Home » Blood & Covenants: The Very Foundation of the Gospel

Blood & Covenants: The Very Foundation of the Gospel

by Dr. Eitan Bar
13 minutes read

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. (Leviticus 17:11)

We live in an age saturated with action movies, violent computer games, and endless news reports about violent acts. So, it’s no surprise that we associate ‘blood’ with negative ideas such as violence, terrorism, war, suffering, and wrath. This is perhaps why Divine Abuse theology emphasizes the torture and suffering of Christ above all and connects it to God’s wrath.[1] The Bible, however, speaks of blood in a very different way. For ancient Israel, blood was what purifies, atones, and cures. But above all, blood represented LIFE.

This verse is the very foundation for understanding blood in the Bible. Nowadays, we know this to be true scientifically – our life is indeed in our blood. The point of the sacrifices was the blood, as blood represented life. The animal’s death was a side-effect of obtaining its blood, which is why ‘death’ and ‘blood’ can be used interchangeably when speaking of Christ’s atonement. ‘Christ died for us’ equals ‘Christ’s blood was shed for us.’ Both terms attempt to convey the same thing because Christ’s death alludes to Christ’s blood.

The sacrifices were less about death and more about blood; life. Death does not atone for sins; blood does. Death was an inseparable and imperative side-effect—a penalty—of making a sacrifice. If an animal was to give all its blood (life), it had to die. Its death was a fine that was paid for its blood. So, if someone owed their life or the animal’s life, it meant they owed their blood.

This is how we get to the real climax of the Bible—not the death-by-anger of Christ by his Father, but the blood of Christ. Saying ‘Christ’s blood was shed for us’ is the same as saying ‘Christ gave us life.’ That is why New Testament authors repeat, time and again, that it is the blood of Christ that covers our sins, redeems us, and justifies us. The value is not in his death but in the blood of Christ:

…we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins… (Ephesians 1:7)
…to make the people holy through his own blood… (Hebrews 13:12)
…him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood…” (Revelation 1:5)
…we have now been justified by his blood… (Romans 5:9)
 …we have redemption through his blood… (Ephesians 1:7)
…have been brought near by the blood of Christ… (Ephesians 2:13)
…making peace through his blood, shed on the cross… (Colossians 1:20)
…you were redeemed…with the precious blood of Christ… (1st Peter 1:18-19)
…the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin… (1st John 1:7)

Because life is in the blood, it holds the power of purification, sanctification, justification, and atonement. Blood, being life, is why it was said about Jesus that unless you ‘drink his blood, you have no life in you’ (John 6:53). It is through Jesus’ life that we receive eternal life, and his life was in his blood. The gospel is not about death, but about life. It is not about Jesus dying because God was angry—it is about Jesus giving us life because God is love.

Some things in life are inseparable. You can’t make soup without liquid, build a log cabin without trees, or make a bonfire without flames. The same goes for sacrifice. Sacrifices are where life meets death—they are two sides of the same coin.[2]  Without a sacrifice being killed, there would be no blood. The two are necessarily tied to each other because you cannot have the animal’s blood without killing it. This is also true in our physical world—we cannot live unless something else dies, as we must eat to survive. Eating means something else—either an animal or a plant—dies. Life and death are strongly intertwined.

However, in the book of sacrifices (Leviticus), the animal substitute is not offered by Israelites hoping to appease a volatile and angry God. That is why the pagan nations around Israel would sacrifice to their gods. For Israel, it was a different story…

The red magical potion

Two common words can best describe the functions of blood in the Bible. If you were to ask modern-day Christians what they are, some would probably answer with something like ‘wrath and punishment.’ However, for the Israelites living in the days of the Hebrew Scriptures, it would probably be ‘covering and cleansing.’

Do you remember greeting someone with a handshake during Covid-19 and wanting to instantly sanitize your hands? The sanitizer liquid you used is a great way to understand the role of blood in the biblical ritual of purification and sanctification. For the Israelites, the blood of the sacrifices was something like iodine, bleach, or detergent—a ‘magical potion’ used to keep and protect life.

Blood and Covenants

In Hebrew, when we say “to make a covenant,” the word used for “made a”(covenant) is the same word that means “excision” or “amputation.” In Hebrew, we don’t make covenants, we excision them. (This is where “to cut a deal”, in English, comes from!). When you “excision” or “cut” a covenant, this implies blood is involved. Because life is in the blood, the blood is there to say, “I swear my life in this.”

Abraham

When God called Abraham to leave his home and walk into the unknown, He first gave Abraham some blessings (heirs, land, and authority—a mirror of the blessings in Genesis 1:28). Genesis chapter 15 reiterates the covenant God had made with Abraham but adds a visual aspect that Abraham was already familiar with. First, Abraham was to find and kill a heifer, a ram, a goat, a dove, and a pigeon. Then, Abraham was to dissect the wild beasts in half and lay the pieces in two rows with a clear path through the center. To the ancient Near Easterners, this meant the making of a covenant deal. The parties involved would walk the path between the slaughtered animals, declaring, ‘I am willing to bet my life on it!’ It was a vow of the highest kind.

But the covenant in Genesis 15 is most special because when evening came and as Abraham fell asleep, God appeared and passed between the pieces of the dead animals on His own. This was a one-sided covenant where nothing depended on Abraham. It was only up to God, who was betting His life on the promises He gave to Abraham. There could be no greater encouragement since God is eternal and can no more break an oath than He can die.

But why would a King make a covenant with a peasant? When God makes a covenant with us, it’s not because He needs us or something from us. The gods cut deals because they wanted things, but Yahweh doesn’t need us, and He can make a billion more just like us. When God makes a covenant with us, He chooses to take care of us despite the fact we have nothing to offer Him back. In making a covenant, God is essentially telling us that no matter what we do, He will always keep His side and love us. All Abraham had to do was believe.

This was also a shadow of the covenant to be made through Jesus. Just like Abraham, it was us who killed the sacrifice, and it was God who made the promise. We just need to believe it. But in Christ’s blood covenant, we have a promise sealed with eternal blood, an everlasting promise for our eternal salvation that we can always count on. That makes the New Covenant better than all previous covenants. Like Abraham, we just have to believe that God will live up to His promise of salvation to those who choose to believe (John 3:16). Like Abraham, this guarantee can grant the believer great confidence regarding the single most important thing—our eternal future. I often fail, and I wouldn’t trust myself with some things, let alone my own eternal destiny. But with God, I can count on Him, and my soul may rest because it’s not up to me, an imperfect being, to deliver.

Exodus

In the book of Exodus, the shedding of blood becomes a major theme. On the eve of Israel’s exit from Egypt, the blood of the Passover lamb sacrificed and painted on the house doorposts served as a sign for the destroyer (Ex. 12:13, 21-23). In the first Passover, the blood of the sacrificial lamb separated the living from the dead. The destroyer came to take life. Either it was the life of your firstborn, or it was the life of the sacrificed animal.

Then, the Mosaic Covenant was also made-cut with blood. The blood was sprinkled on the people of Israel and the Tabernacle:

Moses took half of the blood and put it in bowls, and the other half he splashed against the altar. Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, “We will do everything the Lord has said; we will obey.” Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said: “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words. (Exodus 24:6-8)

This was not a salvific covenant but a covenant that was national in scope. Regardless, the point of all these sacrifices was not how they died but why — blood. Blood means life, and God wanted Moses to splash life on the people of Israel and the altar, cleansing them and betting his life on the promises he gave.

Consider the symbolic circle of life: Life is in the blood. Blood covers sin. So, life covers sin. Sin is death. So, we cover death with life. But for us to be able to cover sin (death) with blood (life), we first need blood (death). This was the vicious circularity of life that in Christ was finally put to rest (Hebrews 10:1-18).

Now that we hopefully have a clearer picture of the biblical concept of blood, we may discuss sacrifices.

Sacrifice

I have fond memories of school field trips as a child in Israel. Our tiny country meant that most destinations were just a couple of hours away by bus, and during those journeys, we would often pass the time by eating snacks. If a classmate offered you some of their own, it was a great act of sacrifice, as snacks were a valuable commodity. In return, it was expected that you would offer kindness in return, preferably in the form of one of your own cherished snacks. In life, we often buy each other’s affection through gifts, and the popular kids would receive much more as everyone sought to curry favor with them. This ritual of snack offerings also served as a way to make amends and seek forgiveness when we hurt our friends. And when night came, we would gather together for a “Hafla,” a festive meal comprised of everyone’s snacks, a celebration that often led to a bellyache the next morning! You see, we used snack offerings for multiple reasons. Once, I even saw how a piece of gum was used to cover and protect a wound from infection. So gross!

As ‘the kids of Israel’, so was the logic of ‘the children of Israel’ thousands of years ago. Primarily, the belief that if we sacrifice something for someone, they will show us favor in return. However, when it came to God, people considered their earthly futures and eternal destiny. They especially wanted to find themselves on God’s good side coming judgment day. So, we sacrifice wealth, time, and energy, either because we love someone or want them — and our father in heaven — to remember us fondly. Some sacrifices were indeed offered due to past events, such as covering for sin or asking for forgiveness. However, offering sacrifices served the children of Israel — just like the modern-day kids of Israel — in various ways.

William K. Gilders is a professor of religious studies who specialized in “Blood Ritual in the Hebrew Bible.”[i] He explains:

One way to think about ancient sacrifices is as “gifts” given to God. When they performed sacrifices, ancient Israelites gave to God some of what they believed God had given them, expressing their close relationship with God and seeking to deepen that bond. [ii]

Likewise, in Jewish thought:

The sacrifices have a lofty purpose, to personify the feeling of gratitude towards the source of good himself, the good and blessed Lord of the world.[iii]  

Humans have the uncanny ability to plan far into the future.[3] We dream about the future no less than we cry over the past. People’s thoughts in ancient times were often occupied by how others, especially their gods, will remember them. They, just like us, worried about their reputation, both in the eyes of their gods and in their friends’ minds.

So, naturally, we strive to be on everyone’s “good side” and much rather do it in advance. Therefore, people living in ancient times would sacrifice to their gods to ensure they stayed on their good side. They believed their future would be secured by giving up something of value in the present. This is why some Bible scholars say the best way to describe sacrifices is with the word gift.[iv]

This is still the same logic we use today. We tell our loved ones they have value in our eyes when we bestow gifts upon them. A gift is always a sacrifice. Smaller gifts mean we sacrificed a little (like buying someone lunch or a flower bokeh). Bigger gifts mean we sacrificed a lot (like a diamond ring or a car). It can even be something major that requires a significant sacrifice, like the donation of an organ. A sacrifice can also come in the form of something non-tangible, like time, energy, privileges, pride or rights. We sacrifice when we want others to know we care for them — either in advance or after we screw up. We show them we love them when we give or do something for their betterment. However, if the person can sense that we didn’t really sacrifice anything, for example, if we gave them an orange we simply plucked from the neighbor’s tree, they would probably get less excited about the gesture.

Animal Sacrifice

To sacrifice is to let go of something costly and dear to your heart. But for the Israelites, an animal sacrifice contained a precious “potion” — blood. It wasn’t like today when I could easily and quickly stop at the local pet store to buy an animal, like a small bird, for example, on my way driving up to Jerusalem. It is cheap and quick, and I have not yet connected emotionally with it. However, in ancient times, an animal was precious, not only from a financial standpoint. Usually, you would raise your animals, and they would often become a family member to you. [4] This is why sometimes I must be reminded that my dog is not my actual child.

In ancient times, animal sacrifice was a ritual that included death. You gave up something of great value — life — to the gods. However, abuse, torture, or intense violence were never part of the biblical ritual of sacrificing to the God of Israel. Neither the person offering the sacrifice nor the priest ever “punished” the animal by abusing or torturing it. In fact, the one who sacrificed had to avoid cruelty at all costs. Slaughtering the animal from its neck meant a swift death with minimum pain. There are very meticulous decrees in ancient Judaism, valid in modern Judaism as well, as to how slaughtering is to be done. A great emphasis was given to killing the animal as quickly and painlessly as possible (Leviticus 1:15; 3:8; 5:8). Maimonides, a famous Middle Ages Jewish Bible commentator, explained that commandments related to slaughtering “were given to ensure an easy death for the animal.” Other Jewish sages commented likewise. All that is to say that biblical Israel brought sacrifices before God, not for God’s wrath to be appeased by punishing the sacrifice. The killing was a means to an end — the animals’ blood. The blood (life) had the power to purify, atone, and sanctify.

An Israelite offering to God after sinning, metaphorically, is like a husband who brings his wife flowers and chocolate after he offended and hurt her feelings. He sacrificed time, energy, and resources to show her he was sorry. However, the husband did not buy the flowers, thinking his wife, instead of beating him up, would tear them up to pieces to satisfy her wrath. Ridiculous as this sounds, many Christians still see God as a bloodthirsty entity needing a kill to satisfy its anger. Unfortunately, this view has already been integrated into modern Christian culture. For example, in 2006, Keith Getty wrote a popular song called “In Christ Alone,” whereby a specific line caused a stir in American Christianity:

On the cross, when Jesus died,
the wrath of God was satisfied.

As for the song, the death of Jesus allegedly satisfied a cosmic wrath, a colossal amount of rage that God had to release by torturing and killing his own Son. After the song’s release, demands were made for the line to be removed, and when it did not happen, some movements removed the song altogether.[5] Some Christians felt that the song portrayed God in a distorted way, as an angry God who must satisfy his wrath and thirst for vengeance against us but substituted it with killing his own righteous Son. Obviously, the songwriters did not come up with this idea themselves; they must have encountered it previously in books and preaching. Or if to be blunt, they were brainwashed.

We live in an age where worship songs, composers, and popular YouTube preachers wearing skinny jeans or extravagant suits and ties have just as much (if not more) influence on shaping theology and faith culture as theologians. For most Christians, reading theology books is akin to taking sleeping pills. I have read many of them, and I get it. They tend to be technical, boring, and use words I don’t even think I know how to pronounce in English.[6] But developing your system of beliefs solely on Facebook/Instagram stories and YouTube videos might not be the wisest approach either.

Obviously, theologians are not perfect, either. Truth be told, most books I read about the atonement of Christ extracted opinions mainly from the church fathers while mostly ignoring the Hebrew Scriptures. Church fathers had much to contribute to the conversation, and for that, we should be thankful for them. However, many did not have the highest regard for the Old Testament.[7] Unfortunately, many Christians today study theology only through the lens of the church fathers and the reformers, thus missing much of what the Old Testament had to say. While considering what the church fathers had to say is not a bad thing, I believe that any doctrine in the New Testament has its roots in the Hebrew Scriptures. Therefore, to fully understand a doctrine, we must trace it back to the Old Testament first and allow it to be the leading voice. Doctrines about atonement, sin, election, hell, and salvation are no exception. Otherwise, jumping over the Hebrew Scriptures would be like watching a movie starting from the third act, somewhere toward the end of the movie. By doing so, we might understand some things, but we would also miss a lot and probably misunderstand plenty. To me, there is no point in discussing Christ’s atonement on the cross without first exhausting what the Hebrew Scriptures have to say about terms and concepts such as blood, sacrifice, and atonement.

This article is based on my new book, ‘The “Gospel” of Divine Abuse,’ available on this Amazon page.
free sample is available here.


[1] For example, for David Platt, the climax of the Bible is God punishing Jesus: “How can God show both holy hatred and holy love toward sinners at the same time? This is the climactic question of the Bible, and the answer is the cross. At the cross, God showed the full expression of his wrath.” (Desiring God, 2011 National Conference).

[2] Rashi (11th century famous Jewish commentator): “For the life of the flesh of every creature, not only of animals brought as sacrifices, is dependent on its blood, and it is for this reason that I have placed it [on the altar] to make expiation for the life of man: let life come and expiate for life!” (Commentary on Leviticus 17:11)

[3] Research shows that only few animals are able to think about the future, yet only in a limited, basic, and primal way that is nothing like the human ability to plan the future. (Clayton, Bussey, Dickinson, “Can animals recall the past and plan for the future?” in Nat Rev Neurosci, 2003).

[4] See for example the parable of the Poor Man’s Lamb in 2nd Samuel chapter 12.

[5] For example, the Presbyterian movement decided in 2013 to completely negate the song.

[6] Words like Transubstantiation, Consubstantiation and Sublapsarianism.

[7] And some early age Christian theologians, such as Marcion (85-160 AD) even went as extreme as voiding the Old Testament all together.


[i] The name of his book, published in 2004 by Johns Hopkins University Press.

[ii] William K. Gilders, Sacrifice in Ancient Israel

[iii] Otzrot Ha-Riya, volume 2, p. 102.

[iv] Grossman, “The Sacrificial Service”, Page 38.

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Dr. Eitan Bar
Author, Theologian, Activist