Today on Project Gutenberg, we have…
The Blood Covenant: A Primitive Rite and its Bearings on Scripture by H. Clay Trumbull
Another educational text here. This was published in 1885 and based on a series of lectures that its author gave in June of that year. It starts out as an anthropological journey, focusing on the prevalence across cultures of one specific ritual. That ritual, of course, is the mutual transfusion of blood to seal and symbolize an unbreakable bond. It’s something that has appeared throughout history and the world in various incarnations, as Trumbull explains in the first section of the book. He goes into great detail about how the practice is observed in the Middle East (where he describes the parties drinking each other’s blood after writing up signed contracts with witnesses) and in several African tribes (where the method of blood exchange is done by incisions on the arms).
Trumbull also observes how the meaning and intent of the blood pact differ slightly between cultures. It’s a personal commitment and expression of love between two people in the Middle East, to the point that the Arabic words for “friendship,” “love,” “blood” and “leech” share a common root (page 8). In Africa, meanwhile, it’s often done between member of different tribes to signify a political alliance.
The people of Chumbiri welcomed the travelers. “They readily subscribed to all the requirements of friendship, blood-brotherhood, and an exchange of a few small gifts.” Itsi, the king of Ntamo, with several of his elders and a showy escort, came out to meet Stanley; and there was a friendly greeting on both sides. “They then broached the subject of blood-brotherhood. We were willing,” says Stanley, “but they wished to defer the ceremony until they had first shown their friendly feelings to us.”page 26
After a few more chapters on blood covenants in other parts of the world and throughout history, Trumbull spends a whole section of the book discussing how and why this practice might have begun. He goes into great detail about blood as a universal symbol of life and its transference as a symbol of rejuvenation, inspiration and communication with God. That last part is what he’s really most interested in, since the whole point of the book is how the blood covenant appears in the Bible. He makes some pretty interesting points and observations here, such as drawing a connection between the blood covenant and animal sacrifices.
The earliest implied reference to blood in the Bible text, is the record of Abel’s sacrifice. “And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. And in process of time it came to pass that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering: but unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect.” An inspired comment on this incident is: “By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he had witness borne to him that he was righteous, God bearing witness in respect of [or, over] his gifts: and through it he [Abel] being dead yet speaketh.”
Now, on the face of it, in the light of all that we know of primitive customs in this matter of the blood-covenant, and apart from any added teachings in the Bible concerning the nature and meanings of different sacrifices, this narrative shows Abel, lovingly and trustfully reaching out toward God with substitute blood, in order to be in covenant oneness with God; while Cain merely proffers a gift from his earthly possessions. Abel so trusts God, that he gives himself to him. Cain defers to God sufficiently to make a present to him. The one shows unbounded faith; the other shows a measure of affectionate reverence.page 211
Trumbull finds that the blood covenant pops up a lot in the Bible: circumcision is a variation on the concept, as are God’s instructions to the Israelites for protecting themselves during the Tenth Plague of Egypt. The ultimate example, he argues, is that of Communion.
Here was the covenant of blood; here was the communion feast, in partaking of the flesh of the fitting and accepted sacrifice;—toward which all rite and symbol, and all heart yearning and inspired prophecy, had pointed, in all the ages. Here was the realization of promise and hope and longing, in man’s possibility of inter-union with God through a common life—which is oneness of blood; and in man’s inter-communion with God, through participation in the blessings of a common table. He who could speak for God, here proffered of his own blood, to make those whom he loved, of the same nature with himself, and so of the same nature with his God; to bring them into blood-friendship with their God; and he proffered of his own body, to supply them with soul nourishment, in that Bread which came down from God.page 282
In the end, all these examples come back to the same principle: connections forged and rejuvenation found through the exchange of blood.
I really enjoyed looking through this text. It’s got a lot of interesting information about history and different cultures, and it’s also a cool look at how 19th-century anthropologists conducted their research and wrote about the people they were studying.
That’s all for now! See you next time!