The Life Is In the Blood

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How Leviticus 17 is a key passage for understanding atonement

One of the most remarkable texts in the Old Testament is Leviticus 17:10-14. My first purposeful encounter with this passage occurred by way of a cross-reference from John 6: Jesus’s “Bread of Life” discourse (6:22-71). At first glance, I wondered what these two disparate texts held in common? The answer comes from then lips of Jesus: It’s the atoning blood of Christ. Here’s the Leviticus text in full:

10 “If any one of the house of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from among his people. 11 For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life. 12 Therefore I have said to the people of Israel, No person among you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger who sojourns among you eat blood.

13 “Any one also of the people of Israel, or of the strangers who sojourn among them, who takes in hunting any beast or bird that may be eaten shall pour out its blood and cover it with earth. 14 For the life of every creature is its blood: its blood is its life. Therefore I have said to the people of Israel, You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood. Whoever eats it shall be cut off. 

There are a couple of crucial pronouncements within these verses. The first one we notice is the repeated refrains: “its blood is its life” and “you shall not eat the blood.” Six times we are warned not to eat the blood and five times we are told why: because the life of every creature is in the blood. So there’s an important correlative principle: life = blood; blood = life. Second, notice the key phrase “I have given[the blood] for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls” (v.11). Blood, altar, atonement. Clearly, this is a key text regarding atonement (Heb. kippur). “Atonement” presents a uniquely English word for a biblical concept: At-one-ment. Atonement is a multifaceted term entailing reconciliation, restoration, and favor. Sometimes it gets at one of these meanings, sometimes all of them at once. But there’s also a frequently neglected aspect of atonement latent in this text — the idea of participation or unition. When you eat something, you become “at-one” with it. It’s in you; it’s bonded to you. Among other things, the Leviticus passage entails the idea, “Don’t eat the blood of these animals because its life is in its blood, and you are not to have a life-union with (Latin: cum unio or, in English, “communion”) animals. [1] It carries the implication that we must not commune with animals because their life is unequal to those made in the divine image. It would be a sacrilege to have a life-union or be at-one with animals. So there is the prohibition: Eating their blood yields death, “being” cut off. Instead, their blood is given by God upon the altar to render atonement with God on account of sins.

Atonement is a multifaceted term entailing reconciliation, restoration, and favor.

The New Testament equivalence of “atonement” is found in the Greek word καταλλαγὴν, which occurs only in Romans 5:11 at the end of a vital passage that teaches Jesus’ death reconciled us to God “by his blood.”

Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.


Indeed, as St Paul states in the Acts 20:28, we are reconciled by the atoning blood of God.

Okay, so atonement has to do with reconciliation and reconciliation entails blood since, as Hebrews 9:22 states it, “under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” Purification from sins (plural) only occurs through the shedding of blood. It also goes without saying that the “cutting of a covenant” takes place with blood. Leviticus 17, Acts 20, Romans 5, and Hebrews 9 all articulate reconciliation within covenantal parameters. Within these parameters, blood establishes covenant relations of reconciliation because of the blood God gives upon the altar to make atonement. Atonement purifies from sins, resulting in forgiveness. The antecedent to all this, of course, is the love, mercy, and grace of God, along with the curious prohibition of union with the life-blood.

In the “Bread of Life” discourse, Jesus brings all of these things together with implications that astonish. In fact, what he states in John 6 absolutely shocks his Jewish auditors, including most of his disciples, because of their understanding of the Mosaic prohibition regarding blood found in Leviticus 17:10-14. Jesus seems to have front-loaded this discourse with the hermeneutic laid down in John 5:46: “For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me.” In John 6, the hermeneutic is set to task as Jesus transfers the meaning and significance of kippur and covenant onto himself.

First, Jesus makes an explicit correlation between the “bread of God” and his flesh, saying, “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (6:51). Auditors and readers immediately note the words “life” and “flesh” corresponding to Leviticus 17:11. Second, he brings eating flesh into play in verses 48-52. In fact, the Jews disputed among themselves asking “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (6:52). The inquiry here carries a dual consideration: (1) How is it possible to eat a man’s flesh like manna? And (2) How is possible that he could even suggest this knowing the Leviticus 17 prohibition? The first consideration seems impossible, yet the miraculous feeding of the 5,000 immediately precedes this exchange and is referenced within it. They should know that “with God nothing is impossible” and the reign of the Messiah is hallmarked by the miraculous, akin to the Exodus itself. In other words, by referencing “bread” and correlating himself to “manna from heaven,” Jesus evokes the Exodus and its key dynamics as an interpretive lens for the even greater exodus he’ll achieve with corresponding antitypical dynamics (cf. Luke 9:30-31) [2].

Notwithstanding the Jews’s incredulity, it’s really the latter consideration of eating blood upon which Jesus doubles down and makes a thorough antitypical self-disclosure as the fulfillment of Leviticus 17:10-14, saying,

54 “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread[c] the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”

Here then is Jesus’s extended answer to the original question, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” (John 6:28); a question that now entails (quasi dictum), “How in the world or by what justification could this man even think to tell us to eat his flesh and drink his blood?” The short answer Jesus gives states, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him on whom he has sent” (John 6:29). A Platonic reading of the text leaves Jesus’s response in the domain of nondescript “beliefs,” like “believe in Jesus,” or some other platitude. But that divorces his answer from all that immediately follows, an answer that clarifies precisely what God intends that we believe. “Believe what, exactly?” we could imagine Jesus’s auditors asking. “Believe in him whom God has sent … sent as the bread of life; him whose flesh is manna from heaven; him whose blood is true drink and whose flesh is true food.” Believe this: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day…. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (John 6:54, 56).

With Leviticus 17:10-14 and the Exodus looming in the background, Jesus asserts that the life, the divine life, the “eternal life” is in his blood and that we should have our communion with it, that is, with his life. God prohibited such life-union with animals because he would provide his own life-blood for us to consume, in the same way that the Passover lamb was really consumed, so too the flesh of the antitypical Passover Lamb—Jesus—must really be consumed with it going one step further — bringing the eternal life of the Passover Lamb into us by eating, that is, drinking his blood. Therefore whereas eating animal blood resulted in being “cut off” from the covenant people of God, yielding death, now eating the blood of Christ ensures covenant belonging, yielding life. 

And it is this blood that has been given by God to us to make atonement on the altar for our souls. The altar is the holy cross of Golgotha. That is the place of Christ’s once-and-for-all sacrifice. However, God giving the sacrifice possesses a double entendre with the Greek word παρεδίδετο, found in 1 Corinthians 11:23 and usually rendered as “betrayed,” to wit: “on the night in which our Lord Jesus was betrayed.” But it equally means “delivered” or “handed over.” Indeed, our Lord Jesus was betrayed by humanity for crucifixion, but “handed over” or “delivered” by the Father to make atonement for our souls. And the Son goes willingly out of love (Galatians 1:4; 2:20). Reconciliation will be accomplished by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in and through the flesh and blood of Jesus. The life of Jesus atones, and his life is consecrated and concentrated in his blood, “for the life of every creature is in the blood.” The God-man’s life is in his blood and we are to have our cum unio, with-union, in his blood: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (John 6:56). 

The fact that it is graphic and physical and truly consumed through eating and drinking assures us that we are covenant partakers, that we possess reconciliation, that we have communed with the blood that takes away the sin of the world, indeed, that we have the eternal life. “Eternal life” is not merely a quantity of time (the forever and ever kind of of time), but a quality of existence — the divine life. The eternal life is Christ himself. The covenant between the Father and the Son, cut in the very blood of Christ, is ours not only because of antecedent fact of our baptism in which we have been justified through the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of his righteousness as we are put under his blood, but also because we participate in the Father-Son covenant through our communion in the blood of the atonement and the flesh of Jesus. Leviticus 17:10-14 is fulfilled in Jesus. The life is in his blood. And it was given on the altar of the cross to atone for our sins but also facilitate true communion with Christ. Holy Communion has been given to us by Jesus for this purpose, so that we may know that our sins are forgiven because we literally communion with the blood of the atonement and eat the flesh of the Passover Lamb who took away the sin of the world on the altar of Golgotha.  

So far from retreating from his graphic, self-referential declaration because “this is a hard saying” that could hardly be received (John 6:60), Jesus doubles down regarding his concrete and phenomenal ascension that solidifies the possibility of communing with his flesh and blood. So much so, that verse 66 reports, “after this, many of his disciples no longer walked with him.” No kidding. Rather than seeing Jesus’s words as the fulfillment of Leviticus 17:10-14, it was perceived as its ludicrous upending — a step too far for the better part of his entourage. Then he turns to his disciples: “Do you want to go away as well? (John 6:67). Peter then responds with the words of faith, the words of belief: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69). Precisely which words that literally give eternal life? These words: 

I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh…. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.

 [1] Grammatically, it would be cum communione, which possesses a technical redundancy by coupling the prefix cum or com with unio preceded by the prepositions cum. My point being that there’s a latent conceptual correspondence between atonement and communion.

[2]  Luke 9:31 possesses a thinly veiled reference to the exodus: “[Moses and Elijah] appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus, which [Jesus] was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”