To Drink or Not to Drink

No, this is not a post about alcohol. A look at answering the objection of the prohibition on the blood of the sacrifice.

No, we aren’t talking about party drinking and the debate among some evangelicals on whether or not we should drink alcohol. This is about the objection some non-Catholics put forward to the Catholic view of the precious blood. Catholics believe that when Jesus commanded us to drink His blood, that He meant it. It is truly His blood. It’s that simple. John 6 seems to make this quite clear.

So Jesus said to them, “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; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.

John 6:53-56

It would appear to most and seems quite clear to many that Jesus is obviously asking us to eat His flesh and drink His blood, and that it is intently literal. One objection to this view that has been put forward in the past by some who oppose the Catholic dogma of the Real Presence is that Mosaic law specifically forbade the drinking of the blood of the sacrifice. They point to the book of Leviticus to get the text.

If any man of the house of Israel or of the strangers that 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. For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement, by reason of the life. Therefore I have said to the sons of Israel, No person among you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger who sojourns among you eat blood.

Leviticus 17:10-12

Surely Jesus would not teach something contradictory to the law! This is, of course, an odd view given that Jesus routinely brought to light the true meaning of the Mosaic law and put it into its proper perspective, but to many, when necessary to back up a good anti-Catholic argument, the law of Moses somehow becomes an immutable force that not even Jesus can change. However, we know that Jesus routinely reinterpreted the law and gave it its proper meaning. A prime example is His teaching on divorce: 

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one’? So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?” He said to them, “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery; and he who marries a divorced woman, commits adultery.”

Matthew 19:3-9

But is Jesus really changing the law here or just interpreting it in the correct way? Jesus had a way of taking what was in the law of Moses and bringing it to its fulfilment in Himself. He had a way of providing a new hermeneutic (or lens) through which to understand and interpret the Old Testament law. And so He does with the drinking of the blood. As is often the case with scriptural objections to the Catholic faith, verses are generally taken out of context or left hanging without some further reading. If we read on in Leviticus 17, we get some explanation as to “why” the Mosaic law forbade the drinking of blood.

“For the life of every creature is the blood of it; therefore I have said to the sons 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. And every person that eats what dies of itself or what is torn by beasts, whether he is a native or a sojourner, shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the evening; then he shall be clean. But if he does not wash them or bathe his flesh, he shall bear his iniquity.”

Leviticus 17:14-16

Notice that the prohibition of eating the blood of the sacrifice is based on a conceptually true understanding of what is taking place. Although science takes us to a deeper understanding of the workings of the body and the interplay between blood and life, we know from biology that, in some sense, life is indeed carried in the blood. If you cut off the circulation to a body part, it will eventually die. If you get injured and bleed enough, we would say that you “bled out.” The life of every creature is in the blood.

In understanding Jesus, we also have to understand the context. Why would someone in the times of Moses eat or drink blood?

We know historically that there was a broad understanding by many cultures, Hebrew and not, that the life of something was in the blood. Many cultures would drink the blood of various animals, and in some cases humans in the case of sacrifices or warriors killed in battle, to take on the life of that being. For example, if you wanted to be strong and courageous, the blood of a lion might do. The Mosaic law was used to some great degree to purge many pagan ideas out of the Israelites and prohibit them from doing things that lead to cultural decay and a life opposed to God. What the Mosaic law is saying here is that eating the blood of an animal will not gain you life, but death. Specifically, Leviticus 17:15 draws us to understand that it the uncleanness comes from eating “what dies of itself.” The problem is not in the drinking of the blood, it is in the act of trying to take on the life of something that cannot give it.

In keeping with the context of the Levitical text, Jesus does not undo the Mosaic law but gives it its proper meaning. What Jesus is asking is not for us to eat or drink the blood of an animal, but for us to eat His flesh and blood. Why? Because as Leviticus 17 explains, the life is in the blood! And in the case of Jesus, it is through drinking His blood that we have access to that life which we drink, the divine life, the life that is needed for our eternal salvation.

In the order of nature, humans stand between God and animals. We are above animals, but beneath the divine. It would stand to reason that if we are attempting to take on the life of something beneath us, we will surely die. But, on the other hand, if we drink the blood of God Himself, we will surely live, just as Jesus promises and Scripture proclaims over and over. Therefore, it is a pretty straightforward interpretation that Jesus is not teaching counter to the Mosaic law, but rather is giving us the proper meaning of it.

This also provides us a cultural lesson. We live in a culture that often attempts to reduce humanity to the level of animals. We are sometimes told by the culture to just embrace our animal nature (to quote a popular song a few years back). But what does this lead us to? It leads our culture down a path of seeking only after the things that animals themselves seek after. Sex, food, and prey at any cost. It leads us to a view of the world that is merely utilitarian, a world where adultery, sexual perversions of all kinds, abortion, euthanasia are celebrated. It is only when we take Jesus at His word and seek after the divine life that we transcend the animalistic desires that our culture would rather have us embrace. This would lead to a world where love, sacrifice, generosity, hope and kindness abide.