There are many precepts in the Old Covenant that seem strange to our modern ears. For example, the Old Covenant had a prohibition of drinking blood or eating flesh with blood in it. How odd that God would forbid such a thing! Why would God be concerned about drinking blood?
To answer this, we must dig a little deeper into Scripture. The earliest command not to drink blood comes from the time of Noah. God said, “Every creature that is alive shall be yours to eat; I give them all to you as I did the green plants. Only flesh with its lifeblood still in it you shall not eat. For your own lifeblood, too, I will demand an accounting: from every animal I will demand it, and from man in regard to his fellow man I will demand an accounting for human life” (Gen 9:3-5).
The ancients associated blood with life. After all, if an animal loses its blood, it dies. This association between blood and life can also be seen in Leviticus, where God says: “Since the life of every living body is its blood, I have told the Israelites: You shall not partake of the blood of any meat. Since the life of every living body is its blood, anyone who partakes of it shall be cut off” (Deut 12:23).
Carrying this association further, one can see how drinking blood or eating meat with blood would signify a communication or participation in the victim’s life. This appears to be the logic that lies behind many pagan sacrifices and rituals. By drinking the blood of an ox, for example, the person gains the power or strength of the ox. What’s worse, pagans often worshiped animal gods. So drinking the blood of animals or eating meat with blood in it was not so innocent. It was an attempt to enter into communion with these gods.
You can see why God would be concerned about this practice. Indeed, the Old Testament instructions against drinking blood often appear alongside other prohibitions against idolatrous practices, such a divinization (e.g., Leviticus 17:7-10, 19:26-28, et. al.). By stigmatizing the drinking of blood, God made this form of idolatry less attractive.
This brings up another question: If God forbade the drinking of blood in the Old Testament, why are we permitted to partake of the Eucharistic Body and Blood in the New Testament? Wouldn’t this be a contradiction?
There are several reasons why not. Here are three.
• First, the prohibition of drinking blood was part of the Old Covenant ceremonial law. The ceremonial law was given to order Old Covenant worship of the one true God, to train the people of God for the coming of the Messiah (Gal 3:23-26), and to foreshadow Christ (Col 2:16-17). Once the Messiah has come, however, the ceremonial law became obsolete (Gal 3:25, Col 3:24-25, Heb 8:13).
• Second, Christ is God. Therefore, he has the authority to propose a new law that supersedes the old (Matt 5:27-48, 11:29, 28:18; 1 Cor 9:21; Gal 6:2; James 2:8). The New Law commands us to partake of Christ’s Body and Blood (John 6:53-56). Therefore, Christ’s command makes it permissible.
• Third, the prohibition against drinking blood seems to be tied to the practice of pagans who attempted to share in the life of animals or demons (1 Cor 10:19-21). This is, of course, wrong. It’s idolatry.
However, the opposite is true in regard to sharing in the life of God. Sharing in the life of God is an act of true worship that is both desirable and necessary (John 6:57, 11:25, 14:6, 15:4-5; 1 John 5:11-12; 2 Peter 1:4). Our life is in Christ and “Life in Christ has its foundation in the Eucharistic banquet: ‘As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me’” (CCC 1391, John 6:57).
As you can see, it is sometimes the most unusual things in Scripture, like prohibiting the drinking of blood, that offer interesting insights into the past and can even point to profound truths.
Gary Michuta is an author, speaker and apologist and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.