Blood—Vital for Life
How can blood save your life? This no doubt is of interest to you because blood is linked to your life. Blood carries oxygen through your body, removes carbon dioxide, helps you adapt to temperature changes, and aids in your fight against disease.
The linkage of life to blood was made long before William Harvey mapped the circulatory system in 1628. The basic ethics of major religions focus on a Life-Giver, who expressed himself about life and about blood. A Judeo-Christian lawyer said of him: “He himself gives to all persons life and breath and all things. For by him we have life and move and exist.”*
People who believe in such a Life-Giver trust that his directions are for our lasting good. A Hebrew prophet described him as “the One teaching you to benefit yourself, the One causing you to tread in the way in which you should walk.”
That assurance, at Isaiah 48:17, is part of the Bible, a book respected for ethical values that can benefit all of us. What does it say about human use of blood? Does it show how lives can be saved with blood? Actually, the Bible shows clearly that blood is more than a complex biologic fluid. It mentions blood over 400 times, and some of these references involve the saving of life.
In one early reference, the Creator declared: “Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. . . . But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it.” He added: “For your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting,” and he then condemned murder. (Genesis 9:3-6, New International Version) He said that to Noah, a common ancestor highly esteemed by Jews, Muslims, and Christians. All humanity was thus notified that in the Creator’s view, blood stands for life. This was more than a dietary regulation. Clearly a moral principle was involved. Human blood has great significance and should not be misused. The Creator later added details from which we can easily see the moral issues that he links to lifeblood.
He again referred to blood when he gave the Law code to ancient Israel. While many people respect the wisdom and ethics in that code, few are aware of its serious laws on blood. For instance: “If anyone of the house of Israel or of the strangers who reside among them partakes of any blood, I will set My face against the person who partakes of the blood, and I will cut him off from among his kin. For the life of the flesh is in the blood.” (Leviticus 17:10, 11, Tanakh) God then explained what a hunter was to do with a dead animal: “He shall pour out its blood and cover it with earth. . . . You shall not partake of the blood of any flesh, for the life of all flesh is its blood. Anyone who partakes of it shall be cut off.”—Leviticus 17:13, 14, Ta.
Scientists now know that the Jewish Law code promoted good health. It required, for example, that excrement be deposited outside the camp and covered and that people not eat meat that carried a high risk of disease. (Leviticus 11:4-8, 13; 17:15; Deuteronomy 23:12, 13) While the law about blood had health aspects, much more was involved. Blood had a symbolic meaning. It stood for life provided by the Creator. By treating blood as special, the people showed dependence on him for life. Yes, the chief reason why they were not to take in blood was, not that it was unhealthy, but that it had special meaning to God.
The Law repeatedly stated the Creator’s ban on taking in blood to sustain life. “You must not eat the blood; pour it out on the ground like water. Do not eat it, so that it may go well with you and your children after you, because you will be doing what is right.”—Deuteronomy 12:23-25, NIV; De 15:23; Leviticus 7:26, 27; Ezekiel 33:25.*
Contrary to how some today reason, God’s law on blood was not to be ignored just because an emergency arose. During a wartime crisis, some Israelite soldiers killed animals and “fell to eating along with the blood.” In view of the emergency, was it permissible for them to sustain their lives with blood? No. Their commander pointed out that their course was still a grave wrong. (1 Samuel 14:31-35) Hence, precious as life is, our Life-Giver never said that his standards could be ignored in an emergency.
BLOOD AND TRUE CHRISTIANS
Where does Christianity stand on the question of saving human life with blood?
Jesus was a man of integrity, which is why he is so highly regarded. He knew that the Creator said that taking in blood was wrong and that this law was binding. Hence, there is good reason to believe that Jesus would uphold the law about blood even if he was under pressure to do otherwise. Jesus “did no wrong, [and] no treachery was found on his lips.” (1 Peter 2:22, Knox) He thus set a pattern for his followers, including a pattern of respect for life and blood. (We will later consider how Jesus’ own blood is involved in this vital matter affecting your life.)
Note what happened when, years after Jesus’ death, a question arose about whether someone becoming a Christian had to keep all of Israel’s laws. This was discussed at a council of the Christian governing body, which included the apostles. Jesus’ half brother James referred to writings containing the commands about blood stated to Noah and to the nation of Israel. Would such be binding on Christians?—Acts 15:1-21.
That council sent their decision to all congregations: Christians need not keep the code given to Moses, but it is “necessary” for them to “keep abstaining from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled [unbled meat] and from fornication.” (Acts 15:22-29) The apostles were not presenting a mere ritual or dietary ordinance. The decree set out fundamental ethical norms, which early Christians complied with. About a decade later they acknowledged that they should still “keep themselves from what is sacrificed to idols as well as from blood . . . and from fornication.”—Acts 21:25.
You know that millions of people attend churches. Most of them would probably agree that Christian ethics involve not giving worship to idols and not sharing in gross immorality. However, it is worth our noting that the apostles put avoiding blood on the same high moral level as avoiding those wrongs. Their decree concluded: “If you carefully keep yourselves from these things, you will prosper. Good health to you!”—Acts 15:29.
The apostolic decree was long understood as binding. Eusebius tells of a young woman near the end of the second century who, before dying under torture, made the point that Christians “are not allowed to eat the blood even of irrational animals.” She was not exercising a right to die. She wanted to live, but she would not compromise her principles. Do you not respect those who put principle above personal gain?
Scientist Joseph Priestley concluded: “The prohibition to eat blood, given to Noah, seems to be obligatory on all his posterity . . . If we interpret [the] prohibition of the apostles by the practice of the primitive Christians, who can hardly be supposed not to have rightly understood the nature and extent of it, we cannot but conclude, that it was intended to be absolute and perpetual; for blood was not eaten by any Christians for many centuries.”
WHAT OF USING BLOOD AS MEDICINE?
Would the Biblical prohibition on blood cover medical uses, such as transfusions, which certainly were not known in the days of Noah, Moses, or the apostles?
While modern therapy employing blood did not exist back then, medicinal use of blood is not modern. For some 2,000 years, in Egypt and elsewhere, human “blood was regarded as the sovereign remedy for leprosy.” A physician revealed the therapy given to King Esar-haddon’s son when the nation of Assyria was on the leading edge of technology: “[The prince] is doing much better; the king, my lord, can be happy. Starting with the 22nd day I give (him) blood to drink, he will drink (it) for 3 days. For 3 more days I shall give (him blood) for internal application.” Esar-haddon had dealings with the Israelites. Yet, because the Israelites had God’s Law, they would never drink blood as medicine.
Was blood used as medicine in Roman times? The naturalist Pliny (a contemporary of the apostles) and the second-century physician Aretaeus report that human blood was a treatment for epilepsy. Tertullian later wrote: “Consider those who with greedy thirst, at a show in the arena, take the fresh blood of wicked criminals . . . and carry it off to heal their epilepsy.” He contrasted them with Christians, who “do not even have the blood of animals at [their] meals . . . At the trials of Christians you offer them sausages filled with blood. You are convinced, of course, that [it] is unlawful for them.” So, early Christians would risk death rather than take in blood.
“Blood in its more everyday form did not . . . go out of fashion as an ingredient in medicine and magic,” reports the book Flesh and Blood. “In 1483, for example, Louis XI of France was dying. ‘Every day he grew worse, and the medicines profited him nothing, though of a strange character; for he vehemently hoped to recover by the human blood which he took and swallowed from certain children.’”
What of transfusing blood? Experiments with this began near the start of the 16th century. Thomas Bartholin (1616-80), professor of anatomy at the University of Copenhagen, objected: ‘Those who drag in the use of human blood for internal remedies of diseases appear to misuse it and to sin gravely. Cannibals are condemned. Why do we not abhor those who stain their gullet with human blood? Similar is the receiving of alien blood from a cut vein, either through the mouth or by instruments of transfusion. The authors of this operation are held in terror by the divine law, by which the eating of blood is prohibited.’
Hence, thinking people in past centuries realized that the Biblical law applied to taking blood into the veins just as it did to taking it into the mouth. Bartholin concluded: “Either manner of taking [blood] accords with one and the same purpose, that by this blood a sick body be nourished or restored.”
This overview may help you to understand the nonnegotiable religious stand that Jehovah’s Witnesses take. They highly value life, and they seek good medical care. But they are determined not to violate God’s standard, which has been consistent: Those who respect life as a gift from the Creator do not try to sustain life by taking in blood.
Still, for years claims have been made that blood saves lives. Doctors can relate cases in which someone had acute blood loss but was transfused and then improved rapidly. So you may wonder, ‘How wise or unwise is this medically?’ Medical evidence is offered to support blood therapy. Thus, you owe it to yourself to get the facts in order to make an informed choice about blood.
Similar prohibitions were later written in the Qurʼān.
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“The precepts hereby set down in a precise and methodical manner [in Acts 15] are qualified as indispensable, giving the strongest proof that in the apostles’ minds this was not a temporary arrangement, or a provisional measure.”—Professor Édouard Reuss, University of Strasbourg.
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Martin Luther pointed to the implications of the apostolic decree: “Now if we want to have a church that conforms to this council, . . . we must teach and insist that henceforth no prince, lord, burgher, or peasant eat geese, doe, stag, or pork cooked in blood . . . And burghers and peasants must abstain especially from red sausage and blood sausage.”
Woodcut by Lucas Cranach
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“God and men view things in very different lights. What appears important in our eye is very often of no account in the estimation of infinite wisdom; and what appears trifling to us is often of very great importance with God. It was so from the beginning.”—“An Enquiry Into the Lawfulness of Eating Blood,” Alexander Pirie, 1787.
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Medicine and the Artist by Carl Zigrosser/Dover Publications
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At a historic council, the Christian governing body confirmed that God’s law on blood is still binding
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Whatever the consequences, the early Christians refused to violate God’s law on blood
Painting by Gérôme, 1883, courtesy of Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore