Forgiveness in the Light of the Hebrew Language

An examination of the words "forgive" and "forgiveness" in the Old Testament.

V. Norskov Olsen, President, Newbold College, England

The words "forgive" and "forgiveness" in the Old Testament of the English Bi­ble1 are the translation of three Hebrew words, namely kaphar, nake and saletch.


The Hebrew word kaphar and its de­rivatives appear in 154 passages in the Hebrew Bible.' The original meaning of this word is "to cover," "to cover over," or "to overspread."

In Genesis 6:14 is given an example that closely expresses the original meaning. Both the verb and the noun are used: "Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch [kaphar] it within and without with pitch [kopher]." As a noun kaphar is used to signify a place of shelter.

A noun formed from it, answering to the modern Arabic Khephr, is sometimes used to signify a vil­lage as a place of shelter, e.g. Caper-naum (The village of Nahum).4 (Italics supplied.)

In about eighty passages of the 154 in­stances in the Hebrew Old Testament, kaphar is translated "to atone" or "to make atonement." It is interesting to notice that the cover of the ark, the mercy seat, as it is described in Exodus 25 and Leviticus 16, is the noun kapporeth derived from kaphar.

In nine places in the English Bible kaphar is translated "purge." Psalm '79:9 is an il­lustration of this: "Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of thy name: and deliver us, and purge away [kaphar} our sins, for thy name's sake." When the words "purge away" are given as the translation of kaphar, then it is suggested that the "making atonement" is strongly connected with "purging sins." The same is true in these few passages where kaphar is trans­lated "be merciful," "put off," "be pacified," or "pardon."

In the English Bible kaphar is used three times to express the idea "forgive."

Be merciful, O Lord, unto thy people Israel, whom thou hast redeemed, and lay not innocent blood unto thy people of Israel's charge. And the blood shall be forgiven [kaphar] them."

When the first innocent blood was shed God said to Cain, "Thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground" (Gen. 4:10). Literally, it is said to Israel, "The blood shall be covered [kaphar]" and the means of covering is that "the blood shall be atoned [kaphar]." In the Psalms we find the second use of kaphar to express the idea "forgive."

But he, being full of compassion, forgave [kaphar] their iniquity, and destroyed them not: yea, many a time turned he his anger away, and did not stir up all his wrath.'

The seventy-eighth psalm describes God's wonders toward Israel both in Egypt and in the desert. It is literally said that God because of His compassion "covered [ka­phar] their iniquity" or "made atonement [kaphar] for their iniquity."

The third passage where we find "for­give" given as the translation of kaphar is in the book of Jeremiah:

Yet, Lord, thou knowest all their counsel against me to slay me: forgive [kaphar] not their iniquity, neither blot out their sin from thy sight, but let them be overthrown before thee; deal thus with them in the time of thine anger.'

In this verse Jeremiah speaks against those who make devices against him as God's prophet. Literally, he says to God, "Thou shalt not cover [kaphar] their iniquity." The intensive form of kaphar is used in this passage; by the use of kaphar Jeremiah indicates that he has in mind God's atoning covering of sin.


Naga' and its derivatives appear in the Hebrew Bible about six hundred and fifty times.' The meaning of this verb is first "the lifting up; secondly, the carrying; and thirdly, the taking away of a burden." "

The three basic ideas of naga' are illus­trated by the following verses:

Deut. 32:40. "For I lift up [flak'] my hand unto heaven, and say, I live for ever."

Gen. 46:5. "And Jacob rose up from Beer-sheba: and the sons of Israel carried [nage] Jacob their father, and their little ones, and their wives, in the wagons which Pharaoh had sent to carry [flake] him.

Amos 4:2. "The Lord God hath sworn by his holiness, that, lo, the days shall come upon you, that he will take you away [nave] with hooks, and your posterity with fish­hooks."

It is interesting to notice that naga' is one of the Hebrew words used to repre­sent acceptance. This is the case thirteen times. Its use is illustrated from the story of Lot praying for Sodom, where God says to Lot, "See, I have accepted [nagal thee concerning this thing also" (Gen. 19:21).

In the English Bible we find some fifteen passages " where "forgive" is the transla­tion of naga', and in each instance it im­plies that the sin is "taken away," as ex­emplified in Hosea 14:2, "Take away [naga] all iniquity." Naga' means "forgiveness" or "taking away sin" only because it implies that an "atonement" is made. The Levitical law states that if a man transgresses the law then "shall [he] bear [nagal his iniquity" (Lev. 5:17). But each man who has sinned against God will feel like Cain after he had killed his brother, "My punishment [the sin and its consequences] is greater than I can bear [naga] (Gen. 4:13).

In the Levitical law it is taught that the priest made atonement for the congregation by eating "the sin offering in the holy place" and in this way did "bear [nagal the in­iquity of the congregation" (Lev. 10:17). Prophetically it is said of Christ, "He bare [flak'] the sin of many" (Isa. 53:12).

When the idea "forgiveness" is expressed by naga' then the three basic meanings of this Hebrew word are interpreting in an expressive way one aspect of the doctrine of forgiveness. Naga' stands for the "lifting up" of the burden of sin. Christ is "bear­ing" it, and in this way it is "taken away."


Salach and its derivatives appear approx­imately fifty times. This root is translated thirty-three times "forgive," twice "forgive­ness," once "spare," and fourteen times "pardon." Gesenius says about this word: "The primary idea seems to be that of lightness, lifting up."'

It has been noticed that in each place salach is used it expresses the divine pardon extended to the sinner. No other idea has been assigned to it. In no case has the word been used of human forgiveness be­tween men. The following two passages exemplify the use of salach:

Ex. 34:9. "And he said, If now I have found grace in thy sight, 0 Lord, let my Lord, I pray thee, go among us; for it is a stiffnecked people; and pardon [salach] our iniquity and our sin, and take us for thine inheritance."

1 Kings 8:30. "And hearken thou to the supplication of thy servant, and of thy people Israel, when they shall pray toward this place: and hear thou in heaven thy dwelling place: and when thou hearest, forgive [salach]."

It has been noticed that salach is given to those who "turn to God," "give sup­plications," or "that seeketh the truth." To the one "whose heart turneth away .. . from the Lord" it is said, "The Lord will not spare [salach] him" (Deut. 29:20).

The full use and application of salach is summarized by Girdlestone:

It appears, on the whole, that the process repre­sented by this word Salach is the Divine restoration of an offender into favor, whether through his own repentance or in the intercession of another. Though not identical with atonement, the two are nearly related. In fact, the covering of the sin and the for­giveness of the sinner can only be understood as two aspects of one truth: for both found their ful­ness in God's provision of mercy through Christ.14


That the divine pardon extended to the sinner is different from human forgiveness is suggested by the usage of the Hebrew word salach, for in no case has this word been used of human forgiveness between men, but only to express the divine favor and pardon toward a sinner. The divine forgiveness as a gift is portrayed in the following way:

Forgiveness, reconciliation with God, comes to us, not as a reward for our works, it is not bestowed because of the merit of sinful men, but it is a gift unto us, having in the spotless righteousnes of Christ its foundation for bestowal."

When the Old Testament of the English Bible has "to forgive" as the translation of the Hebrew work kaphar, then a close con­nection and conception is suggested between forgiveness and justification. In the Psalms it is said of God, "But he, being full of com­passion, forgave [kaphar] their iniquity, and destroyed them not." Literally this verse says, "But he, being full of compassion, covered their iniquity." The idea that sin can be covered does not seem strange to the writers of the New Testament. The apostle Peter says, "Love covers up a mass of sins." "

Christ describes in the parable of the wedding garment, in the twenty-second chapter of Matthew, how God covers our sins. This parable is commented on by Ellen G. White as follows:

Only the covering which Christ Himself has pro­vided can make us meet to appear in God's presence. This covering, the robe of His own righteousness, Christ will put upon every repenting, believing soul. . . . Christ in His humanity wrought out a perfect character, and this character He offers to impart to us. . . . Then as the Lord looks upon us He sees, not the fig-leaf garment, not the naked­ness and deformity of sin, but His own robe of righteousness, which is perfect obedience to the law of Jehovah."

When a person's sins are forgiven, then it implies that he stands covered by the righteousness of Christ and is in the eyes of God justified. The Swedish bishop and theologian, Gustaf Aulen, discusses the sub­ject of forgiveness and in this connection describes "justification," saying: "From a positive point of view, when this word is used in its deepest meaning, its content is the same as 'forgiveness of sins.' " " For this reason Aulen calls justification "in reality a technical theological word."

Not only does the Hebrew word kaphar point to a synonymous conception of for­giveness and justification, it also suggests a close connection between forgiveness and atonement. The idea "to make an atone­ment," as it is found in the Old Testament of the English Bible, is a translation of kaphar. In the Levitical law the following command was given to the sinner:

And he shall bring his trespass offering unto the Lord for his sin which he hath sinned, a female from the flock, a lamb or a kid of the goats, for a sin offering; and the priest shall make an atone­ment [kaphar] for him ['alayew] concerning his sin."

Literally it is said, "And the priest cov­ered over him concerning his sin." The death of Christ has its source in God's de­sire to forgive and its effect in the covering of sin is suggested by kaphar, which de­scribes forgiveness as the atoning covering of sins.

The Hebrew word naga' suggests a broad conception of the doctrine of forgiveness, namely the actual reclaiming from sin. Ellen G. White speaks about a deeper un­derstanding of forgiveness in the following manner:

But forgiveness has a broader meaning than many suppose. When God gives the promise that He "will abundantly pardon," He adds, as if the meaning of that promise exceeded all that we could compre­hend: "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts." Isaiah 55:7-9. God's forgiveness is not merely a judicial act by which He sets us free from condemnation. It is not only forgiveness for sin, but reclaiming from sin. It is the outflow of redeem­ing love that transforms the heart. David had the true conception of forgiveness when he prayed, "Create in me a clean heart, 0 God; and renew a right spirit within me." Psalm 51:10. And again he says, "As far as the east is from the west, so far bath He removed our transgressions from us?' Psalm 103:12?

In the Psalms, David prays: "Forgive [naal all my sins." The Hebrew word naga' is also one of the words used to con­vey the truth of acceptance by God. This twofold purpose of forgiveness suggested by nas'a' is beautifully portrayed by Ellen G. White:

David's repentance was sincere and deep. There was no effort to palliate his crime. No desire to escape the judgments threatened, inspired his prayer. But he saw the enormity of his transgression against God; he saw the defilement of his soul; he loathed his sin. It was not for pardon only that he prayed, but for purity of heart. David did not in despair give over the struggle. In the promises of God to repentant sinners, he saw the evidence of his par­don and acceptance.22

David's conception of sin was in the sphere of his perverted will and the evil inclination of his heart. He not only asked for release from the guilt or the punishment of sin, but from the sin itself, and thus re­vealed the broad concept of forgiveness as expressed by the word maw', or by Ellen G. White when she declared that forgiveness meant reclaiming from sin.

When the various truths, thoughts, and shades of meaning are linked together from the study of a certain Biblical word and then compared with the writings of Ellen G. White, one is impressed by the fact that although she was without the knowledge of Biblical languages, she emphasizes these same points. Thus a detailed word study of a Biblical doctrine becomes another wit­ness to the inspired pen of Ellen G. White.


1 The Authorized King James Version has been used.

2 Englishman's Hebrew and Chaldee Concordance.

3 Samuel Prideaux Tregelles (trans.), Gesenius, Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures, p. 411.

4 Robert Baker Girdlestone, Synonyms of the Old Testa­ment, p. 127.

5 Englishman's Hebrew and Chaldee Concordance, p. 614.

6 Deut. 21:8.

7 Ps. 78:38.

8 Jer. 18:23.

9 Englishman's Hebrew and Citaldee Concordance, p. 840.

10 Girdlestone, op. cit., p. 137.

11 Robert Young, Analytical Concordance to the Bible, p. 367.

12 Englishman's Hebrew and Chaldee Concordance, p. 877.

13 Gesenius, op. cit, p. 588.

14 Girdlestone, op. cit., p. 136.

15 Ellen G. White, Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing,

16 The Holy Bible: The Berkeley Version in Modern English.

17 Ellen G. White, Christ's Object Lessons, pp. 311-312.

18 Gustaf Aulen, The Faith of the Christian Church, p. 291.

19 Lev. 5:6.

20 White, Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing, p. 114.

21 Ps. 23:18.

22 White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 725.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus

V. Norskov Olsen, President, Newbold College, England

April 1963

Download PDF
Ministry Cover

More Articles In This Issue

The Problem of Divine Revelation

How is infinity revealed to the finite?

Who is In the Saddle?

Is self or God sovereign?

Minister and Local Elder Relationship

It is essen­tial to maintain strong leaders, and I offer these thoughts with the hope of improving the pastor-local elder team­work.

Organized Kindness

How your church can get involved.

The Victorious Christ

How did Jesus gain the victory?

Ministerial Loyalties

The divisive forces in the world today don't leave the ministry untouched.

The Original Language of the New Testament

Questions arise frequently regarding the relative importance of the Syriac, or Aramaic, and of Greek as the lan­guage of the New Testament. Professor Sakae Kubo here discusses this some­what technical question in the light of recent scholarship.

Hymnology in Christian Worship—no. 2

Insufficient attention to music leads to a decline in standards with consequent de­terioration in dignity and devotion. There are various schools of thought and nu­merous tastes in church music, and they are not always easy to harmonize. We in­vite for editorial consideration short articles on various phases of music and worship, hoping that an expression of differing points of view may contribute to a better understanding of the impor­tance of this vital subject.—eds.]

Basic Laws for Optimum Health

For optimum health man must obtain these elements in right proportions from nuts, grains, fruits, and vegetables derived from healthy plants grown in fertile soil.

10 Wonders of the Resurrection

The author reminds us of some of the wonders of the greatest event in human history.

View All Issue Contents

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up
Advertisement - SermonView - Medium Rect (300x250)

Recent issues

See All

Latest Videos

See All