The Blood of the Covenant—Leviticus 17

Don’t eat that! I heard these three words when I pinched a little raw ground beef as a child, as my mother prepared dinner, followed by “You’ll get trichinosis.” I later learned that trichinosis is a parasitic disease caused by eating raw meat (especially pork), usually game animals (mainly pigs). But since my mother scientifically or medically trained, I wonder if her viewpoint resulted from her Orthodox Judaism more than anything health-related. Besides, we never had pork in my home growing up (although we did have bacon). So I grew up in a house that was a little influenced by the Old Testament commands to refrain from eating the blood of (raw) animals. Even now, when I know the meat is fresh, I’ll enjoy beef or fish tartar and sushi, but I am wise about the health hazards and conscientious about where to eat raw proteins. So, I don’t have to live by my mother’s “never” rule (which, I admit, I never really did). Christians no longer live by the Old Testament rules God provided to keep his people set apart because of Christ, our perfect, once-for-all sacrifice. But, as Christians, we are still called to be set apart through the blood of Christ—not conforming to the world’s values or priorities. In Leviticus, Moses records God’s reminders to Israel that He called His people into a distinct relationship with him, set apart from the other nations. They owed their lives, devotion, and respect to their merciful King by respecting all life since it belonged to him. They were to give special treatment to animals serving as atonement for their sins. How much more do we owe our lives, worship, and respect to Jesus Christ, who was crucified on our behalf, shedding his blood to atone for our sins?

“And the Lord spoke to Moses…

‘Speak to Aaron and his sons and to all the people of Israel and say to them, This is the thing that the Lord has commanded.’” (Leviticus 1) “Chapter 17 begins a new division in Leviticus…[describing] the holy living God required of His people…knowing God and worshipping God are to be at the center of the lives of His people. That was true for His people in the old covenant period, and it is true for His people in the new covenant period…Followers of Jesus have no higher privilege, no more solemn obligation, and no greater joy than exalting God in worship…Leviticus 17 describes three worship principles—God commands us to worship only Him; God commands us how to worship Him; and God commands us to worship Him through blood.” (1) “Polytheism was to ancient Israel what materialism is to many today; it was so much a part of the cultural air they breathed that they were very slow to turn from it, even after deciding to follow the Lord…The Lord himself had entered into a covenant relationship with the Israelites, and they betrayed that covenant, like an adulterous spouse, whenever they worshipped other gods.” (2) “If any one of the house of Israel kills an ox or a lamb or a goat in the camp, or kills it outside the camp, and does not bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting to offer it as a gift to the Lord in front of the tabernacle of the Lord, bloodguilt shall be imputed to that man. He has shed blood, and that man shall be cut off from among his people.” (Leviticus 17:3-4) “Following this command would help to stop idolatry and syncretism, and would unify the Israelites in their worship of the Lord…This was because the blood represented the animal’s life, which belonged to the Lord and could only be used as he allowed, for example, in sacrifice to him.” (3) “The people of Israel may bring their sacrifices that they sacrifice in the open field, that they may bring them to the Lord, to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and sacrifice them as sacrifices of peace offerings to the Lord. And the priest shall throw the blood on the altar of the Lord at the entrance of the tent of meeting and burn the fat for a pleasing aroma to the Lord. So they shall no more sacrifice their sacrifices to goat demons, after whom they whore. This shall be a statute forever for them throughout their generations.” (Leviticus 17:5-7)

“For the life of the flesh is in the blood…”

God called Israel, and those who joined the nation to a particular relationship with him; they showed their King respect by respecting all life that belonged to him. “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…For the life 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.” (Leviticus 17:11, 14) “The [blood is the] primary seat of the soul or life, from whence motion and pulsation take their rise…for it [is] the blood [that] makes an atonement for the soul…typical of the sacrifice and atonement of Christ…there being no atonement, no remission of sins without shedding of blood; and the reason of the prohibition of eating blood was [for]…the atonement for sin, and to keep up a reverence of it, and a value and esteem for it; but now seeing that blood has been shed and atonement made by… Christ’s blood [which] is now to be eaten in a spiritual sense, the eating of blood in a literal sense, properly dressed, is lawful.” (4) “When a body loses its blood, it is lifeless, so it is very natural to equate a body’s life with its blood. It is perhaps for this reason that the Israelites may have considered lifeblood to possess special powers and so used it for occult practices…all life is the Lord’s as implied when he states, ‘I have given it to you’…[The Lord] provided lifeblood to be used for a very specific purpose: ‘to make atonement for your lives’…To use blood for any other purpose is to deny the Lord’s sovereign ownership of it…the animal’s lifeblood was accepted as the ransom payment in place of the offeror’s…graciously accepted by the Lord…rescuing the offeror from due punishment and restoring peace to the relationship between the sinner and the Lord…It must not be missed that such ransom could take place only because of the Lord’s grace…the Lord, in his great love and mercy, has graciously made such a means of forgiveness possible…’I myself have given it to you’…Sacrifice was indeed something the Israelites gave to the Lord, but first and foremost it was something he gave to them, in his grace, as a means of atoning for sin and achieving the forgiveness they so desperately desire.” (5) We now owe our blood (lives), worship, and respect to Jesus Christ, who was crucified on our behalf, shedding his blood to atone for our sins.

Worshipping God Through the Blood

“If any one of the house of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from among his people.” (Leviticus 17:10) “God’s immutable, eternal law is that sin leads to death. God’s perfect holiness and justice requires sin to lead to the death of the sinner…The blood of goats and bulls substituted for the blood of old covenant worshipers, atoned for their sin, and reconciled them to God. The blood of Jesus accomplishes the same substitution, life for life, perfectly and eternally for all who put their faith in Him…The Westminster Confession of Faith says that the Old Testament laws of worship prefigure Christ—His grace, actions, sufferings, and benefits. This is why we worship Jesus. First, we worship Him because of His grace. Second Corinthians 8:9 says, ‘For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ: Though He was rich, for your sake He became poor, so that by His poverty you might become rich.’ We also worship Jesus because of His actions. What action did He perform for us? Jesus said in John 10:17-18, ‘I am laying down My life so I may take it up again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down on My own’.…We also worship Jesus because of His sufferings. First Peter 3:18 tells us to regard Him as holy, ‘For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring you to God’…Finally, we worship Jesus because of His benefits. Romans 5:9 says of Jesus, ‘Much more then, since we have not been declared righteous by His blood, we will be saved through Him from wrath.’ The shed blood of Jesus gives us eternal benefit: we are saved from God’s wrath against past sin; and we are saved for a future in glory. The wrath of God was poured out on Jesus when He died on the cross in our place as our sacrifice. Praise His name! We praise Him because of what He did on the cross. We also praise Him because in Leviticus, written 1,400 years before the incarnation of Jesus, ‘God was pleased to give…laws…or worship, prefiguring Christ, His graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits’ (Westminster Confessions).” (6)

Atonement for All People

“Other texts make clear that aliens could become a part of the covenant community; for this reason, many laws address their participation in Israel’s covenant worship. Such laws not only prohibited syncretism of religion, they also welcomed the nations into the blessing of relationship with the Lord, the very blessing he had always intended to extend to the nations through the Israelite people (Gen. 12:3)…[God] was [Israel’s] covenant King, and it is this King alone whom they were to serve. As Jesus taught, ‘No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other’ (Matt. 6:24)…the Israelites [were] to respect their covenant King by respecting that which belonged to him, namely, life itself. In this context, that meant using an animal’s blood—which was equated with its life…to ransom their lives: they could offer an animal’s lifeblood in place of their own. Such mercy and love is seen with even greater clarity when Jesus offers his own life as a ransom for us This ransom far exceeds that of Leviticus…’But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Rom. 5:8)! (7) Luther, when asked about the sacrament of Holy Communion, “What is the benefit of such eating and drinking, wrote: “‘[It] is shown to use in these words: Given, and in shed for you, for the remission of sins; namely, that in the Sacrament forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given us through [the words of 1 Cor. 11:24-25]. For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation’…the primary emphasis here is that this is an activity of God to the sinner, not the other way around… It’s not something we’re offering to god, but something that God decidedly does for us in his mercy.” (8) “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me.” (John 6:53-57)

Related Scripture: Genesis 17:10-13; 35:1-4; Exodus 12:48-49; 24:15-17; Numbers 15:14-16, 26, 29; 25:1-5; Deuteronomy 12:5-7; 29:10-14; 31:12-13; Joshua 8:33-35; 24:14-15, 23-24; 1 Kings 18:20-39; Psalm 34:15-16; Jeremiah 3:6-12; Matthew 26:28; Mark 10:45; Romans 3:25; Ephesians 1:7-10; Hebrews 9:22.


1. Moseley, Allen, Exalting Jesus in Leviticus, Leviticus 17, Christ-Centered Exposition Series, B&H Publishing Group, 2015.

2. Sklar, Jay, Leviticus, An Introduction and Commentary, Leviticus 17, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, IVP Academic, 2014.

3. Sklar, Ibid.

4. Gill, John, John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible, Leviticus 17:11,

5. Sklar, Ibid.

6. Mosley, Ibid.

7. Sklar, Ibid.

8. “Four Confessions, One Supper: A White Horse Inn Roundtable,” Modern Reformation Magazine, Vol. 32, No. 3, May/June 2023, Sola Media.

May 11, 2023

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