Blood as a symbol of death in the Old Testament
First Aid (Emergency First Response) courses teach us how to sustain life when there can be a danger of death. We follow the acrostic DRSABC: Danger, Response, Send for help, Airway, Breathing and CPR. We need oxygen and blood circulation to keep living. This is threatened in drownings and heart attacks. That’s why the treatment is cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Death results if severe blood loss from arteries and veins isn’t stopped as can occur in car accidents and stabbings.
The Bible often uses figurative language to describe death. The main word used in this sense is “blood”. In order to understand this symbolism we will look at the usage of the word “blood” in the Old Testament, where “blood” is often a symbol of death. Likewise, the mention of Christ’s blood in the New Testament is a figurative way of referring to His death.
“Blood” in the Old Testament
The word “blood” (dam Strong’s #1818) is used in several senses in the Old Testament. The literal meanings include: the fluid flowing in arteries and veins of animals and people, which is essential for life (Gen. 9:4; Lev. 17:11, 14); and the blood of an animal sacrifice that could take the place of a sinner’s death in dealing with their sin (Lev. 17:11). The figurative meanings include: death (Num. 35:33; Josh. 2:19, Ezek. 5:17); killing a person (bloodshed), as in murder or capital punishment (Gen. 9:6; Dt. 17:8); killing an animal (Lev. 17:3-4); guilt (Lev. 20:9); a red color (2 Ki. 3:22); and wine, which is the juice of the grape (Gen. 49:11).
So the word “blood” is often used in the Bible as a figure of speech. And it has a range of meanings.
The meaning of atonement
The Hebrew word translated “atone” (kapar, Strong’s #3722) means to cover over or make amends. For example, the timbers of Noah’s ark were covered inside and outside with pitch (Gen. 6:14). In the other 103 occurrences of the word it means being made right with God by the forgiveness of sins. For example, animal sacrifices are said to “make atonement for them for the sin they have committed, and they will be forgiven” (Lev. 4:20, 26, 31, 35; 5:6, 10, 13, 16, 18; 6:7NIV). In this case the animal took the penalty as a substitute. An innocent animal took the punishment that was due to a guilty person.
Recently a Saudi blogger was sentenced to 1000 lashes for criticizing Islamic clerics, and seven religious freedom advocates offered to take the floggings in his place. That’s like atonement; when someone else takes your punishment.
Let’s look at some examples of the usage of the word “blood” in the Old Testament.
Abel – Murder
The first mention of the word “blood” in the Bible is associated with Abel. After Cain killed Abel, God told him, “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground” (Gen. 4:10). This is a figure of speech called personification because blood doesn’t literally cry out. It means that there is a need for justice to be done. And justice was done when Cain was punished by losing his livelihood of cropping the land and he became a nomad. Here the word “blood” symbolizes death or murder. When Jesus summarized martyrdom in the Old Testament, He mentioned, “from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah” (Lk. 11:51), which means from the death of Abel to the death of Zechariah.
Noah – Lifeblood and murder
After the flood, God commanded Noah, “you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being. Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind” (Gen. 9:4-6). Here the term “shedding blood” means murder. In this way, the word “blood” is associated with death. People are valuable because they are made in the image of God. That’s why the Israelites were told that execution was to be the punishment for murder (Ex. 21:12-14; Num. 35:16-32).
In this passage “blood” is associated with life and death. We know that if too much blood is lost from the body, life is replaced with death. In this sense blood is the life of the body. That’s why it’s translated “lifeblood”. But blood has no life on its own. Blood inside the body is a sign of life, while blood outside the body can be a sign of death. So blood can be associated with both life and death. But we will see that in the Bible it’s usually associated with death.
After the flood they were allowed to eat meat but prohibited from eating blood. This command was also given to the Israelites (Lev. 3:17; 7:26-27; 17:10-14; 19:26; Dt.12:15-16, 20-28; 15:23; 1 Sam. 14:32-35). And this is still one of the regulations today for Jewish kosher food. Both physical and spiritual reasons were probably behind this prohibition. Blood present in meat means it is not fully cooked, and eating uncooked meat can lead to disease or sickness. Another two reasons are given in this passage: “I will set my face against any Israelite or any foreigner residing among them who eats blood, and I will cut them off from the people. For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life” (Lev. 17:10-11). First, it was essential for life – “the life of a creature is in the blood” (Lev. 17:11, 14; Dt. 12:23). Second, because blood had a special role in animal sacrifices, it was not to be eaten as part of their food.
Joseph – Apparent violent death
When Joseph’s brothers sold him as a slave, they deceived their father by dipping his multicolored robe in goat’s blood and taking it to him. Then Jacob said, “It is my son’s robe! Some ferocious animal has devoured him. Joseph has surely been torn to pieces” (Gen. 37:33). So blood on the clothing was taken to be evidence of a violent death.
Moses – Animal sacrifices and forgiveness
In the first Passover each Israelite household in Egypt killed a lamb and put the blood around their front door. At midnight all the firstborn Egyptians and their animals were struck dead. But God told the Israelites “when I see the blood (around your doorways), I will pass over you” (Ex. 12:13). None of the Israelites died because a lamb had died instead of them. They benefited from the animal’s death.
The word “blood” is mentioned 88 times in the book of Leviticus. That’s the greatest number of any book in the Bible. On these occasions blood is associated with burnt, fellowship, sin and guilt offerings; offerings for ceremonial uncleanness; the dedication of Israelite priests; not eating blood; or it’s a symbol of murder (bloodshed), atonement (17:11), or death (20:9).
The blood of slaughtered animals was a part of the Israelites’ offerings. In the burnt, fellowship and guilt offerings, the priests splashed blood on the altar (Lev. Ch 1, 3, 7). And in the sin offering, the priest sprinkled blood in front of the curtain to the Most Holy Place as well (Lev. 4). But these offerings for sin couldn’t address unknown sins. Because of such sins, the tabernacle, the land and the nation were ceremonially unclean. So God instituted the Day of Atonement for the compete atonement of all sin (Lev. 16:33).
Blood was a significant part of the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) (Lev. 16). This was the only day of the year when the High Priest could enter the most Holy Place of the tabernacle/temple. A bull was killed and he sprinkled the blood on the ark of the covenant and in front of it to atone for the sins of his household. Then he did the same with the blood of a goat to atone for the Israelites’ sins. Then he put some of this blood on the horns of the altar. God wanted His people to know what happened in secret in the tabernacle. So the High Priest put his hands on another goat and confessed their sins and the scapegoat was taken away and released in the wilderness. Symbolically it carried away the sins of the people.
In all these cases, innocent animal life was given up to protect human life. The animals die so that the people can live. The Bible says that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). The judgment and penalty for their sins were carried out through a transfer of the sin of the people to the animal sacrifice. Forgiveness is possible because the penalty of sin (death) is transferred to a sacrificial animal. The animal’s blood was evidence that the penalty had been paid. The transfer was also depicted by the scapegoat.
This is summarized in the New Testament, “the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed (ceremonially purified) with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22). So in the animal sacrifices, blood stood for death and judgment. But it also enabled God’s people to continue living godly lives.
Moses – Covenant making
After God gave the Israelites the ten commandments and other instructions, Moses wrote them down (Ex. 24:3-8). He then read them to the people, and they promised to obey them. Then Moses built an altar and animals were slaughtered as offerings to God on the altar and the blood was splashed on the altar and splashed on the people. The blood on the altar symbolized God’s part in the covenant (His forgiveness) and the blood on the people symbolized their obligation to obey the covenant. The blood probably symbolized that they would die (like the sacrificial animal) if they broke the covenant (Gen. 15:10-18; Jer. 34:18-19). So the Mosaic covenant was confirmed by blood from animal sacrifices (Ex. 24:6-8).
Other examples of “blood” in the Old Testament
Murderers are sometimes identified by blood on their clothes or shoes. So they were referred to as having on them the blood of the person they killed. Since murder demanded punishment, the person who carried this out was said to be avenging the murdered person’s blood (Num. 35:19, 26-27; Ps. 79:10). This was said to take the blood away from those responsible to take vengeance, and to return it to the head of the murderer (1 Ki. 2:29-34). Murder is said to pollute the land (Num. 35:33; Ps. 106:38). It needs atonement: “Bloodshed pollutes the land, and atonement cannot be made for the land on which blood has been shed, except by the blood of the one who shed it” (Num. 35:33). Here murder is called “bloodshed” and “blood” stands for the death of the murderer.
To kill someone for no reason is to “sin against innocent blood” (1 Sam. 19:5ESV). Jeremiah said if they killed him, they would bring “the guilt of innocent blood” upon themselves (Jer. 26:15). If a person deserved to be put to death, or if they caused their own death, their blood was said to be on their own head and not on someone else’s (Josh. 2:19; 2 Sam. 1:16; 1 Ki. 2:37).
The symbolism of blood in the Old Testament
God chose blood as a symbol of life and death because of what it is. Blood is associated with both life and death. It’s a mixture of cells (red, white and platelets) and plasma that’s pumped through the arteries and capillaries to provide oxygen and nutrients to every cell of the body. The veins also carry away waste products. The loss of too much blood, without a transfusion, can lead to death, which is loss of life. The Bible says that “The body without the spirit is dead” (Jas. 2:26). Likewise, the body without sufficient oxygenated blood is dead. When our circulatory system stops, we die. That’s why CPR is important.
For us today, blood is mainly a symbol of life. Blood tests monitor our health and blood transfusions help to sustain life. If you Google “blood” and “death”, you mainly get web pages on computer games! Today blood is mainly associated with death when there is terrorism and war. But in ancient times, blood was mostly a symbol of death.
In animal sacrifices an innocent animal was a substitute for a guilty person. It took the penalty for their sin and rebellion against God. There was no other way to escape this death penalty. Likewise, Jesus Christ died for people like us who sin and rebel against God. He is our substitute. There was no other way of salvation to escape this death penalty. The Bible says, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). And “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). Have you accepted God’s gift that replaces our destiny of eternal death with eternal life?
An animal sacrifice also included a cost to the person giving the sacrifice. Animals were valuable to them. The price of the animal involved represented a price that had to be paid by the one providing the offering. Each time an animal sacrifice was made, the person giving it was reminded of the cost of sin. What about us? When are we reminded of the seriousness and the cost of sin? Does the Lord’s Supper help us remember this?
Day of atonement
Each year the High Priest entered the Most Holy Place of the tabernacle by means of the blood of animal sacrifices so the sins of the people could be forgiven. This was a physical picture of what Jesus did for us. He entered God’s presence by His death (“His own blood”) for our eternal redemption (Heb. 9:11-14. His was a superior sacrifice – it only needed to be done once, not annually. It superseded all the sacrifices associated with the day of atonement.
Isaiah described it as “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are (spiritually) healed” (Isa. 53:5; 1 Pt. 2:24-25). Jesus died for our sins like a sacrificial animal. The innocent for the guilty. As our substitute; to make us right with God.
Pope Francis has just visited the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz where Maximillian Kolbe died. In 1941 when a prisoner escaped from the camp, the Nazis selected 10 others to be killed by starvation in reprisal for the escape. One of the 10 men selected to die began to cry: “My wife! My children! I will never see them again!” At this Maximilian Kolbe stepped forward and asked to die in his place. And his request was granted. The innocent substituted for the condemned and took the punishment.
Blood of the covenant
As Moses was the mediator of the old covenant that was ratified by “the blood of the covenant” (Ex. 24:8; Heb. 9:20) when blood was sprinkled on the people, Jesus was the mediator of the new covenant when He died. His death brought in the new covenant. As the death of animals, symbolized by their blood, atoned for the sins of the Israelites, Christ’s death atones for the sins of all who accept His sacrifice.
This relates to the Lord’s supper. After He drank from the cup of wine, Jesus said, “This is my blood of the (new) covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” and “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (Mt. 26:28; Lk. 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25). So Jesus is quoting from Exodus. Only this time He’s using a figure of speech in using the word “blood” to stand for His death. Did you know that the cup of wine in the Lord’s Supper represents the death of Jesus? How does this work? We have seen that in the Old Testament, the word “blood” can be used figuratively for the word “death”. Also wine is called “the blood of grapes” (Gen. 49:11; Dt. 32:14; Isa. 63:2). I suppose this came from the fact that if you crush grapes you get wine, while if you stab an animal you get blood. So death is linked to wine because they are both linked to blood in the Old Testament.
This was a superior covenant because it fulfilled the old one. Christ’s sacrificial death (which is called “blood” in the New Testament) fulfilled the animal sacrifices of the old covenant (Heb. 9:7-28; 13:11-12).
Although today we see blood as a life-giving substance, the Old Testament often uses the word “blood” as a symbol of death. Likewise, the mention of Christ’s blood in the New Testament is a figurative way of referring to His death. For example, “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith” (Rom. 3:25). His death is described as “the shedding of His blood” and elsewhere as “His blood” or “the blood of Christ”, and it was like “a sacrifice of atonement”. Let’s remember it’s not referring to the fluid flowing through His body, which was just like yours and mine. Like the rest of His body, it was common to humanity.
Real blood from animals was evidence of their death as a sacrifice. They paid the death penalty as a substitute for people’s sins. That’s the background to the New Testament which shows Jesus as the ultimate sacrifice who paid the death penalty for us.
We have seen that the Israelites’ spiritual life was sustained by animal sacrifice, evidenced by their blood. This was a foretaste of the situation today where spiritual life begins with our acceptance of the death of Christ and is sustained by our ongoing appreciation of this by reading and meditating on Scripture.
Written, August 2016
Also see: Symbols of Christ’s death