The Blood Issue and The Watchtower

Jerry Bergman PhD

(Investigator 144, 2012 May)

When I was a Witness the blood transfusion prohibition increasingly became a concern for me, partly because many Witnesses have died as a result of this teaching.1

The more I studied this topic, the stronger my opposition to this doctrine became, causing increasing alienation between myself and other Witnesses.  Accepting a blood transfusion for any reason was a disfellowshipping offense since only 1961. I wrote a full-length book on the subject.

Former Bethelite Randall Watters learned that Gene Smalley was the main apologist for the blood doctrine, and he managed to squash dissent on this issue, even at Bethel the headquarters of the Jehovah’s Witness.  This conflict led to a crisis of conscience that reached its climax in the early 1970s.2

The only Old Testament scripture the Watchtower can use to enforce their blood prohibition is Genesis 9:4. All the other Hebrew Scriptures that deal with blood are part of Jewish law that the Watchtower teaches we are no longer under today.

A careful reading of this important verse shows that the Hebrew words do not prohibit eating blood as the Watchtower teaches, but only meat that has blood in it. Almost all translations of Genesis 9:4 (including the Watchtower's New World Translation) are similar to the Anchor Bible that reads, "you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it."

A more recent Bible translation, The Good News Bible, is even clearer: "The one thing you must not eat is meat with blood still in it."  Another version, considered by some the most accurate translation to date, The New International Version, states, "But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it."

Since the Hebrew word translated "blood" modifies the word "meat," we cannot construe the passage to mean that the eating of blood itself is forbidden. In other words, the eating of blood was not any more expressly prohibited than was the eating of meat. Rather, it was only meat with blood still in it that was prohibited. If one concludes from Genesis 9:4 that it is wrong to eat blood, then one must also conclude that it is wrong to eat meat — a reading that contradicts Genesis 9:3 which gives humans explicit permission to consume meat.  

The Hebrew word basar in Genesis 9:4 means "flesh" or "body", and by extension a person or human. Thus the original Hebrew in Genesis 9:4 does not say that meat with blood in it is forbidden, but that flesh or "bodies" with blood still in it are prohibited. If the Hebrew writer had wanted to refer only to the meat itself, he would have used the Hebrew word mazown, meaning food or meat in general. In this passage, the words "blood" and "soul" are synonymous.  It is also clear that animal bodies can be eaten, but only animal bodies that no longer have their soul or life still in them. As Hebrew scholar, Professor Bruce Waltke, noted, the grammatical construction of Genesis 9:4
is quite straightforward. The Hebrew text says literally:  'Only flesh with its life, its blood, you must not eat.' ...flesh is restricted to that kind of flesh with its life (nephesh) in it.  Grammatically speaking, the kind of flesh in view is modified by the adjectival phrase "with its life." The life now is qualified by "its blood"; that is, the blood and life are equated. In this case the qualification or modification is indicated by an apposition — that is, blood (dam) in apposition to life (nephesh).3

Thus, the Hebrew meaning of Genesis 9:4 clearly says God has given humans permission to eat animal flesh, but the animal's blood must first be drained in order to insure that the animal is dead before it is consumed.

The purpose of Genesis 9:5 is to insure humans do not eat live animals and the reason is a respect for life. If the animal was dead it no longer has life in it, thus the sanctity of life would not be profaned if the meat were consumed. For thousands of years people consumed live animals — a cruelty that this passage was designed to prevent.  

Dr. Paul Kretzmann summarized the reason for this law by noting in his commentary on Genesis 9:4 that "This provision was added to prevent man's degeneration to coarse and brutal barbarism or even savagery."4  Pagan cultures taught that the "fight" of the animal could be transferred only if it was consumed while still alive. The animal's "life" obviously rapidly left while it was being consumed, and they reasoned that it must have gone into the person eating it. It was also believed that other qualities of the animal, such as strength, power, and wisdom, could likewise be transferred to the person eating a live animal in this way.  

This idea can be traced back to ancient Egypt where the princes bathed in blood as a form of resuscitation and recuperation. In Rome men would rush into the arena to drink the blood of dying gladiators in the hope of acquiring some of the victim's valor. For many centuries the idea of blood as a restorative source was not restricted to its uses as a draught or for bathing, but as a means of transferring the animal’s spirit.

The conclusion that the purpose of Genesis 9:4 was to prevent such abuses is probably the prominent interpretation of this verse shared throughout history by most Jews and Christians. Martin Luther wrote that this passage
forbids the eating of a body that still has in it a functioning, active and living soul, the way a hawk devours chicks and a wolf, sheep that have not been killed first but are alive. This cruel procedure the Lord forbids in this passage, and He restricts the permission to kill. It may not be carried out in inhuman fashion whereby living bodies or parts of living bodies are consumed; but a lawful manner of killing is to be followed, such as took place at the altar and at the sacrifices, where the animal was killed without any cruelty and ultimately was offered to God after its blood had been carefully washed off.  This I believe to be the simple and true meaning, which also some Jewish teachers espouse, namely, that we must not eat pieces of raw flesh and limbs that are still quivering, as was the practice of the Laestrygones or the Cyclops.5

The Watchtower's explanation, that Genesis 9:9 was to protect against future dangerous transfusions is uninformed rationalization. The purpose was clearly to insure that the animal was mercifully dead before it was eaten, and not to protect health, because there was nothing inherently unhealthy about eating an animal's flesh while it was still alive. Although abuses that have resulted in undesirable side-effects do occur, on the whole medical science has greatly improved human health through the judicious use of blood transfusions.

The grammatical construction of the Hebrew forces the translation of Genesis 9:4, as the Witnesses own NWT clearly states as follows "Only flesh with its soul — its blood — you must not eat."

The Soul and Blood; How the "Life" is in the Blood
A major function of blood is to transport nourishment to the cells and remove their waste products. In view of this information, Genesis 9:5, which says, "The life is in the blood" refers to the fact that the life sustaining elements (food and oxygen) are literally carried by, and thus are physically in, the blood. Genesis does not state that blood is the life as the Watchtower implies, but that "life" is in the blood. In fact, the means of life, food and oxygen (note the expression in Genesis 2:7 "the breath of life"), are in, and carried, by the blood. This fact corresponds to the Jewish belief that the prohibition in Gen. 9:4 was given to mankind to insure that humans did not eat a living animal because of the stipulation that draining the blood would guarantee that the animal was dead.
The expression "for the life of all flesh is in its blood" was always understood by Jews to refer to the fact that the blood, which circulated throughout all parts of the body, provides life-giving oxygen and nutrients to the effectors of the blood's activity, the nerves, muscles, and other cells. The Watchtower Society's understanding of how the soul "is in" the blood (Genesis 9:5) is neither clear nor consistent. Draining blood was often the only effective, and least cruel, way the Israelites had of killing an animal. After most of the blood was drained, no animal can survive.  

Most human methods of killing caused either internal bleeding, or a sufficient slowing of the blood circulation to cause brain damage.  Asphyxiation by carbon monoxide, a common cause of purposeful death, renders many red blood cells useless, causing impairment of the blood's oxygen carrying function. The blood can circulate, but its primary purpose cannot be fulfilled, i.e., providing oxygen for the cells, because much of the CO2 binds irreversibly to the hemoglobin in the body.

In ancient times, blood was the object of sacred awe. Considered the seat of the soul, when lost, life also was lost partially because it was observed that death was often associated with blood loss. As the term "spilling of blood" was often synonymous with murder, viewing extensive blood loss was understood as literally watching life "flowing away." Thus, "to shed blood" was synonymous with killing or murder in most ancient languages. Likewise, blood-guilt meant that one was guilty of murder.

For all of these reasons, Genesis 9:4 could only mean that humans should not eat blood when it is still in the animal for the purpose of insuring that the animal was dead before it was consumed. The Watchtower's reasoning that God prohibited transfusions to protect our health is clearly invalid because in most cases blood pathogens can be screened out. No responsible informed people, including Witness doctors, argue that blood therapy is not extremely important today, although clearly abuses have occurred.6 This supports the conclusion that the reason for the law in Genesis 9:4 is primarily to help humans develop a respect for life, something that would help human interpersonal relations as well.  

[1] For a detailed discussion of the problem of deaths as a result of refusing blood see David Reed Blood on the Altar; Confessions of a Jehovah's Witness Minister. Amherst, N.Y: Prometheus, 1996 and Kerry Louderback-Wood "Jehovah's Witnesses, Blood Transfusions, and the Tort of Misrepresentation." The Journal of Church and State, 2005 47(4):783-822 an article I had the privilege serving as a reviewer.

 [2] Gene Smalley and the Watchtower's Blood Doctrine, Free Minds Journal 26(2): 5- 6. May-Oct 2007.
 [3] Bruce Waltke. Letter to Jerry Bergman 1976.

 [4] Paul Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible. St. Louis, MO:  Concordia Publishing House1923, p. 21. See also Joseph Herman Hertz The Pentateuch and Haftorahs. London: Soncino Press, 1950, p. 32.

 [5] The Complete Works of Martin Luther. Concordia, 1967, p. 32.

 [6] Interview with Dr. Henri Enfroy, MD, 1971.