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This is a discussion to enhance your study of Book of Mormon Lesson 8.
In scriptures, the Lord gives us poignant and moving imagery to understand the meaning of the atonement. He tells us he will gives us “beauty for ashes”[i]. He says “the prisoners shall go free.”[ii] He will make the “waste places” and “wilderness like Eden and her desert like the garden of the Lord.”[iii] He will bring us from darkness into the light.
Who doesn’t want beauty for ashes or to have their chains of bondage burst? Who doesn’t want the waste places of their lives to become a well-watered garden? The hardest part for us, who are so fully trained to be residents of a fallen world, is to comprehend that. Who is this God who can give such a gift and what am I to Him that he would extend it to me who so often sits in ashes and chains?
The answer to those questions is found in perhaps the most loving and personal image of the atonement of all. Lehi tells us, “I am encircled about eternally in the arms of his love”[iv] In the face of his weaknesses, Nephi pleads, “O Lord, wilt thou encircle me around in the robe of thy righteousness!” [v]
We are held in His divine embrace, and the atonement itself is pictured as an encircling robe. I think of an embrace as when I am cold and someone warms me with a blanket or when I am sad and someone comforts me. Or when I am young and someone scoops me into his arms to comfort me.
All those images of comfort are certainly there, but the scriptures take it farther. Encircled in the Lord’s robes of righteousness, our nakedness is covered. We who are fragile and vulnerable, weak and sinful are covered by the Lord’s atonement.
This same idea is echoed in John the Baptist’s rebuke to the people, “If ye receive not me, ye receive not him of whom I am sent to bear record; and for your sins, ye have no cloak.”[vi]
Naked or Clothed?
This idea of being naked or clothed persists throughout scriptures. If we are naked, we are in our sins. We are exposed. We are the most vulnerable of people. When the Romans wanted to utterly humiliate a prisoner, they stripped him before they crucified him. The One who clothes us is the Lord and what we are clothed in is His own robe—the atonement.
It is kindness beyond expression to clothe the naked for left uncovered, they will die from exposure. They are susceptible to the fiery darts of the Adversary.
Nowhere is this more clear than in 2 Nephi 9:14 which describes humanity before the bar of judgment. We learn that if we have not repented, “we shall have a perfect knowledge of all our guilt, and our uncleanness, and our nakedness; and the righteous shall have a perfect knowledge of their enjoyment, and their righteousness, being clothed with purity, yea, even with the robe of righteousness.”
In fact, the Hebrew root of Atonement is kpr which not only means “to atone” but it also denotes “to cover.” It means to cover over your sins, to wipe them out, to forget them, to cleanse. It is pronounced kfr—thus cover.
In the Middle East, the scarf worn around the neck is called a keffiyeh. It is a covering.
Hugh Nibley said, “Most interesting is the Arabic kafata, as it is the key to a dramatic situation. It was the custom for one fleeing for his life in the desert to seek protection in the tent of a great sheik, crying out, “Ana dakhiluka,” meaning “I am thy suppliant,” whereupon the host would place the hem of his robe over the guest’s shoulder and declare him under his protection.
“In one instance in the Book of Mormon we see Nephi fleeing from an evil enemy that is pursuing him. In great danger, he prays the Lord to give him an open road in the low way, to block his pursuers, and to make them stumble. He comes to the Lord as a suppliant: “O Lord, wilt thou encircle me around in the robe of thy righteousness! O Lord, wilt thou make a way for mine escape before mine enemies!” (2 Ne. 4:33.)
“In reply, according to the ancient custom, the Master would then place the hem of his robe protectively over the kneeling man’s shoulder (kafata). This puts him under the Lord’s protection from all enemies. They embrace in a close hug, as Arab chiefs still do; the Lord makes a place for him (see Alma 5:24) and invites him to sit down beside him—they are at-one.”[vii]
The Covenant Blessing of Being Clothed
Having the inexpressible gift of being clothed by the atonement is a covenant blessing. Examples abound.
When Adam and Eve transgress, they become aware of their nakedness. What was before merely a state of innocence, has become a new awareness of a terrible deficit. Nakedness now has come to mean far from the atonement. They are bare and unprotected, and once they have discovered their nakedness, the Lord clothes them with his atonement.
In Christ’s life, we meet a poor crazed man in Gadara, who is ranting and raving and possessed with a legion of devils. Luke also tells us significantly that he is naked. “And when [Jesus] went forth to land, there met him out of the city a certain man, which had devils long time, and ware no clothes, neither abode in any house, but in the tombs.”[viii]
Later, however, when the devils are cast from him and he is healed, we learn that he who had been possessed, is “sitting, and clothed, and in his right mind.”[ix]
In the wars between the Lamanites and the Nephites, Moroni shields his people with protective armor. The Lamanites, on the other hand are exposed. They are naked. The point is made not just to demonstrate that Moroni is very smart. It is to demonstrate that while the Nephites are clothed—as in clothed by the atonement, the Lamanites are naked and exposed.
“Their naked skins and their bare heads were exposed to the sharp swords of the Nephites; yea, behold they were pierced and smitten, yea, and did fall exceedingly fast before the swords of the Nephites; and they begun to be swept down, even as the soldier of Moroni had prophesied.”[x]
Those who make covenants with the Lord in the temple are clothed with the atonement. This is a symbol of putting on the atonement—and wearing it, like an embrace, wearing it for protection the rest of your life.
Contrast that with the idea of making your way on your own, calling on the atonement once in a while like a hair dryer at the barbers to clean up, and then go on. It is not just a salve for a temporary wound.
In the covenant, you are being held in the arms of the Lord. You are wrapped as a constant reminder in the atonement. That reminder is that you have partnered with him in your salvation and eternal life. My coming back into his presence is not just my project alone. God and I have a project, and it’s me.
The scripture brims with images of being clothed. We are to put on the whole armor of God. We learn “And let these, thine anointed ones, be clothed with salvation, and thy saints shout aloud for joy.”[xi]
The Lord is “clothed with majesty”, He is “clothed with strength.”[xii] Heavenly messengers are clothed. After we die, we are “clothed” with a resurrected body.
Can you imagine the enormous privilege of being clothed with the atonement? It is when we are clothed in the atonement, that we are finally encircled in his arms in the Divine embrace—never to be separated again.
[i] Isaiah 61:3
[ii] Doctrine & Covenants 128: 22
[iii] Isaiah 51:3
[iv] 2 Nephi 1:15
[v] 2 Nephi 4:33
[vi] JST Matthew 3:34
[vii] Hugh Nibley, “The Atonement of Jesus Christ, Part 1,” Ensign, July 1990. [add the link. https://www.lds.org/ensign/1990/07/the-atonement-of-jesus-christ-part-1?lang=eng]
[viii] Luke 8:27
[ix] Mark 5:15
[x] Alma 44:18
[xi] D&C 109:80.
[xii] Psalms 93:1