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What is the reasoning behind the prohibition from eating the lifeblood of an animal?

It isn't until Moses that purposing of the blood for atonement is provided as some additional reasoning behind the prohibition:

For the life 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.
-Leviticus 17:11

Does the Mosaical reasoning still apply to the command given to Noah? And does this reasoning apply even to animals that are not sacrificed?

How does connecting life to blood explain its prohibition?

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    The Hebrew word is actual "nephesh" which is "soul" (literally).
    – Dottard
    Nov 24, 2022 at 19:58
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    There is a long-standing belief in the pagan world, which continues even today, that to consume the heart or blood of an animal is to take some of their life essence or attributes into oneself. Jan 3, 2023 at 13:52

5 Answers 5

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To understand the relationship of life to blood, we must acknowledge that Jehovah God is our creator (Genesis 2:7) and the giver of life (Psalm 36:9; Revelation 4:11).

When Jehovah God created us, he put within us a vital ingredient to our survival, blood. The topic of "Soul" in the Insight on the Scriptures helps us to understand the importance of blood:

Because the creature’s life is so inseparably connected with and dependent on blood (shed blood standing for the life of the person or creature [Ge 4:10; 2Ki 9:26; Ps 9:12; Isa 26:21]), the Scriptures speak of the neʹphesh (soul) as being “in the blood.” (Ge 9:4; Le 17:11, 14; De 12:23) This is, obviously, not meant literally, inasmuch as the Scriptures also speak of the “blood of your souls” (Ge 9:5; compare Jer 2:34) and the many references already considered could not reasonably be applied solely to the blood or its life-supporting qualities.

The sanctity of life is paramount to Jehovah God. This can be seen in the case for man and beast:

5 Besides that, I will demand an accounting for your lifeblood. I will demand an accounting from every living creature; and from each man I will demand an accounting for the life of his brother. 6 Anyone shedding man’s blood, by man will his own blood be shed, for in God’s image He made man. (Genesis 9:5, 6)

13 “‘If one of the Israelites or some foreigner who is residing in your midst is hunting and catches a wild animal or a bird that may be eaten, he must pour its blood out and cover it with dust. 14 For the life of every sort of flesh is its blood, because the life is in it. Consequently, I said to the Israelites: “You must not eat the blood of any sort of flesh because the life of every sort of flesh is its blood. Anyone eating it will be cut off.” (Leviticus 17:13, 14; see also Deuteronomy 12:23-25.)

So the restriction of eating blood, or "the life", is more than a dietary regulation. It is a moral principle to recognize the value and origin of life.

[All scripture quotations from the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures (Study Edition)]

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There are several questions here about Gen 9:4 which literally reads:

But you shall not eat flesh with its life [literally, "soul", nephesh], that is, its blood.

The same command is repeated in numerous other places such as: Lev 3:17, 7:26, 27, 17:10-14, 19:26, Deut 12:16, 23, 24, 15:23. (see also Ps 50:13, Eze 33:25, Acts 15:20, 29, 21:25). In all cases, the justification is the same - the life/soul of the animal is in the blood.

Justification

The prohibition for not eating blood because it contained, or was the seat of the "soul/life" appears justification enough. Ellicott offers this comment:

(4) But flesh. . . . —The words are remarkable. “Only flesh in its soul, its blood, ye shall not eat.” The Authorised Version is probably right in taking blood as in apposition to soul, which word means here the principle of animation, or that which causes an animal to live. This is God’s especial gift; for He alone can bestow upon that aggregation of solids and fluids which we call a body the secret principle of life. Of this hidden life the blood is the representative, and while man is permitted to have the body for his food, as being the mere vessel which contains this life, the gift itself must go back to God, and the blood as its symbol be treated with reverence.

Such a command was to instill the following ideas:

  • absolute reverence for life of all creatures, especially fellow humans, as explicitly stated in Gen 9:5, 6.
  • that only God can create life and thus is the only source of life (1 John 5:11, 12, Gen 1:30, 2:7, 6:17, 7:15, 22, Num 27:16, Job 33:4, 14, Eccl 12:7, Dan 5:23, Rev 11:11, etc.)

Relevance

As to whether the command in the Noahide covenant of Gen 9 is still binding can be judged by its repetition in Acts 15:20, 29, 21:25.

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  • Some commentators, such as Benson, see the Noahic prohibition as cutting from or eating a still living animal. Thus bloodletting is to ensure death before consumption of flesh. "You shall not eat flesh with it's life" Jan 2, 2023 at 15:23
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    @MikeBorden - I have not heard that interpretation. I notice that Benson does record it but still claims that "The principal meaning, however, of the passage, is to prohibit the eating of blood in any way" This appears to be confirmed by Acts 15 command. Further, letting an animal die by bleeding out is not a "kind" way to die - it would be miuch quicker to stab through the heart or similar.
    – Dottard
    Jan 2, 2023 at 20:14
  • Yes. Most commentators seem to offer two or three lines of reasoning with one being preferred over the others. Matthew Henry mentions prevention of cruelty to animals as well but prefers the prohibition as a 'set-up' for the sacrifice of Christ. Jan 3, 2023 at 13:17
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From the time Noah disembarked from the ark, God allowed humans to eat animal flesh. That involved killing them and draining their life-blood out on to the ground before anything was eaten. The blood being poured on to the ground shows that it was not to be contained and used for anything else, with regard to food. At the Exodus, Moses conveyed God's instructions to avoid being killed by the Angel of Death; the blood drained from a lamb that was to be eaten later that night was to be splashed over the lintels and posts of their doors. That Passover lamb took the place of the firstborn in every Hebrew family: Exodus 12:12-13, 23; 13:2, 11-16.

Leviticus and other writings about the Judaic sacrificial system shows that some of the drained blood of animal sacrifices was to be used in sprinkling the altar and other things. Numbers chapter 19 is significant in showing that a red heifer was to be slain outside the camp. Eleazer the priest was to dip his finger in her blood and sprinkle her blood before the tabernacle seven times. The dead beast was to be burned, including skin, flesh, blood and dung, with cedar, hyssop and scarlet added to the flames. Everything was burned to ashes, then running water was added to the ashes, to be used to purify by sprinkling on unclean persons and objects.

There is more to the significance of blood than it being the symbol for God-given life. It also signifies holiness and purity when used God's way; it is designed to teach sinners how sacrificed life requires the blood to be shed, for God's forgiveness and acceptance to come.

"Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us. For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?" Hebrews 9:12-14 A.V.

"And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission." (Ibid.) 21-22

That is the application of the meaning of God's prohibitions and commandments regarding shed blood. From the statements, "For the life is in the blood" - see Leviticus 17:14 & Deuteronomy 12:23 - to Acts 15, requiring Gentile converts to Christ to "abstain from blood, and from things strangled" (which meat would still have its blood in it) because Moses was still preached in synagogues - to the final explanation in Hebrews about the shed blood of Christ, we see God's view on the sanctity of life as represented by the life-blood. That is how connecting life to blood explains its prohibition.

As for the other questions, "Does the Mosaical reasoning still apply to the command given to Noah? And does this reasoning apply even to animals that are not sacrificed?" Acts 15 shows Christians were not to eat meat where the blood had not been drained out (but some would argue there is no prohibition on blood now, assuming blood is considered to be 'food' and all food became clean for Christians. The question remains, though, as to whether God has ever viewed blood as 'food'.) The Mosaic laws about sacrificed animals clearly show the divine reasoning about life being in the blood, which applies to all creatures with blood, whether or not they are sacrificed, for they all live because of having blood. As God said to Noah:

"And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man's brother will I require the life of man." Genesis 9:5 A.V.

The main question, "Why can't we eat the life?" could really be, "Why can't we eat the blood?" That is because even vegetarians who only eat vegetables are still eating that which sustains their own lives. And those who eat meat without blood in it are still eating that which sustains their own lives. For as long as human eaters have their own life-blood, they live. When we eat food, we are eating as a way of sustaining our own lives. But if anyone eats or drinks blood, then they are partaking of what God says is something sacred to him, that which represents the God-given life-force that he requires an accounting for. See verse quoted above.

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Surely the answer lies in the fact that the speech which contains "You shall not eat flesh with its life, that is its blood" also contains a penalty for "whoever sheds the blood of man" (from Genesis ch9 vv4-6, RSV)

They are both expressions of the principle that the life in living creatures belongs to the God who supplied it, symbolised by the rule that the blood belongs to God. Therefore we are not allowed to shed the blood, in the case of fellow-humans, and we are not allowed (while under the rule of law) to consume the blood, in the case of animals.

I qualified that last statement because Christians now serve "not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit" (Romans ch7 v9, RSV). I'm sure the Spirit has renewed the prohibition on the shedding of human blood, but the rule on animal blood may have fallen by the wayside.

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Several points need to be addressed to fully answer this question.

  1. What does the Hebrew actually say?
  2. What symbols and principles are present?
  3. What effect on one's longevity does the eating of blood have?

The Hebrew

The words translated as "blood" and "life" occur consecutively, with no verb between. Because the word for "life" (nephesh) has a pronominal suffix, it technically is grammatically definite. It also has a prepositional prefix which could mean "in" or "with" in this case (it is the same prefix that we find on the very first word of the Bible, usually translated as "In" the beginning...). The word for "blood," having no article attached, is non-definite.

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The specific arrangement of these two words leaves some subjective possibilities for translators. Should "damow" (blood) be regarded as adjectival in usage? If considered as an attributive adjective, there should be no verb, as in: "with its life-blood." However, if considered as a predicate adjective, the linking verb is implied, as in: "with its life, [which] is the blood." Various English translations will show that scholars have differed on this, going either way in their translations.

It is true that in some contexts, "nephesh" (life) is translated as "soul." In this context, it makes better sense to render it as "life." Consider: does a "soul" have blood? We ordinarily think of the soul as something intangible, more related to one's thoughts, feelings, or character; whereas "life" is obviously connected to blood.

The Symbols

Blood, as a symbol of life, is connected Biblically with the concepts of murder (see Numbers 35); of sacrifice, with the blood of animals representing the blood of the Lamb--Jesus giving his life for us; and of unity, i.e. "And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, . . ." (Acts 17:26, KJV). To shed "innocent blood" was a crime of no small magnitude.

The root word "nephesh," meaning "life" or "soul," can be applied to souls of man as well as to animal life. It technically means "breathing creature," and, as it relates to blood, implies the oxygenation of that blood through the breath. The definition statement for a human soul comes from Genesis 2:7, where it was first pronounced by God that, having breathed into Adam the breath of life, he "became a living soul (nephesh)." Therefore, the blood which carries the breath of a creature, maintaining its life, represents that life.

Consuming Blood versus Longevity

Following the Flood, when meat was permitted to be eaten, the lifespans dropped precipitously. We may safely assume they were draining the blood as God had asked, but even then there is a residual amount that is not removed, and must be eaten when one consumes flesh foods.

Today, some studies have shown that vegetarians may outlive their meat-eating counterparts by as much as 6-13 years (there is statistically more benefit/effect for a male than for a female). Whether studies show this or not, the Biblical record honors those who were vegetarian. Consider Daniel and his three friends in Babylon.

It is interesting to note that women tend to outlive men in most every society on earth. Some believe this may be due, in part, to their regular loss of blood during their childbearing years. This eliminates excess levels of iron--an element that the body tends to conserve and, in men, has no mechanism for natural removal. Iron is an oxidizer, and tends to increase the rate of cellular aging.

Conclusions

It comes back to the core of the question: "Why can't we eat the life?" God desires us to live long and healthy lives. Blood will not keep our body in its best condition. Not only does it provide an additional source of iron--which most of us, especially men--do not need, but also it contains the body's wastes, toxins, and diseases.

If one wishes to live longer, it is quite possibly wise to do the opposite of eating blood: becoming a blood donor. Giving life to others would, ironically, extend our own. As the Bible says: "...It is more blessed to give than to receive." (Acts 20:35, KJV)

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  • So God knows it's best for us to be vegetarian (so we can live long, healthy lives) and then he gave us every living thing to eat? Jan 2, 2023 at 15:18
  • @MikeBorden God also knows it's best if people do not kill; yet God commanded killing, too (which goes even beyond permitting the eating of flesh). If your leg gets gangrene, you must amputate it to save your life--even if having two legs is preferable. The point is this: In a world of sin there are evils which must sometimes be countered by measures that might, to our finite view, seem less than ideal. Heavenly visitors to earth, accustomed to heaven's fare, ate the inferior food of earth while with us--yet do we see them complain of it? God allows that which is necessary for us.
    – Biblasia
    Jan 2, 2023 at 16:05
  • And sometimes that which is necessary for us is less beneficial. Did He then allow the eating of animal flesh because He wanted to shorten our earthly lives? (Gen. 6:3) Jan 2, 2023 at 16:44

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