The Old Testament has more bloodspatter than a Hammer Horror film. Slaughtering animals, skinning them and burning their flesh was a daily occurrence because it was the basis of the Israelites’ sacrificial system. Blood was collected in bowls then sprinkled on different parts of the Temple furnishings and poured before the altar. It was even sprinkled on the assembled people (Exodus 24:8) – imagine standing in that crowd!.
Paradoxically, the Jews had a horror of blood which was much greater than that of even the most squeamish of us. When Isaiah struggled to express the abhorrence of sin, he described it as ‘scarlet’ and ‘like a menstrual cloth’ – which most Bibles translate as ‘filthy rags’ (Isaiah 1:18; 64:6). Consuming blood was an absolute taboo, so every animal carcass had to be carefully drained before it was eaten (see Deuteronomy 12:23-27). So why did the Law of Moses use blood in so many ceremonial ways?
Life in the Blood
If we were to choose a part of our body which represented our essence or personality, we might think of our heart or brain. But Israelites believed that ‘the life of a creature is in the blood’; when a person’s blood was poured out of their body, they were thought to have left it (Leviticus 17:11-14). This was in complete contrast to what they had seen in Egypt, where the dead were ‘sent’ to the afterlife with everything except their blood. With tools and food for the journey, their body was completely mummified and buried or entombed with their extracted organs in four canopic jars. The embalmers removed the organs on a sloping table with a bucket at the bottom to collect all liquids, which they threw away. For Egyptians, the key to the afterlife was keeping everything dry, which meant discarding the person’s blood.
It was because of the symbolism that blood had for the Israelites – their image of it as the very essence of their life – that it figured so prominently in their religious ceremonies. After death they wanted to be in the presence of God, and they used the blood of sacrifices to convey this desire. In sprinkling the blood of their sacrifice in the Temple or the Tabernacle (their portable worship tent), they were symbolically getting as close to God as possible. God’s presence was represented by the Ark of the Covenant – the golden box containing the Ten Commandments – which was kept in the holiest place behind a huge and ornate veil. Every day the priest would sprinkle blood from the sacrifice on the veil and on the golden incense altar which stood closest to this veil. Even when this was difficult to do – such as with one unusual sacrifice, the red heifer which had to be sacrificed outside the holy courtyard – the priest would still sprinkle its blood as close to God’s presence as possible; in this case, on the outer wall (Numbers 19:2-4). On one day a year – the Day of Atonement when all sins were cleansed by special sacrifices – the high priest was allowed to go beyond the veil to sprinkle sacrificial blood on the actual ark of God’s presence.
Presence of God
All this blood-sprinkling reminded Israelites that they were special – they were allowed into the presence of God. The blood that symbolised their lives had been sprinkled in God’s presence, so they would be in his presence when they died.
In ancient Jewish literature there is a curious report by a rabbi called Eleazar ben Yose that when he was in Rome he actually saw the veil with the bloodstains on it. Perhaps he saw it paraded in the triumphal march through the city when Titus celebrated his defeat of Jerusalem in AD 70. This beautiful veil, which hid the holiest place in the Temple, was a startling blue and was decorated to be like the heavens with sun, moon and stars. Why would anyone want to sprinkle something so special with blood? For Jews at the time it was another poignant symbol that they would be in the presence of God after death – the blood which represented them was as near as it could be to God’s presence on earth.
Our reading of the Old Testament might leave us with a picture in our minds of the Israelites’ worship being rife with animal sacrifice – constant blood-letting and slaughter. In fact there was only one Temple and the ‘continual burnt offering’ consisted of just one lamb in the morning and one in the evening, with an extra one on the Sabbath. And these were on behalf of the whole nation. This was a relatively tiny number of sacrifices in contrast to religious worship in Egypt, where hundreds of offerings were made in a multitude of Egyptian temples.
Additional sacrifices were made at festivals and by individuals, but most of these were for food. When people wanted a feast with their friends, instead of going to a butcher, they made a ‘thanksgiving’ offering in God’s presence. The inedible visceral fat was burned on the altar, and one joint was given as payment to the priest, but most of it went home to be roasted and eaten. Most sin offerings were eaten too, though by the priests.
Offerings were as painless as possible, with a clean slit of the neck arteries, leading to a gradual sleep. During a trip to Mongolia, my daughter was invited to eat with a goat herder’s family. This included helping to slaughter and prepare the goat. She said they first stroked and calmed it like a pet. Their sharp knife caused no pain and the goat didn’t struggle or bleat as it gradually lost consciousness. I just wish all abattoirs were run that way.
It seems barbaric to us that God could want sacrifices. Actually, the Old Testament portrays that it is the people who are keen on such slaughter, while God prefers obedience, mercy and justice (1 Samuel 15:22; Hosea 6:6; Amos 5:21-24). It took many generations to wean Israel off sacrifices.
The Lamb of God
Jesus finally replaced all sacrifices by his one offering. John portrays him as the Day of Atonement lamb (John 1:29; Leviticus 16:21 – a young goat is called a ‘lamb’ in Hebrew). He was also compared to the Passover lamb (John 19:14; 1 Corinthians 5:7) while the letter to the Hebrews pictures Jesus as both lambs, and also as the priest who sprinkled the lamb’s blood on the veil and even the veil itself, which was torn when he died. Jesus’ death replaced the whole sacrificial system.
Communion wine reminds us of this symbolism, though we have the privilege of understanding more of the meaning behind it, because we know the one to whom all the sacrifices pointed. When we drink the wine, while we may not find it particularly helpful to meditate on most of the blood- spattering ceremonies of the Old Testament, one aspect is too important to miss: blood is a symbol of life, not death. Communion is not only a time when we can remember Jesus’ suffering, but a time when we can ask him to refill us – to pour his life into us by his Holy Spirit.