There will be blood

By Guy Brandon 05 Jan 2019

Learning to Love Leviticus #3

‘Do not eat any meat with the blood still in it...’ – Leviticus 19:26

‘...because the life of every creature is its blood.’ – Leviticus 17:14

Among its many varied and often obscure laws, Leviticus 19 bans Israelites from eating blood. On the surface of it, this would restrict us from all kinds of foods including rare steak or steak tartare (which is entirely raw); biltong (thinly-sliced raw air-cured meat); and black pudding – which of course is doubly banned since it contains both blood and pork.

This series has previously looked at contemporary Christian approaches to tattoos (mostly fine) and mixed-fibre clothes (feel free to wear polycotton). Presumably the laws around eating rare steak and black pudding are– much like biltong[1]– cut and dried?

Well, not so fast.

Blood loss

Blood is an ideal host for pathogens and it is standard practice in all abattoirs to remove it from animals by strategically puncturing them and hanging them to drain. Then they are gutted, washed and processed into cuts of meat. Most countries require that animals are stunned before draining for reasons of animal welfare and convenience, and death actually occurs from lack of blood to the brain. (You may find this link gruesomely informative.)

In a kosher slaughterhouse the animals are not stunned first and their throats are cut by a licensed Jewish shochet, before non-kosher elements are removed (including certain fat, veins and sinews). The meat is soaked and salted to remove remaining blood, but this is not the sole concern. There are many rules surrounding who is allowed to slaughter the animals, how the knife should be wielded, and how the meat is subsequently processed.

The pink liquid you see in many packs of meat – kosher or otherwise – is therefore not blood. It is a mixture of water and the protein myoglobin. In the Jewish halakhic tradition, this is called mohul, meat‘juice’, or chamra boser, ‘the wine of the meat’. Cooking meat doesn’t remove blood, it just cooks it. In short, while there are some things that are best left in the 70s (like collars made from repurposed hang gliders and Captain and Tenille’s emetic song ‘Muskrat Love’), there is no biblical reason why steak tartare should not be eaten.

The food laws

In Matthew 5:17 Jesus states he has come to fulfil the Law. Although he makes it clear he is not doing away with the Law, this does abolish the kosher rules. Practice around which animals it is permissible for Christians to eat was decided long ago. Peter’s dream in Acts 10 established that even ‘unclean’ animals could be eaten, and Paul is also vocal about the matter. There are no kosher laws for Christians: bacon and seafood are on the menu.

However, when it comes to black pudding, we’re not just talking about clean and unclean animals. We’re dealing with one of the oldest laws in the Bible, reiterated multiple times in both the Old and New Testaments. It’s very hard to ignore.

The Jerusalem Council

In Acts 15, a group of Apostles and elders in the Church met to address a pernicious problem. Jewish Christians were preaching that Gentile converts had to accept Jewish law, including circumcision and the food laws. Peter and Paul both argue vehemently against this. (In Galatians 5, Paul graphically condemns those who are preaching circumcision to non-Jewish Christians.) The result is a letter from the Jerusalem Council sent to Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia, clarifying the Council’s position (Acts 15:23-29,also 21:25). ‘It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.’

These instructions reaffirm the covenant God made with Noah after the flood. This ‘Noahic Covenant’ took place before Abraham or the nation of Israel and applies to all humanity. God allows Noah and his descendants to eat all kinds of animals, but clearly states: ‘You must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it.’ (Genesis 9:4)

This will be controversial. As Christians, we’re not used to this idea. We live under grace. Dietary restrictions aren’t for us, surely?

To summarise: the prohibition on eating blood is one of the only demands made of Gentile Christians (i.e. most of us) in the New Testament.Paul, Peter and other giants among the apostles and elders all agreed on it, and – while ensuring the burden on non-Jewish converts was as light as possible – they nevertheless felt this important enough to state unequivocally. It reiterates a command given by God to Noah, and by extension to all humanity, and that remains consistent across the entire arc of scripture. Hermeneutically, it is very difficult to argue that it is now irrelevant.

Of course, this hasn’t always been Christian practice – but then, neither has Sabbath observance or the ban on interest. And yes, there are other verses that suggest some nuance might be possible here, but it’s certainly not one we can put aside lightly.

So the next time you tuck into a plate of black pudding, you might feel slightly uneasy. And not just because of the ingredients.  

Learning to Love Leviticus #1: The Ban on Mixed-Fibre Clothing

Learning to Love Leviticus #2: Tattoo: Taboo, or no more than a skin deep issue?

[1]     I’m not apologising. You knew what you were getting when you started reading.

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