“If anyone of the house of Israel or of the aliens who reside among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut that person off from the people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement” (Leviticus 17:11).
To see other posts in this series, please go to the series’ page.
We have already seen how spectacularly weak Comfort’s approach to the biblical texts tends to be. And not only does he routinely misunderstand the Bible, he also exhibits a less than rudimentary knowledge of science. In the twenty-first century, both are without excuse. Biblical scholarship and science are clicks away on the Internet and so for Comfort to make the errors that he does reveals either one who argues in bad faith or one who simply wishes to remain in his cognitive bubble. Comfort may somehow fall into both camps.
The next claim Comfort makes in Scientific Facts in the Bible is that Levitical law revealed that
blood is the source of life. Up until 200 years ago, sick people were “bled,” and many died because of the practice. We now know that blood is the source of life. If you lose your blood, you will lose your life.1
As support for this, Comfort quotes Leviticus 17:11 – “For the life of the flesh is in the blood.” But does this text support Comfort’s claim? And is it really a sign that the Bible contains advanced scientific knowledge?
The Importance of Blood
Human blood is actually a mixture of a variety of organic structures including plasma, white blood cells, and red blood cells. Red blood cells are what give blood its color as the hemoglobin on them binds with iron which then binds with oxygen which causes oxidation. And this brings us to the primary purpose of blood: oxygenation. When you breathe in oxygen, the blood pumping through your body absorbs it in the lungs and transports it to all the cells in your body via capillaries. The oxygen in turn is processed by the cells’ mitochondria which turn that oxygen into energy for those cells. If you are deprived of oxygen you die because your cells’ mitochondria are not provided with what they need to produce energy to keep those cells alive.2
But ancient people had no idea what red blood cells were, let alone things like oxygen molecules or mitochondria. But they did know that if you slit the throat of a sacrificial animal or stabbed your enemy in the chest with your sword that the resultant loss of blood invariably meant the loss of life. Humanity quickly learned that blood was vital to the life of an organism. The reason for this was because it was how the gods had created humanity. The Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish describes how Marduk, the one who defeated Tiamat, plans to create humanity telling the gods, “Let me put blood together, and make bones too. Let me set up primeval man: Man shall be his name.”3 Then at the prompting of the Igigi (i.e. the great gods), Marduk uses the blood of Qingu, a warrior of Tiamat, to create mankind.4
Blood Eating in Priestly Literature
The association between blood and life is strongly correlated by the biblical authors. In the original creation envisioned by the Priestly author (i.e. Genesis 1:1-2:4a), humanity and the animal kingdom were not permitted to consume meat (Genesis 1:29-30). But this changed as humanity became more corrupt and the earth became “filled with violence” (Genesis 7:12), causing God to destroy the world with a Flood save for Noah and his family. This reset on the creative order brings with it new rules and regulations that in some ways parallel those of the original order. One key difference between the original and the reset is that humanity was now allowed to consume meat (Genesis 9:3) but comes with a prohibition: “Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood” (Genesis 9:4).
Other P literature reiterates this prohibition. In Leviticus 3 we read of the “sacrifice of well-being” (Hebrew, zebaḥ šĕlāmîm) wherein an Israelite offers an unblemished animal at the tent of meeting. The Aaronid priests take the blood of the animal and dash it on the sides of the altar and then the animal is burned such that its fat and blood are wholly consumed. After going through the protocols for various kinds of animals, P says this, “It shall be a perpetual statute throughout your generations, in all your settlements: you must not eat any fat or any blood” (Leviticus 3:17). Why? Because P knows the prohibition given by God to Noah: “Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood” (Genesis 9:4). The zebaḥ šĕlāmîm was not intended to be one of expiation but rather was meant to be a way to provide consumable meat to the Israelites.5
Further instructions for the zebaḥ šĕlāmîm are given in Leviticus 7. There we again read a prohibition against consuming blood. But this time is comes with a warning “You must not eat any blood whatever, either of bird or of animal, in any of your settlements. Any one of you who eats any blood shall be cut off from your kind” (Leviticus 7:26-27). The penalty for consuming blood is to be “cut off” (Hebrew, krt), that is, die prematurely.6
Blood Eating in the Holiness Code
Having observed certain differences in themes and vocabulary between Leviticus 17-26 and the rest of the book, many scholars have dubbed that section as deriving from a separate source and call it “the Holiness Code” (H).7 Within it are a variety of regulations that were intended to set Israel apart from its neighbors, to make them qōdeš (“holy”).8
“The LORD spoke to Moses saying: Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy [qĕdōšîm], for I the LORD your God am holy [qādôš]” (19:2; cf. 20:7, 20:26).
It is within the first chapter of H that we see the text at the center of our inquiry in this post. Let’s briefly consider the context of the words of Leviticus 17:11.
If we were to outline Leviticus 17 we would notice a pattern.9
- Introduction (17:1-2)
- Prohibition (17:3-7)
- Animals eligible for sacrifice must be sacrificed at the tent of meeting (17:3-4) so that Israel might stop offering sacrifices to goat-demons (17:5-7).
- Both Israelites and resident aliens must not sacrifice to anyone but Yahweh at the tent of meeting (17:8-9)
- Central Prohibition (17:10-12)
- The blood of all animals is not to be consumed (17:10) because the blood is functions as a ransom for human life in sacrifice (17:11-12).
- Central Prohibition (17:10-12)
- Reiteration of Central Prohibition (17:13-14)
- The blood of game is not to be consumed because blood is life (17:13-14).
- Regulating governing consuming carcasses (17:15-16)
- The regulation (17:15)
- Consequences for disobedience (17:16)
- Prohibition (17:3-7)
As the outline suggests, 17:10-12
is…the axis upon which the chapter revolves.
The merest glance at the content leads to the same conclusion: all five paragraphs [of Leviticus 17] deal with the legitimate and correct manner of disposing of the blood of those animals which may be eaten. The first two speak of sacrificeable animals – which, in the view of this chapter, must indeed be sacrificed – and the last two speak of animals which, though they may be eaten, may not be sacrificed. At the center, between the first two and the last two, stands the axiom upon which all four depend: that partaking of blood is prohibited. The first two lead to this axiom and provide its rationale; the last two derive from this axiom and implement it.10
And the rationale for the central prohibition of 17:10-12 is this: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement” (17:11).
So why does the Levitical law prohibit the consuming of blood? Because blood was not intended for consumption but for the making of atonement. To eat blood is to use it in an inordinate way. That’s what lies behind the prohibition. It has absolutely nothing to do with any advanced scientific revelation that blood is the body’s oxygen transport system. It had to do with the observation that 1) the loss of blood leads to death and 2) the claim of the Priestly author that blood in animals is that which atones for sin. In other words, the claim is religious, having to do with the sacrificial cult and not scientific, having to do with the composition of blood and its biological function.
Sorry, Ray. You’re wrong again.
1 Ray Comfort, Scientific Facts in the Bible (Living Waters Publications, 2016), 5.
2 For an excellent overview of blood, see Chris Cooper, Blood: A Very Short Introduction, e-book (OUP, 2016), 68-113.
3 The Epic of Creation, Tablet VI, in Stephanie Dalley (translator), Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others (OUP, 1989), 260.
4 Ibid., 261.
5 Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Doubleday, 1991), 222.
6 Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, NICOT, e-book (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), 42.
7 See Henry T. C. Sun, “Holiness Code,” in David N. Freedman (editor), Anchor Bible Dictionary (Doubleday, 1992), 3:256-257.
8 See H. P. Müller, “קדש qdš holy,” in Ernst Jenni and Claus Westermann (editors) and Mark E. Biddle (translator), Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament (Hendrickson Publishers, 1997), 3:1103-1118.
9 Adapted from Milgrom, Leviticus 17-22: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Bible (Doubleday, 2000), 1449.
10 Baruch J. Schwartz, “The Prohibitions Concerning the ‘Eating’ of Blood in Leviticus 17,” in Gary A. Anderson and Saul M. Olyan, Priesthood and Cult in Ancient Israel (Sheffield Academic Press, 1991), 43.
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.