Blood, Religious Significance of

views updated

BLOOD, RELIGIOUS SIGNIFICANCE OF

"Blood" is from a Germanic root with the basic meaning of "bloom." The Greek term α[symbol omitted]μα, in the sense of something which "arouses awe or reverence," belongs much more closely to the vocabulary of religion (see "Blut," Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, ed.T. Klauser, 2:459).

In Mythology. In Norse myths, the skalds characterize blood as an intoxicant on the basis of the myth of Odin's drink of the poets (Edda, Skáldskaparmál 27). Blood itself is not personified, probably because, unlike water, it did not appear prominently as a great natural force or power. However, it was brought into numerous mythical relations with other things, and especially with the sun. In Egypt Ra (the Sun) was said to have originated from drops of blood. The association, blood and fire, is self-evident, but in Mexico it plays an especially significant role in Aztec religion. On the other hand, the blood of menstruation turned the imagination to the moon. The Bambuti, for example, call menstrual blood "moon-blood" [P. Schebesta, Die Bambuti. Pygmäen (4 v., Brussels, 193850) 3:190]. Practically the same idea is present in the Egyptian hieroglyph signifying the blood of Isis. Since this blood was shed to restore the dead Osiris to life, there is a clear association here of blood and life. The ideas of the connection between blood, fertility, and earth are firmly anchored in ancestor-worship. A Papuan group has a myth in which this combination is associated with that of blood and fire. Belief in the vampire is not found in this complex. It has perhaps a special origin, being found to some extent perhaps in animism. E. Rohde made animism the basis for his detailed exposition of the relations between blood and the soul in Greek religion (see E. Rohde, Psyche, English tr., H. B. Hillis, London 1925). In totemism, the blood of circumcision is regarded as a totem, at least in isolated instances [see Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 76 (1951) 63].

Sociological, Cultic, and Magical Aspects. Incest is generally forbidden even in preethnic groups, the prohibition being based on a feeling of fear or dread. At the same time, in all such groups the duty of blood revenge is already in evidence. It originated out of the barbarous experiences of wanton bloodshed in the kinship group. An extension of the kinship group by the mingling of the blood of men of different family originsa procedure that may be described as a kind of primitive peace ritual (see König, Rel Hdbch, "Friedensritualien," 263)is realized through the blood brotherhood.

The blood dance of the Bushmen has less of the religious in itself than the practice of sprinkling themselves with their own blood found among the Pygmies and the Pomo, for this procedure approaches the central concept of sacrifice. But in such practices, even if animals are killed to secure blood, as among the Yukaghirs, there is not yet question of a cultic act. It is only when such killing is thought of as an essential part of worship that blood sacrifice, including human sacrifice, especially to the sun, enters upon its development. Blood magic likewise enters only at this stage. It serves especially to give greater strength or power to implements, vessels, actions, or persons, playing a special role in bier ordeals.

In the Bible. The Biblical significance of blood is summed up in Leviticus 17.11: "The life of a living body is in its blood." This basic principle governs the Biblical theology of blood. Life belongs to God, and so blood belongs to Him. This explains both the moral and the cultic practices in which blood has a part. Some texts that refer to blood evoke also the idea of death. Hence, some scholars make blood the symbol of death. But blood is a sign of death only when it is poured out. This is precisely how blood came to stand for life. Once blood has gone out of a body, death follows. Because of this symbolism, the Biblical concept of blood affected the moral and cultic life of the Israelites.

Moral Life. Men were forbidden to eat the blood of animals (Lv 3.17). Although the prohibition may have had its origin in hygienic considerations of the ancient world, the Mosaic Law assigned it a religious context. Because all life belonged to God, the blood of slain animals had to be poured on the altar, given to God (Lv 17.11). Those who lived too far from the sanctuary expressed their faith in God as the sole Lord of life by pouring the blood on the ground and covering it with earth (Dt 12.24; Lv 17.13).

Men are forbidden to shed the blood of other men. Those "who shed the blood of the innocent" incur blood-guilt, a crime punishable by death (Nm 35.1634). A "brother's blood" shed unjustly cries to heaven for vengeance (Gn 4.816). "Men of blood," i.e., men who unjustly shed blood, are wicked, and the anger of God falls on them. The punishment of the offender rests with the avenger of blood (Nm 35.19; see blood vengeance) and with the whole community (Dt 21.89). God demands the punishment of the murderer because no one but God has the claim on blood, the life of another.

Cultic Life. Blood held the central place in animal sacrifice. It signified the flow of life between God and man. Poured out on the altar (representative of God), it joined the offerer to God because he had placed his hand on the animal and had become one with it. The blood was not a substitute for that of the offerer but a ritual expression of the total surrender to God. God received the blood and returned it to the offerer in the form of divine life. Thus the desired effect of sacrifice, communion with God, was achieved.

The covenant sacrifice of Sinai was especially significant in underlining blood as the sign of a flow of life between God and man (see covenant [in the bible]). There God set up a special bond between Himself and His people. Moses took the blood of the sacrificial victims and sprinkled it partly on the altar and partly on the people, declaring, "This is the blood of the covenant" (Ex 24.8). The blood ratified the covenant and expressed externally what had happened. God and man had been joined together in an agreement of friendship, and the blood sprinkled on the altar and the people was a forceful expression of the union that had taken place.

Closely associated with the covenant of Sinai was the slaying of the passover lamb and the sprinkling of the doorposts with its blood (Ex 12.113, 2123). The blood of the lamb saved the Israelites from the death of their firstborn (Ex 12.2630). The sacrifice of the lamb on the feast of the Passover became a ritual reminder that the people had been redeemed by the blood of the lamb. Thus blood entered the theology of redemption. It became a symbol of liberation (from slavery) and of acquisition (by God). The blood of the paschal lamb was witness to the faith that God does enter into contact with man to bestow the divine favor that the blood ritual signified.

Another significant sacrifice was that of the Day of Atonement (Leviticus chapter 16). The blood rite was especially elaborate on this day. The high priest entered the Holy of Holies and sprinkled the propitiatory (the top of the ark) with blood. The altars of incense and of holocausts also were sprinkled. These rites underlined the special power of blood in expiating sin. In fact, its special value in expiatory sacrifices generally came to be highlighted: "It is the blood, as the seat of life, that makes atonement" (Lv 17.11). The blood of the victim should not be viewed as a punishment for sin. It forgave sins because it liberated life. The life poured out on the altar was received by God, who returned it to the repentant sinner in the form of divine life. This restored him to a state of friendship with God.

The blood rite illumines the vocabulary of expiationpropitiation, atonement, justification. Blood is a propitiation for sin because it makes God propitious to the sinner. He looks favorably on him because the blood poured out symbolizes so well the broken heart of the sinner. Blood achieves the justification of the sinner because it makes him just or holy by bringing God's own life to him. Because it restores a relationship of friendship with God, it is blood of "atonement"; the sinner is set "at one" with God (see expiation [in the bible]).

Sacrificial blood played a large part also in the ordination to Old Testament priesthood. The blood was used to anoint the ear, hand, and foot of those ordained (Exodus 29.20). The anointing of these extremities of the body together proclaimed that the whole man was dedicated to God. Surely this is the meaning of the final anointing in which the blood mixed with oil was sprinkled on the priests and their vestments. This made them "sacred" (Ex 29.21). The blood was the bearer of God's life to the priests. Ordination made them holy because they were totally immersed in God's own life.

On the religious significance of blood in the New Testament, see precious blood.

See Also: sacrifice.

Bibliography: f. rÜsche, Blut, Leben und Seele (Paderborn 1930). c. m. schrÖder, Blutglaube in der Religionsgeschichte (Munich 1936). t. schifner, Blutzauber und Anderes (2d ed. Leipzig 1930). h. tegnaeus, Blood-Brothers (Uppsala 1951). l. moraldi, Espiazione sacrificale e riti espiatori (Analecta biblica 5; 1956). s. lyonnet, De peccato et redemptione, v.2 (Rome 1960)r. de vaux, Les Sacrifices de l'Ancien Testament (Paris 1964). e.f. siegman, "Blood in the Old Testament," Proceedings of the Precious Blood Study Week (Rensselaer, Indiana 1957) 3364. l. dewar, "The Biblical Use of the Term Blood," Journal of Theological Studies 4 (1953) 20408.

[a. closs/

r. t. siebeneck]

About this article

Blood, Religious Significance of

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article