Blood Cries Out (Leviticus 17)

Leviticus 17:11 For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.

Many people are squeamish about blood in general. The sight of blood makes them nauseous or faint. Some people also get a kind of theological nausea when blood is mentioned in the context of the Bible and especially in terms of Jesus and atonement. Homebrewed Christianity did a great series of interviews on Christology and two of the theologians wanted to reclaim blood imagery as important and even vital to a proper understanding of Jesus and the cross. There is a desire to sanitize the cross on both the right and left end of the spectrum (whatever those terms mean). On one end the violence of the cross only has to do with my individual personal sin and the blood is a magic spiritual talisman that takes away our guilt without having to lift a finger. On the other end the violence of the cross is described as “divine child abuse”. All blood language is therefore shunned as some kind of sadistic and/or masochistic way of understanding Jesus. Is there a better way to understand and incorporate blood imagery and symbolism into our theology? And what might all of this have to do with food?

Leviticus 17 is primarily concerned with blood. God forbids the Israelites to eat blood. Verse 11 (quoted above) sums up the reasoning for this prohibition. The assumption of any prohibition is that there are some people who are doing that which is being prohibited. There were likely other cultures and religions around them that consumed blood as part of their religious rituals. Lines were not as neatly drawn between Israelites and others as we often think. Clearly there was a lot of mixing between peoples, perhaps in marriage and certainly through commerce. As today cross-cultural relationships can be tricky. There’s a temptation to just accommodate to what’s around you. The opposite impulse is to erect barriers and isolate yourself to maintain a distinct identity. We see both things happen in the Bible and both are cautioned against.

Let us consider the meaning of the first phrase, “For the life of a creature is in the blood”. Perhaps other groups consumed blood for exactly this reason, believing that consuming the life would give them strength and more life. I don’t know specifics about which cultures believed or practiced these things, but it seems plausible and common in many different cultures. Maybe it was the Aztecs who believed eating the heart or other organs of their enemies or even heroic members of the tribe would transfer the characteristics to the eater. In this kind of practice the emphasis is on taking. By contrast God is portrayed as the giver of life and that life should be preserved and respected, not taken for self-aggrandizement. The sacrificial system in which the blood of creatures was spilled was intended to maintain, nurture and reconcile the relationship between the Israelites and God.

Nothing But The Blood
This brings us to the second part of the reason given for this prohibition. Blood is an essential part of the sacrificial system. The purpose of spilling blood is to make atonement, to reconcile the relationship between God and Israel as it was inevitably broken. For those who have not butchered an animal this seems pretty foreign, abstract and detached from experience. When done with the proper respect, care and mindfulness, killing an animal for food can be a holy act. You have probably heard that Native Americans would pray to the spirit of the animal they killed, thanking it for the sustenance it provided. Derrick Jensen points out that when you kill something for food you must then take responsibility for the care of that species on which you depend.

My experience of butchering animals for meat is profoundly sacred and sacramental while also very earthy, ordinary and mundane. The hardest part of butchering is certainly that knife’s edge between life and death when one way or another you spill the blood and take life from the animal. The prohibition against consuming the blood recognizes the sacredness of the life that is taken and gives it an honored role in the divine-human relationship.

It also recognizes that redemption and reconciliation do not come without struggle, suffering and violence. We desperately want to sanitize this process, but it is simply not possible. The law is written into nature herself. We cannot pretend that nature is all warm and fuzzy nature preserves and petting zoos. The reality of nature is that things die constantly so that other things can live. Without glorifying the violence present in nature, we must account for its reality in the scheme of things.

There Is Power In The Blood
So, blood then becomes a sign of the reality that change, transformation and even the maintenance of natural relationships involves suffering, death and a degree of violence. Thus the idea that God would fix the brokenness of the world with a wave of God’s magic wand detaches God and ourselves from the reality of the world God intends to redeem, reconcile and renew. Yet, we certainly do not want to condone the violence of the cross as in any way “natural”. So, we must recognize that there is a temptation, or possibility, to allow the theology of the cross to be absorbed and incorporated by Empire in a way that ends up condoning the same violence that killed Jesus.

The blood is what makes the sacrifice meaningful and gives it its substance. Blood prevents the cross from becoming “cheap grace”. This sacrifice stands in contrast to the Empire that claims to take the same life that is freely offered. Thus the blood is a sign both of the suffering and sacrifice involved in the reconciliation and transformation of relationships as well as the brokenness and violence of our relationships to each other and to the earth. Jesus words at the Passover with his disciples, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt 26:27-28) incorporate this understanding in the Eucharistic practice central to following and understanding Jesus.

I have a final thought that is a bit of a left turn. The Maori people live on a diet of which blood is a large part. I think they actually bleed living animals to make a blood and milk drink that is one of their staples. How would this prohibition and the consequent connections to our understanding of the cross and atonement be understood in the context of people who consume blood as part of their culture? I am always interested in real world examples that challenge theology to recognize some of our cultural prejudices in our doctrines and attempt to rethink them within new contexts that call some of our assumptions into question.

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8 thoughts on “Blood Cries Out (Leviticus 17)

  1. Martin_Lack

    Hi Lucas,

    I’m glad to see you tackling Leviticus 17 so thoroughly; and I agree verse 11 is the key. However, whilst I appreciate that food is the overall theme you are trying to explore, it seems odd not that you should not make more of the link between what is said in this Chapter and stuff like Jesus claiming that he had come not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it (Matt 5:17). This is because, it is my understanding that one consequence of His having done this (i.e. fullfilled rather than abolished the Law) is that we do not have to observe it. Therefore, amongst other things, we don’t have to follow all these rules and regulations (whether it be washing, preparing, sacrificing or cooking our food)…

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  2. lucas Post author

    I think it would take a lot longer to unpack what I think it means that Jesus came “not to abolish the law but to fulfill it.” Some people would take that to mean that we should continue to observe a lot of the commandment of the Hebrew Bible, because Jesus hasn’t gotten rid of it, but is the fulfillment of it. Others, as you suggest, believe that Jesus’ fulfilling it means that we no longer need to follow those rules and regulations. Obviously Jesus changes the game in some way. We cannot simply continue with the commandments in the Hebrew Bible as if Jesus did not happen (as Christians anyway), but neither can we just decide to do away with the Old Testament. In theory most Christians confess to the whole Bible, but in practice they are Marcionites.

    There is a third way, I believe, in which we acknowledge that some of the commandments were culturally and contextually bound and should not be practiced any longer in light of Jesus. Others, however, without practicing them to the letter should be understood as more timeless principles (e.g. Leviticus 25 and the Jubilee) that are intended to reveal God’s intention for the world which Jesus more fully illuminates. I haven’t made a list of which of the 600+ commands are which, but even those that we shouldn’t practice have something to teach us from within their own context.

    Thanks for saying that I tackled the chapter thoroughly, but I certainly didn’t intend to exhaust all the possibilities and theological interpretations of this passage. I took a particular tack emphasizing the sacredness of blood in this chapter in terms of the impact on our understanding of atonement theology. Not sure if I addressed your concern, but hopefully that helps at least clarify where I’m coming from.

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  3. Martin_Lack

    I must confess I had to look up Marcionism on Wikipedia but, yes, I understand where you are coming from. Obviously this whole issue of observation of the Law was a major source of division in the earliest days of Christendom (i.e. before the fall of Rome in c. 70AD). However, it has always been my understanding that Paul won the argument; and so Christians are not bound by anything in the Old Testament in a legalistic way. However, with freedom comes responsibility and, in any case, not being legally bound by something does not mean that we can or should just ignore it (i.e. the 10 Commandments are still a pretty good set of rules to try and follow). I hope that saying this does not make me a Marcionist…!

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  4. lucas Post author

    Looking at the whole of Scripture I think you find texts like Paul that emphasize freedom from the law and then you find Jesus’ fulfilling the law, James’ letter and Hebrews which draws the law into conversation with what has happened in Jesus. I see this as one among many tensions within the overall biblical narrative. The tendency over Christian history has been, on numerous issues (e.g. faith vs. works in the Reformation) to emphasize one end of the tension over the other rather than hold them in tension the way that their presence in the text implies.

    So, I would say that you are right, with Paul, to say that we are not bound to the commandments of the Old Testament in a legalistic sense, but to pass them off as only what came before would be to downplay their significance and meaning for the New Testament, for Jesus, and for Paul, as you yourself pointed out before. Too often the response to Paul’s emphasis on freedom from the law is to jettison the Old Testament wholesale except when it gets dragged out for vacation bible school.

    My upcoming posts on Leviticus 19 deal somewhat with this issue, but it’s worth noting here that Paul and James differ in the way they use the term “law”, because of the audience of their letters. Both of whom appropriate Jesus’ summation of the law and prophets with Leviticus 19:18 “love your neighbor” which is not intended to do away with the laws, but provide a hermeneutic for understanding their meaning and purpose… but now I’m giving away what’s coming next.

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  5. Martin_Lack

    Thanks for that explanation Lucas. I look forward to your post on Chapter 19 (and will resist the immediate urge to go and re-read it before you do). However, whilst I agree with your point that on this, and many other things, Christians (and all humans actually) tend to “cherry-pick” data to fit their pre-conceived ideas, I will now cherry-pick one of my own…

    The Macionite heresy was understandable (even if it did go a little too far) simply because, if you accept the self-referential truth of 2 Tim. 3:16, Jesus said himself that the shedding of his blood formed the basis of a new covenant; just as the first covenant was sealed in blood in Gen. 17 (I know; you will point to the fact that there is more than one covenant in the OT). Therefore, even without invoking Jesus’ summation of the entire Law into one command, do you not agree that He himself does appear to have believed He was sweeping aside Jewish Laws (which had been prescribed in the absence of a Messiah)?

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  6. lucas Post author

    I agree about cherry-picking. I try to be vigilant about not doing it myself. I think it’s a human tendency, however, to be prejudiced towards things that reinforce our existing beliefs. So, I try to include things that challenge me, like the book of Joshua, without trying to squeeze them into my biases unnaturally.

    Getting into a conversation on the nature of Scripture might open up another can of worms. I’ll just say that 2 Tim. 3:16 necessarily refers only to the Hebrew Bible, because there was no such thing as the New Testament (not even Gospels likely) when Paul wrote it. However, I do take the entire biblical narrative into account when forming my theology.

    The reason you seem to give for the Law in the Old Testament is “the absence of the Messiah”. I would say that is reading too much of the New Testament on the Old. The reason for the law in my mind is to shape a people into the People of God, who can be witnesses to YHWH to the nations/world/peoples around them (and to themselves since they were always screwing it up). The law provided a framework for organizing their lives together. The sacrificial system was part of that, and certainly had a central role, but as I wrote recently, I think we have misunderstood the nature of that system (https://wwje.wordpress.com/2011/09/07/can-i-offer-you-something-leviticus-1-7-2/) an its implications for our understanding of atonement.

    I guess the question is what you mean by “sweeping aside Jewish laws”. I see Jesus fulfilling the law in that he reflects the same principles present in the law, but transcends them (a la Sermon on the Mount). “Sweeping aside” seems to imply that the laws can be ignored. While I’m not saying they need to be practiced, they absolutely should not be ignored. For example, the Jubilee in Leviticus 25 is picked up by Isaiah in chapter 61 which is in turn picked up by Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth (Lk 4:16-20). The Jubilee was probably never practiced by the Israelites, yet they kept it in their sacred Scripture. I believe this is because it is central to understanding the biblical vision for God’s intention for people and the earth. This extends to other commands, not to be practiced literally, but to understand God’s intention behind them and their purpose for how we should organize our lives together. So, far from “sweeping aside” the Jewish law, I think that Jesus (and Paul and the New Testament) cannot be properly understood without the context of the laws of the Hebrew Bible.

    In other words, God still intends for us to practice Jubilee in our relationships to people and the earth. Jesus doesn’t do away with the vision of the future in the Old Testament, he fulfills it, meaning that the law is most perfectly understood and reflected through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. For Christians, Jesus is the hermeneutical key by which we read, interpret and understand the law, but if we sweep it aside we don’t really understand fully the meaning of Jesus and the New Testament.

    Hope that makes some sense. I feel like I rambled and repeated myself a lot. Good questions. I still would like to know your theological/religious background sometime, because it helps me respond better. If not I react out of my own theological prejudices, biases and assumptions and might misread where you’re coming from.

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  7. Martin_Lack

    Thanks for all of that, Lucas. I was going to email you but, I will be brave and post my response here (anyway – people say you should not put anything in an email you would not be happy to be broadcast on national television so – what’s the difference?)…

    You will have to take it on trust that I really have not been arguing for the sake of it, or trying to back you into a theological corner, but I do find myself nonetheless very tempted to answer your key question “What would Jesus eat?” by saying, “Anything that was fresh and not actually poisonous“! Personally-speaking, I would be much more interested in knowing the answer to the question What would Jesus eco-tax?. This is because, to those who want to deny that we have an AGW problem – who want to deny that perpetual growth inside a closed system is a problem – eco-taxes are the enemy. In fact to some crazy people like Peter Freeman (see the About page and elsewhere on my blog), eco-taxes (not AGW) are the cause of food scarcity, starvation and death. As I have said to him, this is an insane inversion of reality. However, I digress… It would be interesting to know what Jesus would eco-tax because we could be sure he would make the right decisions and, in my view, everything should have a cost (pollution most important of all).

    Another reason why I tend to fall down on the – Jesus has fulfilled the Law so we do not need to observe it – side of the fence is Leviticus Ch. 16: As well as shedding his blood in sacrifice, Jesus (I would say) clearly saw himself as fulfilling the role of scapegoat. Hence the amazing words in Hebrews Chapter 10. You also touched on the repeated failure of the Israelites to do what they were told…Well, salvation by faith (rather than works) deals with that too.

    However – and it is a big however – all of that is my intellectual response. My experience is something altogether different. Since we first made contact, I have enhanced my blog with the addition of 2 new pages; so that now there is About, Background, and History, which respectively deal with why I am so fixated by the environment and AGW; why I spend so much time getting mad with James Delingpole; and my views on the interface between Christian faith and the scientific quest for knowledge. What none of this tells you is that I grew-up being taken to an Anglican Church and thinking I was a Christian because I had been Christened (probably a pagan add-on to medieval faith) and Confirmed (can’t see that anywhere in the Bible either). It was not until I left home, and spent a year not going to Church, then read Luke’s Gospel and the book of Acts, that I began to realise what a Christian is (or should be). I later fell-out big-time with the Curate of my home church when I decided to get properly baptised at the age of 21.

    I could go on but it all gets a bit messy, but suffice it to say, I have always maintained since, that no Christian can convert to another faith because, if they do, they could never have been a Christian in the first place. As C.S Lewis famously put it, Jesus was either Mad, Bad, or God (there is no other option other than to say the NT is fiction). Therefore, why would anyone swap salvation by faith for salvation by works? I think, by now, you will know what is coming next: The trouble is, I know it all in my head but, life has not gone according to any discernable plan; I have never heard God speak to me; and nowadays I even doubt the experiential faith I once had.

    However, through it all, there is one thing I have always been sure of, there are more important things in life than making a profit; and that God would therefore prefer us to be good stewards of our environment, rather than be those who just want to go forth, multiply, fill, use, and have dominion over it (which is not going to end well).

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  8. Pingback: All My Relations (Leviticus 19 The Original Cut) | What Would Jesus Eat?

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