Question: "What does it mean that the blood is the life (Deuteronomy 12:23)?"
Answer: Long before modern science proved that blood carries the essential elements of life throughout the body, God instructed the Israelites, “Be sure you do not eat the blood, because the blood is the life, and you must not eat the life with the meat. You must not eat the blood; pour it out on the ground like water” (Deuteronomy 12:23–24). Why did God command the Israelites not to eat meat with the blood still in it? Several reasons exist, and a combination of these most likely explains the prohibition.
Today we know for a fact that “blood is the life.” No other natural ingredient or man-made material can replace blood as the means of sustaining life. To the ancient Israelites, blood was the emblem of life and equivalent to life itself. As the fluid of life, the blood of animals belonged to God, the giver of life: “But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it” (Genesis 9:4; see also Genesis 2:7; Job 33:4; Psalm 139:13). Blood was never to be consumed as common food; when a sacrifice was offered, the blood was drained and offered to God on the altar (Leviticus 17:14).
Looking at the question from a purely practical standpoint, God may have been concerned with the physical well-being of the Israelites when He said, “Do not eat the blood, because the blood is the life.” We now know that many diseases are potentially contained in the blood and can be transmitted throughout the body and to other people. Certain meats, if not cooked thoroughly, can cause illness if consumed. So a secondary reason God may have forbidden the eating of meat with the blood still in it may have been to promote good health.
In Deuteronomy 12, God began teaching the Israelites about the covenant governing His relationship with them. He zeroed in on worship with detailed stipulations about how His people ought to love, honor, and glorify the Lord their God. The worship of Yahweh, the one true God, was to be distinct and set apart from the worship of pagan deities and idols.
Among ancient pagan cultic rituals was the practice of drinking the blood of sacrificed animals—and even the blood of human sacrifices. Some pagan tribes consumed their victims’ blood because they believed it possessed their enemies’ might and power. So the Lord’s command not to eat meat with the blood in it would have been to set God’s people wholly apart from these godless, idolatrous, and atrocious customs. In the early church, believers were also encouraged to avoid such pagan associations: “Write and tell them to abstain from eating food offered to idols, from sexual immorality, from eating the meat of strangled animals, and from consuming blood. For these laws of Moses have been preached in Jewish synagogues in every city on every Sabbath for many generations” (Acts 15:20–21, NLT)
In Leviticus 17:10–12, we learn that blood was God’s ordained means of atonement: “I will set my face against any Israelite or any foreigner residing among them who eats blood, and I will cut them off from the people. For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life. Therefore I say to the Israelites, ‘None of you may eat blood, nor may any foreigner residing among you eat blood.’”
Blood represented the life of the animal. When the blood was spilled, the animal’s life was terminated. Sacrificing an animal’s life in place of one’s own life satisfied God’s price or payment for sin. The spilled blood of the guiltless substitute animal offered on the altar served as payment for the people’s sins (Leviticus 16:15). Thus, the shedding of blood was an act of atonement.
Blood as the symbol of life had to be treated with honor. The Israelites were forbidden to eat meat with the blood still in it because consuming blood would have violated or denigrated the sacred act of atonement by which humans are made right with God. Consuming the blood would have disregarded its divinely ordained purpose. Instead, the people were to bring each animal to the tabernacle entrance for the priest to offer to God on the altar.
This Old Testament act of atonement pointed forward to the shedding of Jesus Christ’s blood on the cross for the forgiveness of sins: “Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God. For by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins” (Hebrews 9:14, NLT; see also Hebrews 10:1–18). Each time an animal was sacrificed on the altar and its blood poured out, it communicated a picture of the Savior. Jesus Christ suffered in our place. His blood is the life that was given so that we might have eternal life.
Jesus told His disciples, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you cannot have eternal life within you. But anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise that person at the last day” (John 6:53–54, NLT). Considering the law against eating blood, the thought of consuming Christ’s flesh and drinking His blood would have been shocking to His followers. Jesus’ statement certainly got their attention. But Jesus wasn’t speaking literally; He was talking about His work of redemption (see John 6:32–35, 41, 47–58).
Believers in Jesus Christ are cleansed, forgiven, made right with God, and freed from the power of sin through the shed blood of the spotless Lamb of God: “For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood” (Romans 3:25, NLT; see also 1 John 1:7; 5:11; Ephesians 1:7). Christ’s blood is truly “the life” for those who believe in Him and receive His life.