Blood, Life, and Purification: Reassessing Hebrews’ Christological Appropriation of Yom Kippur

Recent work by scholars such as Jacob Milgrom on the relationship between ritual blood manipulation and purification, particularly as these inform the logic of the Levitical sacrificial system, has highlighted the importance of the victim’s life in the sacrificial process. While some have begun to explore the possible significance of blood imagery in Hebrews along similar lines (e.g., Christian Eberhart), this ancient homily continues to present a source worthy of examination. Indeed, no other New Testament text illustrates such a detailed and consistent application of sacrificial concepts to the Christ event. In this paper I argue that the commonplace assumption that “blood” language in Hebrews functions synecdochically for Jesus’ death potentially obscures the way the author develops the link between Jesus’ purifying offering (1:3; 9:14, 23) and Yom Kippur. The offering of blood in the Levitical system was not a presentation of death before God, but a presentation of life (Lev 17:11). Similarly, Hebrews’ application of the central blood ritual of Yom Kippur to Jesus’ offering is, I suggest, best understood in terms of the post-crucifixion life of Jesus. The author’s emphasis on Jesus’ ascension and living presence in heaven—the location identified in the homily for where Jesus offered his blood (9:11–14, 23–24; cf. 8:1–4)—implies that it is not Jesus’ blood/death that effects atonement, but (in keeping with Yom Kippur) the presentation of his blood/life before God in the heavenly holy of holies. If these points can be demonstrated, then Hebrews’ appeal to Yom Kippur appears to show more concern with explicating how the purification rites of the Mosaic Law elucidate the theological implications of Jesus’ resurrection, ascension, and exaltation than with how they provide a hermeneutical lens for understanding the event of his crucifixion.