Is the Cross a Propitiation? Part 3: That word again

Posted: September 4, 2015 by J in General
Tags: , ,

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

  1. David McKay says:

    I’m puzzled why the writers here choose to be anonymous.

  2. […] 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 […]

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