Why blood?

September 18, 2007 at 8:53 pm 14 comments

This semester, I’m taking a class called Doctrine of the Sanctuary, which explores the Old Testament tabernacle and its significance throughout the Bible as a picture of Christ’s atoning work on behalf of humanity. Right now, we’re studying all the various sacrifices associated with the tabernacle.

In thinking about all these Levitical laws, I’ve been mulling over Hebrews 9:22:

And according to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.

So, why? Why can there be no forgiveness without the shedding of blood?

I don’t deny the significance of sacrifice, and I don’t deny that there is something very compelling about the sacrificial system, but still—what does blood do? And why should God not forgive without it?

After all, the shedding of blood does not right the wrong of sin. The deed is already done, and shedding blood does not stave off the consequences of our harmful actions. Nor does the shedding of blood somehow “compensate” God for what we have “cost” him by our sin—it’s not as if blood is something of value.

Why then should there be blood?

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Busyness, Sabbath, and the practice of God’s sovereignty Who needs sacrifices?

14 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Nathan  |  September 19, 2007 at 1:21 am

    Maybe because blood is the life of the thing. Sometimes we even squish the words together: “lifeblood.” That doesn’t make blood magical, it just makes blood itself a figure of speech in God’s creation decree. As a physical figure of God’s speech, blood stands in for all of life. (Bones, on the otherhand, represent death. Just another part of the body, but a different meaning.)

    Of course, this justs leads back into your previous post “What good does a dying God do?” — on which I’m sure we are coming from different places. On that, I don’t deny that sin is like a disease. But I will also affirm that it is a punishable offense in the sight of a righteous God. (I felt like your post asked me to choose between those.) The punishment is the disease, and having the disease is itself punishable. It’s both.

    Reply
  • 2. Stephen  |  September 19, 2007 at 2:16 pm

    I think Nathan is right. “Blood” is a synonym of “life”. Thus the verse means, “without a death there can be no forgiveness of sins.” Which takes us straight back to your previous post.

    I think evangelicals are approximately right in their notion of atonement:

    (1) Jesus’ death was required before God could forgive our sins.
    (2) Jesus’ death was required because a just God cannot just look the other way, and pretend that a sin never happened. Sin must be punished, and the punishment is death.
    (3) In other words, to forgive in the absence of a death-as-punishment would be unjust. Since God can’t be unjust, he required a death before forgiving our sins.

    Hence Paul’s statement, “… so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Ro. 3:26). God wanted to be our justifier; but he had to proceed in a way that was consistent with his nature as a just God.

    The alternative model is the Jewish one: that the only ground necessary for God’s forgiveness is our repentance. But the Jewish model isn’t true to the New Testament, and arguably it isn’t true to the Old Testament, either.

    I’m often curious about where you’re coming from, and where you’re going to. To me, your current direction leads to an outright denial of biblical teaching on what is arguably the core doctrine of the New Testament. And you call me a liberal!

    Reply
  • 3. Ariel  |  September 19, 2007 at 3:49 pm

    I’d largely echo Nathan and Stephen. I could circumvent their reasoning (which I agree with), of course, by saying, “God created the world that way.”

    That probably wouldn’t be of much help, though.

    Reply
  • 4. doclucio  |  September 19, 2007 at 10:38 pm

    I agree with my esteemed blog-colleagues. Heh.

    I can’t wait for your next post when you question the Law of Gravity 🙂

    Reply
  • 5. Charles Churchill  |  September 19, 2007 at 11:32 pm

    I think its useful to remember what Hebrews 11 says about the “worlds being framed by the words of God” in that the sense that the world is made in a certain way because God is telling us something specific about Himself.

    In other words, God did not look at us and say, “Well I want to tell them about me, and I want to use something important, and they’ve got this blood stuff running through their veins and they need it to live, so that makes it important. Maybe I’ll use it. Oh, and they seem to have settled into agrarian groups, so I’ll use farming analogies in my parables, and they have a Patriarchal system so I’ll refer to myself as Father and oooh, oooh, brilliant idea I just had, Jesus, you can be my “son”, and I’ll send you to die and that will tie back in with the blood thing. I am SOOO good at foreshadowing… I’m glad one of their writers came up with that…”

    You know what I mean? If God truly is all-knowing and all-powerful, then the world was made to show the things he wanted it to show. Or, to say it a different way, the only reason you have blood is because of it’s significance to what God wants you to know about Him.

    Reply
  • 6. Nathan  |  September 19, 2007 at 11:57 pm

    Charles, yes! It is no stretch for God to express himself through our language or in creation, because he made those things to reflect his own speech and character.

    So metaphor is not just a literary device, but it is built into the world. Sins are washed away as white as snow, marriage is like Christ and the church, and monkeys look just enough like us to keep us humble.

    Reply
  • 7. Stephen (aka Q)  |  September 20, 2007 at 7:18 am

    One small expansion of what I wrote above. In context, Hebrews depicts blood as a purificatory agent:

    Under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. (9:22)

    But this observation just pushes our inquiry back a stage. We have to ask, why does blood purify? And the answer inevitably has something to do with penal substitution — that someone has paid the just penalty of the law on our behalf — or so it seems to me.

    That seems to be the model of the Old Testament sacrifices that are used as an explanatory device for the death of Christ. But I should perhaps add that the precise mechanism involved in the Old Testament sacrifices is implicit, and there’s some uncertainty about how the sacrifices were understood to cleanse the supplicant and clear the road for God’s forgiveness.

    And a plug: I’ve summarized the three classical atonement theories on my theology blog, along with my own proposed addition (Adam soteriology).

    Reply
  • 8. Jamie  |  September 20, 2007 at 10:31 pm

    Thanks to all for the comments; I appreciate the feedback.

    Unfortunately, I think I’ve given the impression in my last couple posts of being extreme, as suggested in Stephen’s comment:

    To me, your current direction leads to an outright denial of biblical teaching on what is arguably the core doctrine of the New Testament. And you call me a liberal!

    Needless to say, this is not the impression I want to be giving.

    It is true that I have questions about the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, and there are significant pieces that I don’t “get.” But I have not ditched substitutionary atonement altogether (and don’t plan to do so anytime soon). I am too well aware of the importance of the concept of substitution in the Bible to throw out the notion entirely.

    Unfortunately, it’s really hard to probe this issue without being really controversial, but please understand the frame of mind in which I am posing the questions. My questions here are motivated by a desire to better understand the doctrine of atonement, not to shoot down biblical teaching on the topic.

    For the sake of clarification, I should say that I agree with most of what’s been said in the comments here (i.e. that blood represents life, that somehow Jesus’ death was required in order for God to be just, and that the world was created the way it was in order to show us something about God).

    What I remain unsure about is the how and the why. Yep, it’s true that life was required, and it’s true that Jesus had to die in order for God to be just, but those statements, taken alone, seem too simplistic and somewhat incomplete. I can’t necessarily explain why, but I sense that there’s more to it than just that.

    For now, though, I’ll leave it at that. I’ll probably return to the subject again in a few days, but at the moment, you all have made some good points, and I’ll let them stand without argument. (Heh–this is partly because I don’t necessarily HAVE good arguments! 🙂 )

    Reply
  • 9. Hugo  |  September 21, 2007 at 5:18 pm

    I think the issue is worth asking. I am reminded of a verse in the Qu’ran (I can’t find it at the moment) that states the very act of forgiveness is sufficient atonement for a fault committed. Although contextually, the text addresses human relationships, it easily applies to divine forgiveness. In that light, God’s grace is sufficient justification for, ahem, his grace. 🙂 For Muslims, this explanation is magnificent in its simplicity. I believe it places a real burden on Christians to explain the necessity of the cross.

    Still, I think a deeper question must first be addressed: what was the purpose of animal sacrifice in the Jewish cult of the 1st Century CE? Did one transfer, or simply concentrate guilt, on the animal to be slain? Was the animal thought of as a sin-bearer, or simply, as an offering (a personal, reparative, loss–penal, medicinal, or otherwise)? Are traditional atonement models reading ideas not only into Paul, but into Leviticus as well? I believe that without a more precise grasp of that background, we are ill-suited to understand Paul’s comparison between Christ’s sacrifice and temple sacrifices.

    Again, the ground and nature of Christian atonement has been an open question in Christianity. The conversation continues… even among Catholics, who hold a multiplicity of approaches to the question, largely according to their local traditions (Roman v. Eastern Catholics [Byzantine, Coptic, Syriac, etc.]).

    Reply
  • 10. Stephen  |  September 21, 2007 at 10:40 pm

    Hugo:
    I take it that you’re a Muslim? I think it’s very cool that you would offer an opinion on this topic on a Christian’s blog.

    With respect to the Hebrew scriptures, one of the plainest hints we have is this: that the individual who brought the sacrifice would lay his hands on the head of the animal before it was slaughtered. Taken in conjunction with the term “sinbearing”, this laying on of hands seems to dramatize a transfer of something from the penitent individual to the sacrifical victim. What is transferred? Either sin/guilt or (as John Stott prefers) the penalty owed for sin/guilt.

    When we turn to the New Testament, we are presented with the following language:

    • “for our sins”,
    • “bore our sins”,
    • God made Christ to be sin for us”,
    • “becoming a curse for us”,
    • “give his life a ransom for many”,
    • “blood poured out for many”,
    • “by his wounds we are healed”, and finally,
    • the much-contested, emotionally-loaded term “propitiation” (Gk. hilasterion).

    Frankly, I don’t much like the doctrine of penal substitution. It seems barbaric in our gentle, civilized era; and it is wide open to all sorts of deplorable misunderstandings. But I can’t escape the conclusion that this is what the New Testament teaches; and not any one author but almost all of the New Testament authors in one formula or another. (James is a noteworthy exception.)

    Jamie quite reasonably asks why Christ’s death was necessary, and how the shedding of Jesus’ blood achieves atonement. I don’t think the New Testament answers those questions, except in hints like Romans 3:26 (which I quoted above). Sometimes (often?) God doesn’t explain why to us.

    If God never explained why, I doubt I would be a Christian. On the other hand, it would be presumptuous to assume that God is obligated always to explain why to us. Sometimes we merely trust and submit to the Gospel.

    Reply
  • 11. Hugo  |  September 22, 2007 at 2:41 am

    Hey Stephen,

    I’m actually Catholic, lol. And yes, much debate will center on whether the imposition of hands is a symbol of transference (and if it is, the identity of that being transferred). Of course, the very fact this debate exists demonstrates the deeper (and more fundamental) ambiguities present when addressing the Atonement.

    So far as “barbarism” goes, I’m from a faith that physically eats the flesh and blood of Christ as sacrifice. I’m comfortable with that, lol. 🙂

    Reply
  • 12. James Pate  |  September 23, 2007 at 5:48 pm

    I’ll toss out this comment–though I am not sure if I endorse it. One of my rabbinic professors said this. The sacrificial system was designed to keep God happy and maintain life–in the sense of survival, good crops, fertility, etc. By burning the blood (which represents life) on the altar, one spreads life throughout the cosmos.

    I don’t remember if he phrased it exactly this way, but it was something like that.

    Reply
  • 13. Bil  |  September 25, 2007 at 2:01 pm

    Sorry to side track the issue, but if we take the metaphor of blood as representative of life what can we draw from Luke 22:44

    “And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.”
    —Luke 22:44 (NKJV)

    Could we surmise that the life was draining out of him as he was coming to the culmination of his ministry, or is this simply a descriptive passage to show how heavy was his distress.

    Where do we draw the line between metaphor and the literal, and when are we to see a deeper meaning ?

    “without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” may mean no more than there is no forgiveness without sacrifice, and the reference to blood may place no more emphasis on blood than to draw the idea of sacrifice to the readers mind.

    Substituting the word sacrifice renders the sentence as follows – And according to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with Sacrifice, and without Sacrifice,there is no forgiveness.

    Reply
  • 14. Theodore A. Jones  |  December 19, 2007 at 1:11 pm

    Dear Jamie,
    Excellent question and I am certain of this answer. If you’ll go back to Heb. 7:12 I think you might understand what I am saying. A change by the addition of one word to God’s law has been made but only because Jesus life was taken by bloodshed. His crucifixion is the sin of murder caused by bloodshed. For taking a man’s life by bloodshed is accountable directly to God where as taking the life of an animal by bloodshed God does not require any accounting.
    See Gen.9:5 NIV. Therefore the crucifixion of Jesus is the base of fact relative to the change of God’s law whereby all persons by Jesus crucifixion have become accountable to God according to Gen. 9:5b. The crucifixion of Jesus has perfected the Way any person can be forgiven of ALL sins by the faith to obey one word of God according to God’s will of demanding an accounting for shedding Jesus’ blood. The only Way the added command can be obeyed is by the faith to repent directly to God for Jesus’ murder. The crucifixion of Jesus is not a resolution. For even he says guilt relative to sin remains outstanding AFTER his crucifixion. Jn. 16:8
    The addition of the word Repent to the law, but only relative to Jesus’ crucifixion, makes it necessary to obey him for salvation. For without the shedding of your fellow man’s blood there is no basis for the remission of sin’s penalty. “The law was added so that the trespass (of Jesus’ crucifixion) might increase.” Rom. 5:20

    Reply

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profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

Email me: jamie.kiley@gmail.com

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