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.