Jewish Studies Blood in the Hebrew Bible
William K. Gilders
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0148


In the Hebrew Bible, the identification of blood (dām דם; plural, dāmîm דמים) with “life” or life-force (nepeš נפש) in several biblical texts provides the rationale for prohibitions of the consumption of blood with meat (e.g., Gen. 9:4; Lev. 17:10–14; Deut. 12:23–24), but only once is this blood-life identification explicitly linked with the ritual manipulation of sacrificial blood (Lev. 17:11). Several modes of ritual manipulation of sacrificial blood are presented in the texts: dashing or flinging (zāraq זרק), sprinkling (hizzâ), daubing (nātan נתן), and pouring (šāpak שפך or yāṣaq יצק), to which a variety of effects are attributed. The most common effect attributed to sacrificial blood manipulation is “atonement” (kipper כפר, literally “removal” or “clearing”). Blood is identified both as a solution to pollution (impurity) and as one of its sources. Female genital blood—menstrual blood, irregular flows outside of the menstrual cycle, and blood that flows during and after childbirth—is associated with pollution (impurity). This female-gendered blood has become a focus for critical feminist analysis. Homicide is frequently defined as the shedding of blood and “blood” in the plural (dāmîm דמים) frequently refers to blood shed in homicide. In the Hebrew Bible, there is only a single reference to the blood of circumcision (Exod. 4:24–26), in striking contrast to later Jewish emphasis on circumcision blood beginning with early medieval rabbinic texts. Explicit linkages between menstrual blood, circumcision blood, and the blood of sacrificial victims are not made by biblical texts but are found in later Jewish interpretive traditions (especially rabbinic documents). Scholarly attempts to explicate biblical material on blood frequently refer to its character as a communicative symbol, although this approach has been challenged in a variety of ways; rather than focusing on blood as symbol, some interpreters have emphasized the instrumental effects attributed to blood by biblical texts, which appear to assign to it a concrete and dynamic power.

General Overviews

There is, unfortunately, no monograph that provides a comprehensive survey of the varied cultural meanings of blood throughout the Hebrew Bible. In lieu of such a monograph, several dictionary and encyclopedia articles provide helpful introductory overviews. Eberhart 2012 is the most recent such item, by a scholar with a solid command of the scholarship. McCarthy 1976 and Sperling 1992 each reflect a distinctive interpretive perspective and were up-to-date at the time of their publication. Kedar-Kopfstein 1978 is a detailed, lexically oriented study. Three books can be recommended, which deal with biblical materials on blood in relation to larger contexts. Biale 2007 offers a cultural history of blood in Jewish thought and in non-Jewish thought about Jews and Judaism, placing the biblical texts into this larger historical context; the first chapter of the work (“Pollution and Power: Blood in the Hebrew Bible”) focuses on biblical texts. Hart 2009 is an edited collection of essays on blood in Jewish civilization, with a helpful introduction. Meyer 2005 is the work of an anthropologist, which provides a broad overview of beliefs and practices about blood with a few passing references to ancient Israel (especially in the chapters on menstruation and sacrifice).

  • Biale, David. Blood and Belief: The Circulation of a Symbol between Jews and Christians. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520253049.001.0001

    A lively and readable cultural history, which offers a synthetic treatment of scholarship, placing biblical content at the beginning of a historical trajectory. The first chapter (“Pollution and Power: Blood in the Hebrew Bible”) focuses on biblical texts.

  • Eberhart, Christian A. “Blood. I: Ancient Near East and Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.” In Blindness–Christology, History of. Vol. 4 of Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception. Edited by Hans-Josef Klauck, 201–212. Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter, 2012.

    The most up-to-date and theoretically sophisticated short survey of the topic, with a substantial bibliography. Recommended as a starting point for research.

  • Hart, Mitchell B., ed. Jewish Blood: Reality and Metaphor in History, Religion, and Culture. Routledge Jewish Studies. London and New York: Routledge, 2009.

    A well-conceived collection of essays, with a helpful introduction by the editor.

  • Kedar-Kopfstein, Benjamin. “דם dām.” In Gillûlîm–Hāras. Vol. 3 of Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament. Translated by John T. Willis, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and David E. Green; and edited by G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren, 234–250. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1978.

    An English translation of the German article in the Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Alten Testament, Volume 2 (1977). A comprehensive but highly technical lexical study.

  • McCarthy, Dennis J. “Blood.” In Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: Supplementary Volume. Edited by Keith Crim, 114–117. Nashville: Abingdon, 1976.

    A concise and readable survey, which clearly reflects McCarthy’s understanding of blood as an Israelite cultural symbol with a distinctive significance in comparison with other ancient societies. Up-to-date at the time of its publication.

  • Meyer, Melissa L. Thicker than Water: The Origin of Blood as Symbol and Ritual. New York and London: Routledge, 2005.

    A broad anthropological survey of beliefs and practices about blood. Biblical texts are referred to in passing throughout the work, especially in chapter 5 (“Menstruation: The Fundamental Foundation”) and chapter 6 (“Sacrifice: ‘Birth Done Better’”).

  • Sperling, David S. “Blood.” In A–C. Vol. 1 of Anchor Bible Dictionary. Edited by David Noel Freedman, 761–763. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

    A clear and concise survey of the biblical data, up-to-date at the time of its publication.

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