Leithart: Power in the Blood

Peter Leithart has a series of posts on the power of blood in atonement rituals.

In The Gift of Efficacy, Leithart writes:

Blood atones. That’s rooted in the created fact that life is in the blood, but in the Bible this doesn’t mean that blood is a kind of magical moral detergent. How then can it atone? It atones because God has “given” it for atonement: “I have given [blood] to you on the altar to make atonement for your lives” (Leviticus 17:11). . . . And so we extrapolate: Baptismal water is given for remission of sins because God gave it for the remission of sins. Bread is an appropriate food, but it is Eucharistic bread is [sic] the bread of heaven because Jesus us gave it to us as such, because He said “This is my body.” Wine is the blood of the grape, but Eucharistic wine is the blood of Christ because Jesus said “This is the covenant in My blood.” No transubstantiations here. No electrification of created things with supernatural juice. It’s enough that they are gifts gifted to be effective.

Why did blood atone? Because God says it did. God “gave” it for atonement.

I made a similar point about the water of baptism in The Promise in the WaterBaptismal Regeneration and A Baptismal Affirmation.

Through the promise of God’s word, the waters of baptism are powerful and effective. God’s word to us in baptism is capable of accomplishing everything God intends. [Lewis, A Baptismal Affirmation]

In Atonement and Re-creation, Leithart turns to Stephen Geller’s article “Blood Cult: Toward a Literary Theology of the Priestly Work of the Pentateuch.” Yom Kippur, Geller argues, is not primarily about forgiving the sins of individual Israelites or even Israel as a corporate body.

Picking up hints from Jacob Milgrom, Geller argues that the point of the day is to cleanse the shrine from the “miasma” that attaches to it. What happens on the day of atonement is a restoration of the tabernacle to its pristine condition . . . . The effect of the day of atonement is to reverse the pollutions of the sanctuary caused by such as Aaron’s sons, and to refresh the sanctuary. And, since the sanctuary is, Geller says, an architectural recovery of Edenic-creation . . .  the re-pristination of the sanctuary is an act of recreation.

Leithart concludes,

To this I would only add that the re-creation extends to the high priest or the priesthood: What is remade on Yom Kippur is not only Eden, but Adam in Eden.

Finally, in Bloody Christians, Leithart looks at Geller’s observations about Judaism and Christianity following the temple’s destruction in AD 70. Judaism “lost interest in blood” and replaced the sacrificial cult with prayer, the reading and study of Torah, and acts of loving-kindness. Christianity, on the other hand,

“did take up some of [the priestly tradition’s] central concerns, placing sacrifice and blood in a central theological position, albeit with much reinterpretation. Messianism is alien to [the priestly tradition], but the redeeming blood of the Lamb, the wine of the Eucharist, which miraculously becomes the blood of God, the blood of the New Covenant, all these give to Christianity an involvement with blood alien to Judaism.”

Geller’s quote reminded me of the second chapter in Robert Louis Wilken’s The Spirit of Early Christian Thought entitled “An Awesome and Unbloody Sacrifice.” Wiken begins by quoting the anaphora from the ancient eastern Liturgy of Saint James.

Making remembrance of his life-giving-sufferings, his cross and death, his burial and resurrection on the third day from the dead, and his session at the right hand of You his God and Father, and his second glorious and fearful coming when he will judge the living and the dead . . . . we offer You, O Lord, this awesome and unbloody sacrifice, beseeching You to deal with us not according to our sins . . . but according to Your Great mercy and love.

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