On Eating Blood

What are we Talking About?

On Sunday, we covered the 17th chapter of Leviticus, and the topic of the chapter is all about the right and wrong ways to prepare and consume animal meat. Three things are addressed specifically in that chapter: If an animal is a sacrificial animal, the only way to prepare it for consumption is to actually sacrifice it. If an animal is not a sacrificial animal, it may be killed and prepared in any way, but the blood of the animal must be drained onto the earth and then covered with dirt. If the animal is already dead, then the consumption of it will cause ritual uncleanness for the rest of the day.
What I observed on Sunday was that the main point of the chapter seemed to be focused on the blood. God was prohibiting the consumption of blood, and even though God was concerned with the religious integrity of the community, there seemed to be more emphasis on the blood than on anything else.

Prohibition on Eating Blood

The command to not eat blood is a frequent command in the Old Testament. It is first given to Noah in Genesis, but then it is repeated throughout the Old Testament. In most of those places, only one reason for the command is given, but in this chapter of Leviticus, two reasons are given.

  1. The life of any animal is in the blood.
  2. The blood of sacrificial animals is given to you for making atonement for your life.

In both reasons, it is clear that God is claiming to be the source and authority over life. God owns animal life, and therefore you can’t have it. God will give you the meat of the animal, but you can’t have the blood because in the blood is the life, and you can’t have the life. Secondly, it is clear that God is claiming to be the source and authority over the spiritual life of human beings. Humans have messed up their relationship with God, but God has provided a way for them to receive forgiveness… for their sins to be covered over, wiped away, or “atoned” for. In the days before Jesus, that atonement happened through the sacrifice of an animal. Therefore, that animal blood was precious. Every drop of it was another chance for forgiveness, and every wasted drop of it represented the careless act of a person who didn’t want or didn’t think they needed forgiveness.
My conclusion on Sunday was that those who represent God well need to take life seriously. Specifically, agents of God in this world need to recognize the preciousness and near holiness of the life that God has put into animals and the life that God has given to his people. We need to live in such a way as to recognize God as the ultimate giver and owner of all life.

What About for Christians?

Of course, the question that Christians want to know is this, “Is there some kind of loophole that I can use to eat meat today without being concerned?” Many times, Christians will claim that Christian “freedom” is our loophole. After all, the Bible says:

For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.

Romans 6:14 NIV

Doesn’t this mean that Christians can disregard the laws of the Old Testament because we are under a new principle called “grace”?

Well, the problem with this way of thinking is that even if it addresses our freedom from the old sacrificial system, it fails to realize that the command against eating blood goes all the way back to Noah. In other words, the command against eating blood predates the giving of the law by centuries!

Additionally, the New Testament directly addresses the issue of eating blood in the book of Acts. At an early point in the church’s history, as Gentiles were starting to respond to the gospel, the question was raised about how Jewish a person would have to be in order to become a Christian. Would Gentiles need to be circumcised? Would they need to abide by the Jewish moral codes? After much discussion, James gave a summary statement that became the rule of thumb for the church moving forward:

“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.

Acts 15:19-20 NIV

Of all the uniquely Jewish requirements of the law, the early church only reaffirmed these four: three commands about food and one command about sexuality. Now, the first command reaffirmed might me more a command about idolatry than about food, but nonetheless, these four commands seem to be direct reaffirmations of the rules of Leviticus 17 & 18.
However, Paul complicates matters a little when he later writes to the Corinthians these words:

Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”
If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience.

1 Corinthians 10:25-28 NIV

In a city like Jerusalem, it would not be hard to find meat that had been prepared properly according to Jewish customs, but in a cosmopolitan city like Corinth, where most of the meat would have been purchased in a market rather than slaughtered at home, nearly 100% of the meat would have been previously offered to some Greek god. Paul’s point in his letter to the Corinthians was that idols are truly nothing, and that everything really belongs to God, so if you have the means to get some meat, go ahead and don’t worry about where it came from, but if you are having a meal with someone who is proud of the sacrificial history of the meat offered to you, then don’t eat it so you can make the point that you don’t support that god.
So, was Paul deviating from the guidelines of the Jerusalem church when he issued his statement?
Not exactly.
His point was that Christians should still “avoid” eating meat sacrificed to idols, but he went beyond that stipulation to advocate a kind of passive avoidance. If the source of the meat is known to you, at it doesn’t follow the matters of conscience outlined before, then you should avoid it, but if you don’t know about the source of the meat, don’t let it bother you.
Effectively, Paul’s guideline about eating meat sacrificed to idols is this: “Don’t ask.”

Lesson for Today

For most of my life, I have employed a “don’t ask” policy when it comes to the meat I eat. I have eaten hot dogs and joked, “Don’t think about where it comes from!” I have eaten grayish sausage patties from McDonald’s and told myself, “Don’t think about where it comes from.” I have purchased the cheap ground beef in the giant 5 pound tubes and though, “I probably don’t want to know where this came from.” I have watched Jamie Oliver’s video about chicken nuggets and thought to myself, “I really didn’t need to know where they came from!”
However, in my life, I have repeatedly come into contact with bits of information describing the way meat in America makes its way to my table, and at every point along the way, when the information seemed offensive, I pushed it aside, saying to myself that I preferred to live in ignorance pretending that the meat I eat is “probably okay.”
In light of Leviticus, and in light of the teaching by the New Testament church, I don’t think I can justify that kind of thinking anymore and it kinda scares me.
You see, the principle of the Old Testament is that life is sacred, created by God, and owned by God. The prohibition of draining the blood was supposed to be a conscious reminder that God is truly the owner, sustainer, and giver of life. It was supposed to remind the eater of the preciousness of life.
But the way we do meat in this country has completely disregarded the preciousness of life. Meat is a mass market industry here. We produce huge quantities of corn to feed huge numbers of animals housed in terrible conditions, slaughtered without reverence, and sold in a myriad of pre-packaged ways. And we all complain about how expensive meat is!
I’m not sure if God thinks it’s a problem that we tend to kill our animals without draining their blood. I literally don’t know what to think about that, but I feel more and more that he would not be pleased with our continued American policy of ignorance regarding the meat we eat.
I don’t know what I should do about all this. I don’t know if I should become a vegan or vegetarian out of a sense of protest against our modern meat-focused society, and I probably won’t do anything that extreme, but I think I need to get more serious about how much meat I do eat and where it comes from.
What do you think?

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