Flesh, Soul & Blood-Gen 9:4

Lewis Reich lewreich at javanet.com
Fri Nov 5 00:05:31 EST 1999

On 24 Oct 99, at 17:18, Ben Crick wrote:

> > I heard someone saying that we shouldn't take the blood (blood
> > transfussion) from anyone because Bible tells us that blood is
> > soul (life) of flesh (meat) & we are not suppose to have it in any
> > condition.  He showed the above reference (Gen 9:4) for that.  
Do you
> > think this verse really means to say that? or there are some 
> > theological reasons that my friend is not aware of?
>  This is not the forum for debating matters of religious conviction 
>  by this or that group. 

While I would agree that we should not debate matters of religious 
conviction, I would hope that it would nevertheless be possible to 
discuss what we conceive the plain meaning of a text to be, 
without being disrespectful of another religious tradition's differing 
interpretation of that text.  (To take a more arcane and less 
emotional matter, we might discuss what the plain meaning of the 
prohibition on RiBiT (interest) is without being disrespectful to the 
meanings that, for example, Jewish and Catholic religious tradition 
have attached to that prohibition.

In the case of the quoted prohibition on Gen 9:4:  the prohibition in 
the text is lo tochelu - you (pl.) shall not eat.  I would think that most 
of us interpret "eat" as meaning consuming food in order to avail 
oneself of its nutritive value.  The question "did the verse mean to 
say that" may not be answerable in those terms.  

> Under the Old Covenant, there was a strict taboo on the eating of
> blood, for the above-considered reasons. Eating meat or not is a
> matter for the individual conscience; accepting a blood
> transfusion or not is a matter for the individual conscience. 

Clearly, the author of the text did not have blood transfusions in 
mind, for they were not practiced until the twentieth century.  
Whether one ought to regard the prohibition as encompassing 
transfusions might, for example, be based on considerations of 
what connotations the Hebrew verb )KL has that might be different 
from the English "to eat".  But ultimately, for many people, it is a 
matter of what their tradition dictates.  (Jewish tradition says that 
there are many arguably valid ways to interpret every verse of the 
Torah, and each of them must be respected even if ultimately a 
decision must often be made to accept one interpretation as 
governing our practice.)

Since I am  on the subject (and since Ben conveniently raised it), I 
would add that I am fairly certain the Jewish tradition does not 
regard the verse as applying to transfusions.  But even if it did, 
Jewish religious law holds that many Bibilical prohibitions (e.g., 
those on non-kosher food, or on violating the Sabbath, or on 
fasting on Yom Kippur) may be violated if arguably necessary to 
save a life.  Since most transfusions by their very nature are life-
saving, they would be permissible in practice even if prohibited by 
Gen. 9:4.  Other provisions of Jewish religious law might even 
prohibit a person from refusing potentially life-saving treatment.

>  KiY NeFe$ HaBBF&FR         BaDDFM HiW'  
>  For the life of the flesh, it is in the blood 
>  Wa'a:NiY NeTaTTiYW     LFKeM     `aL HaMMiZ:Be``aC
>  and I    have given it to you     upon the altar
>  L:KaPPeR `aL-NaF:$oTeYKeM
>  to atone for your souls  

illustrates how tricky Hebrew words like nefesh and neshamah are -
their translation often depends on their context.  Both are often 
rendered as "soul", but they have different connotations.  Note in 
the quoted verse that the "nefesh" in the first line is translated 
"life", while the plural form in the last line is translated "souls".  This 
preserves what seems to me the best translation, but at the cost of 
recognizing that the exact same word is used in the beginning as at 
the end of the phrase, establishing a parallelism between the 
nefesh of the flesh, which is in the blood, and the atonement for the 
listener's nefesh.

Lewis Reich

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