According to the Hebrew Bible the kaporet (Hebrew: הַכַּפֹּֽרֶת ha-kappōreṯ) or mercy seat was the gold lid placed on the Ark of the Covenant, with two cherubim beaten out of the ends to cover and create the space into which Yahweh was said to appear. This was connected with the rituals of the Day of Atonement. The term also appears in later Jewish sources, and twice in the New Testament, from where it has significance in Christian theology.
In the Hebrew Bible
According to the biblical account (Exodus 25:19; 37:6), the cover was made from pure gold and was the same width and breadth as the ark beneath it, 2.5 cubits long and 1.5 cubits wide. Two golden cherubim were placed at each end of the cover facing one another and the mercy seat, with their wings spread to enclose the mercy seat (Exodus 25:18–21). The cherubim formed a seat for Yahweh (1 Samuel 4:4). The ark and mercy seat were kept inside the Holy of Holies, the temple's innermost sanctuary which was separated from the other parts of the temple by a thick curtain (parochet).
The Holy of Holies could be entered only by the high priest on the Day of Atonement. The high priest sprinkled the blood of a sacrificial bull onto the mercy seat as an atonement for the sins of the people of Israel.
In rabbinic tradition
After the destruction of the Second Temple, just as the Torah scroll was contained in a Torah ark (Aron Kodesh, "Holy ark") in synagogues so also the term kaporet was applied to the valance of the parochet (Hebrew: פרוכת "curtain") on this ark.
Second Temple era sources
In the Hellenistic Jewish Septuagint the term was rendered hilasterion ("thing that atones"), following the secondary meaning of the Hebrew root verb "cover" (כָּפַר kaphar) in pi'el and pu'al as "to cover sins," "to atone" found also in kippurim. The term hilasterion is unknown in classical Greek texts and appears to be one of several Jewish Greek coinages found in the Septuagint translation. The Jewish Greek hilasterion was later rendered literally into Latin as propitiatorium in the Christian Latin Vulgate. In Jewish Greek texts the concept of a hilasterion also occurs in Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews 16,7,1 mnema hilasterion ("monument to ask for atonement").
In Christian tradition
In the New Testament
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The Septuagint term hilasterion appears twice in the Greek text of the New Testament: Romans 3:25 and Hebrews 9:5; in 1 John 2:2 and 4:10 the word is ἱλασμός, hilasmos. Although the term mercy seat usually appears as the English translation for the Greek term hilasterion in the Epistle to the Hebrews, most translations are usually inconsistent as they instead generally translate hilasterion as propitiation where it occurs in the Epistle to the Romans. The Epistle to the Hebrews recounts the description of the Ark, Holy of Holies, and mercy seat, and then goes on to portray the role of the mercy seat during Yom Kippur as a prefiguration of the Passion of Christ, which concludes was a greater atonement, and formed a New Covenant (Hebrews 9:3-15); the text continues by stating that the Yom Kippur ritual was merely a shadow of things to come (Hebrews 10:1). The continual sacrifice for sin became obsolete once Jesus was crucified. This is the whole thrust of Hebrews ch 10, but is especially clearly stated in v11-14. The Epistle to the Romans states that Jesus was sent by God as a propitiation (Romans 3:25), while, perhaps in a reflection on Ezekiel's atonement ceremony, the Second Epistle to the Corinthians states that Jesus had become a sin offering (2 Corinthians 5:21).
In English Bibles
The first English Bible, translated from Latin 1382, renders the term a propiciatory following the Vulgate propitiatorium, and in the first occurrence, Exodus 25:17, also inserts an unbracketed gloss "that is a table hiling the ark" - hiling is Middle English for "covering":
Exodus 25:17 And thou schalt make a propiciatorie of clenneste gold; that is a table hilinge the arke; the lengthe therof schal holde twei cubitis and an half, the broodnesse schal holde a cubit and half. Wycliffe 1382
The term propritiatory was also used by J.M. Powis Smith, a Protestant, in The Complete Bible: An American Translation, published in 1939. The originally Protestant translation "mercy seat" was not followed by Ronald Knox, but has since been largely adopted also by Roman Catholic Bible versions, such as the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) 1985
- Baruch J. Schwartz (2011). "Ark of the Covenant". In Berlin, Adele (ed.). The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion. Oxford University Press. p. 67. ISBN 9780199730049. Retrieved 25 March 2019.
- Fabric of Jewish life: textiles from the Jewish Museum collection Volume 1 - Jewish Museum (New York, N.Y.), Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Cissy Grossman - 1977 Page 31 :Jewish Textiles in Light of Biblical and Post-Biblical Literature Rabbi Jules Harlow " ... above the parokhet. In Exodus 25:17, the kaporet refers to the slab of pure gold that covered the Ark in ..."
- Nathan Ausubel The Book of Jewish Knowledge Page 19 1964 "The materials out of which the Ark curtain and its valance (kaporet) were made in former times is unknown."
- Iris Fishof Jewish art masterpieces from the Israel Museum, Jerusalem - Muzeʼon Yiśraʼel (Jerusalem) - 1994 Page 40 "The art of the Torah Ark curtain (parochet) reached a peak during the first decades of the eighteenth century in Bavaria. ... All the Bavarian curtains of this type seem to have had an upper valance (kaporet), "
- Henry George Liddell. Robert Scott. A Greek-English Lexicon. revised and augmented throughout by. Sir Henry Stuart Jones. with the assistance of. Roderick McKenzie. Oxford. Clarendon Press. 1940. Perseus Online LSJ 1940 Lexicon Entry hilasterion:" ἱλα^σ-τήριος, α, ον (ος, ον PFay.337 (ii A.D.)).
A. propitiatory, offered in propitiation, “μνῆμα” J.AJ16.7.1; “θάνατος” LXX 4 Ma.17.22; θυσίαι PFay. l.c.
II. ἱλαστήριον ἐπίθεμα, the mercy-seat, covering of the ark in the Holy of Holies, LXXEx.25.16(17): ἱλαστήρ_ιον alone as Subst., ib.Le.16.2,al., Ep.Hebr.9.5, cf. Ph.2.150.
2. (sc. ἀνάθημα) propitiatory gift or offering, Ep.Rom.3.25; of a monument, Inscr.Cos 81,347.
3. monastery, Men.Prot.p.15 D."
- The Middle English "Mirror": an edition based on Bodleian Library, ... - Page 533 Robert de Gretham, Kathleen Marie Blumreich, Bodleian Library - 2002 " hilen, v., to cover, bury, conceal; 3 sg. hileb. hilinge, ger., concealment.
- "Wycliffe 1382 - Exodus 25".
- "THE BOOK OF EXODUS - www.cormacburke.or.ke". www.cormacburke.or.ke.
- Online, Catholic. "Exodus - Chapter 1 - Bible - Catholic Online". Catholic Online.