If anyone of the house of Israel or of the aliens who reside among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut that person off from the people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement.
On a cold April morning the young boy with his fishing rod ran across the busy road intent, I suppose, on reaching shelter from the sheeting rain. He was only about twelve years of age, and I was the first to reach him after the car hit him. He was unconscious and blood was folding out from his head like cake-mix into a baking dish. Another man arrived and took charge. A car pulled up to look and the man barked, “Call an ambulance! Quick!” Off they sped to find a phone. “We’ve got to stop the blood.” I had a wad of tissues in my jacket pocket and pulled them out. “Will these help?” He grabbed them and applied them to the boy’s head, pressing the sides of the wound together. We waited, together, in the rain, for the ambulance to arrive. The boy was still unconscious but still alive when they took him. Whether he lived, I do not know, but I think so. I checked the newspapers for days afterward to see if there were any deaths on the roads. There were no reports.
“The life of the flesh is in the blood.” We ought think of the image of blood in this verse not as holding some mystical or magical property of life, but as a metonymy or symbol for life. Had the boy’s blood continued to leave his body, he would certainly have died. Without blood, there is no life. The ancients, too, recognised and understood this.
The laws in Leviticus 17 have to do with the killing, sacrificing, and eating of animals, with a particularly strong prohibition on the eating of blood (vv. 10, 12, 14; see Wenham, The Book of Leviticus [NICOT], 244-245). Domesticated animals—the ox, the sheep and the goat—are to be killed only at the tabernacle, and their blood offered to the Lord. Those who kill such an animal elsewhere are guilty of shedding blood (4). Although the primary concern of the passage is idolatry and irregular sacrifice, the inherent value of the animal also is clear in this passage: its blood—its life—is sacred and valued. Other animals may be hunted for food, but still the blood must not be eaten (13-14).
The twofold reason for this prohibition is found in verse 11: the life of the creature is in the blood, and therefore God has given the blood for making atonement upon the altar. Because the text names the blood as the life, some commentators consider that God is commanding the Israelites to make an offering of life to God, as though the power of the life that is in the animal’s blood is sufficient to cleanse the worshipper (see the discussion in Emile Nicole, “Atonement in the Pentateuch” in Hill & James (eds), The Glory of the Atonement, 38-40). It seems to me that this imaginative interpretation is too literal, too unimaginative, and so precisely the opposite of what the text intends. It is not some property of life in the blood itself, but the death of the animal, the loss of its life which is splashed against the altar, and which makes atonement.
The Hebrew word for atonement kipper, can mean ‘to wipe clean,’ or ‘to pay a ransom’ (Wenham, 59). What sense is intended in this text? Does the blood offered cleanse or ransom the worshipper? Is the action of sacrifice directed toward the worshipper or towards God? If it is the death of the animal which is offered to God, ransom is the better interpretation, the death of the animal standing in for the death of the worshipper.
This seems to be what Lev. 17:11 has in view, “I have given the blood to make atonement (lit. ‘to ransom’) for your lives, for the blood makes atonement (ransoms) at the price of a life.” It is this interpretation that seems to fit the burnt offering best. God in his mercy allowed sinful man to offer a ransom payment for sins, so that he escaped the death penalty his iniquities merit (Wenham, 61).
Roy Gane concurs: “Leviticus 17:11 is unique in the Hebrew Bible in that it explicitly assigns sacrificial blood the function of ransoming human life” (Leviticus, Numbers [NIVAC], 304, original emphasis).
Many scholars object to this interpretation, which as Wenham notes, presupposes a propitiatory understanding of sacrifice: “the burnt offering does not remove sin or change man’s sinful nature, but it makes fellowship between sinful man and a holy God possible. It propitiates God’s wrath against sin” (57). Emile Nicole discusses a range of exegetical and theoretical objections to this substitutionary interpretation of Leviticus 17:11. He acknowledges the validity of the major objections, but shows they can be adequately addressed clearing the way for a substitutionary interpretation.
Whatever the problems of grammatical vocabulary, such as bêt-pretii, a substitutionary use of the preposition is rather well documented. The absence of other occurrences of such a construction with the verb kipper is not an insurmountable obstacle. … the poured-out life (dām) of the sacrificial victim is substituted for the life of the worshiper (39, 40, original emphasis).
Nicole also argues that the cleansing or forgiveness of the worshipper was on the basis of the ransom provided: “in kipper rites, purification cannot be disconnected from compensation: through compensation given to God, purification and forgiveness were granted” (48). Such a view preserves both the propitiatory and expiatory aspects of atonement, while establishing the latter upon the former. The sinner is cleansed and forgiven because the divine wrath has been turned aside and reconciliation enacted.
Leviticus 17:11 thus brings to the fore a general principle underlying the whole OT sacrificial system, whose practical carrying out was limited by the concern for the seriousness of sin, the freedom of God’s forgiveness and the will not to reduce the moral dimension of human life to the mere repetition of a ritual (Nicole, 44).
That is, the sacrificial system did not atone for or cover major, deliberate sins. It was not a trivialising of sin or of God’s holiness and goodness. It emphasised and reminded the sinner of their sin and their need for forgiveness, and of the moral nature of human life. Yet atonement could be made and sin forgiven. Even capital sins could find forgiveness, as David experienced, because God is merciful. But sin could never be trivialised nor forgiveness presumed. Its penalty was death.