January 30, 2004
Our precious bodily fluids

So I finally got my computer back, and after getting the right hardware, calling the right people and intoning the right four-letter words, I finally have a functioning printer. Yay!

While all this was going on, I went to Bible study on Tuesday. Normally these happen in a room adjoining the church, but for some reason this one was in a pizza parlor. In case I needed reminding that I'm not in an evangelical church any more, the pastor ordered a pitcher of beer and started urging it on me. I don't like beer, but I had a cosmopolitan before I got there, so I was actually out ahead of the game.

But this wasn't all about booze; no, there was still a Bible part of this Bible study. I mentioned the discussion I had with Kynn about the cleanliness rules in the Old Testament, and asked the pastor what he thought they were about.

His take was pretty similar to mine: they were mostly about health and hygiene, with the somewhat overbroad but generally sound advice to avoid touching sick people, dead people, and other people's body fluids. He pointed out an obvious motif that I'd missed, though: the Hebrews clearly attached special significance to blood. Not only should you not touch human blood, but animal blood is strictly off-limits too. In fact, the rule against eating animal blood is one of the few Jewish laws we see applied to non-Jews, both after Noah's flood and in Acts 15.

Again, there's probably a hygenic component to this, but there's something mystical going on too. Here's how God explains it when he first lays down the no-eating-blood rule, in Genesis 9:

Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from human beings, each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for human life.

Blood is explicitly equated with "life" here. You can take this metaphorically, but whenever I read this I wonder if there wasn't some ancient theory of anatomy going on here, wherein the blood was thought to house some animating spirit or life-force. So the blood avoidance would seem to be less because blood is "dirty" than that it's sacred.

This all puts an especially interesting cast on the Last Supper, where Jesus instructs his disciples to drink his "blood." It explains why he broke up "body" and "blood" into two parts; normally we'd think blood would go naturally with "body", but perhaps they were meant to signify two different elements. It also makes the act extra subversive: as if the taint of cannibalism weren't enough, you have to drink blood, which is forbidden even from animals.

Not that I really know what the hell is going on here. I just have this feeling there's something there that I'm not quite getting into focus.

Posted by Camassia at January 30, 2004 11:03 AM | TrackBack


Ritual blood touching in Leviticus:

8:23 He killed it; and Moses took some of its blood, and put it on the tip of Aaron’s right ear, and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the great toe of his right foot. 8:24 He brought Aaron’s sons; and Moses put some of the blood on the tip of their right ear, and on the thumb of their right hand, and on the great toe of their right foot; and Moses sprinkled the blood around on the altar.

There is much ritual blood splashed around on the altar in the OT, to go along with the proscription against ingesting it.

Posted by: Rob on January 30, 2004 12:23 PM

Good point, I'd forgotten about that whole business of anointing people with blood. It seems to underscore the idea of blood being sacred somehow.

Posted by: Camassia on January 30, 2004 12:26 PM

I figured part of the reason the Body and Blood were mentioned separately is due to the many OT references to bread and wine, with the obvious message that Jesus feeds us (a "manger", after all, is a feed box).

There is also the connection with the high priest/king Melchizedek, who offered bread and wine. Body and Blood, Bread and Wine - nice parallelism.

Posted by: TSO on January 30, 2004 02:17 PM

Meanwhile, back at the ranch ...

I just finished blogging Numbers 19, in which God commands Eleazar to ritually slaughter and completely burn a red cow. In verse 4 Eleazar has to take some of the blood with his finger and sprinkle it seven times towards the front of the tent of meeting. I believe this is intended as a purifying ritual.

The entire red cow gets burned, including its blood, which is specifically mentioned. Added to the fire are other red things: cedarwood, hyssop and crimson material. Red cow. Red fuel.

Finally, from this incineration of all things red including blood, the ashes are mixed with water to make a kind of holy water. This water is used to sprinkle on things and people that have become unclean. And to complete the circle, unclean is specified as the coming into contact with a dead body.

So blood goes from an unclean, unsanitary, disease-bearing bodily fluid to a holy and purifying element.

Posted by: Dash on January 30, 2004 06:44 PM

Don't all of these considerations make the Eucharist an even more radical innovation than we usually think of it as being?

Posted by: Rob on January 31, 2004 05:04 AM

There are separate Jewish prayers for blessing bread and wine, which Jesus would have known and been in the habit of saying before a meal. (A friend of mine taught me these prayers in Hebrew, when I was in high school, though I'm afraid that, all these years later, I no longer remember how to say the one for bread.) So it makes sense that he would discuss separately the significance of the bread and the wine. Also, if the Last Supper was a Passover meal (and Mark, Luke, and Matthew have it), this is a meal at which it is traditional to discuss the meaning of the different items of food (each of which has its own specific symbolism).

Posted by: Lynn on January 31, 2004 08:08 PM

But did these prayers and/or symbolisms equate the wine with human blood and the bread with human flesh?

Posted by: Rob on February 1, 2004 04:10 AM

No, they didn't. As far as I can tell, Jesus is taking elements that are traditional in the culture he lives in (strong ritual significance to meals, blessing of bread and wine, special significance of food items at the Passover meal), and giving them a sharply new twist.

Posted by: Lynn on February 1, 2004 03:53 PM

Yes. It would seem that, given the taboo against ingesting blood that Camassia started this string off with (and that only animal blood!), the symbolism of the Eucharist would have been positively scandalous to the Jewish contemporaries of Jesus. Yet there seems to be no particular scandal over this mentioned. This seems strange to me.

Posted by: Rob on February 1, 2004 05:31 PM

Here's a thought. In Deuteronomy 12:23 (and elsehwere, I think), the proscription is not to eat the blood because the blood is the life. It's understandable how the equation that blood=life could arise. Hence, when you offer a blood sacrifice on the altar, what you're offering is literally the animal's life to God. When you anoint with blood, you're purifying sin with the life of another creature.

So when Jesus offers his blood for drinking, it's as if he's asking us to figuratively ingest his life. There are so many beautiful symbolic parallels here: Moses sprinkling the blood of the covenant, vs. the blood of the new covenant; moses turning water into blood, vs. Jesus turning water into wine. And so on.

This is a fascinating topic; I have to remember this when I'm stuck for a paper topic in Seminary!

Posted by: Matthias on February 2, 2004 08:35 AM

Blood = life. That's a good thought. It doesn't totally account for the bread = body part of the equation, however. And the creation story of Genesis has God *breathing* the spirit into Adam, rather than *transfusing* it as blood.
My real question, though, is why this ritual didn't horrify Jews (especially Jewish enemies of the Christians) and cause a major scandal that was written about by, for instance, Paul? Or, perhaps it was written about by first century (and later) Jewish rabbis, and I'm just ignorant of those writings?
I also can't help thinking about the Christian slander against Jews that they used the blood of Christian children to make Passover matzo. There seems to be some kind of perverted parallelism going on there. Any thoughts on any of this?

Posted by: Rob on February 2, 2004 09:23 AM

Yeah, Matthias states more clearly what I was trying to get at. We have a blood=life theme going back to Noah, so the substance is treated with great reverence. So the drinking of the wine in Eucharist seems to indicate more than just physical blood, but Jesus' life-force itself.

As to why it didn't scandalize Jews more, I don't know. Our records of the time are hardly complete. But maybe compared to the bigger scandal of Jesus and his followers -- claiming he's God, and all that -- the blood-drinking was the least of their worries.

I don't think the "breath" image in Genesis really contradicts the equation. Perhaps the breath is what infuses the blood with life, or perhaps the ancients weren't thinking about it that literally. (Or maybe it's just a borrowed Mesopotamian tale to begin with.) I don't think the Eucharist has to mean only one thing either; it would be like the Bible all over, really, to have symbol nested in metaphor wrapped up in self-reference.

Posted by: Camassia on February 2, 2004 01:35 PM
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