The Shedding of Blood – 3: Noah and Abraham

Posted: February 20, 2013 by J in Bible, Theology
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The next sacrifice is that of Noah, where the writer is careful to specify what he offered: birds and animals (Gen. 8:20). God’s instructions at the time reinforce this practice:

Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.  4 Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.   For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from human beings, each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for human life.

Whoever sheds the blood of a human,
by a human shall that person’s blood be shed;
for in his own image
God made humankind.                     Genesis. 9:3-6

God gives the meat of animals as food, but not their blood, for this is ‘their life’. The implication here is that the blood was reserved for God, i.e. for sacrifice. Later Mosaic laws clarify: animals’ blood is to be poured out on the ground as an offering. Here, in Genesis 9, this animal sacrifice is what Noah has just done, which pleased Yahweh (Gen. 8:21).

Genesis 9:5 is not totally clear in the Hebrew, but taken with v.6 it says God will not tolerate the shedding of human blood. Notice the sacrificial context here: animal blood is reserved for sacrifice, but human blood must not be ‘poured out’ (Hebrew shofek). In the Torah and later this word ‘poured’ is normally used of the pouring of sacrificial blood. But it is also used of bloodshed more generally, suggesting a link between these two practices. By early readers, accustomed to pagan religion, the prohibition of bloodshed would have likely been heard as equally (or at the same time) a prohibition of human sacrifice.

The poetic form of the command to Noah, which interrupts the narrative flow for a time, gives prominence to these words. For the writer this is clearly an important moment: this prohibition needed to be heard. This suggests it was something particularly relevant for the original readers. It seems this is a practice they were likely to fall into, that either human sacrifice was lodged in the instincts of the Hebrews, or that it was so prevalent in the nations around them that it would be a serious temptation – or most probably, both.

Abraham’s Sacrifice

Abraham was in the habit of offering sacrifices to Yahweh, the God who had called him (Genesis 12:8; 13:4; 13:18). The one outstanding and lengthy sacrifice story involving Abraham is the shocking account of the near-sacrifice of Isaac on the mountain at Moriah (Genesis 22). Yahweh is testing Abraham’s loyalty: “now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Genesis 22:12). But equally Yahweh is revealing himself. At first it seems he is the sort of God who requires these kind of human sacrifices. For Abraham this is probably understandable: that’s what gods are like. He may himself have in the past worshipped gods who made this sort of demand. Abraham is willing to obey now. But the test turns out to be a lesson in the character of this God who has called him:

“Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him”…

And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.  So Abraham called that place “The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.” Genesis 22:12-14

Yahweh provides a substitute for the child: an animal. This is a significant moment for the anti-human-sacrifice polemic we have already encountered: Yahweh does not wish to receive the blood of this boy. He provides a replacement to prevent it.


It is our contention in this study that the story of Abraham at Moriah can be read as a microcosm or parable for the whole sacrificial system of Israel given by Moses. Given to a people who had human sacrifice deep in their cultural ‘psyche’, and as a dominant mode of religion in their environment, the Torah sacrificial system is an attempt to restrain those tendencies and replace them with animal sacrifice. In the Torah, Yahweh in effect says to his people, ‘Do not lay your hand on your children or do anything to them’. Instead of their sons, to be offered up as burnt offerings, he provides them with an animal.

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