Most of us have heard the proverb, "Blood is thicker than water." Many ideas have been proposed as to when and how it originated, so it seems to come down to which origin story a person likes the best. Not only that, its intended meaning is also under debate. In our Western culture, it indicates that our family ties should take precedence over other relationships.
Most people who grew up in the southeastern United States know how central this saying is in our particular culture. A person was taught from a young age always to look out for the family first. I have witnessed some heated arguments among my extended family over some outsider receiving preferential treatment ahead of a family member. It was not pretty.
A similar proverb may have been the original one: "The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb." If this is the original form of the modern proverb, it changes the meaning entirely—in fact, it flips the meaning of today's proverb on its head!
Researchers of this sort of thing would probably never admit to it, but this proverb may have originated in the Bible. Scripture contains several covenants within its pages, and at least three of them were sealed with blood. The author of Hebrews, comparing the Old Covenant with the New, mentions that "not even the first covenant was dedicated without blood" (Hebrews 9:18; see Exodus 24:6-8).
As kids, some of us may have used a covenant of blood with a best friend. In this ritual, two friends prick their thumbs and then press them together, and from that point on, they are blood-brothers (or sisters) through the mingling of each other's blood. The two are supposed to be bound together in friendship for life.
In my seventh-grade science class, we pricked our fingers so we could determine our blood type. After the teacher told us to draw a drop of our own blood, the girl standing next to me saw the blood on her finger and fainted! It probably did not help that I told her that her lips were turning blue.
Does any substance grab a person's attention more than the sight of blood? Its deep red color causes some kind of reaction nearly every time. While blood is essential and natural to life, the sight of it disturbs a lot of people, causing them to become queasy or to faint. Some people cannot bear even to look at fake blood! Most often the sight of blood indicates that some sort of injury or trauma has occurred, and the life of the injured person is leaking out.
In contrast—just when we think we have heard it all—there are now groups of people who like to get together and drink each other's blood! However, blood outside of where it is supposed to be, that is, confined in the body, can be toxic, even deadly. These people are playing a bloody Russian Roulette with their lives.
Blood traveling on the super-highway of our circulatory system is full of life. It transports nutrients and oxygen to the lungs and other tissues, regulates body temperature, brings waste products to the liver and kidneys, carries cells and antibodies that fight infection, and forms blood clots when the body becomes injured to prevent excess blood loss. The blood system, with its arteries, veins, and capillaries, can be considered the largest organ in the body, and being filled with various cells, nutrients, and proteins, it is indeed thicker than water.
With the Bible's first mention of blood in Genesis 4:10, it is shown to have life, metaphorically crying out to God from the ground. Later, in Genesis 9:4, God instructs Noah after coming out of the ark, "But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood." Throughout the Bible, blood is equated with life. Of course, without it we die.
In the book of Leviticus are the instructions for the offering of sacrifices, and God includes specific guidelines as to how to handle the blood. Notice Leviticus 17:10-14:
And whatever man of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who dwell among you, who 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 to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul. Therefore I said to the children of Israel, "No one among you shall eat blood, nor shall any stranger who dwells among you eat blood." Whatever man of the children of Israel, or of the strangers who dwell among you, who hunts and catches any animal or bird that may be eaten, he shall pour out its blood and cover it with dust; for it is the life of all flesh. Its blood sustains its life. Therefore I said to the children of Israel, "You shall not eat the blood of any flesh, for the life of all flesh is its blood. Whoever eats it shall be cut off."
Repeatedly, we see that no one was to drink blood or eat meat with the blood, and the command comes with a stern warning that it was a capital crime. God reiterates that the life of the flesh is in the blood, and He makes it available to us to make atonement for us.
Verse 13 even contains instructions about how hunters are to treat the blood of their prey. Even when hunting or catching an animal in the wild, an individual is to take great care in handling blood. God covers every base in His instructions.
In Leviticus 16, He instructs the high priest on the sprinkling of the blood of the Atonement sin offering on and around the altar, on the horns of the altar, and on the Mercy Seat to cleanse it and consecrate it because of Israel's sin. The high priest could go into the Holy of Holies only once a year on the Day of Atonement, and he could not enter without this blood.
It is an amazing exercise to try to figure out how many animals were sacrificed through the centuries by the Levitical priests. How many gallons of blood were shed just for offerings? Each animal's blood had to be handled in the prescribed manner.
Not only that, how many animals are slaughtered each day around the world so human beings can live? With world population approaching 7.4 billion people in 2016—most of them meat-eaters—how much life is given every day to sustain us? Whatever the number, it represents a huge amount of blood! And God is aware of it all; He does not miss one sparrow falling (Matthew 10:29). He knows where all life is, every drop of blood, not just human, but also the blood of all the animals.
In Part Two, we will consider a New Testament perspective of the blood of the covenant.
- Ronny H. Graham