Does our faith hang on one word?

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He owned a cruiser anchored in Sydney Harbour. He enjoyed picturesque acres on his vast property. He even piloted his own plane. He had it made! 

And along with all the wealth, he had a loving wife and two happy children. Satisfaction, success and security, highly talented and intelligent; he had it all. 

. . . Daniel and Leviticus reassure us that there comes a time when all will be righted through the Investigative Judgment and its verdicts.

Well, it seemed so to many—until those three “Ss” unravelled. This son of a Seventh-day Adventist evangelist had let go of life’s Anchor of the Soul, the One who owns earth’s acres and rules from the heavens. 

Why forsake God? He had been one of the many victims of the pendulum swing in the 1980/90s. Moving from a more legalistic mindset he could no longer absorb where judgement fitted. Out went the Old Testament. But that wasn’t enough because, he found, the New Testament is also full of references to the judgement. So out went the whole Bible. 

He gathered his Adventist Bible Commentary set and most of his Ellen White books and took them to the tip. He stayed there watching until they were bulldozed into the mud; no-one would ever salvage that rubbish. 

Not too long free from the grasps of repressive religion, life’s uncertainties rolled in. A financial recession hit and an overseas government defaulted on a large payment owed. Cash flow stopped. Money, cruiser, plane, cars, acres—all gone. The ignominy and strictures of bankruptcy followed. Worse, his wife got terminal cancer and he watched her suffer and die. Self-reliance sank in 14 years of purposeless wandering. Truly life is a meaningless maze leading to nothing but misery! 

One desperate night as he sat alone into the early morning hours, a friend happened to pass and saw the light on. The friend called in and challenged our “bankrupt” man to think again about God. In his desperation, the man decided to read Scripture again, and he then read The Great Controversy. Gradually life’s meaning and purpose returned. Today our now “rich” man rejoices in the security of heaven’s real estate, anchored toward eternity.

Telling his story in Avondale College church in the mid-1990s, he said a key factor in his decision to turn his back on God centred on the Church’s investigative judgement doctrine. He had become convinced that the entire doctrine was “all hanging on one doubtful word in an equally doubtful book called Daniel”. 

That word in the book of Daniel is “cleansed”. 

Critics of the doctrine claim that the Adventist understanding rests on a mistranslation of the word “cleansed” in Daniel 8.14. Adventists have, critics claim, adopted the KJV mistranslation and ignored context and thereby misunderstood the word, and on that misunderstood word, we have built a doctrine.

Did the founding generation of Adventism really take texts out of context? Were they blind to the broader ramifications? Were they hanging the threads of their faith on an illusion born of ignorance? 

That is the heart of the contention. If critics are correct, this undermines the Danielic basis for the Day of Atonement typology of the “cleansing of the sanctuary” as the end-time judicial review. 

That vital judicial investigation-review assesses three major issues in the universe: the destiny of professed believers (why these and not others are genuine and safe to pluck from sin’s infestation), the principles of good and evil (considered the ultimate cosmic perplexity, raising questions about the efficacy of God’s mode of governing the universe) and God’s character (the justice-mercy and law-love interrelations tied to the foregoing)—all seen through Seventh-day Adventism’s most distinctive teaching, the investigative judgement.

A number of Adventists left the Church, a generation of pastors was decimated, and many even went on to leave Christianity altogether, over this apparently obscure question. Did they make a tragic mistake in believing the glib assertion that it is simplistic to accept the KJV “cleansed” translation in Daniel 8:14 and link it to the Day of Atonement “cleansing of the sanctuary” in Leviticus 16? Is the Adventist foundation so poorly laid in outdated, non-scholarly, “flimsy assumptions” via proof-texting with a mistranslation? 

No. The biblical evidence and linguistic method abundantly support the translation “cleansed” and the Daniel 8 context surely does link to Leviticus 16 and “the cleansing of the sanctuary”.

The keys to the issue are context, semantic (or meaning) flexibility in word usage, and the fact that the concept of righting or restoring can be expressed by seemingly unrelated words, such as the legal term “justify” and the sanctuary purification word “cleanse”. We will first view context, then the specific word “cleansed”.1

In the wider context, Daniel 7 and 8 are recognised as closely parallel for decisive reasons. They commence in the same way: “In the first year” (7:1) and “In the third year” (8:1) of King Belshazzar, with 8:1 referring back to the chapter 7 vision/dream. They continue with similar formulaic introductions to their visions (7:2; 8:2). They conclude in similar fashion with a perplexed prophet (7:28; 8:27). Their literary layout is identical (first half vision, second half interpretation). Both chapters are historical apocalypses with animal symbols. Finally, each chapter prominently features an arrogating Little Horn power that follows earlier nations and takes the reader into the final judgement (Daniel 7) or the “cleansing/righting of the sanctuary” in the end time (Daniel 8; cf. vv. 14, 17, 19, 26). 

Within this close connection, Daniel does give a notable contrast by moving from the ferocious, unclean beasts of Daniel 7 to the clean, sacrificial animals of the ram and goat in Daniel 8. This “contrast within correspondence”, together with other sanctuary references, sharply focuses the sanctuary as the counter to the Little Horn in Daniel 8. The vision climaxes with the “cleansing”/”righting” of the sanctuary reversing the work of the Little Horn power.

While evident that the cleansing/righting of the sanctuary is Daniel 8’s answer to the Little Horn and in Daniel 7 it is the judgement, Daniel 7 should be noted for its repetition and decisiveness. Three of the four times when the Little Horn is described in chapter 7, a judgement scene immediately follows (v. 8–>9-10; 20-21–>22; 24-25–>26). The one other depiction of the Little Horn in Daniel 7 implies that it is active during the investigative judgement and/or its activities are relevant to it (v.11a between vv. 9-10 and 13-14).

It would be expected that the closely paralleled chapter 8 would similarly connect the Little Horn with judgement, particularly as the context calls for judicial redress of the Little Horn (8:10-12). Compare the parallel from a non-Adventist scholar:

The trampling down of the sanctuary . . . does have a term set to it [the 2300 evening-mornings/days = years]. The forensic metaphor of judgement being given for the holy ones on high (7:22) reappears as the [chap. 8] vision promises that the sanctuary will ‘emerge in the right’ ([sdq]), ‘be vindicated’.2 

So both the immediate context of Daniel 8 and the broader Daniel 7/8 context support the idea of a judgement coming upon the Little Horn’s activities. But how does this relate to professed believers? This Little Horn power claims religious rights (7:20-22, 25), displacing “the Prince of the host”, “the daily/continual” provisions of the Prince, “and the place of his sanctuary” (8:11) and persecutes “the saints” (7:25) or “the host”/“holy people” (8:13, 24). These are all religious activities or preoccupations, strongly suggesting that the context is dealing with those professing to be believers. Consequently, the “judgement” distinguishes “the saints of the Most High” from “the same horn” pretender who “made war with the saints” (7:21-22).

A related thought is that this judgement reveals to the universe a concrete picture of what Lucifer, if not evicted, would have perpetrated in heaven as the initial “man of sin” sitting “as God in the temple of God” (2 Thessalonians 2:3-4; cf. Isaiah 14:12-14). Principles of good and evil, and God’s wisdom and character, are reviewed in the Arch-Deceiver’s ecclesiastical Little Horn/Man of Sin representative facing off against true believers. 

So the context supports a judgement between professing believers, just as the Day of Atonement ritual prefigured through the earthly “cleansing of the sanctuary”. Then, the likes of Israel’s pretenders, such as the Nadab, Abihu, Korah, Dathan and Abirams, would come to justice. But what of Daniel’s use of a word (Hebrew root sdq) that normally is translated as “justified”, “restored” or “vindicated,” and is not the verb used in Leviticus 16? 

The tendency of “cleansed” critics is to take a sole “words = meaning” dictionary approach, treating words as the pre-packaged containers of meaning and unconsciously overriding historical, cultural and literary context. This is called the “container method” or “determinacy” and is often implemented even when a writer professes to know better. Such lexical (or word) determinacy misunderstands how we conceive and express concepts. We typically do not lock in to one or more preconceived dictionary definitions (though they have their place, as do etymology and cognate languages). Rather, prior usage gives meaning potential that may be employed in varying ways, sometimes accenting one aspect relating to its semantic range, other times another, or occasionally a quite creative usage that the context shapes.

As we speak or write we are following a train of thought and our mind consults our store of words to structure the concepts being communicated. This is an “online process” in which the flow of thought calls upon our mental lexicon or encyclopedia for words to express the concept at hand. It is the “encyclopedic method” that is based on previous usage of terms, but, most importantly, permits the present context to direct usage, sentence structure and associations so that the intended meaning of the speaker/writer is ultimately context-determined.  *****

Let’s look at four positive examples bearing on our topic. The first reveals the shift in concepts within the usage of the same word; the other three illustrate the interchange of words and settings to express the same concept. The first manifests the flexibility in the semantic range of a word; the other three show how the same concept can be expressed by seemingly unrelated words taken from different realms of experience, literature and cultures. 

The first example: The Hebrew verb “see” (r’h or ra’ah in its simple active form) classically denotes physically looking with the eyes, visual sensory perception. This primary usage is sometimes called the “core” or “basic meaning” in a semantic range. Contexts of speech/writing, however, show that a great many of the 1300+ usages of “see” (r’h) in the OT have called for a translation that reflects the faculty of understanding; eg: “And Abimelech said to Abraham, ‘What were you thinking [r’h] of, that you did this thing?’” (Gen 20:10, RSV, NRSV; CEB similar); “‘What was your reason.. .?’” (NIV); “‘have in mind’” (NABRE).

Given this figurative shift into conceptual perception, if the context called for the idea of evaluating, investigating, examining, then the verb “see” could be utilised. So: “The priest shall examine [r’h] the disease on the skin of his body . . . after the priest has examined [r’h] him . . .” (Lev 13:3; NRSV, NIV, etc). “Then the priest shall make an examination [r’h] . . . pronounce him clean [thr]” (v. 13, NRSV; “examine(s)” in NIV, NLT).

These translations of r’h move from “see” to “examine” simply because the context required the idea of examining. The concept, utilising prior usage and the present setting, determined the translation. Likewise, sdq can move from “justify” to “cleanse” in the context of the righting of the sanctuary (Dan 8:14).

We will now move to the New Testament (NT) to illustrate direct substitution of words for the same concept. Gordon Wenham briefly states, “According to Paul we are justified by Christ’s blood; according to John we are cleansed by it.”3 Paul characteristically uses Greek words with the dik– stem that come from the language of the law court and translate as “justify”, “just/righteous” and “righteousness”. So: “. . . being now justified (dikaiothentes) by his blood” (Rom 5:9; cf. 3:25-26). When John expresses the same concept of righting or justifying by Christ’s blood, he employs the sanctuary vocabulary of cleansing: “. . . and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses (katharizei) us from all sin” (1 John 1:7; cf. v.9).

The analogy with Daniel 8:14 of the sanctuary and its adherents being “justified” (sdq), and with Leviticus 16:19, 30 where the sanctuary and its adherents are “cleansed” (thr) is clear. The same idea of righting or restoring is the meaning being conveyed by both expressions, by the legal term “justified” and by the sanctuary purificatory word “cleansed”. The concept of righting/restoring is central. Moreover, when the context of sdq is the sanctuary, the translation “cleansed” is quite appropriate.

The third example, from anthropology, manifests the same interchange of “legal” and “cleanse” terms and ideas to express the shared concept of righting or restoring.

Discussing the characteristics of worldviews, Paul Hiebert lists three cultures with their varying “Images of Moral Order.”4 We will concentrate on two, to represent the West and the East. In this oversimplification we can understand that right relationships, shame, etc would also feature in different sections.

Focus

Legal Order

Cleanliness

Response

Guilt

Repugnance

Salvation

Punishment, Restore Moral Order

Washing, Purification, Restore Cleanliness

Image

Righteousness

Holiness, Purity

Example

United States

India

So we have two cultures seeking the same righting/restoring outcome through different paradigms. Righting is accomplished through both the Legal focus (cf. sdq “justified” Dan 8:14) and through the cleanliness focus (cf. thr “cleansed”, Lev 16).

When we think of the diversity of atonement metaphors in the NT (legal, “cultic” [a technical term for religious ritual and worship, as in the sanctuary], ransom, victory, redemption, adoption, exemplarist, etc), the inclusive double approach of justify/cleanse should not surprise. It reaches into varying literary, metaphorical and cultural backgrounds through the different associations and connotations linked to the complementary sdq/thr concepts.

Since atonement (kpr) and cleansing (thr) overlap in Leviticus 16 (see vv. 18, 20: kpr; v. 19: thr; cf. v. 30) and since Daniel associates atonement and righteousness (Dan 9:24: kpr and a sdq noun form), the connection of righting/cleansing with atonement is pertinent. The NT (and OT) atonement metaphors coalesce around the legal and the cultic/sanctuary (which two are actually more analogical than metaphorical).5 The “cultic and legal images must be regarded as providing the objective foundation of a doctrine of atonement,” “the objective core.”6 This is seen in the OT, e.g., Isaiah 53: sanctuary expiatory sacrifice (v. 10) immediately following by the judicial act of justifying (sdq, v. 11); and in the NT, Romans 3: the sanctuary idea of propitiation through sacrificial blood (v. 25) in the midst of legal language involving overt justice (vv. 24, 26). 

It could be said that Hebrews and any Bible students with a tendency to left-brain activity would grasp the more propositional sdq; others with right-brain activity would gravitate to the thr sanctuary symbolism. However, they should be allowed to complement and fortify each other whatever personal tendencies we have. The “sacrificial and judicial . . . have a special relationship to the event they interpret.”7

Our fourth example is one of Scripture’s interchanges. We now compare Leviticus 13 (priestly laws regarding a scale, leprosy-like disease) with Ezekiel 18 (regarding individual responsibility for right doing, moral accountability)—two differing topics in different genres (types of literature), but each approach having the same idea—investigation to determine fitness:

Leviticus 13: Investigation of physical fitness for sanctuary ritual/spiritual life in the community, leading to the declaration: “He is clean (thr) / unclean (tm’).” See Leviticus 13:13, 17, 37; cf. vv. 6, 23, 37: “and the priest shall pronounce him clean.” 

Ezekiel 18: Investigation of moral fitness for moral and spiritual/sanctuary life in the community, leading to the declaration: “He is just (sdq) / wicked (rš‘).” See Ezekiel 18:9.

The list of virtues in verses 5-9 of Ezekiel 18 “is patently an elaboration of what ‘righteous’ means.” This calls to mind Psalms 15 and 24 and “a liturgical ceremony conducted at the sanctuary gate . . . the declaratory verdict ‘He is righteous [sdq]’ pronounced by the priest after the pattern of similar such declaratory pronouncements in Leviticus 1:17, 2:15, 13:3 [sic., assume v. 13].”8 “Ezekiel’s ‘mirror of virtue’ ends with a declaratory formula of priestly vintage: he is righteous [sdq], he will surely live.”9

The important point for Daniel 8:14, is that the “justify” (sdq) – cleanse (thr) conceptual interchange seen here is made in sanctuary contexts of investigating/examining the fitness or right standing before YHWH at the sanctuary. Space forbids listing other scriptural examples of a cleanse/sdq interchange, save an abbreviated footnote,10 but it is significant that quite often this happens in the context of investigation, reflecting Daniel 7 and 8. As Blocher affirms regarding the atonement images which:

“exhibit the same structure (isomorphism), so that they naturally translate into one another—hence the intertwining in so many passages. As soon as one discerns that cultic holiness can be translated ‘righteousness’ in the ethical-juridical sphere, one understands that the danger of the Presence’s devouring fire, the danger of being struck dead by sacred intolerance [such as sanctuary presumption: Lev 10:1-11; 16:1-2ff], is the danger of being condemned and punished by divine justice. With the biblical God (not any numen [non-personal divine spirit/power]), what is the stain to be covered or wiped out if not the guilt incurred by sinning?—actually ‘sin’ and ‘sin-bearing’ belong to both sacrificial and judicial languages.”11

Blocher adds how the spotless “slaughtered animal . . . together with the priest. . . satisfies the demands of justice,” and “the worshipper . . . declared to be in the right by him who judges justly.”12 The worshipper being declared to be in the right by One who judges justly is quite applicable in the context of Daniel 8 where the “religious” Little Horn subjugates the true people of God, eliciting the cry, “How long . . . ?” (v. 13). We have just seen in Leviticus, Ezekiel and Psalms that “cultic holiness [with its ‘cleansing’] can be translated ‘righteousness’ in the ethical-juridical sphere,” so with Daniel 8:14 (sdq) and Leviticus 16 (thr). 

In sum, the immediate and wider contexts of Daniel 8:14 call for judgment on the Little Horn power. Since this symbol represents a religious body that persecutes the saints, Daniel and Leviticus reassure us that there comes a time when all will be righted through the Investigative Judgment and its verdicts.

Linguistics explains how lexical meaning is not to be pre-determined. There is far more flexibility. We gain the sense of words by noting the context in which the “on-line” production of the speaker/writer is communicating. The setting sparks or drives a person to seek a word from their mental encyclopedia—the “Encyclopedic Method”—to best portray the sense intended, rather than resorting to a mere dictionary “Determinacy” approach. It is a combination of previous usage plus present context, with the context being the final determinant of meaning.

We noted the interchange between the word used in Daniel 8:14 (sdq) and that used in Leviticus 16 (thr), and most importantly the sharing of the same concept of righting/restoring in order to be able to freely make the interchange. It is connected, concurrent and complementary, rather than oppositional, thinking. In Daniel 8:14 the sanctuary context naturally takes us to the “righting” or “cleansing” of the sanctuary that engages the symbolic Day of Atonement ritual of Leviticus 16.

So, were early Adventists unsophisticated biblical scholars who built our church on a fabrication exposed by the brilliance of a singular stellar intellect? Or were they a group of exceptionally deep Bible scholars, humbly working together under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and with the prophetic gift exhibited in their community? Whichever way we answer, one thing is certain: the word “cleansed” is not a trite mistranslation in Daniel 8:14. It is a translation deeply embedded in the textual, contextual and historical analysis of the text. Those who tritely dismiss the Adventist understanding misrepresent the depth of it. And in so doing miss a beautiful truth; a truth at the base of a faith that is changing millions in the world.

1. This essay can only include a fraction of available evidence.

2. John E. Goldingay, Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 30: Daniel (Dallas, Texas: Word Publishing, 1987), 212.

3. Goldingay, 212.

4. Paul G Hiebert, Transforming Worldviews: An Anthropological Understanding of How People Change (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 62.

5. Henri Blocher, “Biblical Metaphors and the Doctrine of the Atonement,” in Journal of the Evangelical Society 47/4 (December 2004), 643, in relation to the judicial language of atonement, “probably the least metaphorical of all” (645).

6. Nico Vorster, “The Nature of Christ’s Atonement. A Defence of Penal Substitution Theory,” in Strangers and Pilgrims on Earth: Essays in Honour of Abraham van de Beek, ed. E. Van der Borght and P. van Geest (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012), 140, 146. Compare the Reformers generally and Calvin specifically (130-131). “Why, then, does Paul use legal and sacrificial terms more often than family ones? Probably because of the deeply-ingrained Pharisaic [and biblical: Zech 3; Dan 7] notion of an afterlife lawcourt. Judgment Day is a compelling metaphor for Paul . . .” (Stephen Finlan, The Background and Content of Paul’s Cultic Atonement Metaphors [Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004], 158; cf. 190, 229: “The significance of the Messiah’s martyrdom is interpreted through cultic metaphors; even justification and reconciliation emanate from the place of sacrifice”).

7. Blocher, 641, where the writer is suggesting their elucidating the meaning of the death of Christ. So, too, we will see how they interact around the concept of investigation in our next example.

8. R. M. Hals, “Methods of Interpretation: Old Testament Texts,” in Studies in Lutheran Hermeneutics, ed. John Reuman (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1979), 272. 

9. Joseph Blenkinsopp, Ezekiel (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1990), 83.

10. For example, Job 15:14-16 with 25:4-6 that relate sdq to the ‘cleanse’ field of words, this time through zkh, a synonym of thr. What is striking is the threefold relationship: by substitution between the passages and speakers, by synthetic parallelism, and by a chiasm between the passages. Also, more generally, see Elias Brasil de Souza, The Heavenly Sanctuary/Temple Motif in the Hebrew Bible: Function and Relationship to the Earthly Counterparts, ATS Dissertation Series (2005), 446-450, 464 (drawing on H.T. Fletcher-Louis), regarding sanctuary imagery of fire and clouds and the Son of Man as a priestly figure in Daniel 7:9-14 paralleling, with Day of atonement imagery, 8:9-14; and the interweaving of judicial and cultic elements and procedures in Zech 3:1-10 and Lev 16 (deferring to R Gane) (328). 

11. Blocher, 643-644 (Blocher’s italics).

12. Blocher, 644.


Eric Livingston, PhD in Biblical Studies, lives in Cooranbong. In recent years he has been a sessional/adjunct lecturer in the Theology Departments of Avondale College of Higher Education and Pacific Adventist University.