The theme of death and unrelieved gloom hangs darkly over the entire hour. — Dr. Paul Brand, In His Image
Chapter 2: Blood is Life
The question to answer in this chapter is: if Jesus’ death is not about justice and punishment and death, then why does it get described that way? If it’s so obvious that the God behind it all is forgiving and generous and patient and lovingly loyal, why haven’t those ideas caught on? There must be some reason that generations have accepted the harsh teaching of debt and penalty in their worship and promoted them in the world. As you read in the Introduction, one reason is that they sound familiar and feel natural. But, another answer is found in the blood.
Dr. Paul Brand wrote a book called In His Image. It’s a book about the wonders of the body and the lessons of life we find there. He devoted a whole section of the book to blood, its power, its role in preserving life, its cleansing properties, how it overcomes toxic infections, and the role of transfusions. The chapters are filled with fascinating statistics and measurements that are worth pointing out.
60,000 — the miles of blood vessels within our bodies p. 57
100 trillion — total number of cells in the human body p. 55
5 million — red blood cells in a single drop of blood p. 56
3,500 sq. yds. — total area those red blood cells would cover
300,000 — platelets in a single drop of blood
7,000 — white blood cells in a single drop of blood
20 seconds — the time it takes a blood cell to travel to the big toe p. 58
500,000 — round trips a red blood cell makes in 4 months p. 58
300 billion — red blood cells that die and are replaced each day p. 58
The body is a fascinating creation on many levels, but blood is not a part of it that many of us take time to think about. We hate to see it. It makes some of us feel sick to our stomachs and others of us faint at the sight of it. For Dr. Brand, as with many of us, blood is part of traumatic childhood memories. Blood becomes something to avoid if at all possible. Dr. Brand did just that until one fateful day during a medical training course. It changed his perspective on blood forever and led him away from engineering and into medicine.
A young woman was wheeled into the operating room on a gurney. She was a victim in a terrible car accident. The extreme loss of blood had left her skin pale. He remembers that she looked like a “waxwork Madonna or an alabaster saint from a cathedral.” In other words, she did not look real. There was no life in her. Her brain was starved for oxygen because there was no blood to carry it there. There was no pulse and she did not seem to be breathing.
A nurse raced in with a bag of blood, hooked it onto the stand, and started the flow of blood back into her body. What happened next changed not only the life of the woman on the table, but Dr. Brand’s life as well. It started with the smallest flicker of a pulse. Then, the smallest bit of pink appeared on her cheek like “a drop of watercolor,” faint but visible. “Her lips darkened pink, then red, and her body quivered with a kind of sighing breath.” She was alive and asking for something to drink. It was blood that brought her back to life.
“Blood is life.” That’s a quote from the Bible. It comes from a book of the Bible called Leviticus (it’s the third one). In Leviticus 17:14 you find these words, “For the life of every creature — its blood is its life.” You find them in the middle of a warning not to eat any animal with its blood still in it. It could be dismissed as a health warning, but in other parts of the Bible you find a commandment not to shed the blood of other humans (Genesis 9:6). You’ll find that blood that is shed can cry out to God (Genesis 4:10). You’ll find that special precautions must be taken if innocent blood is found to be spilled (Deuteronomy 19:10). All of this is to say that blood should not be spilled lightly. Blood is precious because life is precious.
Dr. Brand shared that story, as well as those statistics, to illustrate one big idea: blood is life. That may sound obvious, but the difficulty for us is that blood goes so unnoticed most of the time. The only time we see blood is when it is coming out of us and that is rarely a good thing. Seeing blood reminds us of injuries, trauma, and loss. We associate blood with death, not life. And, when it comes to the Bible, blood brings to mind the sacrificial death of animals.
There are two significant sacrifices that I would like to review in this chapter. The first is called Passover. It is an act of worship during which God’s people remember the way that God set them free from slavery in Egypt. Passover is a week-long festival and at the center of it is the death of a lamb. During the celebration the people would remember how blood was painted on door posts. The second sacrifice happens on the Day of Atonement. This single day is a day of repentance in which the sins of God’s people were washed away. It included the death of a bull and two goats. Blood is poured out and sprinkled and splattered around the holy place of God.
Neither of these sacrifices were voluntary. Each of them was commanded by God in the law of God. When and how the sacrifices were to be carried out were explained in great detail. There were consequences for doing them incorrectly. The conclusion that one can make from these acts of worship is that death and the spilled blood had an effect on God. You might think, as many others have, that death is necessary for God to step in to save you. You might begin to feel that God needs someone or something to die in order to forgive. In fact, that is just how many people think and feel about Jesus’ death today. So, when Jesus’ death is compared to the death of those animals we begin to think that Jesus’ death was necessary. We start to feel that God needed Jesus to die in order to forgive us.
In the pages that follow, I want to offer you a different way to think about these sacrifices. Again, the key is found in the short phrase that heads this chapter: blood is life. In other words, what I will try to show is that in offering these sacrifices to God the people are rededicating their lives to God, not offering God a necessary death in order to make God’s anger go away. In each case, you will see how these sacrifices are an outward sign and seal of an inner trust and commitment. You will find that what matters to God is not that someone dies, but that someone truly lives.
You were introduced to the book of Exodus in chapter one. In the opening verses we find God’s people in slavery. This is important to note. God’s people are not in a position of power and influence. They are the foreign “other” who are looked at with suspicion and are treated harshly. They have become too many to count and, therefore, too many to control. The king of Egypt (yes, Pharaoh) has become nervous. He is as close to the gods as one can get. In fact, many in Egypt may have considered him a god. He has it in his mind to keep it that way.
As Pharaoh looked over his nation, worried by this large group of foreigners, a “spirit of punishment” overtakes him. He decides the only solution is to enslave and oppress them. Taskmasters are set over them to control them and they are commanded to build cities for Pharaoh. The lives of God’s people became “bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor.” (v. 14) When the forced labor no longer seemed harsh enough, Pharaoh stepped up the cruelty and commanded all of the Israelite midwives to kill any baby that was a boy. Death would be the tool he would use to control his people.
It’s this genocide that Moses escapes as a boy thanks to his mother and sister. It’s this oppression that Moses flees when he kills one of Pharaoh’s guards. It’s to this enslaved people that Moses returns when God calls to him out of a burning bush. God speaks and what Moses hears from God are words of mercy and grace. The Lord said,
“I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt;
I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters.
Indeed, I know their sufferings,
And I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians,
And to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land,
A land flowing with milk and honey…
The cry of the Israelites has now come to me;
I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them.
So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people out of Egypt.”
- Exodus 3:7–10
What follows is an epic struggle between God and Pharaoh for the ownership of this people. On the one hand, there is God who is fighting to set this suffering people free and bless them with a new life. On the other hand, there is Pharaoh who relents for a moment but then decides to double-down on the forced labor and oppression. In the end, it is God who wins when he passed through Egypt but passed over the houses of Israel.
On the night of the Passover God commanded the people to kill a lamb. They were to take the blood and paint it on the doorframes of their homes. The blood would be an important sign for them because God had plans to bring about a horrible tragedy on the people of Egypt. God would pass through each home in Egypt and kill the first born in each family. But, when “the destroyer” came to a home with blood on the doorframe he would pass over that house so that all of its residents could experience a new life in freedom.
This can seem a very cruel and unusual punishment for the people of Egypt. I won’t try to justify it, but I will explain that the people of Egypt are experiencing the same pain and heartache that they had inflicted on God’s people. It wasn’t just Pharaoh, but “all his people” who gathered up the baby boys of the foreigners that they had enslaved. In other words, they were experiencing from God the same cruel and unusual punishment that they had forced on God’s people.
On the surface, the blood of the lamb seems to serve as a simple sorting mechanism. The blood lets “the destroyer” know who to kill and who to spare as if to say, “Since I killed a lamb, God will spare my child.” For some the lamb is a substitute for the child. But, if that’s all the sacrifice is, then it is an extreme and grotesque way to go about it. Why not hang a flag or use paint? Why did a lamb have to die? What is it about blood that makes it so important to God? The answer, of course, is that blood is life.
There is more going on in this story than we see in the book of Exodus. All we know for sure at this point is that God’s people were in pain and suffering in slavery. We know that they cried out to God, that God heard their cries and had compassion on them, determined to rescue them. What we don’t know is what was happening before the cries went up and before God decided to respond and rescue. For that we turn to another book of the Bible called Ezekiel.
Ezekiel is a prophet, someone who speaks God’s truth, and in chapter 20 we read:
“On that day I (God) swore to them (my enslaved people) that I would bring them out of the land Egypt into a land that I had searched out for them, a land flowing with milk and honey, the most glorious of all lands.
And I said to them, ‘Cast away the detestable things that your eyes feast on, every one of you, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.’
But they rebelled against me and would not listen to me; not one of them cast away the detestable things their eyes feasted on…” — vv. 6–8
What we don’t learn in the story of Exodus is that God’s people had turned away from God. They had been enticed by the gods of Egypt. The Lord had wanted to be their God, their only God, but the people chose the idols of Egypt instead. Even the offer of freedom and a glorious land was not enough to entice them away from those idols on which “their eyes feasted.” In a moment, God thought that he would pour out his wrath on them. He was terribly angry. But we now know that that moment doesn’t last.
The cries of God’s people must have softened God’s heart. Once again, mercy triumphs over judgment. Despite the fact that God’s people had chosen the idols of Egypt over the Lord, the Lord is the one who cared for them, desired their freedom, and wanted to bless them. These gods of Egypt only wanted to burden them. So, God would come not only to rescue the people, but to prove himself more worthy and more wonderful than the other gods.
We catch a small glimpse of this back in Exodus. As God is announcing the Passover we realize that he is not just talking about the people of Egypt, he is talking about the gods of Egypt as well.
“For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord.” v. 12
As you can see, there is a divine drama taking place behind the scenes. What you see is that the Lord is battling the gods of Egypt for the love and loyalty of his people. The gods of Egypt had lured God’s people away and forced them into slavery. So, the Lord God was not only going to free his people from their chains, he’s going to give them good reason to put their trust in him. That’s where the blood comes in.
What I’m suggesting is that the blood on the doorframe is not about the death of the animal but about a sign of loyalty and trust. In response to God’s forgiveness and generous promise, he was asking the people to show a sign of their willingness to leave behind the gods of Egypt and follow him and him alone. The choice was not between killing a lamb or losing a child. The choice was to end their “feast” with the gods of Egypt or to follow God into the wilderness trusting the promise of a land flowing with milk and honey.
This would not be an easy choice mind you. Egypt was a powerful nation. Apart from recent events there was no end in sight to their slavery. There was no doubt that these gods of Egypt were equally strong. So, while this God who came with Moses has proven powerful thus far, if this God fails, there would be nowhere else to turn. The gods of Egypt would not likely have them back and if they did the suffering would only be worse. Painting the blood of the lamb on the doorframe would be a leap of faith.
Why blood? Because blood is life. The blood on the door frame was a sign for them that they believed God was able to rescue them from slavery. It was an outward expression of an inner trust in God’s promise to follow through. It was not simply a sign of something they were feeling at the moment. It was not just a symbol of agreement to some idea that they would hold in their minds. The blood sealed their commitment to leave behind the gods of Egypt and to follow God with their whole life: heart, mind, soul, and body. In other words, the lamb was not a substitute so that I could be spared. The blood was not about satisfying God’s anger. Instead, the blood served as a sign and a seal of a fully devoted life.
The Passover sacrifice would be regular reminder of that devotion. The books of the Bible called Chronicles help us here as well. In chapter 1, you were introduced to a bad king named Ahaz. His rule was full of corruption and idolatry. He “plundered the house of the Lord,” “sacrificed to the gods of Damascus,” “made himself altars in every corner of Jerusalem,” and “in every city…made high places to make offerings to other gods.” Needless to say, the Lord was terribly angry because of all that Ahaz had done. You can see in these brief quotes (from chapter 28), how a similar divine drama is taking place. The people have turned to other gods testing the loyalty and love of the God who rescued them.
As you already know, Hezekiah comes next and he is a good king. He “does what is right in the sight of the Lord.” He restores order and calls the people back to God saying, “Yield yourselves to the Lord and come to his sanctuary.” There is a lot involved in the process, but the whole series of events culminates in a celebration of Passover. Again, a lamb is slaughtered and its blood is dashed about, but it’s not the death of the animal that satisfies God. The meal and its rituals and the blood serve as an outward sign of their inner willingness to yield their whole life to the Lord just as their ancestors had first done in Egypt. In fact, they were so glad to do so that they went beyond the required seven days and celebrated for two weeks!
There aren’t many mentions of God’s people celebrating the Passover, but when they do it is often at a point where they need to commit or recommit to God just as God’s people first did in Egypt. In the book of Joshua the Passover is celebrated just as the people enter into a new territory. It is a land of many different peoples and many different gods. The Passover serves as a way to promise love and loyalty to the God who brought them that far.
In the book of Ezra, the people celebrate the Passover as they are, once again, returning from slavery. Ezra lived and lead along with Nehemiah who you also met in Chapter 1. The people of God are coming back home. In this instance, the Passover serves as a way to begin again, devoted to the Lord with their whole life. Once again, God welcomes his people back as they celebrate his mercy and grace, patience and loving loyalty.
The rituals of Passover are a week-long celebration and feast (with roasted lamb!). It is not a time when “death and unrelieved gloom hang darkly.” It is a time of gladness and joy and promise. The people remember the promise of God first made in Egypt and make promises of their own. It is not death that satisfies God, but the praise and prayer of his people that softens God’s heart. Remembering Egypt reminded God’s people that God will rescue anyone who returns to him. Remembering Egypt reminded them that God is not blood-thirsty, so to speak, but hungry for his people to live rightly with their whole life.
If you’re hungry for more, you can move on to Part 2.