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Leviticus 17:1-16

Since it has been several weeks since we were last in Leviticus, let’s review. After seven chapters detailing the regulations of the four major sacrifices and three chapters having to do with the ordination and work of the priests, there followed five chapters of regulations concerning ceremonial impurity and its removal. Last time we considered the ritual of the Day of Atonement in chapter 16. Chapter 17, which we are about to read, adds two more features of the regulation of sacrificial rituals, each of which was unique to Israel. We’ll pay particular attention this evening to the second of these features and, in particular, to the rationale for it given in the famous verse 11. The chapter as a whole might be entitled: “Laws for the Proper Slaughtering of Animals and the Proper Use of their Blood.” [Sklar, 217] But we can shorten that to this: “What is the Big Deal about Blood?”

That there was a pressing need for these regulations is made clear in v. 7. Israelites, even then and there in the wilderness, were continuing to make sacrifices in the way their pagan neighbors did. The chapter strikes at the root of that behavior.

Chapter 17 begins what has for a long time in biblical scholarship been referred to as the Holiness Code, the section of Leviticus from 17:1 to the end of chapter 26, that concerns the holiness of God’s people. As you may know, the holiness code was thought to be a separate document or set of documents that somehow or another found its way into the book of Leviticus. There is a certain style that some have thought unique to these chapters (Levine, 110-111), but whether the nature of this section is really as distinctive as it is sometimes said to be is more and more an open question in the literature. For example, chapter 17 concerns sacrifice and blood, two issues that have been thoroughly discussed in previous chapters. The Holiness Code is supposed to address the people in general, but chapters 21 and 22 concern the holiness of the priests, and so on. It is not clear to me that we have entered a new section of Leviticus in chapter 17. [cf. Ross, 329-330]

Text Comment

v.4       There has been a lengthy debate in the commentaries (e.g. Hartley vs. Wenham), as there had been long ago between Jewish rabbis, as to whether every animal had to be killed at the entrance to the sanctuary or only those intended for sacrifice. I think the latter is more likely and was surely true once Israel settled in the Promised Land. [cf. Levine, 112]

The offender would be guilty of bloodshed. The term used ordinarily refers to homicide. Perhaps its use here is hyperbole, exaggeration for effect, to emphasize the seriousness of the sin that has been committed; but in any case, the killing of a sacrificial animal in the wrong place is equated to the shedding of blood. [Levine, 113]

This was to be a perpetual problem in Israel. A few weeks ago some of us visited the Tel, or archaeological ruin, of ancient Arad, a southern Israelite town, but one in which an altar had been found dating from the time of the kings of Judah. The people of God were supposed to sacrifice only in Jerusalem, but whether because of the inconvenience of travel to the temple or a general lack of respect for the Laws of God, they were sacrificing at home. The prophets constantly battled to keep Israel faithful to the spirit and the letter of the laws of sacrificial ritual.

v.5       Only if the killing of the animal were done at the entrance to the sanctuary could the sacrifice be properly made by the priest. The role of the priesthood was central to the making of atonement in Israel, as Christ, our high priest, would be essential to the once- for-all sacrifice to be made for sin.

v.7       It is obvious that observing this command would have put an end to the pagan practice of sacrifice on any high place here or there. Sacrifices brought to the temple and killed there would be handled by the priests in the proper way. The concentration of sacrifice at the tabernacle and then the temple was intended to be a powerful antidote to pagan theories of sacrifice. In Canaan, sacrifices were made everywhere: any high place or any tree would suffice. It was a theory congenial to polytheism and superstition. The moral and ethical principles that undergirded Israel’s ritual required a single sanctuary that preserved reverence for the presence of the living God among them.

But weaning Israel from pagan theories of sacrifice was as difficult as weaning American Christians from materialism. [Sklar, 218]

v.8       Again, as several times previously, the situation of the non-Israelite living among the people is considered. Pagan practices were not allowed in Israel even when performed by pagans. Provision was made for aliens to become part of Israel, to become Israelites themselves by confession and by circumcision, but not for them to undermine Israel’s faith and obedience by following their own ways of worshipping their gods.

v.11     Great emphasis falls on the fact that the blood belongs to Yahweh. In v. 11 there is a doubled pronoun “I,” as if we should read the sentence, “I myself have given it to you…” [Sklar, 222]

As we said last time, “atonement” as a technical term fails properly to convey the burden of the Hebrew term. Here is Baruch Levine, a modern Jewish commentator on Leviticus, hardly an evangelical Christian:

“Literally the formula [he means the phrase “to make atonement for your souls” as the ESV has it] means ‘to serve as…ransom for your life.’ God accepts the blood of the sacrifice in lieu of human blood.’” [115]

v.12     This is the third time in Leviticus that Israel has been forbidden to eat blood, or to eat raw meat red with blood (cf. 3:17; 7:26). As we have already noted, this prohibition has no analogy elsewhere in the ancient near east. Indeed, the eating of blood was generally thought to invigorate the life principle. But Israel was forbidden to do it. [Sarna, Genesis, 61-62]

v.14     Another situation is contemplated and once again the resident alien is included. An animal that cannot be offered for sacrifice but may be eaten, such as a deer or a gazelle or, among the birds, a quail, but it must have its blood drained onto the ground and covered with earth. A real point is being made of the fact that blood is sacred in every case and cannot be eaten.

v.16     The assumption at first glance would seem to be that such animals — animals that died natural deaths or were killed by other animals — were clean and could otherwise be eaten. But the picture is complicated by previous legislation that permitted Israelites to eat animals that died a natural death (11:39-40), but not to eat animals torn by other animals, say a carcass that was a lion kill (Ex. 22:31). As we noticed before, once Israel was settled in the Land they would be prohibited from eating animals that died a natural death, but in the wilderness, where meat was so scarce, they were not. [Cf. Deut. 14:21] The problem presumably is that in either case one is touching a dead animal. Are we to understand that in the latter case, the case of the animal killed by another animal, only the resident alien is in view (Sklar, 223)? Or are we to understand that both kinds of dead animals were not to be eaten, but provision is made in case they were? [Levine, 111]

Once again we are reminded that there was no sin in contracting ritual impurity. It was only sinful to fail to deal with that impurity in the proper fashion.

In many ways this chapter repeats instructions we have already considered. However, for the first time, a rationale is provided for the emphasis on blood in the Levitical regulations. This makes 17:11 one of the programmatic verses in the Bible, an explanation for a great deal of other teaching in both the Old Testament and the New.

But what does that statement mean? What does it mean to say that “the life of the flesh is in the blood” and how does that explain the role of blood in the sacrificial ritual of the Old Testament? It has been argued by some that we should understand the statement to mean that what is being offered to God is a still living being. What God wants is life and since the life is in the blood, when blood is offered to God, a living thing is offered to him. There was a time some years ago when this was a very popular view. Blood in sacrifice, was a way of offering one’s life to God. It was substitutionary consecration, in other words. Like many ideas that suited our zeitgeist, the spirit of our age, however, it is extremely doubtful that this is what was meant in 17:11 or in a great many other biblical texts, and as a result this interpretation has never managed to sustain itself in the court of scholarly opinion.

At the time, in the 1950s and 1960s, when the “blood equals life” interpretation was becoming popular, great work was done by evangelical scholars, men such as the Englishman Alan Stibbs  and the Australian Leon Morris, to put it in an early grave. The fact is the evidence is overwhelming that blood signifies life lost, death, even violent death whether in the sacrificial ritual or not. The life of the flesh is in the blood means that if the blood is poured out, life ends. As one prominent Jewish scholar explains:

“In our passage, blood is considered efficacious because it represents life, not because it has special properties. Creatures cannot live without blood, and killing is expressed as shedding blood.” [Levine, 116]

Or as Allen Ross puts it in his book on Leviticus — this is the Allen Ross who spoke here a year and half ago –: “When blood is shed, life is relinquished.” [Ross, 335]

If you wish to see the evidence for yourself, by all means read Leon Morris’ chapter on “The Blood” in his masterpiece, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross. Considering all the uses of the word blood in the Old Testament, and he surveys them all, Morris demonstrates beyond all possible contradiction that, whether in contexts that have nothing to do with sacrifice or in liturgical contexts, “blood” is a figure of speech, metonymy to be precise, for death, and usually violent death.

When we read in Psalm 72:14 that the blood of his people is precious to the Lord, it seems obvious that this means the same thing as we read in Psalm 115:16: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” Again, after the brothers had seized Joseph and were discussing what to do with their hated sibling, when Judah said, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood,” surely any reasonable reader understands “blood” to mean “violent death.” What they would wish to conceal was that they murdered their brother. There are many texts like this.

To speak of life as somehow existent in the blood after the blood had left the body, so that a living being might be offered to God by means of blood, is contrary to the whole tenor of biblical thought. As Alan Stibbs observed, “Blood shed, stands…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.” [Morris, Apostolic Preaching, 113]

When the Scripture speaks of the necessity of a life to be given to atone for the taking of life, it very clearly uses blood as a metonymy for death. Metonymy is a figure of speech in which one word is substituted for another which it suggests. Blood suggests death, because if you can see it flowing out of a body, death is soon to occur. People in agricultural societies saw blood spurting out of the bodies of animals all the time. And we know it is a figure of speech also because it is not only blood that is said to make atonement, but the entire sacrifice from beginning to end is what makes atonement. Only usually is it said that atonement is by blood. In Leviticus the laying of hands on the animal before it is killed is said to make atonement (1:4), so is the burning of the fat on the altar (4:26). The splashing of blood on the altar is only one part of the entire ritual that makes atonement. But it often is spoken of as if it were the entire atonement, as here in 17:11. In the Day of Atonement ritual, as we saw last time, the live goat also is part of the process of making atonement for the people of God, as is said explicitly in 16:10. But the splashing of blood on the altar often stands for the entire ritual from start to finish. In that sense blood is not only a metonymy, it is also another figure of speech, synecdoche, a part for the whole.

Clear as all of this is in the OT use of the Hebrew word for blood (dam), it is unquestionably the meaning of the term in the New Testament. Again and again we read of our salvation being accomplished by the blood of Christ, and nothing could be clearer than that what is meant by “blood” is “the death of Christ.” Christ’s death didn’t even feature the outpouring of blood in the same way that the killing of a sacrificial animal would have. The outpouring of blood and water from his side occurred after the Lord had died. The accounts of the crucifixion themselves make nothing of blood loss as a feature of the Lord’s death and yet the NT speaks over and over and over again of the blood of Christ using the phrase as a figure of speech for his death.

In the New Testament as well, the shedding of blood stands for death in contexts having nothing to do with sacrificial death. For example, in an autobiographical reflection in Acts 22:20 Paul says,

 “When the blood of Stephen your witness was being shed, I myself was standing and approving and watching over the garments of those who killed him.”

That is a typical use of blood and shed blood to indicate violent death, even though there may have been comparatively little blood loss in a stoning death and certainly nothing is said about the loss of blood in the account of Stephen’s death in Acts 7. Similarly, the martyrs in heaven in Rev. 6:10 cry out, “O Sovereign Lord, the holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on earth.” Again and obviously, “blood” here stands for their death by violence, whether or not there was any actual shedding of blood. When we read of the blood of Abel or the blood of Zechariah, we understand the reference to be to their violent deaths at the hands of evil men. And, of course, those phrases are precisely parallel to the phrase “the blood of Christ.”

I could weary you with more evidence, but I think you get the picture. But I want you to appreciate the fact that when we read of the “blood of Christ” in the New Testament, it is invariably a reference to his death on the cross. Actual shedding of blood, the actual appearance of blood, is not what is being referred to. “Blood” is a figure of speech for death.

“To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood…” [Rev. 1:5]


“…through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making pace by the blood of his cross.” [Col. 1:20]


“…and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” [Rom. 3:25]


“…but God show his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.” [Rom. 5:8-9]


“…in him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses…” [Eph. 1:7]


“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” [Eph. 2:13]


“…the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God which he obtained with his own blood.” [Acts 20:28]


“…he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing eternal redemption. [Heb. 9:12]


“…how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” [Heb. 9:14]


“…knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” [1 Pet. 1:19]

And I could go on. Throughout the NT and Christian teaching and singing ever since, the blood of Christ is shorthand for his sacrificial death to make atonement for our sins. Do you see clearly both how central to the proclamation of salvation is the blood of Christ and how that figure of speech identifies his death as a sacrifice for sin, as substitutionary atonement, as ransom paid to deliver us from bondage to sin and guilt. He died as a sacrifice in our place; he died that we might not die. He died the death we deserved to die. This teaching is the very core of Christianity. Deny this and it will not be the only serious mistake you make in grasping the teaching of Holy Scripture. [In T. Nettles, Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, 228]

The heart of the gospel, the great message of the Bible, is our redemption from the guilt and power of sin and the method of redemption was Jesus’ sacrificial death. All of that is already present in the sacrificial ritual of Leviticus. It serves as the presupposition of all of this later description of the death of Jesus Christ as the shedding of blood. Blood, as a metonymy for sacrificial death, is carried over into the New Testament without comment to mean precisely what it meant in the sacrificial ritual: a substitutionary death had taken place. What blood means and what it always means in connection with Jesus Christ is that he died for us, that his was a violent sacrificial death whose purpose was to atone for our sins, or, more precisely, to pay the ransom to deliver us from bondage. The entire corpus of Holy Scripture finds its inner coherence in the centrality of the cross. We do not have to wrench the Bible to fit our theology of the cross to its statements; it arises naturally and organically from the Bible’s straightforward teaching from beginning to end.

On our recent trip to Israel our group was invited by our tour leader, a solid Christian man, to enter the tourist shop, sit down on the chairs provided, and listen to a friend of his, an Orthodox Jew, very winsomely explain his theology to us. And what Moshe made perfectly clear was that he saw no need for such a sacrifice to be made for his salvation. Moshe, as did our Israeli guide, Shlomo, encountering Christians as often as they do and knowing Christian theology as well as they do, spoke of prayer and obedience as the means of atonement. Indeed, Shlomo, on one occasion as we sat below the Western Wall of the temple mount, opined that were Israel someday to get possession of that property and rebuild the temple, he would have no desire to see the reintroduction of blood sacrifice. Both of these men professed a loyalty to the Bible, of course only to their Bible, which is our Old Testament. I bit my tongue and asked no questions, but one very obvious question would have been: “Wasn’t Jesus more loyal to your Bible than you are? There is certainly nothing in the Old Testament to suggest that blood sacrifice would become redundant at some point or that it could be replaced by prayer and good works. Prayer and good works were Israel’s duty all along, even while the sacrifices were being offered in the tabernacle and temple. What is more, blood sacrifice is over and over and over again said to make atonement for God’s people, but neither prayer nor good works are ever said to make atonement.

Both men were counting on God to forgive without atonement, but where in the Old Testament, where in the Bible of Jews, is that said to be possible? It is entirely fair to say that only Christianity takes the ancient Scriptures with full seriousness. Even Orthodox Judaism has abandoned some of its key teaching. Why, after all, was it essential to rebuild the temple and restore its sacrificial worship when the Jews returned from Babylon? And if rabbinic theology — justification through repentance and obedience — was an adequate substitute for blood sacrifice, why were the Jews punished so severely in A.D. 70. Rabbinic theology was flourishing among the Jews in those days.

Moshe spoke warmly of his love for God, as any religious Jew would, as any serious Christian would. But he did not speak convincingly, in fact he did not speak at all of the intractable problem of sin and guilt: the scourge that afflicts every human life, the constant moral failure of attitude, of thought, of speech, and of action that bedevils our lives before the all-searching eye of a God who will by no means clear the guilty and whose eyes are too pure to behold iniquity; both OT descriptions of God by the way. In the Bible from beginning to end, only atonement can prevail to deliver us from sin and atonement is always by blood. We are certainly not unaware of why Jews would deny this and why most Gentiles with them. It is foolishness or scandal or both to them, as the Jew Saul of Tarsus perfectly understood. But it is one thing to disagree, another altogether to provide a satisfactory alternative.

But, pray tell, if the Bible is the Word of God, what is all of this atonement by blood doing in it, if it were not really necessary? If God’s justice did not actually require satisfaction and if man’s spiritual works were always sufficient to satisfy God’s requirements for righteousness, why doesn’t the Bible teach this? And why is Holy Scripture shot through with blood, that most powerful figure of speech for sacrificial death. We pointed out last time that the language of the Day of Atonement ritual — specifically the ritual that dealt with Israel’s sins — is found again in Isaiah 53, in the prophecy of the coming servant of the Lord. And what do we read there? We read what makes sense only in the light of Leviticus:

“…the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all…”

From the beginning redemption was the heart of the gospel and the essence of redemption was substitutionary atonement, the shedding of blood on behalf of another.

It is life-changing to know that you are God’s creature, that the Almighty himself made you and gave you life. Your life is no accident; someone far greater than yourself gave it to you and cares for you. But it is more life-changing and soul-stirring to know that someone impossibly great surrendered his life that you might live forever, that he went to the cruelest death imaginable to deliver you from your guilt and sin and make possible your adoption into the family of God. It is this truth, writ large on the pages of Holy Scripture and inscribed indelibly on the hearts of countless multitudes through the ages that led the Scottish theologian, James Denney, to say,

“I would rather preach with a crucifix in my hand and the feeblest power of moral reflection than have the finest insight into ethical principles and no Son of God who came by blood.” [Cited in Gammie, Preachers I Have Heard, 163]

Let the Jews practice their works — let them ride in an elevator that stops automatically on every floor on the Sabbath so that they don’t have to push a button; let them take care to avoid mixing dairy and beef in the same meal, as if such things amount to real love for God — but, as for us, we can hear the clear bell-like tone of the truth in such a statement as this from Malcolm Muggeridge:

“I may, I suppose, regard myself as a relatively successful man. People occasionally stare at me in the streets: that’s fame. I can fairly easily earn enough to qualify for admission to the higher slopes of the Inland Revenue: that’s success. Furnished with money and a little fame, even the elderly, if they care to, may partake of trendy diversions: that’s pleasure. And it might happen, once in a while, that something I might have said or wrote was sufficiently heeded, for me to persuade myself that it represented a serious impact on our time: that’s fulfillment. Yet I say to you, and beg you to believe me, multiply these tiny triumphs by a million, add them all together, and they are nothing, less than nothing, a positive impediment, measured against one draught of that living water Christ offers to the spiritually thirsty, irrespective of who or what they are.” [Jesus Rediscovered, 77]

“The life of the flesh is in the blood.” That means “It is by the death of Jesus Christ that we shall live.” What does that mean when the entire Bible’s account of atonement is taken into the heart? It means what Paul said it means both when he said that his whole message was “the message of the cross,” (1 Cor. 1:18) and when he said, “…far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal. 6:14). And it means what Tertullian said it means when he wrote in the 3rd century:

“At every forward step and movement, and every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign [of the cross].” [De Corona, iii]