Clean from the blood of this wicked generation

In my experience, the opposite of cleanliness is most often described as dirty. If someone’s hands have dirt on them, they are unclean and unsanitary. Clothes also get dirty, and need to be washed to be clean. Even if it’s not dirt, people sometimes describe it as dirty. Anything with something unpleasant or undesirable on it or in it might be described as dirty. If something is covered in soot, or chalk dust, or cocoa powder, it might be still described as dirty. Parents talk about their baby’s dirty nappies and soiled clothing, even though there is no actual dirt or soil, because they are far from clean. A ‘dirty mind’ suggests contamination by lewd or vulgar topics. Sometimes we talk about chastity in a way that is opposite to ‘dirty’ morally-corrupt behaviour, talk, or thought. In English, we also have a phrase that contrasts clean with bloody. If someone is responsible for someone’s death, we might say “they have blood on their hands” while an innocent person has clean hands. Interestingly, being clean from dirt is hardly mentioned in scripture, but being clean from blood is.

Blood, violence, and sin

One of the first sins written of in Genesis, is the murder of Abel. This is also the first time “blood” is mentioned in the Bible. God told Cain, “the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground”. The blood symbolised Cain’s violence and Able’s death. God’s statement to Cain poetically communicates a need for justice after Cain murdered. Cain was punished; he could no longer grow crops. He took a life and lost his livelihood.

After this, blood is sometimes used in scripture as a symbol of killing, violence, or even sin in general. In the book of Helaman, the blood on Seantum’s clothing is evidence that he killed his own brother. Moroni expressed his reluctance to resort to violence through the words: “we do not desire to be men of blood.” In Jeremiah 51:35 blood parallels violence, in Micah 3:10 blood parallels iniquity, in Ezekiel 9:9 blood parallels perverseness. In Isaiah 59 it says “…your hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquity…“. In Hosea 6:8 and Psalm 106, blood is described as polluting the land. In Isaiah 1 there is language that could allude to blood being sin: “…though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.

The Gospel of Luke references Abel’s blood (and Zacharius’) when discussing accountability for violence and murder of prophets and apostles. Abel from Genesis and Zechariah from Chronicles span much of the Old Testament.

… I will send them prophets and apostles, and some of them they shall slay and persecute: That the blood of all the prophets, which was shed from the foundation of the world, may be required of this generation; From the blood of Abel unto the blood of Zacharias, which perished between the altar and the temple: verily I say unto you, It shall be required of this generation.

Luke 11:49-51

In general, we should not be violent or complicit in violence or other sin. Yet, even though we shouldn’t, we may be. Violence emerges from our primal instincts. It’s natural (or should I say, the natural man). War and other violence are as old as the hills, and widespread. Even if we commit no violence ourselves, we are often part of a group that does or did in the past. A family member or friend may have committed violence. Corrupt law enforcement in a country we live in may mistreat people. A nation we are a part of might be at war or have been at war in the past. Even if the reason for the war itself is just, injustices will occur on both sides during the war. Was there ever a group that had no blood on their hands? Someone in our “generation” will always have acted violently or sinned in some way.

As well as repenting for our personal sins, including violence, do we also need to do repent for violence/sin committed by others? I’ve been wondering about this recently, ever since I read D&C 88 where it talks about being clean from the blood of this wicked generation.

… sanctify yourselves; yea, purify your hearts, and cleanse your hands and your feet before me, that I may make you clean; That I may testify unto your Father, and your God, and my God, that you are clean from the blood of this wicked generation; that I may fulfil this promise, this great and last promise, which I have made unto you, when I will.

D&C 88:74-75

D&C 112 teaches the apostles “Cleanse your hearts and your garments, lest the blood of this generation be required at your hands.” I have usually read Luke as only addressing the wicked who wanted the prophets gone, but here in modern scripture it is addressed to the apostles themselves, to people I already expect to be somewhat holy.

Blood for blood

While in Cain’s case, God’s justice did not involve more blood, it seems that in the Old Testament it was often understood that innocent blood requires the murderer’s blood as a sort of punitive justice. Murder leaves a “bloodstain” on the land. If it is not addressed by the murderer, it was understood that the community may be punished by God. A murder victim’s family member had a responsibility to act as the “redeemer of blood”, and after a trial, free the victim’s blood from the land by killing the murderer (Numbers 35:19). Injuries to eyes to teeth might be able to be settled through appropriate monetary or other compensation, but in Israel, murder should not. “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed…” (Genesis 9:6). Blood-debt was to be repaid in blood.

In the Mosaic law, animal sacrifices included the sprinkling of blood on the altar. Moses took the blood of peace offerings and sprinkled it on the altar and on the people when they made a covenant with God. Often blood of animals was understood as connected to forgiveness of sin. A sin or guilt offering often involved the sacrifice of an unblemished animal (or flour for the poor) and sprinkling/splashing blood on the sides of the altar. These sacrifices addressed guilt brought upon individuals or the community, mostly by unintentional or ignorant sins/transgressions, but also some intentional sins. We don’t hear as much about collective repentance, these days. I feel like we still practice collective repentance when we prepare and partake of the sacrament (blood symbolism), but I don’t feel like we emphasise the communal part of it as much as personal repentance.

Not getting bloody

It seems we all get blood on our hands/clothes, through our own actions and the groups we are a part of. God tells Ezekiel that he has some responsibility for the sins of those he didn’t warn when could have. Jacob also teaches something about this idea too, but more about teaching in general than warning. Using our influence to warn and teach, are one way we can keep ourselves cleaner from the blood of our generation. As Paul says in Acts “… I am pure from the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God.

…Son of man, I have made thee a watchman unto the house of Israel: therefore… give them warning from me. When I say unto the wicked, Thou shalt surely die; and thou givest him not warning, nor speakest to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life; the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand. Yet if thou warn the wicked, and he turn not from his wickedness, nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but thou hast delivered thy soul. Again, When a righteous man doth turn from his righteousness, and commit iniquity, and I lay a stumbling-block before him, he shall die: because thou hast not given him warning, he shall die in his sin, and his righteousness which he hath done shall not be remembered; but his blood will I require at thine hand.

Ezekiel 3:16-20

And we did magnify our office unto the Lord, taking upon us the responsibility, answering the sins of the people upon our own heads if we did not teach them the word of God with all diligence; wherefore, by laboring with our might their blood might not come upon our garments; otherwise their blood would come upon our garments, and we would not be found spotless at the last day.

Jacob 1:19

Washing with blood

Jesus Christ bled in the garden of Gethsemane and on the cross, and this is understood by Christians to play a role similar to the blood of the sacrificed animals in the Mosaic law. See the passage from 1 Peter which talks about sprinkling Jesus’ blood.

Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace unto you, and peace, be multiplied.

1 Peter 1:1

I don’t remember any sprinkling going on in the gospels when we read about the atonement, but this language connects Jesus’ blood and the blood of sin/guilt offerings in the Mosaic law. Jesus becomes our sin/guilt offering. 1 Peter even takes it further than forgiveness or covering of sin, and also talks of grace. Ephesians 1:7 does too. But in the New Testament, there is this idea of washing away the bloodstains of sin with Jesus’ blood. This is weird imagery to me. Why would you try to wash anything with blood? It doesn’t literally make sense, but if we think back to blood debts being paid in blood, and removing the “stain” on the land, it starts to make more sense. In Revelations, it says Jesus “…washed us from our sins in his own blood…” and talks of people who “have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Throughout the Book of Mormon, there is also talk of washing our garments in Jesus’ blood and standing spotless before God at the judgment.

In whom [Jesus Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace.

Ephesians 1:7

And no unclean thing can enter into his kingdom; therefore nothing entereth into his rest save it be those who have washed their garments in my blood, because of their faith, and the repentance of all their sins, and their faithfulness unto the end. Now this is the commandment: Repent, all ye ends of the earth, and come unto me and be baptized in my name, that ye may be sanctified by the reception of the Holy Ghost, that ye may stand spotless before me at the last day.

3 Nephi 27:19-20

What is Justice?

All this blood, blood debt, and punitive justice makes me feel quite uncomfortable. In the scriptures, we find competing ideas regarding what justice is. Understanding these ideas can help us better understand the scriptures. How we address justice today doesn’t have to be the same as in the Old Testament, though. We don’t have family members be redeemed of blood anymore. We don’t really talk about blood debt or blood atonement. It doesn’t seem to match with what Jesus modelled when he said “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone…“. Paul also taught:

Recompense to no man evil for evil… If it be possible… live peaceably with all men. Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.

Romans 12:17–19

I recently listened to a podcast, where Adam Miller says he “think[s] that we tend to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of justice.” He points out that if we think of justice as people getting what they deserve, we may have an understanding of justice there requires someone to recompense evil for evil. Adam Miller suggests that instead of asking about what people deserve, asking what can be done to help people and the world be restored to a just state. This sounds like what Jesus said: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you“. These are things that build up a state of justice. These are things we are obligated to do in our communities. It’s a kind of institutional repentance. Not where individuals take personal responsibility and are punished for others’ sins, but where individuals work together to restore and maintain goodness and justice, even when others do evil. This is Jesus’ blood, the spirit of Christ, removing the stains of evil from our hands and clothes, from our community and land. We teach, warn, persuade, and serve. We become His hands, His clean hands, building Zion where ever we are.

Further Reading

Endowed with Power – Peter B. Rawlins

The Confusing Case of Zacharias – Lynne Hilton Wilson

Expiating with Blood – Yitzhaq Feder

Is Atonement Possible Without Blood? A Jewish-Christian Divide – Marc Zvi Brettler and Amy-Jill Levine