In the Old Testament the word דָּם, H1947, occurs 362 times of which 203 point to death by violence and 103 to sacrificial blood. While the word was thus associated closely with death, there were times when the Old Testament specifically related it to life (Gen 9:4; Deut 12:23). The most direct statement of this kind (Lev 17:11) spoke of the life of the flesh being in the blood, and of atonement being achieved by blood “by reason of the life.” This variation raises the question as to whether the use of “blood” points basically to life or to death. Some authorities have thought of life as somehow inherent in the blood, so that when an animal was sacrificed, its life remained in the blood. The offering of the blood in the ceremonial rites would then indicate that a pure life was being surrendered to God. According to this view the death of the victim would have little significance, although some have understood it as pointing to the penal consequences of sin. In any event the significance would lie in the presentation of life, not death. From this viewpoint, therefore, the New Testament expression “the blood of Christ” would mean little more than “the life of Christ presented.”
From Old Testament usage the predominant association of blood is with death rather than life, and the “life of the flesh” (17:11) can mean life yielded up in death just as readily as life set free for surrender to God. The sacrificial rituals consistently pointed to the seriousness of sin, and the shedding of blood in sacrifice was prescribed as an acceptable substitute for the life of the sinner and an act of atonement by which he could be restored to fellowship with God. Most of the narratives which mention sacrifice include some reference to the death of the victim but say nothing about its life. The shed blood of the animal implies life given up in death on behalf of the sinner so that he might live and not suffer the penal death of the ungodly. The Old Testament, therefore, indicates that atonement for human sin was obtained by the death of an acceptable substitute, rather than by its life, and this emphasis, which is basic to the Old Covenant, is carried over into the New Testament with specific reference to the work of Jesus Christ in the New Covenant.
The word occurs over four hundred times in the Bible and is especially frequent in Leviticus. The circulation of the blood was not known until long after Scripture was written, and for the most part Bible references are directed toward the practical observation that loss of blood leads to loss of vitality and that a draining away of the blood leads to death. Gen.9.5 says (literally), “Your blood, belonging to your lives, I will seek...from the hand of man...I will seek the life of man.” “Seek” means, in this verse, “seek requital.” In this verse “seeking your blood” is parallel with “seeking the life,” and both mean exacting the death penalty. When blood is shed, life is terminated, and the Lord seeks requital for the shedding of blood by demanding the life of the murderer (cf. Gen.37.26; Ps.30.9; Ps.58.10). The statement “Your blood be on your own head” (e.g., 2Sam.1.16) witnesses to the same understanding of things: a person guilty of murder must pay with his life. Our concern here is not the question of the death penalty, but the way in which the Bible uses “blood” as a metaphor for “death.” When blood is spoken of as the life of the flesh (Gen.9.4; cf. Lev.17.11), the meaning is the practical one that flesh and blood in their proper union constitute a living creature, beast or man, but that when they are separated death takes place. The bearing of this on the use of blood in the sacrifices is most important. For further discussion see SACRIFICE.
Bibliography: V. Taylor, Jesus and His Sacrifice, 1937; A. M. Stibbs, The Meaning of the Word “Blood” in Scripture, 1947; Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, 1955.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
Used in the Old Testament to designate the life principle in either animal or vegetable, as the blood of man or the juice of the grape (Le 17:11, et al.); in the New Testament for the blood of an animal, the atoning blood of Christ, and in both Old Testament and New Testament in a figurative sense for bloodshed or murder (Ge 37:26; Ho 4:2; Re 16:6).
1. Primitive Ideas:
Although the real function of the blood in the human system was not fully known until the fact of its circulation was established by William Harvey in 1615, nevertheless from the earliest times a singular mystery has been attached to it by all peoples. Blood rites, blood ceremonies and blood feuds are common among primitive tribes. It came to be recognized as the life principle long before it was scientifically proved to be. Naturally a feeling of fear, awe and reverence would be attached to the shedding of blood. With many uncivilized peoples scarification of the body until blood flows is practiced. Blood brotherhood or blood friendship is established by African tribes by the mutual shedding of blood and either drinking it or rubbing it on one another’s bodies. Thus and by the inter-transfusion of blood by other means it was thought that a community of life and interest could be established.
2. Hebrew and Old Testament Customs:
Notwithstanding the ignorance and superstition surrounding this suggestively beautiful idea, it grew to have more than a merely human significance and application. For this crude practice of inter-transference of human blood there came to be a symbolic substitution of animal blood in sprinkling or anointing. The first reference in the Old Testament to blood (Ge 4:10) is figurative, but highly illustrative of the reverential fear manifested upon the shedding of blood and the first teaching regarding it.
The rite of circumcision is an Old Testament form of blood ceremony. Apart from the probable sanitary importance of the act is the deeper meaning in the establishment of a bond of friendship between the one upon whom the act is performed and Yahweh Himself. In order that Abraham might become "the friend of God" he was commanded that he should be circumcised as a token of the covenant between him and God (Ge 17:10-11; see Circumcision).
It is significant that the eating of blood was prohibited in earliest Bible times (Ge 9:4). The custom probably prevailed among heathen nations as a religious rite (compare Ps 16:4). This and its unhygienic influence together doubtless led to its becoming taboo. The same prohibition was made under the Mosaic code (Le 7:26; see SACRIFICE).
Blood was commanded to be used also for purification or for ceremonial cleansing (Le 14:5-7,51,52; Nu 19:4), provided, however, that it be taken from a clean animal (see Purification).
In all probability there is no trace of the superstitious use of blood in the Old Testament, unless perchance in 1Ki 22:38 (see Bathing); but everywhere it is vested with cleansing, expiatory, and reverently symbolic qualities.
3. New Testament Teachings:
As in the transition from ancient to Hebrew practice, so from the Old Testament to the New Testament we see an exaltation of the conception of blood and blood ceremonies. In Abraham’s covenant his own blood had to be shed. Later an expiatory animal was to shed blood (Le 5:6; see Atonement), but there must always be a shedding of blood. "Apart from shedding of blood there is no remission" (Heb 9:22). The exaltation and dignifying of this idea finds its highest development then in the vicarious shedding of blood by Christ Himself (1Jo 1:7). As in the Old Testament "blood" was also used to signify the juice of grapes, the most natural substitute for the drinking of blood would be the use of wine. Jesus takes advantage of this, and introduces the beautiful and significant custom (Mt 26:28) of drinking wine and eating bread as symbolic of the primitive intertransfusion of blood and flesh in a pledge of eternal friendship (compare Ex 24:6,7; Joh 6:53-56). This is the climactic observance of blood rites recorded in the Bible.
Trumbull, The Blood Covenant and The Threshold Covenant; Westermarck, The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas; Robertson Smith, Lectures on the Religion of the Semites.
A. M. Stibbs, The Meaning of the Word “Blood” in Scripture (1947);
L. Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (1955).