Giving expression to a point of view which is becoming increasingly popular in some circles, Vincent Taylor writes, “More and more students of comparative religion, and of Old Testament worship in particular, are insisting that the bestowal of life is the fundamental idea in sacrificial worship” (Jesus and His Sacrifice, London, 1939, pp. 54 f.). In this view the sacrifice of the animal is necessary, but only because there is no other way of obtaining blood, the life of the animal. As Taylor says, “The victim is slain in order that its life, in the form of blood may be released.… The aim is to make it possible for life to be presented as an offering to the Deity” (p. 54). Death, according to this view, can play no real part, then, in sacrificial acts when such a view is taken to its logical conclusion.

Let us follow the trail of this reasoning from the Old Testament over into the New Testament. According to popular expression the use of the term blood “suggests the thought of life, dedicated, offered, transformed, and opened to our spiritual appropriation” (Vincent Taylor, The Atonement in New Testament Teaching, London, 1946, p. 198). Being saved by the blood of Jesus is being saved by his life. The death of Christ ceases to have the centrality and the efficacy which the Church has universally attributed to it. Instead, his death becomes considered a mere incident.

The Weight Of Scripture

It is my observation, however, that the passages of Scripture which popular opinion claims as proving “blood” means “life” are out-numbered by passages in which blood clearly means death. In 203 out of the 362 passages where the Hebrew word for blood (dam) occurs in the Old Testament, blood signifies death by violence, much as in the phrase “to shed blood.” Thus we read, “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed” (Gen. 9:6) and “He that maketh inquisition for blood remembereth them” (Psalm 9:12). Over against this observation I can find but seven examples where there is connection of life with blood, and 17 where there is prohibition of the eating of meat with blood yet in it. (In 103 passages blood is used with regard to sacrifices, and these passages do not of themselves imply either life or death. They must be interpreted in the light of blood as a means of securing atonement—which in itself implies death.)

We need therefore strong evidence to substantiate current opinion before we accept the conclusions which gainsay the weight of Scripture cited above. What are we offered? The principal passage which adherents of this view advance is Leviticus 17:11: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh atonement by reason of the life.” Blood, in this verse appears to have the meaning A. Lods gives it: “there is a ransom, a redemption, a death by proxy” (The Prophets and the Rise of Judaism, London, 1937, p. 294). Proponents also testify that in Genesis 9:4 and Deuteronomy 12:23 “the blood is the life,” with which must be taken the repeated prohibition of eating flesh with blood still in it.

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Evidence Of Death

The writer insists, nevertheless, that these passages are just as easily understood when blood is considered the evidence that death has taken place. David refused to drink “the blood of the men that went in jeopardy of their lives” (2 Sam. 23:17), but this is a highly metaphorical statement. Both Genesis 9:4 and Psalm 72:14 have “blood” in parallel to “soul” or “life”; yet in the first case when Jehovah says that he will require the life and the blood of man, he is holding men responsible for taking life, not asking them to produce it or to give it to him; and in the second instance the meaning of “blood” in Psalm 72 is that shown by similar statement in Psalm 116:15—“death.”

We see, therefore, that passages claimed as proving that “blood” means “life” do not in fact bear the weight that proponents of this popular viewpoint believe. None speak of blood as indicating life in distinction from death. Yet they all speak intelligibly if we understand blood not simply as “life” but “life yielded up in death.”

Those who equate life with blood ignore another important fact, namely, that in the Old Testament blood is commonly used metaphorically, as we already saw in the case of David. Their argument depends on a very literal understanding of such passages as Leviticus 17:11 and others. Yet over and over again we come across references to “innocent blood” or “his blood be on his own head,” which cannot be taken literally. Stibbs draws attention to the Hebraic use of “vivid word pictures involving ‘blood’,” and cites such passages as the one describing Joab who “shed the blood of war in peace, and put the blood of war upon his girdle … and in his shoes” (1 Kings 2:5), and the Psalmist’s idea of the vengeance of the righteous when “he shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked” (Psalm 58:10) (The Meaning of the Word “Blood” in Scripture, London, 1947, pp. 10 f.).

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Another objection to the view we are considering is that it overlooks the pronounced Hebrew stress on the connection of life with the body. So far were the Hebrews from thinking of an immaterial principle of life that they associated life in the age to come not with the immortality of the soul but with the resurrection of the body. It is most unlikely, then, that they would think of the life of the animal after slaughter. We are far from the practical Hebrew turn of mind when we read of “soul-substance” (with Oesterley and E. O. James), or of “blood” suggesting “the thought of life, dedicated, offered, transformed, and open to our spiritual appropriation” (with Vincent Taylor). Stibbs is much nearer the mark when he sums up in the words “Blood shed stands, therefore, not for the release of life from the burden of the flesh, but for the bringing to an end of life in the flesh. It is a witness to physical death, not an evidence of spiritual survival.”

The Means Of Atonement

Where atonement is not brought about by the blood of sacrifices it is effected by things that signify death rather than life. (There are passages where it is effected by gold and the like [e.g., Num. 31:50], which do not obviously point to either life or death. But I pass over such as irrelevant to our present inquiry.) Moses in Exodus 32:30–32 tried to make atonement for the sin of the people by asking God to blot his name out of the book which He has written. Phinehas made atonement by slaying Zimri and Cozbi (Num. 25:13). David made atonement by delivering up seven descendants of Saul to be hanged by the Gibeonites (2 Sam. 21:1–9). The heifer was slain to avert punishment after murder had been committed by persons unknown (Deut. 21:1–9). The principle of blood atonement is that the pollution brought about by blood can be atoned only by the blood of him that shed it (Num. 35:33). But in each of these passages atonement is made or contemplated with no view to a presentation of life to God. It is the termination of life, the infliction of death that atones. Far from any symbol of life being presented to God, Saul’s descendants were hanged and the heifer killed by breaking its neck.

Usually when atonement is spoken of in connection with sacrifice, it is said to be effected by the sacrifice as a whole, rather than by any one part of it. Sometimes atonement is mentioned in connection with the blood, yet sometimes also it is attached to some other part of the ritual, like the laying on of hands (Lev. 1:4) or the burning of the fat (Lev. 4:26). This is natural enough if it is the whole offering which atones, but it is a very strange way to put it if the essence of atonement is the offering of life contained in the blood.

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Sometimes it is impossible to see a reference to blood, as in Exodus 29:33, where the reference is to the carcass from which the blood has been drained, (cf. also, Leviticus 10:17). In these cases, however, we are always aware that atonement must be through the death of the animal; there seems no room for the idea of atonement through life. The blood of sacrifices points us to the death of a victim. The death was the important thing, and the blood symbolizes this death.

Life Violently Taken

Our conclusion from all this is that the evidence afforded by the term “blood” used in the Old Testament would indicate that it signifies life violently taken rather than the continued presence of life available for new functions.

In the New Testament the largest group of passages containing the word “blood” refers to violent death, just as we saw in the Old Testament. (Cf. Acts 22:20; Rev. 6:10, for typical examples.)

Quite often there are references to the blood of Jesus which show that death and not life is in mind. For example, in Romans 5:9 we are said to be “justified by his blood” and “saved from the wrath through him.” This is parallel to “reconciled … through the death of his Son” and “saved by his life” in the next verse, and follows references to Christ’s dying in the three verses preceding 9. It does not seem possible to resist the conclusion that “his blood” refers to the death of Christ.

In Hebrews 9:14 f. we read, “How much more shall the blood of Christ … cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? And for this cause he is the mediator of the New Testament, that by means of death having taken place.…” It is hard to envisage a reason for interpreting “the blood” in a sense other than that given by the words which follow: “a death having taken place.” So in Hebrews 12:24 we read of coming to “Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaketh better things than that of Abel.” The blood of Jesus is contrasted with that of Abel, both pointing to death. And so it is with Hebrews 13:11 f. that we see the comparison made between the sin offering and the blood of Jesus, the point being not the presentation of the blood, but the burning of the carcass outside the camp. It is the death of the animal, and not the presentation of life that is seen here, and again the sacrificial illustration points once more to the death of Jesus.

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From all of this a consistent picture emerges, namely, that blood points us primarily to the infliction of death. We have seen passages where one might possibly interpret blood as signifying life, but even these yield to better sense when the word is interpreted according to wider biblical usage and understood to mean “life given up in death.” There seems no reason, therefore, to dispute the dictum of J. Behm: “ ‘Blood of Christ’ is like ‘cross,’ only another, clearer expression for the death of Christ in its salvation meaning.”

Leon Morris is Vice-Principal of Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia. He holds the Th.M. and Ph.D. degrees. In this article he handles a theme treated more fully in his recent book The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (Eerdmans, 1955).

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