A Trace of Blood // Genesis

You shall not pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land, and no expiation can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it.

            Numbers 35.33

The tale spoke clearly: whatever brotherhood human beings may be capable of has grown out of fratricide, whatever political organization men may have achieved has its origin in crime.

            Hannah Arendt, On Revolution

When we watch crime serials on television, we’re used to seeing the Keith Herring-esque chalk outline of an absent cadaver. These chalk outlines (if they are still in use) mark the place where a body once was, where the body was found dead and in what manner it was found. The outline orients the forensic specialists as they explore the scene for other material evidence of the crime, such as fingerprints, strands of hair, or spots of blood. When such traces are found, this can designate one of two things: the presence of the victim or the presence of the murderer. DNA testing in a lab confirms the identity of the figure who inhabited that space at the time the event occurred, and we find this information useful for the purposes of judgment and reckoning. The blood found at the scene casts some revelation on the bodies no longer present there.

In the Bible, as well as in much of culture for much of history, blood has a significant relation to notions of identity, of violence, and of life, three themes that are often crucially intertwined. Entire political histories have been determined by our taking blood to indicate some particular identity: a familial dynasty of power or a landed plot of property can only carry on down generations if we take the identity that ownership depends on to be transferrable by means of progenation (or some legally accepted symbolic equivalent, such as adoption). It’s a powerful statement to make of someone that they are “blood of my blood” or “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2.23)—blood runs thicker than water. Such a referral to blood designates the relationship between two people as something stronger than other sorts of relationships one might enter into with another: a relationship of family and of mutual familial identification. This is a kind of identification that we see as something stronger than a business partnership, a friendship, or even a sexual or erotic relationship. Something changes when another is or becomes family, and blood is what they share.

But blood also designates the life of a living thing. This is why the shedding of blood designates violence: an aggression against life by draining that life, in whole or in part, from the being to whom it belonged. The Bible several times explicitly locates the life of a creature in the creature’s blood (Gen. 9.4; Lev. 17.11; Deut. 12.23), and for this reason also establishes legal prohibitions on eating the blood of a creature, even if the creature is considered clean to eat. In fact, the entire history of the institution of law in the Bible, curiously enough, begins and ends with prohibitions on ingesting blood.

According to the story, on the twenty-seventh day of the second month of the six hundred first year of the earth’s existence, God told Noah to leave the ark he had built to weather the storm of God’s wrath and to step onto dry ground (Gen. 8.13-15). The first thing Noah does is to take one of every clean animal that he had rescued from the flood and to kill and to burn them as an offering to God (Gen. 8.20). And God—who consistently through the Old Testament finds the smell of a roasted animal on an altar delectable—responds to Noah with a new covenant. As is the case with all covenants made in the Bible, this one to Noah involved four things: a promise, a blessing, a law, and a sign. First, God promised to “never again curse the ground because of humankind,” and he added, “nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done” (Gen. 8.21) (Such mercy and justice, to only annihilate every living thing once.) God then blesses Noah and his family, saying that they will be fruitful and multiply on the earth and that all the animals will live in fear of them (Gen. 9.1-2), hence securing the dominion of humankind that was established in the creation of Adam. Following the blessing, God gives Noah and his family a new law:

Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. [In high school, I once used this as a retort to my sister’s veganism, but it turned out hers had more to do with unethical factory practices than divine commands.] Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from human beings; each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for human life. Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind. (Gen. 9.4-6)

Here we have the first command against ingesting blood in the Bible and it comes, arguably, in the first institution of civil law. Noah and his family are the only ones left alive on the earth, and this is the first law that God establishes as a way of ordering the new society. Notice, again, that God locates the life of a creature in its blood, and while God does not command against humankind killing animals (he offers all animals to them as food), he does command against ingesting the locus of life in the animal, which is the blood. This prohibition continues all the way through the New Testament, when, at the Council of Jerusalem, the apostles are trying to decide what law Gentile converts should follow. James the brother of Jesus declares, after much debate—and this is simplifying the tale—that Gentile converts should “abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood” (Acts 15.20). Blood is a sacred thing in the Bible, meaning that it is both protected and potent. When blood spills somewhere, the ancient understanding was that the stain can never go away or be concealed. And we might say there is a modern tradition to this too—think of Lady Macbeth, failing to wash the phantasmal stain of blood from her hands.

When we try to disentangle the varied ways blood is made to mean in this ancient book of Genesis, it gets tricky. Take, for instance, that last aspect of God’s covenant to Noah, the sign, the infamous rainbow:

This is the sign of the covenant that I made between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring the clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. (Gen. 9.12-15)

Despite the hundreds of times I’ve read this verse, this is the first time I caught the symbol: this rainbow is no lovey-dovey symbol of peace, diversity, and togetherness as it is used to mean today, given its many colors and pleasing rounded shape. Instead, this rainbow is viewed how it might have been viewed by an ancient literary community, constantly in terror of their own precariousness at the force of the elements, which they see in divine and mythic terms, and the hands of warring tribes (and war, blood, and murder is all over this book): this was an archer’s bow. The sign of God’s covenant with Noah and with all of life on the earth is a cosmic weapon, this time turned away from the earth. Therefore, the sign of the covenant is an assurance of God’s violent strength but also his decision to no longer use it on such a grand scale. (He is willing, however, to use it on a somewhat smaller scale, given the utter desolation of all life in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah mere chapters later [Gen. 19.24-5].)

I guess one way of putting all of this more simply would be to say that Genesis, this book of beginnings and promises, is also fundamentally a book of violence. God sheds the first blood by making coats of animal skins to cover Adam and Eve’s nakedness, following their breaking of his first command (Gen. 3.21). Cain murders Abel, making the very first fratricide happen between the very first brothers, and Abel’s blood cries out from the ground, unrequited because blood cannot be cleansed from where it has spilled (Gen. 4.10-11). Cain’s descendent Lamech, father of Noah, tells his wives that he has killed a young man for wounding him, and that his recompense will be seventy times that of Cain’s (Gen. 4.23-5). The violence that began so locally is expanding, until only one generation later “the earth was filled with violence” (Gen. 6.11), initiating God’s annihilation of all flesh (notably, by means of flood—a bloodless way of committing mass slaughter, allowing civilization to begin again under the sign of God’s lethality).

And this is only the beginning of the bloodshed involved in these beginnings. There are accounts of warring tribes and conquest (Gen. 14). There is Abraham’s intended murder of his son according to God’s command (Gen. 22). There is the institution of circumcision, the sign of God’s covenant with Abraham fittingly embodied in a common wound. This wound is then later exploited by Abraham’s great-grandsons Simeon and Levi, who trick the men of Shechem into circumcising themselves and, while the men are healing, proceed to slaughter every last one of them as a reckoning for Shechem’s rape of their sister Dinah (Gen. 34).

Okay, I’ve made my point—there’s a lot of blood here. But there is one more instance of bloodshed I’d like to point out. When Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son, has dreams that he will one day rule over his older brothers, the older brothers, in their jealousy, plot his murder. However, Reuben initially stops them, saying, “Let us not take his life. […] Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him” (Gen. 37.21-22). So they do so, and as they eat their dinner atop the pit where they’ve stowed their brother, a caravan of Ishmaelites arrives (possibly significant, given the tumultuous backstory to the Ishmaelites). Judah then gets an idea: “Then Judah said to his brothers, ‘What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.’ And his brothers agreed.” (Gen. 37.26-7). The fact that Joseph is their brother, their own flesh, forbids them from shedding his blood, which would be impossible to conceal—meaning, in a divine juridical sense and in an occult sense, since there seems to be some karmic element in this people’s understanding of God’s justice: blood for blood. So instead they sell him into slavery.

However, to cover their tracks, they still end up shedding some blood. In order to convince their father that Joseph had been devoured by a wild animal, rather than sold into slavery, the brothers slaughter a goat and dip Joseph’s robe in its blood—the same robe that his father had made specially for Joseph (Gen. 37.31). The ruse is convincing, and Jacob believes that the blood is his sons. In this episode, blood is used as a conflation of identity—Joseph’s with the goat’s—as well as a sign of violence and loss of life.

This story of the goat’s blood, in one sense, works like all other atonement sacrifice narratives in the Bible: the blood of the goat stands as substitute for the life of the man, in order that the man may be counted dead without having actually died. Think of Abraham’s use of goat’s blood following his attempt at sacrificing his own son—God offers the goat’s life as a substitution for Isaac, allowing Isaac to go on living in the company of his father. In the case of Joseph, however, the blood is offered as substitute, not in order that Joseph may go on living in the company of the community—the requisite obedience to God having been satisfied—but rather in order to cast Joseph away from the community. This blood, though sacrificial, divides the community and conceals its guilt without cleansing.

But is this so different, after all, from the uses of blood in sacrifice for the redemption of communities? If the slaughtered creature stands in for the life of the community in order that the community may preserve itself in the world, what slaughter serves that community and what slaughter undermines it? Which community does slaughter serve? This question of sacrifice’s role in community is one I will certainly return to, but it is enough to note here that this great book of beginnings—of the beginning of the world, of humanity, of civil society, of law, and of God’s chosen nation—requires the shedding of blood to tell its tale. The suggestion is that beginning requires violence, but that there are also moments where slaughter creates its own excess: Cain’s violence both turns him into a wanderer and provokes a new generation of humanity; the violence of Joseph’s brothers brings about his own blessing and theirs. All good things require violence, but which violence is required—and why? That is a question that will constantly reemerge in this incredibly violent Bible.

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