Genesis 9 and the Eternal Covenant?

In this section we will focus on the first major Bible text that addresses blood. Its found in the first book of the Bible and is quoted below:

(Genesis 9:3-7) Every moving animal that is alive may serve as food for YOU. As in the case of green vegetation, I do give it all to YOU. 4 Only flesh with its soul-its blood-YOU must not eat. 5 And, besides that, YOUR blood of YOUR souls shall I ask back. From the hand of every living creature shall I ask it back; and from the hand of man, from the hand of each one who is his brother, shall I ask back the soul of man. 6 Anyone shedding man’s blood, by man will his own blood be shed, for in God’s image he made man. 7 And as for YOU men, be fruitful and become many, make the earth swarm with YOU and become many in it.”

It would be useful at this point to review how the Society’s current blood booklet treats this verse. Here is a direct quote:

In one early reference, the Creator declared: Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. . . . But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. He added: For your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting, and he then condemned murder. (Genesis 9:3-6, New International Version) He said that to Noah, a common ancestor highly esteemed by Jews, Muslims, and Christians. All humanity was thus notified that in the Creator’s view, blood stands for life. This was more than a dietary regulation. Clearly a moral principle was involved. Human blood has great significance and should not be misused. The Creator later added details from which we can easily see the moral issues that he links to lifeblood. (How Can Blood Save Your Life?, 1990, p.3)

As we will soon see, it is for good reason the Watchtower Society (hereafter WTS) does not include verse 7 in their writing. They do address the issue of Noah being a common ancestor to Jews, Muslims, and Christians, and yes they correctly state that blood “stands for life.” Thus acknowledging that it is used as a symbol or metaphor in this passage. This too is an important point as we shall later see.

They next state that “This was more than a dietary regulation.” This is inaccurate, for as we shall see, there is no dietary restriction actually stated here at all. There is a “moral principle” involved, actually several.

The expression “Human blood has great significance and should not be misused” is also somewhat misleading. On it’s own merit, the statement is true. However, there is nothing in this scripture that addresses the misuse of human blood, outside of forbidding murder, and that is not what they are implying. Try as you like, you simply cannot formulate the argument that a blood transfusion is a misuse of blood from these verses.

Let us now turn our attention to these verses and attempt a thorough and honest exegeses. What we find in this account is a covenant between God and Noah. It has been argued that the covenant extends to all of mankind due to the fact that Noah became the ancestor of all men.

Basically, the covenant addresses three main issues:

1. They may eat animal flesh, but not “flesh with its soul-its blood.”

2. Murder is forbidden – “Anyone shedding man’s blood, … will his own blood be shed…”

3. They are to produce offspring in abundance – “be fruitful and become many…”

The society has argued that this is a “eternal covenant” that is binding upon all of mankind. If we are to accept that this is a covenant that is binding upon us today, can we pick and choose which parts of it are applicable, and ignore others?

Consider this: When was the last time Jehovah’s Witnesses were encouraged to apply Genesis 9:7 and become fruitful and many? And why do we permit the use of birth control which would clearly seem to be in violation of the third element of this covenant?

Is it possible that this covenant is not binding upon all of mankind? In discussing the subject of birth control and the scriptural injunction regarding child bearing found at Gen. 1:28 and restated at Gen. 9:7, note what the Awake of Sept. 22, 1989, pp.23,24 said:

“This command was clearly related to the special circumstances existing at that time.”

So the Awake concedes that this portion of the covenant is not binding upon us, and in fact we can could site many articles in the WTS publications over the years that have discouraged child bearing.

The important point here is this: If the covenant with Noah was in fact an eternal one, we would have to abide by all of it. In any event, since both Paul and Jesus encouraged the gift of singleness, it is plain to see that this portion of the so called “eternal covenant” is null and void when we reach the Greek scriptures which don’t even mention the covenant.

Legally speaking, when one provision of a covenant or contract is voided, it does not automatically render the other provisions void. But it certainly calls them into question, and frequently does become a basis for making the agreement voidable.

At the very least, therefore, we have established that the covenant with Noah was not eternal, and this certainly calls into question the other provisions of the covenant.

Let’s consider another aspect to all of this. Does the covenant deal in absolutes? The expression “shedding man’s blood” refers to murder. So then, was everyone who spilled blood put to death? The Bible record reveals many exceptions. Israelite warriors were not violating the covenant when they killed an enemy. And those who unintentionally killed someone were not automatically put to death. Exceptions were made. Consider the cases of David as well as Saul of Tarsus who conspired in the murder of Stephen.

From this we can conclude that Jehovah God was willing to make exceptions to these commands as “special circumstances” required. The covenant does not deal in “absolutes.”

Additionally, what if you cut yourself and started to bleed. Would you be in violation of the covenant? You would have after all “shed man’s blood.” I say this simply to point out something that we have often overlooked, and that is that blood is merely a symbol of life, and that in these verses is used as a metaphor.

To understand it’s use in any other way simply doesn’t make sense. Hence the literal blood is not important, other wise it would be perfectly OK to strangle someone or take their life in some way that did not result in the literal shedding of their blood. This is simply ridiculous and no one would argue such a point. So in this account blood is used as a metaphor or symbol.

With these thoughts clearly in mind, let us examine Gen. 9:4. There we read:

“Only flesh with its soul-its blood-YOU must not eat.”

Consider how other Bibles translate this verse:

“But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it.” (NIV)
“But never eat animals unless their life-blood has been drained off”                         (Living Bible)
“But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.” (New King James)

What are these verses actually saying? The answer may surprise you. Remember, blood is being used as a metaphor for life. So it is likely that theses verses are in effect saying “don’t eat animals that are still alive,” and indeed an animal that has its lifeblood within it is likely to be alive.

This no doubt sounds peculiar, but it’s true! This was a known practice in ancient times, and is still practiced in Africa. If you take the time to research this, you will find that most commentators agree this is the correct understanding of the text.Consider the following:

“By its meager terms, human beings, plant eaters in the garden of Eden, were permitted to kill and eat animals, so long as they did not eat them alive (this is the meaning of the command at Genesis 9:4, “you must not eat flesh with its life-blood in it”) but forbidden to kill their own kind….But abstention from devouring a live kill or murdering a fellow human amounts to exceedingly little as the acknowledgment of God, much less as the expression of a relationship with God…” (italics ours) God – A Biography by Jack Miles, p.286 – First Vintage Books Edition, April 1996 – Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Clearly this author reached the same conclusion that I did. So you might wonder, just who is Jack Miles? I quote from the introduction:

“Jack Miles is director of the Humanities Center at the Claremont Graduate School, near Los Angeles, and contributing editor at The Atlantic Monthly. For ten years, ending in 1995, he served as literary editor, the member of the editorial board, at the Los Angeles Times. A former Jesuit, he pursued religious studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome, and the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. He holds a doctorate in Near Eastern languages from Harvard University. A 1989 Regents Lecturer at the University of California and a 1990 Guggenheim Fellow, he has served as president of the National Book Critics Circle, of which he is still a member. Miles freelances for a long list of national publications, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, Commonweal, Tikkun, and others. He lives with his wife and daughter in southern California.”


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Rabbinic sources, like the famous commentary on the Talmud by Rabbi Raschi (1040-1105), give this interpretation. (Rev. M. Rosenbaum and Dr. A. M. Silberman, Pentateuch with Targum Onkelos, Haphtaroth and Prayers for Sabbath and Rashi’s Commentary: Genesis, London: Shapiro, Vallentine & Co, 1946, p. 37.)

Other commentators agree that this is the correct and direct interpretation of these verses:

  • “The original meaning of the prohibition. B. Jacob paraphrases: `You may eat all flesh, but not flesh with its life.’ The commonly accepted explanation, that the sentence forbids the partaking of blood, is not correct, though one can certainly say that it follows; however it is not stated expressly.”1
  • “Rabbinic tradition understands this formula as a prohibition (to all mankind) not to cut steaks from a living animal. Absurd or far-fetched as this interpretation may appear to some moderns, such a practice would preserve the living flesh in a fresh state for later consumption; and has, furthermore, been reported as practiced in parts of Africa – the related (rabbinic) interpretation, (forbidding) drinking the blood tapped from the veins of living animals is the regular practice of Masai tribesmen . . . Some sects interpret the prohibition here as interdicting blood transfusions.”2
  • See also Martin Luther, who argues along the same lines in his commentary.3
  • Even the WTS at one time recognized that the prohibition did not technically have to do with eating blood and hence commented in the following way:

“All reasonable minds must conclude that it was not the eating of the blood that God objected to, but it was the bringing the blood of the beast in contact with the blood of man” *The Golden Age*, February 4, 1931, page 294 (Golden Age No. 297).

This is clearly another example of a command that was formulated due to the “special circumstances existing at that time.” The Society has readily acknowledged this to be the case with reference to the command in verse seven “be fruitful and become many…” But is yet to appreciate or acknowledge as much with regards to verse four.

Some may argue that blood is not used symbolically in verse four. What are the alternatives? To think that blood is used literally in verse four and as a metaphor in verse five is illogical. And consider the dilemma that results if one insists on a literal interpretation. Something as simple as a blood test would have to be prohibited as “shedding man’s blood.” And for that matter, the eating of meat would have to be improper since even a thorough bleeding of animals leaves about one-half of the blood in the meat, thus making the entire covenant invalid. Why bother giving permission to eat meat, if you require all blood to be removed, and that is not possible?

A variation on all of this that I think is worth mentioning has to do with the difference between blood that is in a living creature and blood from a dead creature or human. “Anyone shedding man’s blood, by man will his own blood be shed…” is the statement made in Gen. 9:6. A very compelling argument can be made that blood that is poured out is a symbol not of life, but of death. I will not spend time developing this argument, I simply want to acknowledge that it exists, and that it is plausible.

Although the Mosaic law will later prohibit the actual eating of blood, technically no such prohibition occurs here. The later requirement involving the proper bleeding of animals would insure that they were in fact dead, and hence one sees the underlying principle of the Mosaic law requiring proper bleeding of animals, that being compliance with the command at Gen. 9:4. Indeed, if an animal has been bled, it has to be dead.

So what have we learned from Gen. 9:4-7?

1. That at least portions of the “eternal covenant” are no longer binding upon all mankind.

2. The provisions of the covenant were not absolute, exceptions were made.

3. Blood is used as a metaphor for life. Its use is symbolic not literal.

Additionally, the entire discussion of blood takes place in the context of killing, either animals or humans. This is an important point because a blood transfusion does not involve killing. Quite to contrary, such blood is used for the purpose of preserving life.

This brings up another important point and that is which is greater, the symbol or the reality. Consider this: Which is greater Jesus’ shed blood, or the red wine which symbolizes his blood? Obviously, the blood of Jesus is greater. Which is greater, the blood which can symbolize life, or the life itself?

This illustration may be helpful to consider: If you were robbed and a thief demanded your wedding ring, would you refuse to give it if he threatened to kill your spouse? Would you reason: “This ring represents my marriage to my spouse, and that’s more important than my spouses life.” This is the same reasoning the WTS asks Jehovah’s Witnesses to use to justify the sacrifice of their life or their loved ones. Yes blood is a symbol of life, but the life is certainly more valuable than the symbol.

In the final analysis, is there anything in these verses that addresses in any way the modern day medical practice of transfusing blood or blood fractions? NO – It’s simply not there. We find nothing in the content of the prohibition which suggests it was meant to pertain to anything but the EATING OF LIVING ANIMALS, and by implication, blood. The language is simple, straightforward, and unmistakably clear.


1. Claus Westermann: Genesis 1-11. A Commentary. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984, p. 464. His detailed discussion of this topic on pp. 464-5 is well worth an examination.

2. “On Slaughter and Sacrifice, Blood and Atonement,” Hebrew Union College Annual, vol. XLVII, Cincinnati, p. 21; ellipse in original.

3. Jaroslav Pelikan (ed.): Luther’s Works, Vol. 2, Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1960, p. 138.

1 Comment

  1. New Light

    I would add that even the command “not to kill” has an exception: self-defense (exodus 22:2). So if I kill one that is going to kill me not guilty of blood because my life is sacred too. The Law allows a murder if there is a risk of life and not a blood transfusion if there is a risk of life? This question was enough to throw my DPA to the trash.


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