Leviticus 17 – The Sanctity of Blood
A. Prohibition of sacrifice outside the tabernacle.
1. (1-4) Sacrifice must be at the tabernacle and by the appointed priests.
And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron, to his sons, and to all the children of Israel, and say to them, ‘This is the thing which the LORD has commanded, saying: “Whatever man of the house of Israel who kills an ox or lamb or goat in the camp, or who kills it outside the camp, and does not bring it to the door of the tabernacle of meeting to offer an offering to the LORD before the tabernacle of the LORD, the guilt of bloodshed shall be imputed to that man. He has shed blood; and that man shall be cut off from among his people,
a. Who kills an ox or lamb or goat in the camp: This refers not to the mere slaughter of animals for meat, but specifically killing for the sake of sacrifice.
i. “Indeed the technical term for sacrificing an animal, sht is the term used in v. 3 (see 1:5; 3:2; 4:4; 14:13). This word never refers to the mere killing of an animal when it occurs in sacrificial contexts.” (Rooker)
b. Bring it to the door of the tabernacle of meeting: In the pagan world at that time, it was customary to offer sacrifice wherever one pleased. Altars were often built on high hills, in forested areas, or at other special places.
c. The guilt of bloodshed shall be imputed to that man: With the building of the tabernacle (Exodus 40), Israel had a centralized place of worship. Therefore, they were not allowed to offer sacrifice in any place or in any way they pleased. They had to come to the tabernacle and have their sacrifice performed by the priests. If they disobeyed, they would be cut off from among the people – exiled from their community.
i. This command runs completely contrary to the way most people come to God in our culture. The modern world emphasizes an individualistic way of coming to God, where everyone does according to their own preference in how and when and where and with whom they will meet with God.
ii. This thinking runs deep in the modern western world and is rarely even questioned. As described in the book Habits of the Heart (1985) Robert Bellah and his colleagues interviewed a young nurse named Sheila Larson, whom they described as representing the experience and views of many Americans on religion. Speaking about her own faith and how it worked in her life, she said: “I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It is ‘Sheilaism.’ Just my own little voice.” This way of thinking dominates spirituality in the modern western world – but it is not the Biblical pattern for seeking God, pleasing Him, or becoming right with God.
2. (5-7) The right way to bring sacrifice – to the tabernacle, through the priest.
To the end that the children of Israel may bring their sacrifices which they offer in the open field, that they may bring them to the LORD at the door of the tabernacle of meeting, to the priest, and offer them as peace offerings to the LORD. And the priest shall sprinkle the blood on the altar of the LORD at the door of the tabernacle of meeting, and burn the fat for a sweet aroma to the LORD. They shall no more offer their sacrifices to demons, after whom they have played the harlot. This shall be a statute forever for them throughout their generations.”’
a. That they may bring them to the LORD at the door of the tabernacle of meeting: God established a place for Israel to bring their sacrifices – the tabernacle of meeting. To honor God, an Israelite could not simply follow their heart, their feelings, or their opinions. They had to come the way God made for them.
i. There were times when, under the leadership of His appointed priests, God authorized sacrifices at places other than the tabernacle (as in 1 Samuel 7:9 and 11:15, 2 Samuel 24:18, 1 Kings 18:20-23). “But though men were tied to this law, God was free to dispense with his own law, which he did sometimes to the prophets, as 1 Samuel 7:9, 11:15; etc.” (Poole)
b. They shall no more offer their sacrifices to demons: When one came to the tabernacle of meeting and God’s appointed priests, it was to offer the sacrifice to the LORD – Yahweh, the covenant God of Israel. They were to stop their sacrifices to demons and bring their sacrifice to Yahweh only, at the tabernacle of Yahweh, performed by the priest of Yahweh.
i. The same word here translated demons (sair) is also translated wild goats in Isaiah 13:21 and 34:14. The word can be literally understood as “hairy ones,” referring to male goats. The English Standard Version translates this as goat demons. The New International Version and the New Living Translation have goat idols.
ii. “The Hebrew word actually means ‘goats’ and is so translated by at least three French translations. But it refers to something more than an ordinary goat. It is a kind of demonic being in the form of a goat.” (Peter-Contesse)
iii. Herodotus (The Histories, 2.46) notes that many ancient cultures worshipped goats or goat-gods in some form. The “goat-gods” can rightly be understood as representative of all idols. Later, the Apostle Paul would specifically say that sacrifice to idols was, in some sense, a sacrifice to the demons that were identified with and were the inspiration of those gods (1 Corinthians 10:20-21).
c. After whom they have played the harlot: The idea was that Israel was the covenant “wife” of Yahweh. When Israel worshipped, honored, and sacrificed to idols it was like committing adultery or even prostitution with those gods – and the demons they represented.
i. Played the harlot: “The Hebrew term zana literally refers to ‘going astray’ and is most often employed in reference to an unfaithful wife. The term is used to describe such offenses as the apostasy of the worship of Molech and of consulting spiritists (Leviticus 20:5–6). Metaphorically the term applies to Israel’s unfaithfulness to the Lord.” (Rooker)
3. (8-9) Repeating the command to bring sacrifice to the tabernacle.
Also you shall say to them: ‘Whatever man of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who dwell among you, who offers a burnt offering or sacrifice, and does not bring it to the door of the tabernacle of meeting, to offer it to the LORD, that man shall be cut off from among his people.
a. Whatever man of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who dwell among you: The command to bring every sacrifice to the tabernacle was not only for the covenant descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (the house of Israel). It was also for foreigners who were proselytes, either full or partial converts to the worship of the God of Israel.
i. Because of the way this phrase is used in verses 13 and 15 of this chapter, there is reason to believe that strangers here refers to foreigners who were full or partial converts to the worship of the God of Israel.
ii. “The alien who lived in the land of Israel after the conquest may have in fact been what we would call a proselyte. As such he was subject to many of the same Old Testament laws and regulations as the Israelite.” (Rooker)
b. That man shall be cut off from among his people: As was previously stated in verse 4, those who refused to sacrifice only to the LORD and only at the tabernacle were to be cut off – that is, put out of the community of Israel.
i. This perhaps would happen by force of law, or simply by community rejection. “The New Jerusalem Bible translates here ‘that man will be outlawed from his people.’ Other possible translations are ‘he shall be isolated’ or ‘his people shall have nothing more to do with him.’” (Peter-Contesse)
B. Prohibition against eating blood.
1. (10-12) The command against eating blood and the reason for the command.
‘And whatever man of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who dwell among you, who eats any blood, I will set My face against that person who eats blood, and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul.’ Therefore I said to the children of Israel, ‘No one among you shall eat blood, nor shall any stranger who dwells among you eat blood.’
a. Whatever man of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who dwell among you: Again, this command was for those who lived in ancient Israel, under the unique kingdom where God was recognized as king and His word was the law of the land.
i. I will set My face against: “The basic meaning is ‘to reject’ or ‘to repudiate,’ implying hostile action.” (Peter-Contesse)
b. Who eats any blood: Since ancient times, people might eat or drink blood either as food, or often as a ritual or spiritual practice. Often, the idea was that the one who consumed the blood received the life strength of the being that supplied the blood. God strongly commanded that this should not be done in Israel, and that He would set His face against that person who eats blood.
i. Thus, as a matter of practice, all animals that were butchered in Israel were drained of blood as much as possible. Not all nations did this. “It appears from history that those nations who lived most on it [blood] were very fierce, savage, and barbarous, such as the Scythians, Tartars, Arabs of the desert, the Scandinavians, [and so forth], some of whom drank the blood of their enemies, making cups of their skulls!” (Clarke)
ii. “The prohibition against eating the blood became an important aspect of ‘Kosher’ food. For food to be kosher the animal’s carotid artery was cut, and the animal had to bleed for a designated amount of time.” (Rooker)
iii. In Acts 15, the Jerusalem Council told Gentile Christians in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia that they should not eat blood or meat that was not killed by draining the blood. This was not a universal command for all Christians in all places and at all times. It was to those specific Gentile Christians, for the specific reason that they would not needlessly offend their Jewish neighbors; for the sake of evangelism (Acts 15:18-21).
c. For the life of the flesh is in the blood: God agreed that there was spiritual significance in the blood of an animal or person. The difference was that among pagans, they said: “The life is in the blood; I must eat or drink it and take that life for myself.” The godly Israelite said, “The life of the flesh is in the blood, and it therefore belongs to God and not to me.”
i. This emphasized a powerful idea: life belongs to God. God sets His face against that person who takes authority over life for themselves. Life depends on blood, is preserved by blood, and is nourished by blood. When enough blood leaves a body, life leaves a body.
ii. “Because the life of a creature is in the blood, blood makes atonement for one’s life. One life is sacrificed for another. The shedding of substitutionary blood on the altar makes atonement, since the blood of the innocent victim was given for the life of the one who has sinned.” (Rooker)
iii. The idea of life being in the blood is directed to sacrifice. “Most of the occurrences of the word ‘blood’ in the Old Testament indicate a death by violence. The focal point of the mention of blood was thus not of blood flowing through the veins but rather on blood shed, which indicated that life had ended.” (Rooker)
d. And I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls: Additionally, blood was the means by which atonement was made – therefore, to eat blood was to profane it, to make it a common thing.
2. (13-14) Respecting the blood of animals hunted and caught.
“Whatever man of the children of Israel, or of the strangers who dwell among you, who hunts and catches any animal or bird that may be eaten, he shall pour out its blood and cover it with dust; for it is the life of all flesh. Its blood sustains its life. Therefore I said to the children of Israel, ‘You shall not eat the blood of any flesh, for the life of all flesh is its blood. Whoever eats it shall be cut off.’
a. Whatever man of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who dwell among you: Once more, this command was for those who lived in ancient Israel, under the unique kingdom where God was recognized as king and His word was the law of the land.
i. The commands of verses 13-14 and 15-16 seem to apply only to foreign proselytes or converts to the worship of the God of Israel, and not all foreigners in Israel (such as a traveler through the land). One reason to believe this is based on Deuteronomy 14:21, which says that it was permitted for a foreigner to eat an animal that died naturally. Therefore, the command of verses 15-16 likely applies not to every foreigner, but to those who were proselytes or converts to the worship of the God of Israel.
b. He shall pour out its blood and cover it with dust: If an animal was caught and killed in a hunt and could not be properly bled as in a regular butchering, then the blood was to be poured out on the ground and covered with dust.
i. Who hunts and catches: “Hunting was carried out by various means in the Old Testament, including the use of arrows, lances, swords, clubs, and pits and nets (Job 41:26-29; Isaiah 24:17-18; 51:20; Ezekiel 19:4, 8; Psalms 7:15; 140:5). In addition numerous devices were used for catching birds (Job 18:8-10).” (Rooker)
ii. It is easy to think that allowing the blood to drip on the ground and to cover it with dirt was to disrespect the blood of that animal; to profane it. When we think like that, we make the same mistake Uzzah made in 2 Samuel 6:6. Uzzah thought that somehow, the ground was more profane than his own touch.
iii. Instead, pouring out the blood on the ground in this manner honored the blood of the animal. The blood was “buried” and could not be defiled. “The life had thus returned to the ground from which it had come, and the hunters and others who chanced to be in the vicinity were protected from the possibility of communicable disease or infection.” (Harrison)
iv. This respect for the blood of animals should make us consider how we regard the blood of Jesus. If, under the Old Covenant, the blood of animals was to be respected, what of the precious blood of Jesus which makes a New Covenant? Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace? (Hebrews 10:29)
3. (15-16) Respecting the blood of animals that die in nature.
“And every person who eats what died naturally or what was torn by beasts, whether he is a native of your own country or a stranger, he shall both wash his clothes and bathe in water, and be unclean until evening. Then he shall be clean. But if he does not wash them or bathe his body, then he shall bear his guilt.”
a. Every person who eats what died naturally or what was torn by beasts: If one came upon an animal that had died naturally or by accident, one could eat it.
i. “Or a stranger; understand of the proselytes; either of the proselytes of the gate, who were obliged to observe the precepts of Noah, whereof this was one; or of the proselytes of righteousness, or converts to the Jewish religion; for other strangers were allowed to eat such things, Deuteronomy 14:21.” (Poole)
b. He shall both wash his clothes and bathe in water, and be unclean until evening: It was permitted to eat animals that died under some kind of natural cause, but it made someone ceremonially unclean. They had to wash and wait for the new day (until evening) to once again be ceremonially clean. If that one refused to do this, they would remain in a state of ceremonial impurity (he shall bear his guilt).