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. Leviticus 17:11 ESV
Blood – Christian apologists often claim that the blood of Christ shed on the cross is the reason for the forgiveness of sin. Prior to Leon Morris’ study of the concept of blood atonement, some theologians referred to the idea that “life is in the blood” and therefore the cross represents atonement given through the life of Christ. But since Morris’ study, this position has been untenable. Morris has conclusively demonstrated that in both the Old Testament and the New, the term “blood” is most commonly used to describe “death by violence,” and this idea is paramount in its association with sacrifice. Morris shows that even the Leviticus passage so often used as a proof text (Leviticus 17:11) cannot be understood in the Hebraic worldview as a claim that life exists apart from physical blood. It is simply not possible to think of the sacrifice as presenting “life” on the altar. “Blood shed stands, therefore, not for the release of life from the burden of the flesh, but for the bringing to an end of life in the flesh.” Morris points out that in Hebraic thought there is no immaterial principle of life apart from the body. This is why the Hebraic worldview has no concept of an immortal soul but rather looks for the resurrection of the body at the Day of Judgment.
Atonement is not accomplished by offering life but rather by giving up life, and this is the meaning of “blood” in the sacrificial system. A blood sacrifice is a death sacrifice. But a blood sacrifice is not the only means of atonement available in the Hebraic worldview. Atonement may be achieved by anointing with oil (Leviticus 14:18), by offering incense (Numbers 16:46), through the scapegoat (Leviticus 16:10) and other means. When atonement involves the termination of life, even here it does not always demand a blood sacrifice. Atonement may be accomplished by “blotting out” a name from the Book of Life (Exodus 32:30-32), by zealous execution (Numbers 25:13), by delivering up enemies for proper punishment (2 Samuel 21:3 ff) and by slaying the red heifer (Deuteronomy 21:1-9). None of these require a blood (death) sacrifice although every one of them involves death in some sense or another. Morris concludes, “In each case it is the termination of life, the infliction of death that atones” although the means by which death comes is quite different in each case. “[T]he evidence afforded by the use of dam [blood] in the Old Testament indicates that it signifies life taken violently rather than the continued presence of life available for some new function.” Perhaps we must revise Heschel’s evaluation of the difference between Judaism and Christianity. Heschel pointed out that Judaism is a religion focused on life whereas Christianity is a religion focused on death. But Morris’ study demonstrates that the idea of death is not too far removed from the Hebraic worldview either.
Morris makes the observation that the use of blood in relation to Christ in the New Testament is predominately a circumlocution for the death of Yeshua. Morris notes, “[F]or a cross has no place in the sacrificial system, and stands only for a particularly unpleasant death.” The conclusion:
“Thus it seems tolerably certain that in both the Old and New Testaments the blood signifies essentially the death. It is freely admitted that there are some passages in which it is possible to interpret the blood as signifying life, but even these yield a better sense (and one which is consistent with the wider biblical usage), if understood to mean ‘life given up in death’.”
Consider the impact that Morris’ study has on theological claims like the ones by Ridderbos, “the propitiatory sacrifice enters in substitutionally between the holy God and sinful man, because the life given up in the sacrifice through the attendant shedding of blood covers sin before the face of God and in this way atones.” If the blood refers not to giving up of life but rather to violent death, how are we to understand the idea of substitutionary atonement that is so much a part of Paul’s thinking?
Another question for another day. Perhaps it is enough just to ask, “Did I think that the blood was about life or about death?” Does this change your view about what is happening on the cross?
Topical Index: blood, dam, death, cross, life, Leviticus 17:11, atonement
 Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (Eerdmans, 1955), see in particular Chapter III, “The Blood.”
 Morris, Apostolic Preaching, p. 113.
 Cf. Morris, p. 113.
 Morris, Apostolic Preaching, p. 115.
 Morris, Apostolic Preaching, p. 117.
 Morris, Apostolic Preaching, p. 119.
 Morris, Apostolic Preaching, p. 122.
 Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology (Eerdmans, 1975), p. 188.