A Word for Today: Blood, Bloodshed, Bloodguilt, Murder (Heb. Dam)
Brian Clatworthy, Newton Abbot, Devon, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
Some of us may have seen the Moody Institute of Science presentation entitled ‘Red River of Blood’, which, although now somewhat dated, never ceases to make one realize just how ‘awesomely and wonderfully’1 we are made as human beings. One interesting statistic in that presentation is that there are more references to blood in the Bible than in any other book, other than, possibly, a textbook specifically written on haematology. So, whilst this might present us with a somewhat daunting task as we seek to look at the use of the Hebrew word for blood, dãm, it also provides us, like the blood-stream, with a continuous flow of rich material to work on!
The word dãm occurs over 300 times in the Old Testament, and is the basic term for blood found in most Semitic word groups. Leon Morris2 has helpfully categorized the occurrences in the Old Testament as follows:
- Death with violence of some kind, e.g., in Genesis chapter 9 verse 6, where God lays down an unbreakable principle of requital by stating that ‘whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed’ ESV;
- Connecting life with blood, e.g., in Leviticus chapter 17 verse 14, where the eating of blood is proscribed by God, ‘for the life of every creature is its blood; its blood is its life’ ESV;
- Eating meat with blood, e.g., in Leviticus chapter 3 verse 17, which also forms part of the proscriptive laws against eating blood; God warns Israel that they could ‘eat neither fat nor blood’. This prohibition is also carried on into the later book of Jubilees.
- Sacrificial blood, e.g., the institution of the Passover in Exodus chapter 12 verse 13, where the blood of the slain lamb stays the judgement of God from falling on Israel;
- General Uses, e.g., figuratively, in 2 Samuel chapter 23 verse 17, where drinking the water that men risked their lives to bring to David would be equivalent to drinking their blood. See below for other figurative uses.
Surprisingly, the category that has the highest incident of this Hebrew word is the first category, and not the fourth. But it is the sacrificial aspect that features most in theological terms, because of the links in the New Testament to the death of Christ. For example, Paul has no difficulty in connecting the narrative of Exodus chapter 12 with the sacrifice of Christ in 1 Corinthians chapter 5 verse 7b. It is also evident that the word is used both literally and figuratively in the Old Testament, so, as in all textual studies, the context must be the primary concern in the interpretation. The figurative use is mainly confined to texts found in historical and poetic narrative, but the prophets are also keen users of this form of rhetorical device. If we look at texts such as 1 Kings chapter 2 verse 5, or Psalm 106 verse 38, we see that the word is used almost as a synonym for murder, hence the expression, ‘his blood shall be upon himself’, Ezek. 18. 13 ESV. Jeremiah expresses his outrage at those who exploit the disadvantaged, even to the extent of taking innocent blood, Jer. 7. 6. This forms part of a lengthier ‘sermon’ against Israel in which he underpins his argument by referring to parts of Exodus chapter 20, and Deuteronomy chapter 5 that include the prohibition against murder. One other notable point to make is that in general blood is not identified in the Old Testament with family relationships. Paul Trebilco states, ‘While in English we speak of blood kinship or blood relations, the OT speaks of someone as being of the same bone and flesh (esem, basar; Gen 2. 23; Judg. 9. 2 [cp. NIV]). Since dãm was regularly connected with violence, or spilt blood, it was not a suitable word to designate family relationships (Christ, 8-12)’.3
A great deal of argument has persisted over the years as to whether blood shed in sacrifice relates to life that is given up in death, or, conversely, whether it is the life that is presented to God that makes atonement for sin. In other words, ‘blood’ in this latter context means life that is offered in sacrifice rather than death. In our reading of both Old and New Testament texts, and even taking into account Leviticus chapter 17 verse 11, ’for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life’ ESV,4 it seems quite clear that it is in the death of the sacrificial victim that atonement is made for sin, or, as J. Armitage Robinson, commenting on the expression ‘through his blood’ in Ephesians chapter 1 verse 7, confirms, ‘To the Jewish mind “blood” was not merely – nor even chiefly – the life-current flowing in the veins of the living: it was especially the life poured out in death; and yet more particularly in its religious aspect it was the symbol of death’.5
In the Septuagint (LXX) the word dãm is usually translated by the Greek word haima, which is the noun that occurs mostly in the New Testament for blood. It is used in the ordinary sense of the word when it refers to the woman with the flow or ‘haemorrhages’ NRSV of blood, Mark 5. 25, and of the blood that flowed from the side of Christ, John 19. 34. John uses it in a technical sense of blood relationship, literally ‘of bloods’, when he distinguishes between natural birth, and spiritual regeneration, John 1. 13. Crucially though, it is the blood of Christ, i.e., His expiation for sin that is the main focal point for the writers of the New Testament. As Stephen Renn writes, ‘Haima occurs in the contexts where the “blood of Christ” is the dominant motif’.6 This can be seen, especially within the various New Testament letters, for example, in Romans chapter 3 verse 25. Hebrews is full of references to the significance of the blood of Christ, which secures for us eternal redemption, Heb. 9. 12, and enables us to gain access into the presence of God at all times, Heb. 10. 19. Therefore, since we have this access by faith, Rom. 5. 2, let us not only enjoy the peace of God, but may we be firmly fixed on the hope that is set before us, because of the value God has placed on the blood of Christ, Heb. 12. 24.
Morris, Leon, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, pp. 126-128 - Additional note on the meaning of the word ‘blood’.
Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Abridged in One Volume, HAIMA, pp. 26-27.
1. Ps. 139. 14a (Tanakh Translation).
2. The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, pp. 112-113.
3. NIDOTTE, Vol. 1 pg. 964.
4. There are many other references that suggest that death is the atoning act, and, in fact, one could legitimately interpret Leviticus chapter 17 verse 11 as referring to the life poured out in death.
5. Commentary on Ephesians – Exposition of the Greek Text, pg. 29.
6. Expository Dictionary of Bible Words, pg. 124.
AUTHOR PROFILE: He is an elder and active member of a pioneer assembly work in Newton Abbott. For many years he has been welcomed as a ministering brother in the south of England and has written a number of articles for the magazine. He is married and has two children.