“For the life of all flesh is its blood, and I give it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for its blood makes atonement for the soul.” (OSB modified)
This is a fascinating and important passage, for it states a principle that undergirds the whole Sacrificial system in the Old Covenant, which is then fulfilled and transformed in Christ and the New Covenant. The fascination comes from the fact that the word for “life” here is actually the word often translated as “soul” (psyche), as well as from the equation that is made: “life/soul” = “blood.” The importance comes from the fact that God Himself has given the blood/soul as the means of atonement, that is, as the means of purification and expiation (cleansing and removal of impurity and sin).
In the context of the initial giving of the Law to ancient Israel, God wants to preserve Israel’s sacrificial practice from pagan influence. Toward this end, first, the Law here in Lev 17, and later and in a fuller way in Deut 17, insists that all ritual killing be done in connection with the Tabernacle/Temple precincts. There are to be no “private Masses,” as it were. And second, while because of its divinely-appointed function, blood is sacred, still the purpose of ritual sacrifice is not to manipulate the “gods” nor to commune with a “world soul” through drinking animal blood, in some form of animism.
In his homily on Genesis 1:24 (Hexaemeron 8.2), St. Basil notes the difference between the “living soul” of animals as produced by the earth, and the “living soul” that Adam became through God’s direct inspiration of the “breath of life” (Gen 2:7). And yet it is also true that all life has God as its ultimate source, for “when You take away their breath, [all things] shall die and return again to their dust,” but when “You shall send forth Your Spirit,” “they shall be created” (Ps 103:29-30). To manipulate or drink blood, then, is an attempt to appropriate for oneself, on one’s own terms, that which comes from and belongs to God alone—the very principle of life/soul. The same logic applies to murder, as seen in Gen 9:3-7: to unlawfully take someone else’s life through the shedding of blood is to “play God,” for it is to take upon oneself the divine prerogative of bestowing or withholding breath-life-soul.
Again, we return to the important observation that God Himself has given the blood/soul of animals to Israel. Israel does not take what does not belong to it; its sacrifices are not an attempt to “play God,” they are a faithful response to the Divinely-revealed Economy of the Law.
And we immediately see how this Economy points us to Sacrifice of all Sacrifices, Christ’s own self-giving. It is God Himself Who “puts forth” Christ’s Blood as a “Mercy Seat” and “Sacrifice of Atonement” (Rom 3:25). Christ Himself lays down His own Soul (Psyche) freely, and has the authority of Himself to take it up again (Jn 10:17-18). Christ Himself gives us to eat of His own Flesh and to drink of His Blood in the Eucharist (cf. Jn 6:48-58), which we do not take, but receive with thanksgiving—a scandal to the Jews and even to some of Jesus’ disciples who knew well of Lev 17:11, but our glory and salvation. And so, since Christ is Life (Jn 14:6), our reception of Christ’s incarnate Body and Blood in the transformed Bread and Wine of Communion, which have been assumed into and united with His eternal divine Person (Hypostasis), is our partaking of the very Principle of Life itself. God has given us this divine Blood-Life-Soul for our purification and our redemption, for it is Christ’s own Soul that is given as a “ransom” (Matt 20:28) for our deliverance from the tyranny of sin, death, and the Devil.
~ by Reader Justin Gohl