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The Lord commanded Israel in Leviticus 17:13 to do the following with blood from hunted animals:

“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;

Is there a cultural explanation for why it was done this way?

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  • To keep the flies off it, of course.
    – fumanchu
    Sep 10 at 11:51
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There is a lot of symbolism here that is foreign to modern English speakers.

Nefesh

The word translated as "life" is in Hebrew, nefesh, and has as a primary concrete meaning throat, maw, gullet.

E.g. from the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament[1]:

  1. Throat, Gullet. The concrete primary meaning of nep̱eš is usually assumed to be “maw, throat, gullet,” as the organ used for eating and breathing. Like certain Ugaritic texts, Isa. 5:14 speaks of the mouth of Sheol: “Sheol enlarges its nep̱eš, opens its mouth beyond measure.” Hab. 2:5 transfers the image to the rapacious individual, who “is like Death and never has enough.” The topos clearly centers on the throat, but it applies to the whole person. The same is true in Prov. 10:3: “Yahweh does not let the nep̱eš of the righteous go hungry, but he thwarts the craving (hawwâ) of the wicked”; 13:25: “The righteous have enough to satisfy their nep̱eš, but the belly (beṭen) of the wicked is empty”; 25:25: “Cool water to a thirsty nep̱eš is good news from a far country.”

Also important fact is the lack of distinction between breathing and eating (and indeed between eating and drinking). E.g. here is TDOT again in the same article:

“In this archaic anatomy, therefore, the throat stands without terminological distinction for both the windpipe and the esophagus. When ‘the floods rise to the nep̱eš,’ there is danger of drowning (Jon. 2:6[5]; Ps. 69:2[1]; cf. Ps. 124:4f.).” “The only weakly attested meaning ‘breath’ easily combines with the meaning ‘throat, gullet’ reflecting the various functions of the throat.… That various categories of the use of nep̱eš still evidence the effects of both functions of the throat, swallowing and breathing, confirms this relationship.

From this we then get the abstract meanings of appetite, and from appetite, vigour, vitality, and eventually "life", and then much more rarely, "soul" (although "soul" is appropriate in only a minority of cases and should not be the default abstract meaning of nefesh).

Consult the lengthy TDOT article for a full treatment of nefesh. The key point is that the best interpretation for the abstract meaning of nefesh is vitality, and not soul (unless one identifies soul with vitality).

This now relates to the creation of man as being unique in being given God's own breath in Gen 2.7 (LEB)

when Yahweh God formed the man of dust from the ground [adamah], and he blew into his nostrils the breath [neshamah] of life, and the man became a living creature [nefesh].

So animals are nefesh. Man is nefesh. Animals and man both come from the ground [adamah]. But man is unique in that he is part ground and part God's own neshamah. This neshamah is associated to man's throat via the act of breathing, but due to the identification of both roles, it is also associated to what man eats or drinks. Thus man's nefesh is different from the animals' nefesh. Only God's life should go into man's nefesh, not the life of the animals, because God put his own breath into man.

Now we are told that the life of the animals is in their blood. Thus man must not put the blood of the animal into his throat, or nefesh. He can only eat the life of God (John 6.54). Man can, however, eat the flesh (without the life) of animals. That requires draining the flesh of blood.

Dam

Now we come to blood. Why is blood the "life" of the animal. Well this was a standard view in the Ancient Near East (and many other places), which identified blood with ... vitality! Here is TDOT again[2]

blood is identified to a special degree with vitality. On the one hand experience teaches that when it flows out of a living creature, life comes to an end; on the other hand the blood of menstruation, like the blood shed at birth, points to sexual intercourse, reproduction, and fertility, i.e., to the beginning of new life. Some scholars explain the idea of the indwelling power of blood animistically, while others explain it dynamistically: blood is thus understood as the essence of the personal powers that are at work in man and beast

Thus in the ANE, and especially in Biblical Hebrew, "blood" [dam] and "throat" [nefesh] are already synonyms, both meaning vitality in the abstract sense even though the concrete sense is different.

Thus we see again that man's vitality has to come from God, not from the vitality of the created flesh. You shouldn't mix the two -- the vitality of the man and the vitality of the created flesh, thus you shouldn't let man's throat devour the blood of the created flesh.

Adamah

So if we aren't to put the life of the animal into man's nefesh, then where do we put it? Back into the ground (adamah) from where the blood (dam) came.

There is linguistic debate as to which came first, dam, blood, or adamah, ground, but the color of the red dirt associates blood with the ground. Thus the life of the flesh returns to the ground, even as the divine nature ascends to Heaven.

Covering the blood

Why must the blood be covered with dust? Numerous commentators have proposed a number of theories, summarized in the Anchor Yale Bible [3]:

  1. So that other people will not ingest it (Rashbam, Ḥazzequni, Abravanel, Ralbag; Schwartz 1991: 61–62). If so, why should human blood—clearly not a comestible—be buried (Gen 37:26)?
  2. So that no other animal will ingest it (Rosenmüller, cited by Shadal; Noth 1977). To be sure, it is the worst of curses for the blood of the slain to be licked up by an animal (e.g., Ahab, 1 Kgs 21:19; 22:38). Yet there is no indication that it was considered an affront to God for one animal to ingest the blood of another.
  3. So that it would not be suspected of being human blood that could pollute the ground (Shadal). Far-fetched.
  4. So that it would be returned to God, who granted nepeš not only to human beings but also to animals (Dillmann and Ryssel 1897). This argument is worthy of consideration, especially since it is the rationale provided by the text itself (v. 14a).
  5. So that the blood does not cry out for vengeance (cf. Ezek 24:7; Kalisch 1867–72; Ehrlich 1908; Snaith 1967). A bold midrash emphasizes this point: “the Holy One Blessed Be He said, If you slaughter an ox, sheep, or goat, do not cover their blood. Why? Because they stem from your possessions and are under your authority. But those that are under his [i.e., God’s] authority [i.e., the wild animals], if you slaughter (them), cover their blood. Why? Lest he become your prosecutor and slayer [my emphasis]” (Mid. Yelammedenu, 170). However, the citation of Ezek 24:7 is invalid. It proves only that human blood spilled illicitly cries out for divine retribution, which would not apply to animals that may be killed with impunity.
  6. A vestige of an ancient apotropaic rite (Elliger 1966), which explains nothing.
  7. So that the blood will not be used in chthonic rites—that is, for divination.

But my personal belief is that the blood is being buried so that it is not trod on and thus desecrated. E.g. just as the life of the flesh is not worthy to enter man's nefesh (God's life belongs there), nevertheless there is some dignity in the life of the flesh, and so it should not be trampled. It should be buried in the earth.


[1] Seebass, H. (1998). נֶפֶשׁ. G. J. Botterweck, H. Ringgren, & H.-J. Fabry (Eds.), D. E. Green (Trans.), Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Revised Edition, Vol. 9, p. 504). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

[2] Kedar-Kopfstein, B., & Bergman, J. (1978). דָּם. G. J. Botterweck & H. Ringgren (Eds.), J. T. Willis & G. W. Bromiley (Trans.), Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Revised Edition, Vol. 3, p. 237). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

[3] Milgrom, J. (2008). Leviticus 17–22: a new translation with introduction and commentary (Vol. 3A, pp. 1482–1483). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.

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  • Excellent answer Robert! +1. What is Milgrom's rationale for this prohibition? I see it in your bibliography, but I can't find it in your post. Is it the same as the Anchor Yale Bible?
    – Bach
    Sep 10 at 15:36
  • @Bach Thanks! Yes, Milgrom wrote the AYBC for Leviticus. For the rationale of the prohibition on drinking, he accepts the textual rationale "blood is life" and does not elaborate, focusing his attention on other aspects of the verse, e.g. the thorny issue of bĕnapšô that I ignored (as it's not important to answer the question). For the rationale of covering, he prefers 7 most and then 4, relying on some extra-biblical texts in which Levites were required to cover the blood.
    – Robert
    Sep 11 at 1:20
  • Really long answer, but it answers my question with a whole host of possibilities, no matter how antiquated the practice may be.
    – Philip
    Sep 11 at 2:23
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    Thanks, @Philip. I'm often too lazy to write a short answer, but am glad this was helpful. The entire topic of life, breath, spirit, blood, deserves a great deal of study.
    – Robert
    Sep 11 at 4:14
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Blood had a very central meaning in the Hebrew culture because we read repeatedly:

  • Gen 9:4 - But you shall not eat flesh with its life [literally "soul"], that is, its blood.
  • Lev 17:11 - For the life [literally "soul"] of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.
  • Lev 17:14 - For the life [literally "soul"] of every creature is its blood: its blood is its life. Therefore I have said to the people of Israel, You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood. Whoever eats it shall be cut off.
  • Deut 12:23 - Only be sure that you do not eat the blood, for the blood is the life, and you shall not eat the life with the flesh.

Thus, the command to the Israelites is clear - they must not eat the blood but it must be poured out as an offering. This was commonly done by pouring on the ground as an offering to the Lord. See Lev 4:18, 25, 34, 9:9, Deut 12:27, etc.

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  • 1
    But the context of verse 13 is hunted animals for eating, not sacrifices. Blood was offered to the Lord on the altar.
    – Philip
    Sep 11 at 2:22

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