon Morris on the word ‘propitiation’. Here’s the rest.)

Next Morris turns to hilasmos. He concludes once again that ‘whenever’ it means forgiveness the circumstances indicate the turning away of divine wrath.

One example should be enough to test the quality of this conclusion. In Psalm 130, we read ‘but there is forgiveness with you’. The context celebrates God’s loving orientation towards Israel. He does not mark their sins but will instead redeem them from them all. It would seem that God’s wrath is far from view in this Psalm. But no, Morris finds propitiation implied even here: “the word occurs in a context of trouble.” That’s it, that’s the proof. Did you catch it? The writer is facing troubles: a clear statement of God’s wrath(!) Apparently God has marked the psalmist’s sins after all. And not only is God’s wrath here: for Morris the turning away of wrath is a ‘necessary feature’ implied by this context of trouble.

It seems there is no context where Morris cannot find the idea of God’s wrath being turned away. I suppose he might say the whole Bible is such a context – in which case every word in it must necessarily speak of propitiation! In any case, Morris’s approach makes the business of considering individual examples of usage pretty pointless: we know what the outcome will always be.

Next is hileos. Morris’s comment on Deuteronomy 21:8 is revealing. The context is all about the removal of guilt in case of murder. Clearly expiation is in view. The elders are to sacrifice a heifer and say, “Do not let the guilt of innocent blood remain upon your people.” There is no mention here of wrath or punishment. In spite of this, Morris detects it: “It is difficult to interpret this other than as a propitiatory rite.” Why is that? Why could it not be, say, an expiatory rite? No reasons are given. In fact we already know that Morris has ruled out the category of simple expiation a priori. Actually one gets the feeling that this comment of Morris’s pretty much sums up his approach to studying the usage of the hilas– word-group: he finds it difficult to seriously consider interpretations other than propitiatory ones. If so, this tells us about Morris – but not about hileos.

The real test for Morris comes with exilaskomai.  For the word is mainly used in Leviticus, in a cultic context. But in Leviticus there is no mention, no suggestion of God’s wrath: the focus is always on the removal of sin or guilt. In fact the book is remarkable for omitting this common OT idea, the wrath of God. In this cultic sphere, the category is apparently absent.

You might think it would be difficult to find propitiatory ideas, then, in this Levitical term, exilaskomai. But I think by now you’ll have guessed that Morris finds them. Here’s how he does it: there are a handful of occurrences of exilaskomai outside this cultic context. He decides that this reflects the normal usage of the word, and that the huge number of cultic occurances are the exceptional usage. Ok…

He calls these few non-cultic occurrences “what the verb means in itself quite apart from the conventional use of the cultus.” He then demonstrates to his own satisfaction that these few occurrences allow of a propitiatory interpretation. The next step is to let these few non-cultic occurrences to control the meaning of the term when found in a cultic context: they ‘give us the key to the understanding of the cultic references.’ They become in effect the tail that wags the dog. They force a propitiatory meaning onto the Levitical usage.

This is Morris at his worst. As we have pointed out elsewhere, this idea of an intrinsic meaning in a word ‘in and of itself’ apart from context and usage, this has been thoroughly discredited by a century of lexical semantics by now. Usage and context are the keys to word meaning. For Morris to extract the word from its cultic setting in order to pin down its ‘real’ meaning apart from all the distractions of context, is naive. To then reimport this meaning into the cultic usage, is to commit the ‘illegitimate identity transfer’ which James Barr complained was such a common error among biblical scholars. A word’s meaning in one context cannot determine its meaning in a very different context.

In fact, words take on different meanings in different settings. Especially in a technical setting like the Levitical instructions, a word could easily have a special meaning. The legitimate way to discover that meaning is to look at Levitical usage. Simple. But that yields an ‘expiation’ result…

At the end of this chapter studying the OT usage of the hilas- word-group, Morris summarises his position beautifully: “When we reach the stage where we must say ‘When the LXX translators used “propitiation” they did not mean propitiation’, it is surely time to call a halt. No sensible man uses one word when he means another.” This would seem to be a conclusive argument – if the LXX was using ‘propitiation’. But that is precisely what Morris is attempting to prove. What this sums up so clearly is that Morris has all along been assuming the meaning of the word in order to prove that assumption. He might as well say, “It must mean propitiation, because that’s what it means.” We might remember that he began his discussion with this same argument. This silliness does nothing to advance our understanding of the hilas- group.

Such large-scale and persistent methodological flaws and follies as we have identified render Morris’s work of little value as a contribution to the study of the hilas word-group. The fact is that neither he, nor the ‘authorities’ he adduces, seem to understood how to employ the disciplines of modern lexical semantics (the science of studying words).

Sadly the evangelical constituency for which he was writing had even less understanding of these things than he did, and so were easily impressed by the appearance of scholarship. I for one grew up on this diet, being assured that “it has now been settled by the best scholars that this word means ‘propitiation’”. It is distressing to revisit this from a linguistic point of view, and find such poor quality work. I come away from this review feeling that the Christian community deserved better from a scholar they trusted so much.

In summary, pretty much everyone agrees that the idea of ‘expiation’ is central to in LXX usage of the hilas- word-group. Morris has argued that propitiatory ideas are also to the fore whenever this root is used. But he has not produced convincing evidence for this. The best we could say is, he has shown from the usage that ‘propitiation’ is sometimes in view in some of the terms studied. But in other hilas- words – in particular those connected with the Levitical sacrifices – there is no evidence of ‘propitiation’.

Is the Cross a Propitiation?

Posted: September 1, 2015 by J in Bible, Linguistics, Theology

leonmorris_narrowweb__300x3670(This post started life as an appendix to our series on the Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement. But it’s outgrown that place, so I’ve promoted it to the status of a series in its own right.)

We’re following up the word most often adduced to lend support to Satisfaction Theory: the hilas- word-group. The claim is that it means ‘propitiation’, which is an ST kind of term.

So what does ‘hilas-’ actually mean?

Let’s take a look this word-group: does it mean ‘propitiation’? The most famous exponent of the ‘hilas- means propitiation’ view is evangelical scholar Leon Morris. ST subscribers, when pushed, will tend to fall back on Morris’s authority. Let’s take a look at his work on this word.

Morris on Propitiation

Morris devotes two chapters to ‘propitiation’ in his book The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross: one on the OT and one on the NT. We will confine our critique to the first chapter, on ‘propitiation in the OT’.

Morris has titled his chapter Propitiation, but it’s actually structured as a study of the hilas- group: so we might be forgiven for thinking we’re dealing with a foregone conclusion about the meaning of ‘hilas-’. I think we’d have to call this a bad sign.

In his introduction Morris tells us he will exclude some occurrences of the word-group hilas- from his study, on the basis that they don’t refer to the cross! Apparently we are only studying occurrences that help describe the cross: i.e. we are trying to build a theological concept from this word. Morris tells us that though the word occurs few times in the NT, ‘We should not dismiss the concept as unimportant, for the idea is often present where this particular terminology is absent, e.g. in passages dealing with the wrath of God’ (p.144 my italics). Next Morris calls propitiation a ‘category’. It seems we have a concept in our sights, not a term.

After this introduction, Morris proceeds as though he’s doing a word study of the hilas- word group. So are we studying a theological concept, or a word? James Barr identified as a fundamental problem in word studies of the bible, this very confusion between studying terms and studying concepts. Morris ignores Barr’s warning, and never manages to clarify which one he’s studying. He builds this methodological confusion into his deep structure. Effectively we’re doing theology through word study. Which, as we saw last post, is a Bad Thing.

Morris begins with pagan/classical usage. The word-group means ‘to appease or placate’. “Hilasmos is the means of appeasing God or of averting his anger.” Morris concludes that ‘when a first century greek heard the words of this group, there would be aroused in his mind thoughts of propitiation.’ Morris doesn’t arrive at this conclusion by doing any actual word study: he simply relies on the opinions of ‘authorities’ such as Dodd and Moulton.

Next Morris cites Dodd’s opinion that the Scripture usage is different from the pagan usage: cleansing not propitiation is intended in both LXX and NT. Morris has two objections to this:

1. If the Scripture authors wanted to say ‘cleansing’ why did they use the word for ‘propitiation’?

This is of course a nonsense, assuming his conclusion in order to prove it. The question of what the word means has not yet been settled, Dr Morris: that’s why you’re studying it, remember!

Morris’s second objection is:

2. Dodd rejects the whole idea of the wrath of God, and thus prefers ‘cleansing’ for theological reasons. I.e. his view is biased by non-linguistic considerations. There follows an extended digression on the wrath of God in Scripture. Morris does not explain why this is here. One can only infer that by countering Dodd’s theology, Morris thinks he has countered his assertions about the word-group ‘hilas-’. Now we are doing word-study through theology! Once again the confusion of word-study and concept study muddies everything, producing this lengthy, confused digression.

Having done as much as possible to pre-judge the question of what these words mean, Morris now finally turns to looking at usage in Scripture.


Morris starts with hilaskomai. He acknowledges that “the Hebrew verb it translates conveys thoughts like ‘forgive’.” But he qualifies this: “if the particular forgiveness or purging of sin is one which involves as a necessary feature the putting away of the divine wrath” then propitiatory ideas can be seen still present in the term. Pay attention to that sentence: it’s going to get a work-out before long.

It turns out that Morris discovers ‘the putting away of God’s wrath’ as a necessary feature pretty often. On Psalm 65:3, where there is no mention of wrath in the entire psalm, Morris nevertheless concludes: “The context tells us that ‘words of lawless men have overpowered us’, and once more we see the kind of thing which would naturally be associated with divine wrath” . And apparently Morris can deduce from this that ‘putting away’ of that wrath is also in view here. Note that none of the terminology of wrath or putting away is present in Psalm 65. Yet Morris finds this is an example of the situation he posited, where putting away of wrath is a ‘necessary feature’ of the forgiveness in view. This is remarkable exegesis, to say the least.

How does Morris know that wrath is in view here? He tells us how: ‘lawless men’ would naturally be associated with divine wrath. In other words his criterion for discovering propitiation as a ‘necessary feature’ of a text, is that the text have some sort of evil in view. That’s all that’s needed. It turns out that for Morris, whenever anything to do with sin is in view, this is evidence that ‘putting away God’s wrath’ is implied.

Let’s get this straight. The question we’re pursuing is, does hilaskomai mean ‘cleanse’ (following Dodd) or ‘propitiate’? Both meanings are about sin. But ‘cleanse’ is about the sinner, while ‘propitiate’ is about the placating of God. However, Morris’s approach in Psalm 65 is that if sin is in view nearby, wrath is implied, and if wrath is implied, the turning away of God’s wrath is implied. And so if the word hilaskomai occurs in that context the meaning is necessarily propitiatory. Did you notice the trick here? For Morris, hilaskomai cannot possibly mean just ‘cleanse’. Because ‘cleanse’ always involves sin. In other words one of the two options is being ruled out a priori. In effect we are presented with a foregone conclusion. While maintaining the appearance of studying word usage, usage is not allowed to affect the result. Indeed Morris gets his result in spite of the apparent lack of propitiatory language in the context where hilaskomai occurs. Psalm 65 is an example of this, but he does it in case after case.