When it comes to quoting the Bible (as is also the case with most other sources) the content is often misleading when we neglect to take into account the context. And when the Bible is quoted by the Watchtower — an organization notorious for twisting the words of others — context is not only important, but as we’ll see; context is king!
On its website, the Watchtower gives three Bible verses as the basis for its anti-blood stance (as well as an aside in which they cast doubt on the medical efficacy of blood transfusions):
The Bible commands that we not ingest blood. So we should not accept whole blood or its primary components in any form, whether offered as food or as a transfusion. Note the following scriptures:
Genesis 9:4. God allowed Noah and his family to add animal flesh to their diet after the Flood but commanded them not to eat the blood. God told Noah: “Only flesh with its soul—its blood—you must not eat.” This command applies to all mankind from that time on because all are descendants of Noah.
Leviticus 17:14. “You must not eat the blood of any sort of flesh, because the soul of every sort of flesh is its blood. Anyone eating it will be cut off.” God viewed the soul, or life, as being in the blood and belonging to him. Although this law was given only to the nation of Israel, it shows how seriously God viewed the law against eating blood.
Acts 15:20. “Abstain . . . from blood.” God gave Christians the same command that he had given to Noah. History shows that early Christians refused to consume whole blood or even to use it for medical reasons.
Why does God command us to abstain from blood?
There are sound medical reasons to avoid blood transfusions. More important, though, God commands that we abstain from blood because what it represents is sacred to him.—Leviticus 17:11; Colossians 1:20.
We will consider the “medical reasons” in part 7 of this series. Right now, let’s look at these three Bible verses one at a time, in context.
Instead of isolating verse four of this chapter of Genesis, as the Watchtower does, let’s consider the first 16 verses of the chapter in context, from the Watchtower’s own New World Translation:
God went on to bless Noah and his sons and to say to them: “Be fruitful and become many and fill the earth.
“A fear of you and a terror of you will continue upon every living creature of the earth and upon every flying creature of the heavens, upon everything that moves on the ground and upon all the fish of the sea. They are now given into your hand. Every moving animal that is alive may serve as food for you. Just as I gave you the green vegetation, I give them all to you. Only flesh with its life—its blood—you must not eat.
“Besides that, I will demand an accounting for your lifeblood. I will demand an accounting from every living creature; and from each man I will demand an accounting for the life of his brother. Anyone shedding man’s blood, by man will his own blood be shed, for in God’s image He made man.
“As for you, be fruitful and become many, and increase abundantly on the earth and multiply.”
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: “I am now establishing my covenant with you and with your offspring after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the animals, and all the living creatures of the earth with you, all those that came out of the ark—every living creature of the earth. Yes, I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all flesh be destroyed by the waters of a flood, and never again will a flood bring the earth to ruin.”
And God added: “This is the sign of the covenant that I am making between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations. I put my rainbow in the cloud, and it will serve as a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring a cloud over the earth, then the rainbow will certainly appear in the cloud. And I will certainly remember my covenant that I made between me and you and every living creature of every kind; and never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all flesh. And the rainbow will occur in the cloud, and I will certainly see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of every kind on the earth.”
The first thing to note is that the “everlasting covenant” has nothing to do with abstaining from blood, but is simply this god’s promise to all creatures of the earth to never destroy “all flesh” again by a flood, and to setup the rainbow as a sign of this promise.
The second thing to note is that there are more rules stated here than just the one that mentions blood. The full list is:
- A fear of humankind will pervade all non-human animals.
- Every moving animal that is alive may serve as food for humankind.
- An accounting will be demanded from every living creature.
- Only flesh with its life—its blood—you must not eat.
- Anyone shedding man’s blood, by man will his own blood be shed.
- Be fruitful and become many, and increase abundantly on the earth and multiply.
However, the Watchtower ignores all of these rules other than rule number four. So, though they insist that they are following the “universal law” given to Noah and his descendants, they really are not.
Since they are not following any of the other rules, there is no logical reason to single out rule number four and claim that it is binding on everyone today.
Let’s look in detail at these six rules, one by one.
1. A fear of humankind will pervade all non-human animals.
If the governing body of Jehovah’s Witnesses really think this supposed “Noahide law” (or in Watchtower erroneous-speak: “everlasting covenant”) is binding to this day, then I’d like to see them make a “public demonstration of their faith” in this doctrine by fearlessly approaching a man-eating tiger, or swim in shark-infested waters.
2. Every moving animal that is alive may serve as food for humankind.
So, will we be seeing puffer fish and poison dart frogs on the Bethel menu anytime soon?
3. An accounting will be demanded from every living creature.
So, along with reporting the hours spent witnessing each week, do Jehovah’s Witnesses also turn in an account of the number of animals they have killed and/or eaten? If not, it would seem that “God’s organization” is failing in helping to organize this accounting.
4. Only flesh with its life—its blood—you must not eat.
Note that, despite what the Watchtower assumes, this is not a prohibition on eating blood. It is a prohibition on eating flesh that has blood in it. Jews understand this to mean that one is not to take a bite out of a living animal’s flesh and swallow it.
5. Anyone shedding man’s blood, by man will his own blood be shed.
Countless men have “shed man’s blood” throughout history. Not all of them have had their blood shed in turn. More importantly: not one of them has had their blood shed by “God’s organization on Earth.” So, once again, one of the rules is not only being broken, but has never even been considered as binding on Jehovah’s Witnesses this side of Armageddon.
6. Be fruitful and become many, and increase abundantly on the earth and multiply.
Far from following this rule, the Watchtower has actually encouraged Witnesses to forego having children!
Would it be Scripturally proper for them [the “great multitude” aka the “great crowd” of unanointed Jehovah’s Witnesses] to now marry and to begin to rear children? No, is the answer, which is supported by the Scripture.
Face the Facts (WBTS, 1938) p.46
Thousands of young Christian men and women are willingly sacrificing marriage or are not having children—at least for now—in order to serve Jehovah to the full… Such wholehearted service brings deep joy to Jehovah, who will never forget their work and the love shown for him. Would it be possible for you to make additional sacrifices to serve Jehovah more fully?”
— Watchtower 2016 Apr Study ed. p.9
Since the Watchtower is inconsistent, and doesn’t appear to know what it’s talking about, please turn to Wikipedia to find out what is really meant by the Noahide Laws. Not surprisingly it has nothing to do with Gentiles abstaining from blood.
If the Noahide Law had meant that Gentiles were under order to abstain from eating blood, then we would not find this Mosaic Law which permitted Jews to sell unbled meat to them:
“You must not eat any animal that was found dead. You may give it to the foreign resident who is inside your cities, and he may eat it, or it may be sold to a foreigner.”
This verse is part of the “Mosaic Law” (the law given to Moses, aka the “Law covenant.”) As such, it is completely irrelevant to Christians today because, according to the Watchtower, Christians are not under the Mosaic Law:
Christians are no longer under the Law covenant (Galations 3:24, 25; Hebrews 8:8)
Watchtower, Sept 1, 2005 p. 29
The Watchtower excuses itself for even introducing the Leviticus verse into the argument because, according to them, “it shows how seriously God viewed the law against eating blood.” But, if that’s true of this Mosaic Law, then it must be equally true for the other 612 laws which make up the body of the Law. For instance, if Jehovah’s Witnesses are going to take this law seriously, then they better burn any polyblend clothing they may possess, stone their sassy children, and start sacrificing goats.
Although the Watchtower claims that this verse means that “God gave Christians the same command that he had given to Noah,” such is not the case.
When we read the context of this verse we see that this is not God issuing a commandment, but rather a decision reached by a person named James.
“Considering the context” means more than just reading a few verses surrounding it (or even the entire chapter.) There are questions we must ask, such as:
- Who were his hearers?
- Who was the decision meant for?
- What was the culture at that time and place?
- Under what circumstances was the decision arrived at?
- How binding was it meant to be, and upon whom?
- For how long did James mean for it to be in effect?
- What was the reason for arriving at the decision?
Not to mention: Who wrote this account down, and what reason do we have for thinking he wrote it down accurately, or that it has lost nothing in the translation? And then: Why should we accept this person named James as an authority whom we must obey today?
It turns out that we can get some answers from the chapter in question. It begins by setting the stage, and tells us exactly what motivated James’ decision:
Now some men came down from Judea and began to teach the brothers: “Unless you get circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
These men were known as “Judaizers”: men who taught that Christians needed to follow the Mosaic Law. In order to appease these men James decided to caution Gentile Christians against publicly violating the more publicly obvious of the Jewish customs such as engaging in lewd behavior and eating meat sacrificed to idols or meat that had not been properly bled.
After rendering his decision, James made clear that the above was indeed his motivation, by stating:
“For from ancient times Moses has had those who preach him in city after city, because he is read aloud in the synagogues on every sabbath.”
If we take in more context of the Bible we see that James was not laying down laws here to be binding on all Christians for all time. What authority would he have had to do so? None at all, if we take some other scriptures as true:
Do not owe anything to anyone except to love one another; for whoever loves his fellow man has fulfilled the law. For the law code, “You must not commit adultery, you must not murder, you must not steal, you must not covet,” and whatever other commandment there is, is summed up in this saying: “You must love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does not work evil to one’s neighbor; therefore, love is the law’s fulfillment.
All things are lawful, but not all things are advantageous. All things are lawful, but not all things build up.
—1 Cor. 10:23
And one by “James,” of the same ilk:
If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right.
—James 2:8 (NIV)
If “love is the law’s fulfillment,” then when you choose a loving action (such as donating blood or platelets to save someone’s life) you have fulfilled the law: you have “done right.” But if you do something unloving (such as refusing to help your child who is bleeding to death by denying him or her a blood transfusion) then you have violated the “royal” Christian law of love.
In James’ day it was a loving thing to avoid offending the Judaizers by refraining from certain foods. That’s why he recommended taking that course of action. But were we to understand this as a law binding on Christians in our day, prohibiting them from accepting life-saving medical procedures? Clearly not, as that would violate the law of love.
But we have additional context from the Bible that makes this point even clearer. In Paul’s writings he explicitly states that James’ recommendation about refraining from meat sacrificed to idols (given in the same breath as his decision to refrain from unbled meat) was not a law, and was something that he, as a Christian, could freely choose to ignore as long as it didn’t offend anyone:
Now concerning the eating of foods offered to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no God but one. Nevertheless, there is not this knowledge in all persons; but some, being accustomed until now to the idol, eat food as something sacrificed to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. But food will not commend us to God; if we do not eat, we do not fall short, and, if we eat, we have no credit to ourselves. But keep watching that this authority of YOURS does not somehow become a stumbling block to those who are weak. For if anyone should see you, the one having knowledge, reclining at a meal in an idol temple, will not the conscience of that one who is weak be built up to the point of eating foods offered to idols? Really, by your knowledge, the man that is weak is being ruined, [your] brother for whose sake Christ died. But when YOU people thus sin against YOUR brothers and wound their conscience that is weak, YOU are sinning against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat flesh at all, that I may not make my brother stumble.
—1 Corinthians 8:4-13
Everything that is sold in a meat market keep eating, making no inquiry on account of YOUR conscience; for “to Jehovah belong the earth and that which fills it.” If anyone of the unbelievers invites YOU and YOU wish to go, proceed to eat everything that is set before YOU, making no inquiry on account of YOUR conscience. But if anyone should say to YOU: “This is something offered in sacrifice,” do not eat on account of the one that disclosed it and on account of conscience. “Conscience,” I say, not your own, but that of the other person. For why should it be that my freedom is judged by another person’s conscience? If I am partaking with thanks, why am I to be spoken of abusively over that for which I give thanks? Therefore, whether YOU are eating or drinking or doing anything else, do all things for God’s glory. Keep from becoming causes for stumbling to Jews as well as Greeks and to the congregation of God, even as I am pleasing all people in all things, not seeking my own advantage but that of the many, in order that they might get saved.
—1 Corinthians 10:25-33
Oddly enough, ours is the same conclusion reached by Watchtower founder Charles Taze Russell:
the advice was that these be abstained from, because Jews certainly would consider the eating of such meats as participations in the heathen idolatry…
Nevertheless, it was advisable that the Gentile Christians abstain from the use of their liberty in this direction, out of deference to the weaker brethren, Jews and Gentiles, who could not so deeply philosophize and whose consciences might be injured.
A similar thought attaches to the prohibition of the use of blood. To the Jew it was forbidden, and under his covenant it was made a symbol of life–to partake of it would imply responsibility for the life taken… These prohibitions had never come to the Gentiles, because they had never been under the Law Covenant; but so deeply rooted were the Jewish ideas on this subject that it was necessary to the peace of the Church that the Gentiles should observe this matter also.
…If they did not wish to be contentious and cause divisions in the Church, the Gentile brethren would surely be willing to restrain or sacrifice their liberty respecting these matters.
The Watch Tower 1909 April 15, p. 117
His successors have never given a convincing argument to the contrary.
Since there are no Jews today who would be “stumbled” by a Christian receiving a blood transfusion, there is no reason to “restrain or sacrifice our liberty respecting these matters.”
In short: there is no biblical law or principle, applicable to today’s Christians, against accepting whole blood or its constituent parts.