The Meaning of Blood in the Old Testament

‘For the LIFE of the flesh is in the blood: and I hsve given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul’, Lev. 17. 11.

This statement, coming immediately after the regulations concerning the Levitical offerings, is one of the most important in the Old Testament. It contains four outstanding words: Life, Blood (twice), Altar, Atonemeni (twice). Blood in the healthy body means life. Blood poured out results in death. The altar is the place of sacrifice. It is the shed blood that makes atonement for the soul. Atonement means ‘to cover’. This is the basic objective of the Old Testament sacrificial system.

In three places in the Old Testament it is stated that the blood is the life, Gen. 9. 4; Lev. 17. 11; Deut. 12. 23. Only God is the giver of life. He is the source and dispenser of it. He is the creator of every living thing. If the life of the flesh is in the blood, this emphasizes the tremendous value which God places on blood. The penalty of shedding man’s blood, so taking his life, is that the murderer’s blood must be shed. Capital punishment is by express divine command, Gen. 9. 4-6. Then there is the emphatic prohibition against eating blood or flesh with the blood undrained from it. The prohibition was heavily enforced upon the Israelites, Lev. 17. 14; Deut. 12. 16, 23, and in the New Testament repeated to Gentile Christians, Acts 15. 20; 21. 25; cf. Gen. 9. The blood belonged to God and was to be poured out before the Lord. Under law, disobedience meant the death penalty.

We have already noted the remarkable fact that atoning blood is not mentioned in Genesis. When we read that Jehovah God made for Adam and his wife coats of skin, and clothed them, Gen. 3. 21, it is presumed that this involved the death of victims in order to provide the skins. It must also have been by divine instruction that Abel slew the firstling of his flock and offered this, including the richest element, the fat, Gen. 4. 4. After the judgment of the flood, Noah opened the new era by offering clean beasts and birds and these were burned with fire on the altar, Gen. 8. 20. The same could be said of Abraham and his approach to God in the four altars which he built, climaxed on Mount Moriah when he offered his son Isaac in a figure and then a substitutionary sacrifice of a clean animal, a ram, Gen. 22. Similarly, Isaac and Jacob built and worshipped at altars at critical points in their lives, Gen. 26. 25; 35. 3, 7. During that same period Job likewise offered burnt sacrifices on behalf of his family in case they had sinned against God, Job 1.5.

The record shows that in this early period of man’s history, God had revealed to men the fact that they were sinners, and that the only way to approach Him was by means of a substitutionary sacrifice. Death as the penalty of sin must be exacted. This was to be done by means of an innocent substitute dying in the place of the sinner.

But the fact remains that for the first two thousand years of man’s history, in the biblical record there is no mention of the blood of the sacrifices. On the other hand it would be a serious mistake to infer from this that the meaning of the blood of the sacrifice was unknown in the earliest times. However it is only in Exodus and Leviticus, the books of redemption and worship, that it is fully revealed, explained and expounded. The blood of the passover lamb, the Levitical offerings, and the Day of Atonement all point forward to the final fulfilment of the pouring out of the precious blood of Christ for rebels and for sinners on Calvary’s cross. The Old Testament types and their meaning provide a splendid example of the progressive revelation of God’s purposes and grace.

Leviticus 17. 11 tells us that it is the blood that makes an atonement for the soul. Blood in the body means vibrant life, but blood poured out at the altar means vicarious death. The offerer lays his hands on the head of the innocent sacrificial victim, identifying himself with it. The animal is killed and the blood pours out. The sacrifice dies vicariously for the offerer. Its blood makes an atonement for his sins and his soul. The word ‘atonement’ means, to cover. Noah’s ark was covered within and without with pitch, Gen. 6. 14, where the word for ‘covered’ is the same as that for ‘atonement’. One form of the word is used exclusively of the golden lid that covered the ark of the covenant in the Most Holy Place. It hid from sight the tables of the law which man had broken and which cried against him for vengeance. This covering is called ‘the mercy-seat’, Exod. 25. 17, (and twenty-six times later). In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (LXX) used by Christ and the apostles, this word is rendered by hilasterion, which word is shown in the New Testament to point to ‘Christ Jesus: whom God hath set forth to be a propitation (hilasterion, i.e. mercy-seat) through faith in his blood’, Rom. 3. 24, 25. Therefore the true covering that hides the broken law of God is His beloved Son. The pure gold cover declares His deity, but once a year on the Day of Atonement, the atoning blood was sprinkled on the golden lid, pointing forward to His sacrificial vicarious death on the cross.

The fact that the Hebrew word for ‘to cover’ is replaced by the Greek word ‘propitiate’ (hilaskomai) prepared for the unfolding of the enhanced effects of our Lord’s great sacrificial work. After David’s great sin and true repentance, he could write ‘Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered’, Psa. 32. 1; cf. Rom. 4. 6-8. But we in this day of grace can go further and say: ‘Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ … Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him’, Rom. 5. 1, 9.

Sacrificial blood is mentioned 18 times in the book of Exodus, 6 of which are in relation to the Passover and 4 of which are in relation to the blood covenant made with Israel at Mount Sinai in chapter 24. Moses built an altar and offered upon it burnt and peace offerings. Half of the blood was sprinkled on the altar and the rest upon the people, after they had committed themselves to do and obey the law written in the book. In Leviticus atoning blood occurs about 60 times in relation to the sacrifices, the consecration of the priesthood, and the ritual of the Day of Atonement. Numbers of verbs are used relating to the application of the blood including i) poured out, at the altar (5 times); ii) sprinkled, (12 times); iii) wrung out (twice); iv) offered (once); v) presented (twice). All of these and other procedures in the use of atoning blood are carefully regulated. As an example, we read ‘And the priest shall take of the blood of the sin offering with his finger, and put it upon the horns of the altar of burnt offering, and shall pour out all the blood thereof at the bottom of the altar’, Lev. 4. 34.

A consideration of the many references to blood in the Old Testament brings to light its importance theologically: the various contexts highlight the different emphases bound up with the term. The following meanings emerge:

  1. Blood in the healthy body affords life; blood violently removed from the body results in death. This is important in view of the theory that the blood of Christ stands not for His death but rather for His life released through death and thus applied and dedicated to the recovery of men. Bishop Westcott and more recently Vincent Taylor are mainly responsible for popularizing this erroneous idea. The bible teaches that it is the sacrificial death of Christ, or to put it another way, it is the shedding of His precious blood which is the only way of approach to a Holy God, Heb. 10. 19-20. Atoning blood, Lev. 16. 11, 18; 17. 11; especially Day of Atonement ritual.
  2. Sheltering blood, Exod. 12. 13, 23; 13. 13; 1 Pet. 1. 18; Rev. 5. 9.
  3. Cleansing, Lev. 14. 14, 49ff; Psa. 51. 7; 1 John 1. 7; Heb. 9. 14; Rev. 1.5; 7. 14.
  4. Sanctification, Num. 19. 1-6; Heb. 9. 13.
  5. Consecration, a) the priesthood. Exod. 29. 20-21; b) the leper on the 8th day of his cleansing, Lev. 14. 14.
  6. The covenant of blood, Exod. 24. 4-8. cf. Gen. 15. 7-21; Jer. 34. 18, 19; Matt. 26. 26-28.

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