What’s the deal with the blood motif in the Bible?

I don’t get it.

In the book of Genesis Cain kills Abel and God says to Cain :

“Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” Gen 4:10

Who of you has ever been able to hear blood in any form, crying out to you?

Why does the Bible use language like that? It makes blood sound anthropomorphic, like it is a life force unto itself.

And why, in the Old Testament Law, does God make the Israelites kill animals so that the shedding of their blood serves as a cleansing for sin? Why couldn’t God just have made it that you ask him to forgive you and you are forgiven? Why does sin have to be paid for? Why must God be propitiated? And why must it be with blood? Why not just changed words, attitudes or actions? The blood cleansing had to be accompanied by life cleansing in the Law as well anyway.

Really, I can understand why people look at this part of the Bible and lump Christianity/Judaism in with all other religions. In this respect it seems no different from all of the other religions of the time.
It seems just as brutal as the rites of the Assyrians or the Egyptians.

Why did God want his people to use blood so prominently this way? Why did he make them kill animals at all?

And finally, why must it be the blood of Christ which cleanses our sins? Why can’t it be his soap, or maybe his spittle?

Obviously blood is a big deal to God. We know that it conveys oxygen and nutrients to our bodies and that without it we would die, so it is vital for life, but why is it such a strong, central motif to the message of the Bible? Why does the symbolism have to be so stark?

I’d love to hear anyone ‘s thoughts on this topic.


9 thoughts on “What’s the deal with the blood motif in the Bible?

  1. Your question is a good question. It is also a common question of “modern” man, unaccustomed as he is from having to kill to live, especially in the “civilised” West.

    Symbology and rituals: Human beings communicate externally – both at the individual level and collectively. We use external signs to express love, respect, affiliation, and all sorts of things. For example, we hug and hold hands to express affection, shake hands to greet and show respect, we use words and tonality to communicate how we feel, and we offer gifts too others to convey thanks and gratitude. We also have a need to display our individual “associations” publicly – that’s why we have uniforms, flags, fashions, and why fans wear football shirts. Socially, when we act within a group (a tribe, a country, a corporation, a team, etc.) we tend to ritualise certain “performances” to strengthen our collective identity, and also communicate to other groups.

    Almost every human society has linked blood to Life and understand the value of blood for life. Every ancient culture assigned the ultimate value to it. In the first place, it is necessary for “life” and without it, no life is possible. So, blood literally represents life. Secondly, we have the “bloodline”. Through blood we have “kinship”, and through kinship we inherit our parents’ traits. Dynastic power and authority is transferred through the bloodline. We claim familial inheritance only through blood. Contracts sealed “in blood” have always had the highest significance.

    So, it is only natural that societies ritualise “blood”. The shedding of blood has always had a major significance, especially when it is “sacrificed” by an individual for the good of another or the community. Think of the soldier who “shed his blood” for the country (in exchange for some gain – it can buy freedom, spoils, or justice), or someone who willingly dies to save another. They’re regarded as heroes.

    God uses “blood” for two reasons: To prepare the Jews for Jesus’ Passion and because it is the common “currency” of the day. Just about every pagan nation used ritual blood sacrifice, for one reason or another. Sacrifices were carried out in thanksgiving, appeasement, petition, or in penance. The Jews had been living in a pagan land for 400 years and had become fully acquainted with pagan symbology and ritual. God had to use a language that they understood. Hence their exodus was “sealed” with the blood of the sacrificial lamb (which they ate) which was daubed on their portals – to this day the Jews celebrate the ritual of The Passover (Exodus 12). Again, when God issued the Ten Commandments, He formed a contract with the Jews (Exodus 19, 23) and then ratified it with the blood of sacrificial animals which they again ate Exodus 24:3-11). Incidentally, your T. E . Hanna is right. Both the Passover and the Decalogue covenant on Mount Sinai prefigure Christ’s Last Supper, where He Himself was the sacrificial lamb. The “new and everlasting Covenant which was sealed by His Blood and the “Lamb” which the apostles had to eat and drink (Matthew 26: 26-28). It’s been God’s MO from the beginning and the Jews were intimately familiar with it – so they understood what was really happening (contrary to many who call themselves Christians today who see it all as symbolic – but that’s another story).

    One last point. You ask “why must it be the blood of Christ which cleanses our sins?” The way to understand it, is to view from the perspective of Justice. Contracts are subjective to commutative justice which regulates exchanges between persons in accordance with a strict respect for their rights. Commutative justice obliges strictly; it requires (among others things) the paying of debts and fulfilling obligations freely contracted (CCC 2411). Without commutative justice, no other form of justice is possible. Jesus’ sacrifice was in reparation for the injustice committed by Adam. For every sin there punishment which has to be paid. Even when forgiveness is obtained, reparation is still due. That’s been God’s teaching from the beginning (Adam, Cain, Moses (never entering the promised land), Noah, David, and so on. Unfortunately, Adam’s sin was so great that it resulted in death. No ordinary human could repay it – it took God to pay the price Himself to give back Life.

    Why the blood? Well, it’s incomprehensible if one regards it as ordinary blood. However, it is not ordinary blood. It regenerates and feeds both our bodies and souls – as Jesus explained in John 6:51-58. By eating His Body and drinking His blood Christians become part of His body, as explained in 1 Corinthians 10:16.

    So, all the sacrifices for expiation of sin, all the symbolism about blood in the OT, was to prepare the Jews for the “real deal” – The Lamb of God who died to take away the sin of Adam (which we all inherit by our very nature). The MO is there: The (real) Sacrifice, the (real) Blood, the (real) Meal.

    1. Excellent comment Filipe.

      It answers many of my questions.

      I still wonder why God decided to apply the contractual/judicial relationship concept to the way he deals with us, though.

      Why did he go down the path of having to require a just payment for every infraction?

      I guess that’s his nature?

      Are there other ways he could have gone about this?

      Anyhow, the questions are endless…let’s just delight in the wonderful relationship we can have with Jesus Christ as a result.

      1. ”I still wonder why God decided to apply the contractual/judicial relationship concept to the way he deals with us, though.”,
        I think it’s because we need to have boundaries as humans, no matter which century we belong to. (I feel that present times are crying out for recognisable boundaries round every corner!!)
        Christ’s sacrifice was for once and for all. We make the choice to remain faithful to the boundaries of Christianity; we know ultimately there ‘ll be no other/ sacrifice that can be made for our salvation; the plan for our salvation has been mapped out over many centuries.
        Ultimately it comes down to the idea of COVENANT: oaths, and agreement.

      2. “I still wonder why God decided to apply the contractual/judicial relationship concept to the way he deals with us…”

        Because that’s the way we’re create (in His image). Everything about our relationships is “contract” based. Think about it. We contract our labour out (what we call work) and we want to be paid a just wage. Marriage is a contract between husband and wife in which both sides have obligations. Our friendships are also based on implied contracts (friendship rules – we can let a friend down badly if we don’t behave according to our “friendhsip contract”). Our public associations and private clubs are all contract based (you can belong if you do this and in turn we’ll give you that). When we buy and sell anything at all – it’s a contract (we pay the price, we get the goods). Even when we get on the bus or taxi (I’ll take you to x place if you pay me y). We can drive on the road if we observe the rules (contract). I’ll rent my property to you if you pay me x amount. Even with our kids, we do it – if you’re good we’ll give you a treat, if you misbehave you’ll be punished. It’s our pattern of life. Every relationship between humans involves give and take based on an understood “fairness” (justice). Most of our hurts and disagreements (at work, in the family, with friends, and even institutions) result from a “break of faith” – a perceived injustice, usually because one party is not “playing the game” (i.e. breaks the social contract).

        This is God’s way too, and we, created in His image are the same way. Every single one of our relationships is contract based, whether it’s explicit or implicit. Therefore our relationship with God has to be contract based. It’s only natural (according to the very nature of humans and God).

        “Why did He go down the path of having to require a just payment for every infraction?” Because Justice demands it, and He is perfect Justice. Look up the defintion of Justice. It’s the same as moral rightness or conformity to truth.

        PS. btw, nice blog, Peter.

    1. Yeah, your post is great. My thinking was beginning to develop along those lines even after I wrote this post.

      The point is, God didn’t ever really require the animal sacrifices, or all of the rituals which he instigated with Israel for them to be made right with him: Hebrews chapter 11 tells us that the people who knew God before Moses, were accepted and justified by faith, not by the observation of rituals. So the OT Law must have been a means of meeting ancient peoples where they were at and in a way which they would understand.

      Hebrews 9:11-28 talks about Christ’s blood being required so that our inward spiritual cleansing could be made complete, just as the animal sacrifice was for our outward cleansing. Heb 9:13-14

      And Christ’s death is described in very legal/contractual terms when the resulting salvation is described as the proceeds of a will Heb 9:16-17. After Christ dies, his will pronounces that we receive forgiveness for sins when we believe in him, but the will could not be enforced until he had died.

      Perhaps my lack of understanding over the importance of blood in the Bible is partly caused by my insulation from blood and the taking of life in my own life. I never or hardly ever see how the beef on my plate gets there. I hardly ever see people die before my eyes. The society I live in has hidden the more bloody/messy details of life from me.

      Maybe cultures which are closer to these processes of life and death have a better understanding of the meaning of blood. Maybe for them blood as discussed in the Bible makes the message of Christ more tangible and relevant.

      1. Sacrifice in the ancient world was very closely connected to food, which is why roasting and eating the meat was so important. In pre-Judaic idol cultures, the sacrifice was a manner in which food was presented to feed the gods. (There is some exception to this, such as with Molech, where the firstborn child would be sacrificed in order to safeguard the lives of successive children in a high infant mortality era), This is why we see the passover lamb being eaten, as well as the whole discussion in the NT of eating food sacrificed to idols. You might even be able to push the idea enough to connect it with eucharist, which is an interesting thought I had considered…

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