Betty Sue is fixing a roast, in honor of Wynette who died last Tuesday. The meal will be a stick-to-your-ribs affair—beef with potatoes and gravy, the last of the asparagus, and two raspberry rhubarb pies for dessert. I arrive early, before her husband Lee and son Mark have come up from the barn. It is a chance to pick my old friend’s memory for stories from the dairy farm where she has lived and worked for the last forty-five years.
Sipping leftover coffee, I am wedged between the wall and the kitchen table while Betty Sue rolls out the dough for the two pies. One evening, she tells me, twenty-some years ago, Lee and the boys put the cows to bed as usual. The second milking, the spreading of hay, the fresh bedding—everything was routine. But after they left, one of their prize-winning Holsteins managed to nick its milk vein on a splinter that had fallen in with the sawdust. When Betty Sue awoke at first light to feed the calves, the cow was already dead, sprawled out on the barn floor in a river of blood. The memory wells up in her eyes. “My uncle Al used to say, ‘There’s just no end to the number of ways a cow can find to kill itself.’”
Another cow, she goes on, died with twins in her womb. The calves were breeched, and the mother’s condition deteriorated rapidly. Intent on saving the offspring, Betty Sue raced from the field to the kitchen to fetch a carving knife. Then, kneeling in the pasture, she sliced into the mother’s belly and reached inside to pull them out. The surgery failed. Soon three lifeless animals lay side-by-side on the slick grass, leaving Betty Sue a sobbing, bloody mess. With Wynette’s passing, death is on the mind.
Betty Sue’s experiences are not unique. Blood is a part of life on a farm, despite marketers’ efforts to screen this reality from consumers. White, boneless protein is packaged in plastic, then stacked in sanitized, grocery store cases. Even where suburban chickens are in vogue, these are slaughtered more often by hawks and foxes than by their human caretakers, whose appetites, ironically, give the domesticated red-crested junglefowl its one and only reason for being. “Food conscious,” in other words, does not automatically mean blood conscious. At the same time, industrial culture’s obsession with sterility has seemed to go hand-in-hand with an insatiable appetite for pornographic violence. What horrors the frozen-food aisle suppresses, film impresses through elaborately contrived scenarios of ever-increasing brutality. We do not eat without disinfecting our food, yet we do not fantasize without imagining an orgy of blood-soaked revenge.
Given such pervasive confusion around blood, Christians may find themselves equally confused and even embarrassed when considering that our sacred text, especially the Old Testament, is such a bloody book. No reader stumbles upon the story of Ehud and Eglon, for example, and goes away unsullied. When the Israelite judge plunges his sword into the obese king’s belly, which swallows up the blade past the hilt and then oozes fecal matter onto the floor (Judg. 3:21-24), the reader may find it difficult to apologize for the lofty spiritual principles that such a tale engenders. Is it just a primitive form of grindhouse media, titillating its audience in the guise of historical record? Biblical gore can feel incompatible with the Christian God of love; perhaps the Old Testament is better left behind.
Other readers are wary of tossing out four-fifths of the Bible, even if they are equally uncomfortable with some of its content. Evangelicals often find themselves caught in this quandary, deeply committed to the canonical text but perplexed by many of its stories. Their solution is to sanitize the Bible, line by line, converting it into a kind of pre-Christian code. What begins to matter about the Old Testament is not its actual language, but the way in which that language can be refashioned to align with their particular set of cultural norms. Such readers may steal a nervous laugh when Eglon’s guards suppose their master is defecating, allowing Ehud to escape (Judg. 3:24-26), but unconsciously suppress the story’s lowbrow humor as extraneous to its point. The word of God can’t really be that gross, can it? Ehud’s supposed moral high ground, Eglon’s moral turpitude, or some bland combination of the two is inferred instead.
Like it or not, the Bible is unsanitary. On the other hand, even a story such as Ehud and Eglon’s is not gory in the pornographic sense. The text’s interest in blood derives from its genesis within an agricultural environment, a society where the vast majority of people were engaged in food production. The Bible is a book written by farmers, about farmers, for farmers. Its olive orchards and sheep pastures are not bucolic parklands infusing its pages with the nostalgic aura of days gone by. Rather, they locate biblical content within the daily grind of a workforce scratching its living from the earth. The Bible’s “implied reader” is a person like Betty Sue—someone who has soiled her clothes with a dying mother’s dying calf. It is written for people who know and care for their animals, whose lives are materially bound up with animal bodies, who understand what it means to bring an animal into the world and what it means, when the time comes, to take an animal out of it. Eglon, not by accident, means “calf” in Hebrew. Like life on a dairy farm, the Bible is not gory, but it is bloody.
Tacit avoidance or outright misconstrual of the Old Testament’s material interest in blood poses a substantial theological danger because its blood language furnishes the conceptual framework for understanding Jesus’ crucifixion. When Jesus says, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20), he is citing Jer. 31:31, not starting a new religion. He is situating his imminent death within Old Testament tradition, not disabusing himself of it. At all costs, we must not allow industrial culture’s schizophrenic disgust and obsession with blood to interpret the crucifixion for us. Let the Bible do this work instead.
The book of Genesis is a good starting point, if only because the Bible assumes that its readers will begin on page one. As it happens, however, Genesis is also a story about blood. It is a twisting family saga in which the characters lie, cheat, steal, murder, manipulate, and terrorize their relatives. They also trust, obey, worship, reconcile and forgive. The key to Genesis lies in its bloodline, in the supra-generational perspective it grants to the reader as he or she encounters the messy events of each character’s life in succession.
Why, for example, should the Bible place the story of Judah and Tamar in between chapter 37, where Judah and his brothers throw Joseph in a pit (Gen. 37:34), and the rest of Joseph’s story, where he is imprisoned and eventually exhumed from a second “pit” (Gen. 41:14)? In other words, why should the Bible nest Judah’s story inside Joseph’s? Moreover, none of these events should be considered apart from the child-bearing competition that takes place earlier between Leah and Rachel (Gen. 29:31–30:24), which is a direct result of Laban’s plot to deceive Jacob on his wedding night (Gen. 29:22-23). Jacob, meanwhile, is living with Laban only because he fled from Esau (Gen. 28:5), who intends to kill him (Gen. 27:41) only because Jacob did as his mother—Laban’s sister—advised, tricking his father Isaac out of Esau’s blessing (Gen. 27:1-29). And so on.
Genesis is a book that moves “from fratricide to forgiveness.”1 The first person born in a post-Garden world kills his own brother; Abel’s blood, the text notes, cries out to God from the ground (Gen. 4:10). Generations later, Joseph’s brothers sell their younger sibling into slavery, and then deceive their father by dipping his coat in the blood of a goat (Gen. 37:31). When eventually the tables turn in Egypt, Joseph like Cain wields the power (and the motive) to take revenge. Just when the dramatic tension reaches its climax, Judah throws himself at Joseph’s feet and cries, “Take me instead!” (Gen. 44:33). The ringleader of Joseph’s “murder” offers his own life in place of Benjamin’s. Only now does Joseph unravel in tears; only now does reconciliation begin. Such self-sacrifice is ultimately rooted in chapter 38, where Judah realizes that his Canaanite daughter-in-law “is more righteous than I” (Gen. 38:26). A woman from outside the bloodline prevents the bloodline’s demise.
On one hand, the plot summarized above fits snugly under American Christianity’s cultural roof. Judah’s self-sacrifice in particular may suggest the cross. On the other hand, Genesis’s “higher” ideals find expression only through the seedier aspects of human living. In surprising detail, the text relates how Judah’s second son, Onan, performs coitus interruptus with Tamar (Gen. 38:9). The story of Lot’s daughters reads as an ancient form of transgender burlesque, in which the two women “get up” and “come into” their inebriated father (Gen. 19:33, 35). When Rebekah arrives in Canaan for the first time, she encounters Isaac in the field; the Hebrew is unclear, but one good explanation is that Abraham’s pride and joy has gone outside “to take a dump” (Gen. 24:63). When Rebekah witnesses this activity in progress, she literally “falls off the camel” (Gen. 24:64)!2
Do the Old Testament’s bodily fluids embarrass us? Shall we sanitize them with moralisms or refashion them as metaphors? Shall we discard them as the pulp fiction of a primitive society? Shall we sweep them discreetly under the rug while pretending biblical content is compatible with the enlightened principles of modern living?
That the Bible’s matriarchs and patriarchs are all agriculturalists in one sense or another is not an inconsequential feature of the text, a mere accident of history. In fact, the agrarian context in which this family’s convoluted bloodline takes shape is essential. It provides the language through which Genesis asserts that God’s promises cohere in the literal, material world in which his creatures work and eat.
At the epicenter of this daring claim is a man named Abram, a farmer whose life story takes a dramatic turn in chapter 15. In order to understand how this pivotal episode works, however, some context is needed. Genesis tells us that Abram and his wife Sarai and their animals emigrate from Ur to Canaan, far away from their friends and relatives (Gen. 11:27–12:9). Notably, Sarai is incapable of conceiving a child (Gen. 11:30). When famine strikes, they push on to Egypt where Abram instructs Sarai to lie about her identity (Gen. 12:11-13). After all, she is barren, and thus expendable. As a result of their deception, Sarai is absorbed into Pharaoh’s harem—long enough for Abram to benefit from the transaction (Gen. 12:16) and long enough, presumably, for Pharaoh to test out Sarai’s barrenness for himself. But while the story’s menfolk trade in female bodies, God does not. He reveals the truth to Pharaoh, who then delivers Sarai to her real husband along with a well-deserved eviction notice (Gen. 12:19). Soon after returning to Canaan, Abram’s proxy heir, Lot, leaves for Sodom (Gen. 13:10-12).
We therefore encounter in Genesis 15 a man of limited prospects. “What can you give me,” he asks God, “since I am childless?” (Gen. 15:2). The reader should not be tempted to construe these words as skepticism or impertinence, regardless of Abram’s prior dealings in Egypt. His concern is valid. In following God to Canaan, he has given up any chance of inheriting his family’s ancestral holdings in Ur. He is an alien in a foreign land, a man of the earth with no patch of ground to call his own. The future is bleak.
In response, God swears a promise to Abram—both for children and for land, for posterity and for place (Gen. 15:4-5, 7). God gives farmer Abram a reason to hope.
Abram, for his part, takes God at his word (Gen. 15:6). But God is not quite finished. “Get me a heifer, a goat, and a ram, along with a turtledove and a young pigeon.” Abram obeys, and then cuts the four-legged animals in two and arranges their halves opposite one another (Gen. 15:9-10).
“Really?” the startled reader may ask. Abram fetches a cow, a goat, and a sheep, and then cuts these animals in half? What volume of fluid does such butchery entail? Why should a loving God require this slaughter? In what condition of filth did Abram find himself after the fact? Did he use a cleaver or a carving knife? It is precisely this level of hyperbolic gore that sends the reader running to the New Testament or out of the Bible altogether. Could Abram not have pricked his finger and signed some sort of fidelity contract instead?
He might have, if the idea behind this text were a test of his loyalty to God. But a test is not what the Bible has in mind. Hope, not merit, is the principal concept driving Abram’s story forward (cf. Rom. 4:18-25). The implied reader remembers that when an agreement is formalized in this manner, the lesser party must walk between the animal parts, submitting to the prospect of similar mutilation if the terms are not kept. In a stunning reversal of expectation, however, a smoking furnace and a blazing torch move between the animal pieces instead (Gen. 15:17). God, not Abram, submits himself to the strictures of the pact. Even in the midst of Egyptian slavery, says God, I will maintain my promise to your offspring. I will hang as a broken animal in the midst of all your transactions and lies. I will keep my promises even when you and your children do not.
The carnage of Gen. 15 is necessary not because God must satisfy his bloodlust, nor because Abram must prove his loyalty to God through ritual violence. Rather, it is necessary because Abram’s human genome is bathed in blood already. If Genesis is a book about a particular family’s all-too-human capacity for intergenerational sin, then it is equally a story about God’s resolve to stand by that family when the chips are down. The book’s overarching trajectory—from fratricide to forgiveness—is made possible because God promises to “get bloody” with Abram and his children after him. God gets involved in the farmer’s mess.
In the same way, when Jesus bleeds to death on a rocky outcrop near Jerusalem, God is not licking his chops in heaven, eagerly satisfying his appetite for pornographic gore. Neither is Jesus’ blood a magic potion, a syrupy, sanitized elixir to be bottled in platitudes and dispensed at religious ceremonies. Jesus’ blood is no more and no less than real human blood, shed by the Creator himself. It embodies God’s near-inconceivable choice to throw in his lot with human beings, despite our bloodstained record. It is the culmination of God’s durable promise to a family tree stretching back to the deepest recesses of our ancestral memory. But most importantly, it locates God’s overture toward humanity within the fabric of our material existence.
Jesus’ blood cannot be understood apart from the real spasms of pain that shoot through his wrists and ankles when the stakes are driven through, just as the covenant God makes with Abram cannot be understood apart from the animals he slaughters and then lays out upon the slick, matted grass. Crucifixion is horrendous; a dairy farmer knows this. In both theological perversions described above—the sadist Father and the commodified Son—Jesus’ death mutates into something good, something to amplify and celebrate. The mob agreed—“Let his blood be on us and on our children!” (Matt. 27:25). The scandal of Christian faith, by contrast, is to amplify and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, not his execution, and to trust in God’s promises even when the amplification of his life leads the believer to a similarly unjust and excruciating demise. Christian faith is not about getting out of this world of blood; it is about falling ever deeper into the care of a God who became a bloody mess on our behalf.
The roast is out of the oven and the pies are in. The aroma of braised beef fills the kitchen and, I imagine, begins seeping out onto the porch. Before long, Lee and Mark can be heard stamping and scraping their boots on the boards outside. This routine is more a gesture to Betty Sue than an effective method of manure removal. The two men enter, speckled and streaked with sour milk. They quickly wash up, grab two beers from the fridge, and with tired grins on their faces, squeeze into the bench seat curving around the table to my left.
Mark’s wife Elaina arrives with their two small children. While the meat rests, we discuss which mothers will soon give birth, the health of the newborn calves, the market for cheese, and of course the weather. Lee spends at least five minutes educating me on various types of bull semen. Betty Sue cuts him off only because it is time to pray—“Lamb of God, make us thankful for the food we are about to eat, and may it strengthen our bodies to your service.”
At last the meal is served. Betty Sue reaches over her grandson’s bobbing head to set the roast on two crocheted trivets at the table’s center. Brandishing a long knife, she slices into the meat, exposing its pink interior and pooling its red juices in the dish below. A hungry murmur of anticipation ripples from one side of the table to the other. Betty Sue passes me the first plate and says, with matter-of-factness only a farmer can summon, “Eat up—this here’s Wynette.”
- Matthew R. Schlimm, From Fratricide to Forgiveness: The Language and Ethics of Anger in Genesis, Siphrut: Literature and Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures 7 (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2011).
- Joel S. Kaminsky, “Humor and the Theology of Hope: Isaac as a Humorous Figure,” Interpretation (Oct 2000), 363-75 (369).