It’s what Jehovah’s Witnesses are most famous, or infamous for, refusing blood transfusions. It’s the thing people throw at them on the doorstep; ‘I don’t know how you could let a child die…’ Of course it’s an emotive issue, understandably so, but where does this idea come from in the Bible, and what are we to do with it? As Christians we need to do more than point and blame, we must understand and correct unbiblical thinking, hold the error up to the light of truth.
On their website the Watch Tower Society appeals to three Bible texts to justify this teaching:
‘Only flesh with its life—its blood—you must not eat.’ (Gen.9:4 NWT)
‘But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.’ (Gen.9:4 ESV)
‘For the life of every sort of flesh is its blood, because the life is in it. Consequently, I said to the Israelites: “You must not eat the blood of any sort of flesh because the life of every sort of flesh is its blood. Anyone eating it will be cut off.” (Lev.17:14 NWT)
For the life of every creature is its blood; its blood is its life. Therefore I have said to the peple 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.’ (Lev.17:14 ESV)
‘…but to write them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from what is strangled, and from blood.’ (Acts 15:20 NWT)
‘…but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.’ (Acts 15:20 ESV)
They conclude, ‘The Bible commands that we not ingest blood. So we should not accept whole blood or its primary components in any form, whether offered as food or as a transfusion. ‘
They perform a sleight of hand here, jumping from the drinking and eating of blood in the context of Old Testament worship practises and superstitions, to blood transfusions in the context of 21st century medical care, but is this justified?
You Shall be Holy
The odd thing about the Watch Tower teaching on blood is they get their sources right, their narrative about the history of eating blood is largely correct in a basic, encyclopaedic way. However, the inference they draw regarding blood transfusions cannot reasonably be drawn from that narrative. Indeed, a major point being pressed in Leviticus is that life is sacred, human life especially, therefore blood transfusions are surely a good thing!
The theme of Leviticus is neither the rituals of the first 16 chapters, nor the ethical code of subsequent chapters. Both, ritual and ethic, point to the theme; the holiness of God’s people. The language is of ritual cleanliness and holiness. Ritual and ethical cannot be separated, both pointing to God’s purpose in calling a people out of the world. This is how you approach a holy God, this is how a holy people live.
‘You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.’ (Lev.19:2)
You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes. You shall follow my rules and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am the LORD your God’ (Lev.18:3/4 cf. v.24)
Any Christian paying attention today sees and knows how difficult it can be to stand out, to go against the flow of the surrounding culture. We know in the church today there are those who readily adopt and embrace those things of the world that God calls ‘abominable’. Are blood transfusions one of those abominable things?
The Jerusalem Council
Commenting on Acts 15:20, the Watch Tower writes, ‘God gave Christians the same command that he had given to Noah. History shows that early Christians refused to consume whole blood or even to use it for medical reasons.’
This is a most peculiar observation since the use of blood for medical reasons was something far in the future for the church, as for wider society. Again, there is sleight of hand here, suggesting something that isn’t in the text. It would not have crossed their minds to consider such a thing. Yet the Watch Tower misleadingly suggests a positive decision might have been made to avoid using blood, ‘even for medical reasons.’
In this ministry we continuously drum home to people the importance of context in handling Bible texts. Context here immediately challenges the erroneous claims of the Watch Tower Society for the decisions made by the Jerusalem council in Acts 15. The theme of the council was the claim by some that Gentiles, to become Christians, must first become Jews.
‘Some men came down from Judaea (to Antioch 14:26-28) and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses you cannot be saved.’’ (Acts:15:1)
Following some debate in Antioch Paul and Barnabus went up to Jerusalem to sort this out. Peter stood up and, recognising that God had brought the gospel to the Gentiles, and the Holy Spirit was given to them as much as to Jewish converts, he pressed home the point, ‘we believe we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.’ (15:7-11)
Think of Paul’s words in his letter to believers in Ephesus:
‘But now in Christ Jesus you (Gentiles) who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two (Jew and Gentile), so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility….For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.’ (Eph.2:13-19 cf. Gal.3:28/29)
James announced, ‘my judgement is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God…’ (v 19) thereby making it clear circumcision was not necessary, and Gentiles did not need to become Jews in order to become Christians. But then this abstaining from blood rule is introduced in this letter affirming the Jerusalem council decision. What is going on?
Look at the verses together to get context:
‘20. Therefore my judgement is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. 21. For (i.e. because) from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim it, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.’ (Acts 15:20/21)
The council has just decided that Gentiles who turn to God do not need to first become Jews. The abstention from blood is explained in verse 21 as necessary because of the sensibilities of Jewish believers who have, for generations, heard Moses proclaimed in synagogues in every city. This is exactly the counsel delivered by Paul in 1 Corinthians. Insisting ‘an idol has no real existence,’ Paul asserts the Christian’s freedom to eat meat offered to idols:
‘However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to idols, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are not worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.’ (1 Cor.8)
You might as easily say, ‘drinking and eating blood will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat and drink, and no better of if we do. But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to Jewish believers.’
The concern of the Jerusalem Council was not that Gentile believers should obey Moses, becoming ritually clean, but that they should not become a stumbling block to Jews still emotionally bound by their tradition. Yet, Jehovah’s Witnesses seem determined to ensure surgeons know they want no blood transfusions.
Blood Transfusion History
In the ancient world the Greeks thought blood was a magical (not medical) elixir, following the thinking of even earlier civilisations. In 1st century Rome people would rush into arenas to drink the blood of fallen gladiators thinking they would be bestowed with valour. Into the Middle Ages it was widely believed that drinking the blood of youths revitalised the strength and vigour of the elderly.
It was William Harvey who, in 1628, discovered how blood circulated the body. But it was still an untested theory and the majority of the scientific world remained unconvinced. His breakthrough discovery did not immediately lead to the practice of transfusing blood. Natural philosophers (scientists of the day) experimented with the unorthodox practice of transfusing various substances into dogs, but the ancient notion of balancing the humours by bleeding stubbornly remained into the 19th century.
In the 16th century the idea did form that transfusing blood might restore health and vigour to the sick, but anyone who thought of even trying it would have been considered foolish in the extreme. A young doctor named Jean-Baptiste Denis performed the first animal to human transfusion with mixed results (two patients lived but another died). He was taken to court for his troubles.
This was unknown territory then and people began wondering if a transfusion from a dog would find the patient beginning to bark. This thinking is not as unusual as you might believe.
After organ transplants were introduced early in the 20th century (cornea 1905; uterus 1931; kidney 1950) Jehovah’s Witnesses were among the many who believed a transplant from a criminal might give the patient criminal tendencies, make a meek man ill-tempered and violent. The Watch Tower Society warned against the dangers of a ‘personality transplant.’ The June 8 1968 Awake made clear Jehovah’s Witnesses viewed transplants as cannibalistic. They have since changed their position on transplants.
In any event, Jean-Baptiste Denis’ experiments created a scandal and the court banned the practise. It is important to understand how something today as commonplace yet life-saving as a blood transfusion would have been viewed back then. The first successful human to human transfusions were performed in the late 18th into the 19th century. You can view a timeline here.
All this to reinforce the point the early church would not have known what you were talking about if you had spoken of using blood for medicinal reasons. If it was used for anything it was for religious reasons, or because of some superstition concerning its magical qualities. Like any good political leader the Society has simply planted the idea by inference and allowed it to do its work.
On Whose Altar?
Leviticus 17:11-12 gives us a clear picture of why there is a prohibition on eating blood; again, consider the context:
‘If any one of the house of Israel or of the strangers who 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 on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life. Therefore I have said to the people of Israel, No person among you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger who sojourns among you eat blood.’
It is important to recognise everything here centres around the altar and sacrifice. Jehovah’s Witnesses are right in teaching God places an incalculable value on life. The fifth commandment says we should not murder. Once you take a life you can’t restore it and God alone is the giver of life (Ps.36:9). In their teaching, however, they skip over entirely the meaning and context of this teaching. There are serious prohibitions in these passages. If we consider what is forbidden we can arrive at the reason for not eating, or drinking, blood.
‘If any one of the house of Israel kills an ox or a lamb or a goat in the camp, or kills it outside the camp, and does not bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting to offer it as a gift to the Lord in front of the tabernacle of the Lord, blood-guilt shall be imputed to that man. He has shed blood, and that man shall be cut off from among his people. This is to the end that the people of Israel may bring their sacrifices that they sacrifice in the open field, that they may bring them to the Lord, to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and sacrifice them as sacrifices of peace offerings to the Lord. And the priest shall throw the blood on the altar of the Lord at the entrance of the tent of meeting and burn the fat for a pleasing aroma to the Lord. So they shall no more sacrifice their sacrifices to goat demons, after whom they whore.’ (17:3-7)
This is not a prohibition on slaughtering animals other than those offered in sacrifice. Moses makes clear in Deuteronomy that slaughtering animals for food is allowed anywhere (Duet.12:15) The significance of slaughtering animals outside the camp is found at the end of this passage. ‘So they shall no more sacrifice their sacrifices to goat demons, after whom they whore.’
Goat demons, or goat gods, would have been very familiar to Israelites recently delivered from servitude in Egypt. Ellicot’s Commentary for English Readers explains:
‘And they shall no more offer their sacrifices unto devils.–The word (s?irim) here translated “devils,” literally denotes hairy or shaggy goats, and then goat-like deities, or demons. The Egyptians, and other nations of antiquity, worshipped goats as gods. Not only was there a celebrated temple in Thmuis, the capital of the Mendesian Nomos in Lower Egypt, dedicated to the goat-image Pan, whom they called Mendes, and worshipped as the oracle, and as the fertilising principle in nature, but they erected statues of him everywhere. Hence the Pan, Silenus, satyrs, fauns, and the woodland gods among the Greeks and Romans; and hence, too, the goat-like form of the devil, with a tail, horns, and cloven feet, which obtain in medieval Christianity, and which may still be seen in some European cities. The terror which the devil, appearing in this Pan-like form, created among those who were thought to have seen him, has given rise to our expression panic. This is the form of idolatrous worship which the Jews brought with them from Egypt, and to which reference is continually made.’
This was an injunction against do-it-yourself spirituality practised away from the camp and the tabernacle. As Eric Tidball explains in his BST commentary on Leviticus, ‘Once people began to set up their own forms of sacrifice and perform them when, where and how they liked, elements of pagan worship from surrounding cultures would soon be imported to ‘improve’ the liturgy of Israel.’
A lesson here for the church to not entertain a curiosity about the gods and worship practices of the pagan world (Deut.12:30)
‘If any one of the house of Israel or of the strangers who 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 on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life. Therefore I have said to the people of Israel, No person among you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger who sojourns among you eat blood.’ (17:10-12)
The specific prohibition on drinking blood, again, draws significance from the sacrificial system of Israel. Most people in the ancient world hinged their beliefs about blood on religious dogma. To drink blood was to associate yourself with this ungodly dogma. As the text makes clear, ‘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.’
Once again, we see the eating and drinking of blood prohibited because of blood’s significance as the source of life and because of its role at the altar of God in making atonement. Life is sacred to God, even animal life. While animals may be killed in order to eat, and to serve the sacrificial system of the tabernacle, this permission is qualified by a regulation designed to steer God’s people away from false gods, from the blood lust that commonly accompanied such worship.
Ironically, the Watch Tower’s strict prohibition on blood transfusions does the very opposite of what God intended. If life is sacred, if the prohibition is no longer applicable to the wider Christian community (see Acts 15:20/21 above), surely blood transfusions work to recognise, preserve, and save the life so sacred to God.
Finally, in his BST commentary on this chapter in Leviticus, Derek Tidball observes:
‘The new covenant no less than the old is a covenant of blood, and it still holds that without the laying down of a life and the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin. But the new covenant does not require the endless offering of blood sacrifices, because the offering of one blood sacrifice, the sacrifice of Christ, the perfect human, is sufficient to cover all our sins…
‘In a curious reversal, however, though the people of Israel ere forbidden to drink blood, the people of Christ are commanded to do so. For the exchange to be complete, not only has Jesus to take the sinners place and lay down his life as a ransom, but sinners are to absorb his life so that they may begin to live for God. This is why Jesus said, ‘I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no part in me.’ (John 6:53) To drink his blood is to assimilate the benefits of his death and infuse every part of our being with his life. The sacrament of communion serves as a regular, enacted reminder of this.’
The Watch Tower denies Jehovah’s Witnesses life in this world by their refusal of blood transfusions, and denies them life in the next by denying Jehovah’s Witnesses the ‘flesh and blood’ of the Son of Man at the communion table.