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Blood in the Hebrew Bible
"For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have assigned it to you to ransom your lives on the altar; it is the blood, in exchange for life, that ransoms. Therefore I say to the Israelites: No person among you shall eat blood, nor shall the alien who resides among you eat blood." So states Leviticus 17:11-12 in one of the central texts in the priestly literature of ancient Israel. Blood is not to be eaten, because it is reserved for a cultic ritual of expiation. In an article published in the early 1990s, Stephen Geller pointed out the critical importance of blood in the priestly documents of the Bible. The priests, he argued, authored what might be considered the first mystery religion, in which blood serves as the powerful physical substance that restores the sacrificial shrine and, indeed, the cosmos as a whole, to its original state of purity. Through blood, human beings can commune with God. Against the transcendent theology of the Deuteronomic author (D), the priestly documents argue for God's immanence, a presence that can be effected through the agency of blood. In protest, as it were, against D's transformation of biblical religion into an abstract religion of words, the Bible's priestly religion was physical and immanent. Ultimately, the rabbis adopted D's verbal religion, while Christianity adapted the priestly religion of blood, making Christ's blood a substance of redemption.
In chapter 2, I take issue with Geller's trajectory, according to which the priestly religion culminates in Christianity and the Deuteronomic in rabbinic Judaism, arguing instead that elements of each can be found in both religions. Deuteronomy itself is hardly opposed to sacrifices. I am also not certain that blood brings God's presence down to earth, since no biblical text actually states this. But these reservations notwithstanding, Geller's overall insight into the central role of blood in the priestly religion of ancient Israel remains highly persuasive and forms my starting point here.
This role is additionally remarkable because blood was evidently less important in other ancient Near Eastern religions. As Dennis McCarthy has noted, the ancient Israelites were the only Near Easterners to make blood a central element in their religious rituals. There were, to be sure, magical and medical rituals mentioned in Akkadian, Sumerian, and Hittite texts that used blood to feed bloodthirsty demons, and one Hittite text mentions the use of blood as a ritual detergent (similar to its use in the Bible), but blood played no other significant role in the sacrificial offerings of the ancient Near East. Those offerings were intended to feed the gods, and blood was not usually the main course on the divine menu: although the Canaanite goddess Anat is said to have drunk the blood of her brother, Baal, this was probably not her everyday diet. With two possible exceptions, no biblical text states explicitly that the Israelite God drinks or eats blood ("eating" blood in the biblical context evidently meant eating meat with its blood still in it), but the prohibition on his people's doing so undoubtedly stems from the centrality of blood in the Israelite cult.
In his authoritative work on priestly religion, culminating in the magisterial Anchor Bible commentary on Leviticus, Jacob Milgrom has offered one of the most comprehensive surveys of biblical blood. Blood is a ritual detergent when used by the priests in the temple in order to purify the sancta after they have been contaminated. Such contamination can even come in the form of a "miasma" from outside the temple precincts. The blood from different expiatory sacrifices is also used as part of a process of atonement for inadvertent sins. For Milgrom, since blood is equated with life, the killing of an animal for nourishment, which he identifies with the shelamim (well-being) sacrifices, involves a capital crime that can be expiated only by the blood of the animal itself (Lev. 17:11). Therefore, any animal killed for the purpose of consumption must have its blood poured out on the altar or, if it is a wild game animal, covered with earth. Ingestion of the blood is strictly prohibited (Lev. 3:17, 17:10-16, 19:26). Deuteronomy accepts this prohibition on eating blood (Deut. 12:23) but allows for secular slaughter of domesticated animals that previously could be killed only as sacrifices.
Since blood stands for life, Milgrom reasons that menstrual blood and semen are defiling because they are out of place: "their common denominator is death." Death is the archetypical impurity, and anything associated with it-such as menstrual blood, a human corpse, and scale disease-is polluting, albeit to differing degrees. The holy (qadosh) and the impure (tamei) do not represent benevolent versus demonic forces, for Israel had banished the autonomous demons, but the holy and the impure remained the "forces of life and death set loose by man himself through his obedience to or defiance of God's commandments." Human deeds can cause the pollution of God's sanctuary or God's land, although Milgrom's tendency to attribute an ethical dimension to the purity laws is tempered by his admission that impurity can be caused by inadvertent actions that are a part of normal life processes. Note that in all of Milgrom's propositions, blood serves as a medium for purification or atonement, but not, as Geller would have it, primarily as a mode of communication.
What I propose to do in the pages that follow is offer a new analysis of the different forms of blood in the Bible, one that departs from Milgrom on some crucial particulars. As a number of recent commentators have pointed out, two types of defilement can be identified in the priestly documents. These documents are referred to as the Priestly Code (P), which comprises the first sixteen chapters of the book of Leviticus (as well as parts of Exodus and Numbers), and the Holiness Code (H), Leviticus 17-26 (plus some other sections of Exodus and Numbers). There is much scholarly debate on the chronological relationship of these two documents, with the most recent arguments holding that P preceded H. If we follow this scholarship, both documents predated the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E., although there were certainly passages added after the return from Babylonia. In the discussion that follows, I will make no assumptions about relative dating but will instead treat the two documents as reflecting different schools of thought that a later redactor brought together. Since the priests were the dominant leadership in the Second Temple Period (fifth century B.C.E.-70 C.E.), the ideas uncovered here reflect their political power in that period as well as in the one that preceded it.
Let us then look at these two types of pollution. On the one hand, the Priestly Code-especially Leviticus 11-15 and Numbers 19-knows of the defilement of persons who are prohibited from entering sacred precincts as a result of contact with a variety of contagions related to sexual intercourse, menstruation, childbirth, pathological genital discharges, scale disease, the carcasses of certain impure animals, and human corpses. Such impurity-variously called by scholars "ritual impurity" or "levitical impurity"-is often unavoidable and can be cleansed by rituals of purification. Inadvertent and intentional sins can also pollute the sanctuary, even from a distance, requiring other means of purification. On the other hand, certain transgressions-sexual violations, idolatry, and murder-described by the Holiness Code in Leviticus 18 and 20 and Numbers 35:30-34, as well as by Jeremiah and Ezekiel, defile the land, rather than just the temple. No ritual process can atone for these "moral impurities"; instead the guilty individual may be "cut off" (karet). If these sins become too widespread, the land will "vomit" out its inhabitants.
If we follow a number of recent scholars-notably Jonathan Klawans-in regarding these two types of defilement as literal, rather than metaphorical, how do we explain the seeming contradiction between them? Why can certain sins be expiated while others cannot? Why, for example, does animal blood serve as "ransom for your lives" in Leviticus 17, whereas Numbers 35 holds that nothing short of capital punishment can purify the land from the defilement of murder? And why is it that in Leviticus 15:19-24, sexual relations with a menstruating woman confer only ritual uncleanness, which can be purified, whereas Leviticus 18:19 and 20:18 threaten the most severe individual and collective retribution for those who engage in intercourse during a woman's menstrual period?
These contradictions can be-and have been-solved by the argument that the texts in question reflect the different schools of priestly legislators (P and H) from different epochs in Israel's ancient history. But the redactors who wove them together into the canonical Bible must have had a vision of how the texts might be harmonized without recourse to the modern documentary hypothesis. I will argue that a correct understanding of the Bible's blood discourse provides a key to unraveling these riddles. To state the argument succinctly before we turn to its respective parts: while animal and human blood, properly spilled, do not create ritual pollution-and, indeed, animal blood is the most powerful ritual detergent for decontaminating such pollution-blood improperly spilled is associated with the three cardinal, "moral" sins that defile the land. The one exception is menstrual blood, which creates both ritual and moral pollution. Against Milgrom, I will argue that menstrual blood, as opposed to all other blood outside the body, is a force of life rather than of death and that this exception is the one that proves the rule. My argument is therefore organized around the three sins that create moral pollution: murder, idolatry, and sexual violations. After discussing these three transgressions, I will conclude with the way blood constructed the covenant of biblical Israel.
Before we turn to these matters, I wish to address what might be called the theological black hole that surrounds blood. Put simply, the Bible offers very little in the way of theological rationale for the surprising centrality of blood in its cult. One might expect, given the relative lack of blood rituals in other ancient Near Eastern religions, that the biblical authors would have propounded a clear rationale for the use of blood as a fluid for purification and expiation. To be sure, we are told in a number of places that "blood is the life" or that "the life-force is in the blood," but this undoubtedly universal perception does not seem sufficient to explain the specific religious meaning of blood in the Israelite cult.
Instead of following the dozens of interpreters who have trod this well-worn path by venturing yet another speculation, I will argue that the very lack of an explicit theology of blood is itself a key piece of evidence. The purpose of the priestly discourse of blood-that is, the prescriptions we find in the written text-was political rather than theological: to create a priestly monopoly on sacrifice (and, indeed, on all slaughter of animals for meat) while simultaneously declaring other ritual uses of blood, Israelite or foreign, as abominations. These "abominable" rituals may well have been the inventions of the priestly authors themselves as rhetorical devices to distinguish Israel from its neighbors. This was what concerned the priests much more than developing a theological theory to rationalize their practices. These texts were performative; that is, they not only prescribed rituals but also enacted a cultural and religious code for their readers. In fact, by stating their position apodictically rather than in the form of an argument, the priestly authors ascribed much greater rhetorical force to their discourse.
This argument is similar to that of William Gilders, who, following Nancy Jay, holds that the blood manipulations were ways of "indexing" priestly status. Indexing in this sense means a gesture that points (as in "index finger") toward what is being communicated. Thus, by restricting blood to cultic sites and giving the priests exclusive right to manipulate it, the authors of these texts were either reinforcing or actually enacting priestly status. The blood, according to this argument, carries no meaning in itself but, like a pointing finger, establishes a connection between the priests and their prerogatives. We are dealing, then, with a discourse of priestly power.
If the priestly documents used blood to distinguish Israel from its neighbors, they did not do so in a total vacuum. In the argument that follows, I will make extensive use of Greek analogues to illuminate Israelite practices. Especially around issues of blood, Greek religion was significantly closer to that of the Israelites than were the rituals of more proximate Near Eastern cultures. In some cases there may have been indirect cultural interchange between Israel and Greece. But even where there was not, the role of blood in Greek religion suggests that its rituals are much more likely than those of Israel's immediate neighbors to shed light on the discourses of blood in biblical literature. Thus, the substance that was supposed to differentiate Israel from its neighbors unexpectedly points to cross-cultural comparisons elsewhere.
DIVINE FURY: BLOOD AND VENGEANCE
You shall not pollute [tahanifu] the Land in which you live; for blood pollutes the Land and the Land can have no expiation for blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it. You shall not defile the Land in which you live, in which I myself abide, for I the Lord abide among the Israelite people. Numbers 35:33-34
The archetype of blood pollution is homicide. In this theology, quite probably a product of the Holiness school, blood spilled by deliberate violence pollutes the land and can be expiated only by the blood of the murderer. God does not dwell only in the tabernacle or the temple, but throughout the land, and although the land is not specifically designated as "holy," uman blood can defile it. The consequence of unavenged blood is captured in God's dramatic response to Cain's murder of Abel: "Your brother's blood cries out to Me from the ground. Therefore, you shall be more cursed than the ground which opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand" (Gen. 4:10-11). Here it is the ground itself that is said to have a mouth that drinks Abel's blood, which then cries out to God through this mouth; it is this very crying out that is the expression of the blood pollution's curse. Not only the victim is offended, but so is the earth. While in the law of secular slaughter in Deuteronomy, pouring the blood of an animal onto the ground is an adequate means of disposal, here the blood of the murdered victim becomes the mechanism for polluting the earth and calling out for revenge.
The law in Numbers 35 makes it clear that the spilling of blood occasions bloodguilt (damo bo or damo be-rosho, "his blood is in him" or "his blood is on his head"), which is avenged by a blood-avenger (more precisely: a blood-redeemer, goel ha-dam). Deuteronomy 19:13 reads: "You must show him [the murderer] no pity. Thus you will purge [literally "burn out," u-viarta] the innocent blood [dam ha-naki] from Israel and it will go well with you." The act of murder involves the shedding of innocent blood that must be expiated by means of shedding "guilty" blood in order to absolve the land of pollution: the blood of the guilty decontaminates ("burns out") the spilled blood of the innocent. As Ezekiel says in cursing the Edomites: "Assuredly, as I live, declares the Lord God, I will doom you with blood; blood shall pursue you; I swear that, for your bloodthirsty hatred, blood shall pursue you" (Ezek. 35:6). In this way, the innocent blood is "redeemed," which we may understand as "returned to its proper place." In Deuteronomy 32:42-43, God promises "to make my arrows drunk with blood" in order to "avenge the blood of his servants." Unredeemed blood attaches to the slayer and his family for generations (see 2 Sam. 3:28-30 and 2 Kings 9:26).
Excerpted from Blood and Belief by David Biale Copyright © 2007 by The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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1. Pollution and Power: Blood in the Hebrew Bible
2. Blood and the Covenant: The Jewish and Christian Careers of a Biblical Verse
3. God’s Blood: Medieval Jews and Christians Debate the Body
4. Power in the Blood: The Medieval and the Modern in Nazi Anti-Semitism
5. From Blood Libel to Blood Community: Self-Defense and Self-Assertion in Modern Jewish Culture
Epilogue: Blood and Belief