The translation and theology of the Hebrew term kapporet have long been puzzling to scholars. On the translation of the term, I have nothing new to offer. I wish instead to concentrate on the theological symbolism of the kapporet.
The kapporet was the solid gold slab that laid “above” or “upon” the ark of the covenant in the Most Holy Place (Ex. 25:17-21). At either end of the kapporet was a golden cherub, each of which stretched its wings out in such as way as to cover the kapporet. Since the kapporet had the same dimensions as the ark, it is reasonable to assume it served as a cover.
Menahem Haran, however, makes a convincing case that the kapporet was a distinct piece of furniture and cannot be considered merely a part of the ark. Exodus 25 implies this in two ways. First, the description of the ark and that of the kapporet are introduced by a similar formula (v. 10: “they shall construct an ark”; v. 17: “you shall make a kapporet“). If they were different parts of the same piece of furniture, their instructions would not be distinguished in this way. Second, the text gives dimensions of both items; if the kapporet was nothing more than a cover of the ark, this information would be superfluous. Moreover, the two are listed separately in enumerations of tabernacle furniture (Ex 31:7; 35:12; 39:35; see Haran, Temples and Temple-Service in Ancient Israel [Eisenbrauns, 1985], pp. 246-51).
Some have tried to determine the meaning of the kapporet etymologically. It is related to kipper, variously translated as “purge,” “atone,” “expiate,” or “propitiate,” and one of the chief theological terms in the Old Testament. Hence the translation of kapporet as “propitiatory.”
On the other hand, the fact that the ark is spoken of as a throne has led to the translation of kapporet as “mercy seat.” This translation is certainly incorrect. Psalm 99:1 and 1 Samuel 4:4 say literally that the Lord “sits the cherubim,” which must be understood as “sits on or above the cherubim.” The kapporet, however, was beneath the wings of the cherubim, and therefore could not function as a seat of any kind. When this evidence is combined with evidence from Ancient Near Eastern parallels, we should conclude that the wings of the cherubim formed the Lord’s throne (see Othmar Keel, The Symbolism of the Biblical World [Crossroad, 1985], illustrations 231-36).
The physical position of the kapporet gives us the key clue to its symbolism. After all, if the wings of the cherubim form the seat of the Lord’s throne, then the kapporet would form His footstool. It is often said that the ark itself functioned as the footstool for the Lord’s throne (Haran, op. cit., p. 254), but the Bible never makes this identification. In two psalms, the footstool is spoken of as the place of worship. Psalm 99:5 does not identify what the footstool is, and in Psalm 132:7, “footstool” stands in poetic parallelism to “dwelling places.” In neither case is there any clue that the ark specifically is in view.
1 Chronicles 28:2, in fact, shows that the ark was not the footstool. There David speaks of his intention to “built a house of rest for the ark of the covenant of the Lord and for the footstool of our God.” The fact that the preposition “for” is repeated makes it impossible to understand “footstool” as an appositive explanation of “ark”; clearly, the two pieces of furniture are distinct. If the ark is not the footstool, the kapporet is the only thing that can logically be called a footstool. (This is the explanation given by C.F. Keil in his commentary on 1 Chronicles.)
Footstools have a number of significant associations in Scripture. In 1 Chronicles 28:2, David says that the ark and the footstool would be housed in a “house of rest.” Footstools are for relaxation. God’s enthronement above the cherubim in the tabernacle took place after He had defeated the Egyptians; rest comes after victory. Indeed, footstools are often symbolic of defeated enemies, crushed underfoot by the victor (Ps 110:1). A footstool symbolizes what is subdued. 2 Chronicles 9:18 indicates this in a striking manner; Solomon’s golden footstool was called a kebesh, from kabash, to subdue, bring into bondage. Because the Lord rules the whole earth, the earth is His footstool (Is 66:1). Israel especially was submissive to the Lord’s rule, the nation in which the Lord found rest; therefore, Israel is also called the Lord’s footstool (Lam 2:1).
This many-sided symbolism is important background for understanding the rite of the Day of Atonement. The blood of the purification offerings for the high priest and for the whole people was sprinkled on the kapporet (Lev 16:14-15). This provides the best explanation for the name kapporet; it was the place where the blood of yom-kippurim was sprinkled.
Why would the blood of the purification offerings be sprinkled on the kapporet? Several possibilities present themselves. First, since the earth is the Lord’s footstool, the kapporet might be taken as a representation of the earth; the sprinkling of blood on the footstool cleansed the earth. Second, and more likely, the kapporet represented Israel as the footstool of God’s feet. Israel’s sins never defiled the heavenly throne of the Lord but did defile His footstool-nation. The cleansing of the kapporet represented the cleansing of God’s subdued people. Third, the Lord will remain enthroned only in a clean place; He looks for a clean place to rest His feet (parallel with the clean birds of Lev 11:13-19?). Israel’s sins defiled His footstool; if it were not cleansed, the Lord would rise up from His resting place and abandon His house. The day of atonement cleansed the Lord’s footstool and ensured that He would remain enthroned and at rest among His people.
This sheds light on the New Covenant fulfillment of the day of atonement. By His sacrifice, and in His ascension into heaven, Jesus has cleansed the footstool (the earth, the Church) once for all. The Lord can put up His feet upon His footstool and rule and rest among us. The covenant promise is fulfilled: He will dwell among us and will be our God; and we shall be His people.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis. This essay was previously published in Biblical Horizons.