“I Have Given It for You on The Altar”
“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.”
In this verse we find an amazing explanation given by YHWH as to why the blood of sacrificial animals – and all animals for that matter – was not to be eaten under the Mosaic Law. First I want to look at the plain meaning of the text as it was given to the people of Moses’ day, and then I want to consider the weight of these words in light of the full fruit of God’s self-revelation in Christ.
Blood As Visible Life
First, the clear meaning is that YHWH has given creatures blood as a visual, physical manifestation of the life that He has placed in them.
Think about it…what is “life”? What is “being”? What is this phenomenon of reality that causes some conglomerations of matter to have an extra “spark” that makes them what we call “alive”? What is this “life” that pulses in trees and birds and whales and amoebas and humans and angels? Someone might point to a biological definition of life (though that would not – as far as our knowledge goes – explain the life of angels), but I am asking something deeper than that. Biology might be able to tell us what the mechanics of life are on the physical plane, but what is it? Why do some things live while – so far as we know – others simply are?
I would contend (as Augustine does, and – more importantly – as scripture does, John 1:4 etc.) that creaturely “life” is a manifestation of true and uncreated Life of God. Because God LIVES, He makes creatures that live. Because God has life in Himself – that is, because He is eternally Father, Son, and Spirit in loving communion – He gives life to some of His creatures. And, in giving this gift to His creatures, He has chosen to bind it to a physical, visible fluid called “blood” (or sap for plants, and there are other names for it in single celled organisms etc).
Blood is the God-given, visible “anchor” or “handle” for the invisible reality of life, and He intends for His people to equate the two. To see a creature’s blood is to see, as it were, it’s very life. And, under the Mosaic Law, the blood of animals is not to be eaten because God has designed their blood to be the means of atoning for the sins of His people….
The blood of the sacrificial animal is a vivid and graphic declaration that LIFE has been poured out because of sin. God intended His people to feel this. “It is the blood that makes atonement by the life”…..life for life….the lamb’s life is poured out and the sinner’s is spared. So blood exists as a picture of life and it’s spilling is a giving of life.
The Blood of Our God
Now, that is the clear meaning. That is what God is saying, and its glorious….it means that we all carry around within us a visible image of the life of God Himself and a visible reminder of the need for sacrifice. But, how can we read these words post-Calvary and not hear echoes of Christ’s own words,
“This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins”
At the very least, Leviticus 11:17 adds deeper and more glorious weight to Christ’s sacrifice…..
This verse calls us to see – as Christ is pierced and torn on the cross and as His blood is poured out onto the wood and steel and dust and clothes around Him…as this is happening – Leviticus 11:17 calls us to see the LIFE of Christ being visible and vividly given for His people. God gave creaturely life to His creations and He tied that life to blood as its visual manifestation. And He did this so that God the Son might make Himself into a creature, thus visually binding the Infinite Life of God – the Life of Him who is Life, the Life of the Author of Life – binding this life to one and a half gallons of blood….And this blood….this life….was poured out for His Beloved Bride….
But there is still more beauty to see. Look again at Leviticus 17:11, in the Hebrew, YHWH’s words are emphatic and might literally be translated:
“For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I, I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls…”
It is no small thing to note that YHWH Himself is saying this in the first person…”I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your sins…” Was YHWH Himself not thinking of the cross at this moment? The Lamb was slain in the plan of God from before creation (Revelation 13;8), the Son has been the slain and risen Son from before “in the beginning”….therefore, when these words were spoken, is it possible that the Triune God did not think of Calvary and the work that the Second Person would accomplish there? It seems to me that, though this is clearly not intended to be taken as a prophecy, we can – post cross – see the glory of Christ’s work in these words.
Here YHWH, speaking of lambs and goats, foreshadows His own great, staggering, and final atonement for His people. Surely the sound of Roman hammers and jeering crowds and the agonized recitation of Psalm 22 echoed in the Triune heart as He spoke these words to Moses. Surely the assurance of wrath absorbed and life out-poured were before His eyes every time a lamb was slain. And Surely, every drop of blood that YHWH “gave” on the Mosaic altar prefigured the blood that He would give through Christ on the True Altar of Calvary for the final atonement of His people.
“Beholding all this, the heavenly hosts were struck with fear, and they cried out, ‘O incomprehensible Lord, glory be to you!’ “
– Vespers for Holy and Great Friday