by Luke Wayne
The Watchtower Position
The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, or those who call themselves "Jehovah's Witnesses", have long insisted that blood transfusions are contrary to the direct commands of scripture regarding blood. They have held to a firm commitment that their people should refuse blood transfusions, even if it costs them their lives (and for very many it has done just that.) While the organization has wrestled with exactly which procedures of modern medicine do and do not fall into this violation, the basic premise that blood transfusions are contrary to scripture has persisted since the early 20th century on into the 21st. The alleged biblical case for this has also stayed largely the same. The July 1st, 1951 Watchtower magazine presented the case as follows:
Jehovah made a covenant with Noah following the Flood, and included therein was this command: “Flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat.” (Gen. 9:4) The Law given through Moses contained these restrictions: “Eat neither fat nor blood.” “Eat no manner of blood.” “Whatsoever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among you, that eateth any manner of blood; I will even set my face against that soul that eateth blood, and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul. For it is the life of all flesh; the blood of it is for the life thereof: therefore I said unto the children of Israel, Ye shall eat the blood of no manner of flesh.” (Lev. 3:17; 7:26; 17:10, 11, 14; 19:26) And in the Greek Scriptures the instruction to Christians is: “The holy spirit and we ourselves have favored adding no further burden to you, except these necessary things, to keep yourselves free from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things killed without draining their blood and from fornication.”—Acts 15:19, 20, 28, 29; 21:25, NW.
The Watchtower magazine of October 1st, 2008 explained:
Jehovah’s Witnesses seek the best medical care available to them and their family members. However, they seek nonblood medical management. Why? Their stand is based on a fundamental law that God gave to mankind. Just after the Flood of Noah’s day, God gave Noah and his family permission to eat the flesh of animals. God imposed this one restriction: They were not to consume blood. (Genesis 9:3, 4) All humans of all races descended from Noah, so this law is binding on all of mankind. It was never rescinded. Over eight centuries later, God reaffirmed that law to the nation of Israel, explaining that blood is sacred, representing the soul, or life itself. (Leviticus 17:14) Over 1,500 years later, the Christian apostles commanded all Christians to “keep abstaining . . . from blood.”—Acts 15:29. To Jehovah’s Witnesses, it is clearly impossible to abstain from blood while taking it into the body in a transfusion. They therefore insist on alternative treatments.
According to the Watchtower, Genesis 9 established a law that people were not to eat blood, a law binding on all mankind. This law was echoed and expounded in the law of Moses (especially in Leviticus 17) and affirmed as still binding on New Testament believers in Acts 15. It is then argued that putting blood in one's veins is no different than eating it, and so the Christian should reject all blood transfusions.
Survey of the Biblical Texts
There are two primary Old Testament texts that Watchtowers publications cite:
Genesis 9:3-7 "Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you; I give all to you, as I gave the green plant. Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. Surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it. And from every man, from every man’s brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds man’s blood, By man his blood shall be shed, For in the image of God He made man. As for you, be fruitful and multiply; Populate the earth abundantly and multiply in it."
Leviticus 17:10-14 "And any man from the house of Israel, or from the aliens who sojourn among them, who eats any blood, I will set My face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement.’ Therefore I said to the sons of Israel, ‘No person among you may eat blood, nor may any alien who sojourns among you eat blood.’ So when any man from the sons of Israel, or from the aliens who sojourn among them, in hunting catches a beast or a bird which may be eaten, he shall pour out its blood and cover it with earth. “For as for the life of all flesh, its blood is identified with its life. Therefore I said to the sons of Israel, ‘You are not to eat the blood of any flesh, for the life of all flesh is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off.’"
In addition, there are many other statements in the law and a few in the prophets and historical books that restate or reinforce the existence and importance of this law forbidding the eating of a slaughtered animal without first draining the blood.
The New Testament also mentions this three times in the book of Acts, all related to the decision of the Christian leaders at Jerusalem, who declared that gentiles did not need to be circumcised or come under the law of Moses. They then wrote a letter to the gentile churches stating the following:
Acts 15:28-29 "For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication"
Christians have debated for all of church history whether all of these commands in Acts were meant to be universally binding or whether some were temporary concessions for the sake of unity between Jews and Gentiles in the churches. For the sake of argument, we will assume for the moment that these laws do fully apply to all believers today and that eating meat with the blood in it is forbidden. If that is the case, does that also rule out blood transfusions donated by living human beings at no harm to themselves? This is the question on which the whole Watchtower position hangs.
Are Transfusions Equivalent to Eating Blood?
The whole position of the Jehovah's Witnesses hinges on the assertion that blood transfusions are just another form of eating blood. They contend straightforwardly that you are still sustaining yourself by putting another living thing's blood in your body. The fact that you are not doing this through the digestive system is mere semantic quibbling. When someone cannot eat due to illness or injury, we feed them intravenously, so how is this really any different? They reinforce this with analogies like that of a man whose doctor tells him to abstain from alcohol. Would it be okay for the man to stop drinking, but to inject alcohol directly into his veins? In this way they attempt to show that, behind the apparent differences, eating blood and receiving a blood transfusion are in fact variations of the same thing.
Medically this is not at all the case. If you eat blood, you break it down into nutrients, which your body then uses. What makes it to your own blood stream is not blood at all. It has been completely broken down like any other food. That is what eating something is. Jesus Himself speaks of eating in Mark 7:19 specifically and necessarily as "what goes into the stomach and is eliminated," (or literally, "passed out into the latrine"). A transfusion is quite different. The blood stays blood. It does not nourish you. It does what your blood does. It carries oxygen that your body receives from your lungs and nutrients that your body receives from food, and takes them throughout your body, but the blood does not provide you anything from itself. In this way, it is different even from "feeding" through an IV, which puts simple nutrients straight into your blood to be carried about and used. Notice that even this kind of "feeding" is not actually food at all, but rather substitutes what food would normally provide for you. You could not liquefy chicken or spinach or carrots and inject them into your veins. That would kill you. Food needs to be digested. That's what it means to eat. Intravenous "feeding" is not really feeding at all, but a temporary substitute for feeding. How much less, then, can a blood transfusion be considered eating, which does not even so much as a substitute for eating at all? For all these reasons, medically speaking, eating blood and transfusing blood are not remotely the same thing.
They are not the same thing by intent either. The alcoholic in the Jehovah's Witness' example who tries to get around his doctor's orders by injecting alcohol into his veins is attempting to accomplish the same thing as drinking the alcohol. The patient receiving a blood transfusion, however, is not seeking a meal. He is not satisfying his hunger. The situation is completely different. Yes, you could say very generally that both are using blood to sustain their body, but this is far too vague to be meaningful. If I go to a doctor to perform a surgery, his hands will literally enter my body to cure me of some ailment. I am using the doctor to sustain my body. That, however, does not make surgery the same as cannibalism. I did not eat the doctor's hands, even though his hands entered my body to sustain me. The situation is simply not comparable.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the scriptures root the command in the sacredness of life, not in the sacredness of blood in its own right. Genesis 9 allows animals blood to be shed, but we must not eat the blood. We can only eat the meat. Human blood, however, must not be shed at all. All of this is because life is in the blood. Now, let's return again to the idea of surgery. If a doctor cuts a man open, causing him to bleed, but does so out of true necessity to save his life, is this a violation of Genesis 9? Is this what it means to sin by shedding a man's blood? Of course not! The issue here has to do with violence and slaughter. If I slaughter an animal to eat it, one can argue that the command is still in force saying that I must not eat its blood. This command, however, is certainly not saying that I cannot freely give some of my own blood, at no harm or injury to myself, to save another man's life. Neither life suffers violence, but rather one life is saved at no harm to the other. If we were killing men and draining their blood to save others, that would be another matter, but the process of some living men freely giving of their own life blood so that other men can stay alive does not equate to violence, slaughter, or the desecration of life. If anything, it upholds the sacredness of life and honors the great value of the dying person who is made in the image of God.
It is a noble thing to be willing to die rather than do evil, however, it is a tragic thing when a false teaching and misrepresentation of scripture causes lives to be needlessly lost. This is unfortunately the case with the Jehovah's Witness doctrine on blood transfusions. Scripture, not to mention medical science and common sense, teach us that eating blood and receiving a blood transfusion are not practically or morally equivalent, they are in fact opposite. It is a heavy thing to consider how those who have promoted this false teaching will have to give an account before a holy God of the lives it has needlessly cost if they do not repent.