31. Atonement According to Moses and the Traditional Writings

Louis Goldberg

The concern far atonement with God was of primary importance to Jewish people in the Second Temple period while the Talmud was being completed.1 For the Jewish person who recognized he had a revelation from God, no place existed for speculation. The people in this society sought most earnestly God’s forgiveness for sin. G.E. Moore2 commented “A theory of the way in which sacrifices and other rites expiates sin is in a revealed religion a superfluous speculation… Judaism had, therefore, no motive for discussing the modus operandi of sacrificial atonement, and never even raised the question.”

The purpose in this paper is to demonstrate that, prior to the loss of the Second Temple, two convictions existed as to the means for atonement, 1) the sin offering of the temple procedure that marked the unique emphasis of substitute atonement, and the alternate conviction 2) of the Israeli’s self effort which could earn for him an atonement for sin. On this basis the Israeli could then claim righteousness before the LORD.

When Yeshua (Jesus) came, the object of his preaching and teaching ministry, and ultimately his death, was to try to bring the nation Israel to realize the first conviction: atonement could only be based on a divinely sanctioned sacrifice. Following the loss of the Second Temple, when sacrifices were no longer possible, Judaism was restructured by the leading rabbis into religion which made self effort the sole basis for righteousness. Yet, even after 70 C.E., a testimony to substitutionary atonement in the Hebrew Scriptures and Traditions continued to exist.

An Atonement According to Moses

We first examine what is a Torah presentation of what atonement means.

The Inscripturation of Redemption’s Message

In the Constitution ratified at Mt. Sinai, God declared three times He will meet with His people through a progression that cannot be ignored: 1) Atonement, which was to take place at the Mercy Seat above the Ark of the Covenant in the most holy place (Ex. 25:10-22); 2) Dedication, centred at the altar of burnt offering in front of the tabernacle, later, the temple (Ex. 29-38-43); and 3) Communion, or Fellowship with the LORD, symbolized through the incense offered at the table standing in front of the curtain inside the tabernacle, or temple (Ex. 30:34-37).

The worship book of Israel, Leviticus, also follows somewhat the same progression. Moses described first the dedicatory and thanksgiving offerings (Lev. 1 – 3) because everyone knew something about dedication and thanksgiving. Nevertheless, Israel’s worship system called first for the offering of the sin or atonement offering, followed by the dedicatory offerings, and then, the thanksgiving offerings.3

A Significant Reminder

Moses carefully mentioned the reason underlying the sin offering: unintentional sin. But what does it mean to sin in such a manner? Is this a sin of commission, or omission? Gesenius defined “unintentional” as an error or fault committed through inadvertence.4 A person therefore, can sin without even realizing it.

But if a person can sin and be unaware of it at the time, what is man’s real problem? The Ramban (Nachmanides) declared in his comment on this verse, “The reason for the offerings for the erring soul is that all sins (even if committed unwittingly) produce a particular ‘stain’ upon the soul .. And yet, this observation only reflects that, according to a later Judaism, a person is a sinner because of his wrong deeds. One elects to follow his evil inclination and chooses to sin; therefore, he is a sinner. But this is not what Moses said; unintentional sin means that man has a quirk in his being. The act to sin does not produce the stain on the soul; the stain is already there.

The sin offering is for “who the person is,” and when an Israeli offered this sacrifice, he was reminded that in his very being, he is a sinner, not because of his deeds of sin, but that his deeds came from his inner nature.

The Gracious Provision

A complete exegesis of the sin offering in Leviticus 4:1-5:13 cannot be included within the confines of this paper.6 We can point out the intent of atonement in the Mosaic Constitution and later on, we will see how this message of atonement appears in the New Covenant.

Four principles are derived from the narrative of the sin offering:

1) Substitute. The offerer was instructed to bring an offering to the altar, one which reflected his leadership position in the community, or economic status. The animal was the substitute to represent the offerer.

2) Identification. The offerer placed his hands on the head of the animal and confessed the inadvertent sin or sins that had been brought to his attention. For all practical purposes, the animal substitute was now identified with the sin of the offerer.

3) The death of the animal substitute. The animal was now killed, not by an officiating priest, but by the offerer himself. He had to realize that without the substitute, he would have to bear his own sins; however, God in His mercy provided the substitute to die in place of the offerer and without it, he and everyone else would have to bear their own sins and die as a consequence (Ezek. 18:4).

4) Exchange of Life. The text itself does not specifically indicate this principle but nevertheless, it does have meaning regarding atonement. When the animal died as the substitute, having upon it the sin life of the offerer, it gave its own life to him. The picture of the exchange of life was intended to convey to the offerer that he could now have a new life!


The sacrifice of the animal could never by itself provide atonement to anyone. Rather, the Levitical sacrificial called upon Israelis to internalize the principles which adhered to the sin offering. Four possible responses were made by Israelis:

1) Total unconcern where, prior to the Babylonian exile many people strayed from the Mosaic worship and became involved with the pagan shrines. Such rebellion became one the reasons for the exile to Babylon;

2) Ritual. Many Israelis brought their sacrifices according to Moses’ instructions, only to go through some perfunctory motion of offering them. But this worship was meaningless and God hated it (Isa. 1:11-15). He wanted a repentant heart whereby the offerer could bring the sacrifices in a manner intended by the LORD. Kohler emphasizes:7

“Teshuvah is neither penitence nor penance. The former indicates a sort of bodily self-castigation, the latter some other kind of penalty undergone in order to expiate sin. Such external forms of asceticism were prescribed and practiced by many tribes in some of the historical religions. The Jewish prophets, however, opposed them bitterly.”

The biblical notion of repentance insists upon a change of mind and heart. Kohler’s comment is interesting in view of what happened to the Jewish concept of repentance in the traditions, a feature as we shall see later.

3) Legalism. Again, some did as Moses commanded, but after offering the sacrifices, the specific Israeli felt the LORD owed him for doing right! Obviously, this response represented a sick mindset, as if God owes anything to anyone based on his mere good deeds;

4) The only valid response to the offer of the sin offering was in Genuine Belief. When an Israeli internalized or accepted by faith the four principles associated with this offering, he had an atonement for his sins. He had a new life, and because the blood of this particular sacrifice had been applied in the appropriate places in the Tabernacle, or Temple, all offenses against the very places where God met with this new believer were taken away.

An Assurance of Atonement

Believers knew their sins were forgiven. David announced that his sins were removed from him as far as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:12). Furthermore, as a believer stood, watching the scapegoat as it was led away on the Day of Atonement, he could exclaim in his soul and with his lips, “Halleluyah! There go my sins and I never have to face them again.” And in addition, any believer could also agree with Micah; even as God can cast sins into the depths of the sea, so a believer had the assurance that his sins were buried likewise (Mic. 7:18).

Any number of examples are possible of believers present in Israel in every generation through the centuries. One such person was Simon the Just (about 200 B.C.E.), the last of leaders of the men of the Great Synagogue, and his testimony to faith is well known:

“The world rests on three pillars, upon Torah, upon (Temple) worship, and upon the showing of kindness (gemilut hasidim)”.8 He declared exactly the full intent of the sacrificial system. The Torah calls for repentance, then the offer of the particular sacrifice, followed by the devout lifestyle of one who had truly come to faith.

Prayer and Confession

These twin facets were necessary ingredients along with the offering of the sin offering. When the Israeli brought his appropriate offering, he not only placed his hands upon the head of the specific animal, as we already saw, but Oehler also points out that the offerer “more correctly pressed firmly his hand on the head of the sacrificial animal.”9 In the identification act, the offerer prayed to God, confessed his sin, and asked forgiveness.

An Atonement of Self-Effort

Alongside the testimony of a biblical atonement were also the presence of folk who responded in ways other than the fourth response mentioned above. While a remnant was always present who knew the meaning of salvation, yet the rest, for one reason or other, did not appropriate it for themselves. No matter at which period man lives, his way and God’s way can clash. We can picture, therefore, the situation in Israel during the days of the Hebrew Scriptures and the intertestamental period: from the whole nation, only a remnant came to faith. At certain key points in the history of Israel and Judah and intertestamental periods, the Spirit of God strove to bring about spiritual renewal, swelling the remnant to include many. During times of spiritual death the remnant was small.

A number of statements concerning an atonement of self-effort exist in the traditional writings and we shall begin with the Targumim. The presence of some instances of this material possibly already appears in Nehemiah 8:7, 8, and comments on the first five books and portions of the prophets (haftorah) developed throughout the intertestamental period. Certainly, much of this material was in oral form by the first century C.E. What we will have to distinguish, and sometimes it is not easy, is the way Torah, or Law, is used in the traditional materials. At times, the rabbi or wise person used the word Torah, or Law, in its derived meaning: Divine Instruction. In this sense, there is a good interpretation of what the text says, providing for good doctrine or instruction for a godly lifestyle. At other times, the use of the word Law describes an emphasis upon self-righteousness. The latter became the basis upon which people sought righteousness or atonement, achieved by self-effort. We need to note now the examples.

Targum Isaiah has many paraphrases incorporating the emphasis upon the Law in relation to an atonement. The emphasis is upon keeping, observing, performing the Law, returning to the Law, instructing and teaching the Law, penalties for not knowing or forsaking the Law, and instructions regarding being a rebel against the Law. The fruit of the land is described as those that keep the Law; there is an appeal to the people who do not consider, a reference to those who do not know how to return to God’s law; to forsake the LORD describes those who forsake the Law of the LORD.10 Again, if those involved in Targum Isaiah thought of Law as the Written Law, or Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), then we have a good interpretation of the Scriptures. However, as we consider the sense of the interpretation at times, an element of atonement based on self-effort is very much present.

Various writers of the Pseudepigraphical books share both a biblical view of atonement as well as one based on one’s righteous deeds. Baruch describes how works are as a firm pillar and prayers are as a strong wall. Zion will be forgiven on the basis on whose who did good works; men are saved by their works and shall see great wonders; Hezekiah trusted in his works and had hope in righteousness in his trial at the siege of Jerusalem (according to Baruch); righteous men and holy prophets trusted in their works which had value with God so their prayers could be heard.11 In IV Maccabees, no stronger necessity exists than obedience to the Law (although in the narrative Eliezer’s faithfulness to it in spite of martyrdom is commendable); the mother and her seven sons martyred for their faith (recorded in II Maccabees 7, Apocrypha, which according to this source is a genuine expression of faith in the resurrection) did so because of faith in God, and that through the martyrdom of these brave people, a ransom was paid for Israel’s sins, the country was purified, and the nation was delivered.12 The Brotherhood of Qumran felt they alone were the children of light and therefore the only ones who enjoyed atonement.13 And yet, of all the groups and sects in Israel prior to the New Covenant community of believers, the Brotherhood in its many expressions of belief stood closest to a theology of the Hebrew Scriptures.

The Messiah and Atonement in the New Covenant

The Principles Never Change

The Jewish believers who penned the New Covenant under God’s direction never changed Moses on the matter of atonement. What is interesting is that the very same four principles of the Mosaic sin offering were taken over in the New Covenant, but now, instead of an animal who died as the substitute, these principles are attached to the Messiah himself who died in our behalf. He indeed is our 1) substitute: the “Lamb unblemished and spotless .. chosen before the foundation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake” (1 Peter 1:19,20).

2) He identified with our sins so that when we receive Him, He takes them upon himself: “He Himself bore our sins in His body” (I Peter 2:24) because He had become sin.

3) He therefore died as our sin offering: “For the Messiah died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous” (I Peter 3:18). But because of His death, 4) we who believe in Him receive His life. These very four principles proclaim the scriptural equation:

atonement = repentance + the atoning sacrifice. Both truths are necessary; if people take only one and attempt to use it as the means for atonement, none will be forthcoming.

Was the Messiah Really Supposed to Die?

This consideration in itself is the subject for another paper and therefore we will not attempt to present a complete scriptural argumentation for it. Suffice it to say, at the end of the Second Temple period, no doctrine existed in Judaica that the Messiah was to die for sin. Rather, the hope was that the Messiah would come, restore Israel’s place among the nations, and institute the kingdom envisioned by the prophets.

One notes this belief, as for example, when (Yeshua) Jesus made the first announcement to his disciples that he was going to Jerusalem, be delivered into the hands of the nation’s leaders, be put to death, but that on the third day he would be raised from the dead. What was Peter’s response? Based on what he had been schooled that the Messiah would deliver the nation, he reacted vehemently, stating that no harm could ever come to Him. Not until after the resurrection were the disciples convinced that all Yeshua ever said did actually occur. Their belief had to change because before a kingdom could ever commence, the Messiah must first suffer and then enter into His glory (I Peter 1:10-12).

The tragedy was that while a good expose of the atonement according to Moses did actually exist in the traditions,14 the first century became a focal time period. Messiah’s death served notice on the nation that He accomplished the fulfillment of the sacrificial element of the Mosaic covenant, obviously, an emphasis upon atonement by substitution. However, because of no belief in Israel of a Messiah who was supposed to die as an atonement for our sins, it was difficult to see an actual transfer of these truths to the death of the Messiah Yeshua, except as what the apostles and disciples actually taught and preached to the people Israel. His death also served notice on those who sought atonement by self-effort that works righteousness would never suffice for a proper standing with God. The nation would have to make a choice.

Whatever Happened to Substitute Atonment?

The loss of the temple in 70 C.E. was a crisis within Israel. Everyone recognized that it was no longer possible to offer sacrifices anymore. Moore explains:15

“The loss was keenly felt. It is narrated that R. Johanan ben Zakkai was one day going out of Jerusalem accompanied by his disciple R. Joshua ben Hananiah. At the sight of the Temple in ruins, Joshua exclaimed, ‘Woe to us, for the place where the iniquities of Israel were atoned for is destroyed.’”

The Rabbinic Response

After the fall of the temple, a council of sages met at Yavneh at which Yohanan ben Zakkai presided. One of the decisions enacted by this council was to change the statement by Simon the Just to read :16

1) Torah, which becomes the pillar for studying and teaching;

2) (temple) worship was redefined to be prayer; and

3) a life of kindness.17

With this radical alteration, Zakkai and his colleagues set Judaism on a course whereby traditional belief and practice excluded substitutionary atonement. True, Jewish religious leaders insist that prayer and praise are the substitute for animal sacrifices, citing for example, the prophet Hosea, “Accept what is good; that we may present our lips as bulls” (14:3; Masoretic text), or in modern rendering, “That we may offer the fruit of our lips” (New International Version, 14:2). But to change the temple service is not the prerogative of man. God had instituted His system for atonement at Sinai through Moses in the Mosaic covenant; ultimately, this system had its fulfillment in the substitute atonement of the Messiah. While prayer and praise are to be commended as part of a devout lifestyle, they do NOT take the place of atonement.

After the completion of the council’s work at Yavneh, the rabbinical leaders subsequently picked up on the direction that had been established: “The descendants of Eli’s could find no atonement by sacrifices or meat-offerings, but … with the study of Torah and acts of Ioving-kindness”18.

Prayer also became important. According to Rabbi Eliezer, prayer ranks higher than sacrifices (Berahot 32b).19 One should not wait for special occasions of holidays or sacrifices to pray but it can be made all the time (Taanit 2b).20 The one who puts on tefilin, recites the Shema (Deut. 6:4), and offers prayer to God is regarded as having built an altar and sacrificed upon it (Berahot 1 5a).21 Repentance is also included as one of the means for atonement as Moore points out:22

“The important thing is that while the temple was still standing the principle had been established that the efficacy of every species of expiation was morally conditioned – without repentance no rites availed. With the cessation of the cultus repentance itself was left as the sole condition of the remission of sins.”

Moore also elaborates that by the time of the second revolt (132-135 C.E.), Jewish people in the land of Judea had become so accustomed to a religion without a sacrifice that repentance was a replacement for substitute atonement.

Service of deeds and “doing charity” are also the means of atonement. The traditions indicate that “when the temple was in existence, the altar atoned for man; now a man’s table atones for him,” particularly when the poor eat with him (Hagigah 27a; Menahot 97a).23 In other words, when food is given to the poor, the act of mercy was instrumental in gaining atonement. Fasting is also a deed for achieving atonement. Rabbi Eliezer valued fasting even higher than he did charity; the former is the sacrifice of one’s self, while the latter is only the sacrifice of one’s money (Berahot 32b).24

When it was all said and done, the rabbinical leaders in the Talmud, completed by about 500 C.E., had redirected Judaism after the first century to an atonement based solely on self-effort. Instead of the carefully worded statement by Simeon the Just who reflected what the Written Torah declared, repentance, prayer and acts of mercy became the substitute. A biblical atonement as defined by Moses and the prophets was no longer in place.

The Urgent Call to Return to Sources

In spite of such a drastic change from what God had revealed in the sources of biblical literature, one question remains: Did these deflections from the Written Torah really give one an assurance of the forgiveness of sins?

When Yohanan ben Zakkai lay dying, he was asked whether he knew where he was going. He laments, “I have before two roads, one to Paradise and one to Gehenna, and I know not where he (God) will sentence me to Gehenna or admit me into Paradise.”25 But what do the Scriptures say? David’s hope is that when he departs from this life, he will dwell in the house of the LORD forever (Ps. 23:6). Why? Because his transgressions had been removed from him (Ps. 103:12). Rav Shaul (Paul) could announce: “I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with the Messiah, which is better by far (Phil. 1:23); But he could only make such a statement because he had forgiveness of sins through the ministry of Yeshua and having believed in him, he was justified from everything (Acts 13:38, 39).

However, even some traditional writers seem to hear faint echoes from the biblical sources. One such statement appears in the Babylonian Talmud when the rabbis engaged in earnest discussion concerning a vine of the fourth year and a thread of scarlet (Rosh HaShanah 31 b):26

“R. Nahman b. Isaac said it was the tongue of scarlet, as it has been taught: ‘Originally they used to fasten the thread of scarlet on the door of the (temple) court on the outside. If it turned white the people used to rejoice, and if it did not turn white they were sad. They therefore made a rule that it should be fastened to the door of the court on the inside. People, however, still peeped in and saw, and if it turn white they rejoiced and if it did not turn white they were sad. They therefore made a rule that half of it should be fastened to the rock and half between the horns of the goat that was sent to the wilderness.”

After a lengthy discussion concerning some other matters, the friends have told us that a conversation turns again to the description of the scarlet thread and one rabbi states:

“For forty years before the destruction of the temple the thread of scarlet never turned white but it remained red.”

With the second temple lost in 70 C.E., what happened forty years prior to this event that made the rabbi underscore what was so crucial in the life of a people? The only answer can be the death and resurrection of Israel’s Messiah. The testimony of the scarlet thread becomes a valuable focus from tradition on the claims and ministry of Yeshua the Messiah.

What is interesting is the statement concerning the great number of priests who turned to the LORD and became obedient to the faith (Acts 6:7). No doubt the priests and many of the people in attendance made the connection between the death of Yeshua and the tearing of the curtain separating the holy and most holy places. But of crucial importance would also be the verification that indeed the scarlet thread never did turn white after the atonement ministry of Yeshua. The rabbi who preserved the story of the thread has left us with a valuable testimony.


For many years, our Jewish friends have told us that a Christianity with a triumphal message, that is, Jesus is the only way to God, had its origins in the Council of Nicea in 325 C.E. and other subsequent council decisions. Jewish people have been made to feel less than whole people when faced with the claims for Jesus; only in Jesus can one be fulfilled and only in Him is there salvation. As a result, representatives of the church targeted Jewish people as folk who needed to be “converted to Christ” and when some did believe, their identity was stripped from them, even their Hebrew name!

In the last number of years, and particularly since the holocaust and the birth of the State of Israel, an attempt has been made to once more go back to the sources of the New Covenant, that is, its roots. When one does, the discovery is made that this Covenant quite reflects the religious cultural milieu at the end of the Second Temple period, and has citations and paraphrases in it from the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), Mishnah and the Outside Books (what today we know as the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha).

But when one examines the New Covenant in its cultural background, particularly a doctrine such as the atonement which we just portrayed, comparing the Hebrew Scriptures, the Jewish sources based on the Scriptures, and what the New Covenant declares, we do find some interesting statements. The Jewish sources prior to 70 C.E. with regard to atonement do reflect what Moses had declared in Leviticus, although there are some voices which have a different position.

The Jewish writers of the New Covenant surely did not change the Mosaic concept of substitution atonement. And, if there seems to a triumphal note regarding the Messiah as the only way, this position only reflects what Moses himself had stated on God’s behalf: no atonement possible apart from the sacrificial system of the Mosaic Covenant. What happened after 70 C.E. is a far different story with no substitutionary atonement.


1. Two periods are noted during the time while the Talmud was taking shape. The first part of the Talmud is the Mishnah, completed in 200 c.E. by the Tannaim scholars. In the subsequent period until about 500 C.E., the Amoraim scholars produced a commentary on the Mishnah, called the Gemara. Two sets of scholars each wrote their commentaries and so we have two of them but since the combination of the Mishnah and Gemara is the Talmud, two Talmuds exist, The Jerusalem and the Babylonian.

2. G.E. Moore. Judaism, vol.1 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1927), page 500.

3. For example, on the Day of Atonement during the time of the Second Temple, the high priest offered the sin offering, first for himself and then the goats of the sin offering of the people, one which was killed while the other was the scapegoat. Next, he offered the bull and the goat for the burnt offering as indicated in Lev. 16:27 (Tractate Yoma, chapter 6, particularly verse 7); The Mishnah H.Danby, ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), pages 169, 170

4. Gesenius, Hebrew and English Lexicon, S. Tregelles, tr., (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950), page 804.

5. Ramban, Commentary on the Torah – Leviticus, Rabbi c. Chavel, ed. (New York: Shilo, 1974), page 45.

6. Louis Goldberg, Bible Study commentary: Leviticus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980- a Hebrew translation of this book is also available: Rishon Letsion: Israel, HaGefen Press, 1993).

7. K. Kohler, Jewish Theology, (New York: KTAV, reprint, 1968), page 247.

8. Pirke Avot 1:2, J.H. Hertz, ed. (New York: Behrman, 1945), page 15.

9. G.F. Oehler, Theology of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Ml: Zondervan, reprint of Clarks Library, n.d.), page 274.

10. J.F. Stenning, The Targum of Isaiah (Oxford, 1949) citing Targum Isaiah 4:2,1:3, 29:10, 1:28, pages 14,2,92,6.

11. R.H. Charles, Pseudepiqrapha II (Oxford, 1913), citing Baruch 2:2,14:7, 51:7, 63:3, 5, pages 481, 490, 509; 515.

12. James M. Charlesworth, The Old Testament PseudePigrapha, II (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1985), citing IV Maccabees 5:16, 15:24-30, 17 17-18:1, pages 550, 560, 563.

13. Manual of Discipline 1:9, 3:13; The Dead Sea Scroll Scriptures, Introduction and Notes by Theodor Gaster (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor, 1976, 3rd ed.), pages 44, 48.

14. See Yoma 4:1-6:8 in The Mishnah, Op. Cit., pages 166-170 where a good portrayal of an atonement based on the sacrificial system was actually present.

15. G.E. Moore, Op. Cit., page 503, citing Avot de Rabbi Nathan, 4, 5

16. See above page 10.

17. Jacob Neusner, A Life of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1962), page 142, citing J. Goldin, “The Three Pillars of Simeon the Righteous.”

18. Solomon Schechter, Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (New York: Schocken, 1975, reprint), page 312, commentary on Rosh HaShanah 18a, in Moed, Vol. IV. Babylonian Talmud (London: Soncino, 1938), page 75.

19. Zeraim, Babylonian Talmud, Ibid., page 199.

20. Moed, Vol. IV, Babylonian Talmud. Op. Cit., pages 3-5.

21. Zeraim, Op. Cit., page 86.

22. G.E. Moore, Vol. I, Op. Cit., page 505.

23. Respectively, Moed, Vol. IV, Babylonian Talmud, Op. Cit., page 170, and Kodashim, Vol.1, Babylonian Talmud. Op. Cit., page 592.

24. Zeraim, Op. Cit., page 199.

25. J. Neusner, Op. Cit., page 172.

26. Moed, Vol. IV, Op. Cit., pages 151, 152.

(Reprinted from Tishrei Vol 2 No 2, Rabbinic Judaism as background to Scripture, Winter 1993/1994)

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