[Editor: This is the seventh article in a series of excerpts from Jeffrey M. Bradshaw’s new book, entitled “Temple Themes in the Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood.” Links to the full series is found at the end of this article. Color and black-and-white editions of the book are available on Amazon.com and at selected LDS Bookstores (including EbornBooks, BYU Bookstore, and the FAIR LDS Bookstore). An iBooks version is can be purchased from the Apple iBookstore. Downloadable articles and a pdf version of this book are available at www.templethemes.net

Author: In discussing temple matters, I have tried to follow the model of Hugh W. Nibley, who was, according to his biographer Boyd Jay Petersen, “respectful of the covenants of secrecy safeguarding specific portions of the LDS endowment, usually describing parallels from other cultures without talking specifically about the Mormon ceremony. This approach earned him a great deal of trust from both General Authorities and from Church members” (B. J. Petersen, Nibley, p. 354). For Nibley’s views on confidentiality as it relates to temple ordinances, see, e.g., H. W. Nibley, On the Sacred and the Symbolic, pp. 553-554, 569-572.]

01. Barsch-New Gate to ParadiseWulf E. Barsch, 1943-: Gate to Paradise

Moses 5:4 tells us that Adam and Eve offered prayer after they left the Garden of Eden:

And Adam and Eve, his wife, called upon the name of the Lord, and they heard the voice of the Lord from the way toward the Garden of Eden, speaking unto them, and they saw him not; for they were shut out from his presence.

In answer to their petitions, Adam and Eve heard the Lord’s voice calling them back from their place of exile on the fallen earth. Later, He gave them additional instruction and commandments in order to set their feet back on the way toward the Garden of Eden-which is, of course, the path that terminates in “the way of the Tree of Life.”[1] In a passage from the Midrash Tehillim,[2] the Hebrew term teshuvah, which denotes “return” but scripturally means “repentance” or “conversion,” is used to describe the way back to the Garden, signifying “the movement that brings every thing and every being back to its supernal origin,” the “return to the celestial abode.”[3] The spiritual movement of turning away from the sinful world and back toward mankind’s heavenly origins is mirrored in the layout of ordinance rooms in some modern temples.[4]

A return to the presence of the Father is predicated on our oneness with Him-which presumes, in turn, oneness with our brothers and sisters: “be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine.”[5] Simply put, this kind of oneness is the ultimate meaning of, and the eventual result of, the Atonement of Christ.

After a brief discussion about the meaning of the Atonement, this article explores two forms of imagery for the Atonement that can be found in scripture. The first kind of imagery has to do with prayer. John Tvedtnes has written that “prayer opens the veil to allow one to enjoy the presence of God.”[6] Similarly, prayer might be understood as a preparation for the enjoyment of eternal companionship between a glorified man and woman.[7] The second form of imagery for the Atonement has to do with the symbolism of homecoming-for example, the welcome given by the father of the prodigal son.

The Atonement as “the Whole Meaning of the Law”

The results of the “great and last sacrifice”[8] of the Savior have been described in many different ways. For example, there is the term “expiate,” which means “to completely satisfy or appease; to make propitious” and the term “redeem,” which can mean to “pay a ransom to deliver a captive.”[9] These two terms primarily address the idea of justification, the aspect of the sacrifice of Christ that enables forgiveness and release from the bondage of sin. But they do not adequately express the concept of sanctification, the complementary process by which we may be “spiritually… born of God,” having received a “mighty change in [our] hearts” and “his image” in our countenances.[10] For, in the end, it is not enough for us to be cleansed from all sin: we must also acquire the divine attributes that fit us for the society of celestial beings.

Incorporating the meaning of each of the more limited descriptions, the term “atonement” describes both the process and the ultimate result of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.[11] It focuses attention on the most central and important concept of that sacrifice-namely, the idea of “taking two things that have become separated, estranged, or incompatible… and bringing them together again, thus making the two be at one.'”[12]

02. TyndaleRomans 5:10-11 in Tyndale’s English Translation of the New Testament, 1526

We owe the creation of the felicitous term “atonement” to William Tyndale. In his 1526 version of the New Testament, he gave an English translation of Romans 5:10-11 as follows (spelling modernized):

For if when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son: much more, seeing we are reconciled, we shall be preserved by his life. Not only so, but we also joy in God by the means of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have received this atonement.

Like many others of Tyndale’s memorable translations of scriptural phrases, this version became the basis for the historically dominant rendering of the text into English.[13] In the English Bible, “atonement” is “the single word of Anglo-Saxon origin that describes a theological doctrine; other doctrinal words come from Latin, Hebrew, or Greek.”[14]

Tyndale’s use of the term “atonement” in his Bible translation was consistent with his theological view that the central mission of Jesus was:[15]

“… to make us one with God: “One God, one Mediatour, that is to say aduocate, intercessor, or an atonemaker, between God and man.” “One mediatour Christ, … and by that word understand an atonnemaker, a peacemaker.”

Gallagher further explains:[16]

The original meaning also comes through in the various early Bible commentators.Note Udal’s comment on Ephesians 2:16 which makes the intended meaning of “atone” crystal clear: “And like as he made the Jewes and Gentiles at one betwene themselfes, euen so he made them bothe at one with God, that there should be nothing to break the attonement, but that the thynges in heauen and the thinges in earth should be ioined together as it wer into one body.”

Prayer Imagery for the Atonement

The significance of the Atonement is both intimately personal on the one hand, and a matter of cosmic scale on the other.

The cosmic dimension of the Atonement includes the plan of the Father to bring all of creation into perfect harmony, that His “kingdom come. [His] will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.”[17] By analogy to Moses’ account of Creation, which began with subjecting the unity of unorganized matter to successive stages of division and separation, so, in the end of God’s work on this earth, all things are to be brought together in one again. For example, in Ephesians 1:10, we read that the Lord intends to “gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth.”[18] Similarly, in D&C 128:18, the Lord says that “it is necessary in the ushering in of the dispensation of the fulness of times… that a whole and complete union, and welding together of dispensations, and keys, and powers, and glories should take place, and be revealed from the days of Adam even to the present time.”

03. Tissot-Brooklyn-PrayerJ. James Tissot, 1836-1902: The Last Supper, 1886-1894

The intimate personal dimension of the Atonement was described by Jesus Christ in His “High Priestly Prayer” on behalf of His disciples. He pleaded that they, and those that they later would teach, would be “made perfect in one”:[20]

Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word;

That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.

And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one:

I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one.

Further elaborating on how the concept of “at-one-ment” is at work in prayer, Jesus taught His disciples that:[21]

… if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.

For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

The imagery of a sacred circle, a symbol of oneness, appears in a large number of ancient sources.[22] Sometimes such references are very subtle and can be easily overlooked. For instance,in Abraham 3:23, God is described as standing “in the midst” (i.e., “in the center”) of thepremortal souls.[23] Hugh Nibley clarifies this description by observing that: “He’s surrounded on all sides.”[24] Likewise, Lehi describes God upon his throne “surrounded with numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of singing and praising their God,”[25] a pattern that was also enacted in ancient prayer circles. Nibley again points out: “A concourse is a circle. Of course [numberless] concourses means circles within circles.”[26]

Note that the center of the sacred circle does not represent some abstract epitome of goodness, nor merely a ceremonial altar or throne, but God Himself. The Gnostic Acts of John records that a prayer circle was formed by the twelve apostles, with Jesus at the center:[27]

So he told us to form a circle, holding one another’s hands, and himself stood in the middle.

S. Kent Brown likewise observes how, at Jesus’ first appearance to the Nephites, He “stood in the midst of them,”[28] and cites other Book of Mormon passages associating the presence of the Lord “in the midst” to the placement of the temple and its altar.[29]

Homecoming Imagery for the Atonement

True to the archetype of Adam and Eve, Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son also concerns the outbound journey of the transgressor, his “coming to himself “[30] in the remembrance of the bounty of his former home, and his return to the embrace of a loving father.[31] The emphasis of the story is on the wholehearted devotion of the father to secure blessings that were intended for his wayward child from the outset. “However large his family a father cannot spare [even] one.”[32] He watches and waits until his lost child returns, and when he sees him, “he disregards the deference due him,”[33] throws aside any notion of propriety, and runs to greet his wayward son.[34] “There is no holding back on the father’s part, no waiting for his [son] to make the first move.”[35] The father reaches out eagerly in tender embrace, bestows a kiss as a token of pardon,[36] and joyfully prepares the emblems of investiture:[37] a robe, a ring, a pair of shoes, and a fatted calf.

04. forgivingfatherFrank Wesley, 1923-2002: The Forgiving Father, ca. 1954-1958

Raised a Methodist in North India, Frank Wesley painted the story of the return of the prodigal son using the imagery of his native land.[39] This famous picture shows a “Brahmin father, pale skinned and pure, embracing his exhausted, sun-scorched son who would so obviously fall to the ground from exhaustion without his father’s supportive embrace.”[40]“[O]ne of the most powerful effects of the painting is that neither face is shown. One can move quite readily-or perhaps with some hesitancy-to either figure. After all, it is not easy to repent, or in many instances, to forgive.”[41]

The atonement symbolism of this painting cannot be fully appreciated without an understanding of the Holi Festival, the springtime commemoration of fire, which is celebrated most enthusiastically in the region of India where the artist was raised. During this festival, revelers throw colored powders and liquids on each other to celebrate the triumph of good over evil. Note that in the painting, the “color contrast is very strong at the top to emphasize the difference between purity and sin.But the loving embrace of the father, with the son’s face covered against his chest, begins to merge at the base of the two figures until their clothing is blended.”[42]As the father sustains his faltering son, the fabric of the son’s robe becomes imbued with colors symbolizing divine purity, an attribute of God Himself. With equal poignancy, Nephi explores this theme in an anguished psalm of danger and deliverance.[43] Packard describes the setting:

This passage occurs at a crucial point in the Book of Mormon.

Lehi has just died, leaving his sons without his guidance. Under Lehi’s authority, Nephi had become his brothers’ “ruler” and “teacher.”[44] But with Lehi gone, Laman and Lemuel are angry with Nephi, saying, “We will not have him to be our ruler; for it belongs unto us, who are the elder brethren, to rule over this people.”[45] Just after Nephi’s psalm, we find Laman and Lemuel becoming increasingly angry with Nephi, “insomuch that they did seek to take away [his] life.”[46] The Lord warns Nephi to flee for his life into the wilderness, just as He earlier warned Lehi to escape from those who sought his life.[47]

At the heart of his psalm,[48] Nephi offers a prayer of supplication:

O Lord, wilt thou not shut the gates of thy righteousness before me, that I may walk in the path of the low valley, that I may be strict in the plain road!

Hugh Nibley explains the significance of the words of Nephi’s psalm for the people of the desert:

[In] the vast photo-album of Arabic lyric poetry [and] the actual photographs of inscriptions scratched on a thousand red rocks, we will find… countless duplications of this particular snapshot-the lone wanderer lost in the darkness. Of all the images that haunt the early Arab poets, this is by all odds the most common. It is the standard nightmare of the Arab; and it is the supreme boast of every poet that he has traveled long distances through dark and dreary wastes all alone.[49]

In the stories of the desert, “a person escaping from his enemy always wanted to take the low, quick, straight path as far as he can get away from him-the easiest path to take and the surest to escape, not having to run up and down hills.”[50] Psalm 27:11-12 parallels Nephi’s plea, “Teach me thy way, O Lord, and lead me in a plain path [i.e., “a level path”[51]] because of my enemies. Deliver me not over unto the will of mine enemies.”

Nephi continues:[52]

O Lord, wilt thou encircle me around in the robe of thy righteousness!

Explains Nibley:

The great [Arab writer] Abu Zaid said there was one prayer that he had learned in a dream which alone was his guarantee of safety in the desert: “Preserve me, O God; … guard me in my person and my property…. Cover me with the curtain of grace.” Just as Nephi prays: “O Lord wilt thou me encircle me around in the robe of thy righteousness!”[53]

05. Pompeo Batoni GleichnisPompeo Batoni, 1708-1787: The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1773.

When [an Arab is trying to escape his enemies], he runs to the tent of any great sheikh he can find. He goes in and kneels down before the sheikh and says, “[Ana dakhiluka.] I am your suppliant.” The sheikh is then obligated to put his caftan [-his great hooded robe-] over [the suppliant’s] katef which is the same word as shoulder-to put the hem of his garment over his shoulder and say, “Ahlanwa-sahlanwa-marhaban. This is your tent, this is your family.” The Hebrew word ohel for tent is the same as the Arabic word ahl for family. [When he says ahlan, that means both family and tent.[54]] He says, “We’ll make a place for you.” Then the lord or the chief is under obligation to defend you against the enemies that are chasing you. You are now under his protection, and he will protect you.[55]

Nephi relies on the Lord Himself as his Protector. The scriptural imagery has him running toward the place of safety with upraised arms,[56] a universal sign of distress that can be seen clearly from a distance, from beyond the sound of a comforting voice or the touch of a gentle hand.[57] Above all else, Nephi wants to be encircled with the Lord’s robe of righteousness, to be one with Him, to have his sins covered over with the Lord’s glory, and to have that glory be eternally upon him. Yet he knows that his deliverance from sin and death will not be a cheap affair that might be effected by a mere declaration of reassuring words. Instead, his Redemption is a possibility that carries a dreadful cost.[58] This truth is no mere footnote to the Gospel but rather, as Alma explains: “the whole meaning of the law, every whit pointing to that great and last sacrifice; and that great and last sacrifice will be the Son of God, yea, infinite and eternal.”[59]

At a first level of understanding, the Hebrew term for atonement, kippur, can be thought of as roughly approximating the English word “cover.” In the Mosaic temple, the idea of kippur related to the kapporet that formed the lid of the ark of the temple where Jehovah stood to forgive-or cover-the sins of the people. The veil of the temple, also a kapporet, covered the entry of the Holy of Holies. Besides the notion of “covering of sin” implied by the term kippur, however, there appears to have been the additional concept of “union,” a “covering with glory,” in the ancient temple cult.[60] After the priest and the people had completed all the rituals and ordinances of the atonement, the veil was opened so that the Lord could tell the people that their sins had been forgiven, symbolically welcoming them into His presence.[61] Following his study of the term kippur, Nibley concluded that:[62]

… the literal meaning of kaphar and kippurim is a close and intimate embrace, which took place at the kapporeth or the front cover or flap of the Tabernacle or tent. The Book of Mormon instances are quite clear, for example, “Behold, he sendeth an invitation unto all men, for the arms of mercy are extended towards them, and he saith: Repent, and I will receive you.”[63] “But behold the Lord hath redeemed my soul from hell; I have beheld his glory, and I am encircled eternally in the arms of his love”[64]… From this it should be clear what kind of oneness is meant by the Atonement-it is being received in a close embrace of the prodigal son, expressing not only forgiveness but oneness of heart and mind that amounts to identity.

Those who, like Adam and Eve, receive the Gospel become “partakers of the divine nature”[65] and by virtue of this fact participate in Christ’s sufferings as well as His glory.[66] Nowhere is this fact more apparent than in the temple where, as Truman G. Madsen points out, “a full-scale covenant relationship, the Atonement of Christ may be written, as it were, in our very flesh.

[67] “One is… obliged,” writes Eugene Seaich, to become not only “one flesh’ with Christ, but [also] one life, one sacrifice, thus participating actively in the eternal act of love which began in the heavens.”[68]


Links to all of the articles in this series-

Part 1 Why Do We Participate in Temple Ordinances?”

Part 2 A Christ-Centered View

Part 3 Knowledge as the Principle of Salvation

Part 4 How Are We Physically and Spiritually Reborn in the Temple?”

Part 5 What is the Endowment?”

Part 6  Passing the Angels Who Stand as Sentinels

Part 7  “The Meaning of the Atonement

Part 8 “Becoming the Seed of Abraham”‘: The Sealing and Healing Power of Elijah

Part 9: “The Church and Kingdom”: Becoming Priests and Kings

Part 10: “The Elect of God”: What Does It Mean to Have One’s “Calling and Election Made Sure?

Part 11: All That My Father Hath Shall Be Given Unto Him”: Receiving the Kingdom

Part 12: The Second Comforter: “The Father Teacheth Him”

Part 13:Weary Him Until He Blesses You” 

Part 14: “What are the Three Degrees Within the Celestial Kingdom?”


[1] Moses 4:31.

[2]W. G. Braude, Midrash on Psalms, 90:12, 2:94.

[3]G. B. Eden, Mystical Architecture, pp. 16, 17 n. 7.

[4] See, e.g., the layout of the Salt Lake Temple as described in J. E. Talmage, House of the Lord, pp. 118-134. 3 Enoch relates that the “first man and his generation dwelt at the gate of the Garden of Eden so that they might gaze at the bright image of the Shekhinah” (P. Alexander, 3 Enoch, 5:3, p. 259). “The entrance to the Garden therefore symbolizes the human possibility of reaching a privileged vantage point from which a higher knowledge may be obtained” (G. B. Eden, Mystical Architecture, p. 18).

[5]   D&C 38:27.

[6]  J. A. Tvedtnes, Rituals; cf. W. Clayton, Chronicle, 15 June 1844, p. 134; B. K. Packer, Personal Revelation, p. 59.

[7]  See “The Prayer of Adam and Eve,” in J. M. Bradshaw, Moses Temple Themes, pp. 186-189.

[8] Alma 34:10.

[9] See A. Rey, Dictionnaire, s.v. “acheter,” 1:15-16, “expier,” 1:817.

[10] Alma 5:14.

[11]H. W. Nibley, Teachings of the Book of Mormon, 16, 1:199.

[12]S. E. Robinson, Believing, p. 7.

[13]Harold Bloom not only considers William Tyndale “the greatest of [English] Bible translators,” but also “the only true rivalof Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Walt Whitman as the richest author in the English language,” and an “authentic inventor of anEnglish prose style austerely sublime (H. Bloom, Names Divine, pp. 28, 47, 31; cf. D. Daniell, Mind, pp. 7-8; J. Pelikan, Whose Bible, p. 174; N. Shaheen, References, pp. 18-19). In a paper delivered at the opening reception of a Library of Congress exhibition onTyndale and the Bible, David Daniell, chair of the Tyndale Society and curator of the event for the British Library, said (G. Fineberg, Let There Be. See also Y. French, Courage):

I wasrecently in the state of Utah [at Brigham Young University], where a student who is a clever man with a computer gave meat last the definitive figure for how dependent the King James [New Testament] is on Tyndale, and I am happy to announcetonight that the definitive figure is eighty-three percent. Eighty-three percent of the King James Bible is Tyndale exactly.

Elder John A. Widtsoe considered the King James Bible unsurpassed in its “beauty of language and spiritual connotation” (J. A. Widtsoe, Evidences, p. 120). The fact that the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants are both “consistent with the King James tradition” (D. Packard et al., Feasting, pp. ix-x) allows phrases from any one of these books of scripture to more easily suggest associations with like passages in the other two works (J. F. McConkie, Revelation, p. 126. See also discussion in P. L. Barlow, Bible, pp. 176-177).

But, questions of literary aesthetics and stylistic consistency aside, how faithful is the KJV translation to the voice of the original? With respect to the Old Testament, Robert Alter, a contemporary expert in the analysis of biblical narrative as literature, has given his opinion as follows (R. Alter, Genesis, p. xxv; see also G. Hammond, Translations, pp. 664-665):

The language of biblical narrative in its own time was stylized, decorous, dignified, and readily identified by its audiences as a language of literature, in certain ways distinct from the language of quotidian reality. The tricky complication however, is that in most respects it also was not a lofty style, and was certainly neither ornate nor euphemistic…. a plain spoken one, and, moreover one that evinces a strong commitment to using a limited set of terms again and again, making an aesthetic virtue out of repetition… The right direction [for a modern English equivalent to ancient Hebrew style] I think was hit on by the King James Version… There is no good reason to render biblical Hebrew as contemporary English, either lexically or syntactically. This is not to suggest that the Bible should be represented as fussily old-fashioned English, but a limited degree of archaizing coloration is entirely appropriate…

Note, however, that this statement does not apply equally well in the case of the KJV New Testament,which was written in common everyday Greek. “As one eminent authority put it, an elaborate, elegant style is unsuited to’ [New Testament] translation, and in proportion as it is rendered in a conscious literary style, it is misrepresented to the modern reader'” (cited in J. R. Clark, Jr., Why the KJV, p. 355. See also P. L. Barlow, Bible, p. 170).

Summarizing the limitations of current translations of the Old Testament, Alter concludes that (R. Alter, Genesis, pp. ix-x):

… in the case of the modern versions, the problem is a shaky sense of English, and in the case of the King James Version, a shaky sense of Hebrew…. [That being said] the KJV, as Gerald Hammond, an eminent British authority on Bible translations has convincingly argued (G. Hammond, Translations), remains the closest approach for the English reader to the original-despite its frequent and at times embarrassing inaccuracies, despite its archaisms, and despite its insistent substitution of Renaissance English tonalities and rhythms for biblical ones.

Attempting to correct the deficiencies of the KJV while retaining appropriate elements of its style, Alter has produced masterful translations of the Pentateuch, the story of David, and the Psalms (R.

Alter, David; R. Alter, Five Books; R. Alter, Psalms).


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