A Reckoning for Blood

ADOTS Morning Prayer:  Friday, 12 February 2021

Fr. John A. Roop

Now Comes a Reckoning:  A Meditation on Genesis 42:22

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Genesis 42 is the very human and poignant story of the reunion of disaffected brothers:  once arrogant Joseph, sold into slavery, now become viceregent of Egypt, with his ten, once jealous brothers, now reduced to near starvation by famine.  They were responsible for his misery; he will now take responsibility for their salvation.  It’s a good story, whether you’re reading it for the first time or for the hundredth time.

The emotional and theological climax of the chapter lies in the brothers’ confession of their sin against Joseph and of their acceptance of culpability:

Genesis 42:20–24 (ESV):  21 Then they said to one another, “In truth we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us and we did not listen. That is why this distress has come upon us.” 22 And Reuben answered them, “Did I not tell you not to sin against the boy? But you did not listen. So now there comes a reckoning for his blood.” 23 They did not know that Joseph understood them, for there was an interpreter between them. 24 Then he turned away from them and wept. 

It’s this phrase that does the heavy theological lifting in the story:  “now there comes a reckoning for his blood.”  This takes us back to near the beginning of the human story, to the first recorded example of ancestral sin.

Genesis 4:8–13 (ESV): 8 Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. 9 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 And the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. 11 And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” 13 Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear.

This is the first reckoning for blood:  not blood for blood or life for life, but futility in labor and exile from home and from the presence of the LORD (cf Gen 4:16).

Within eight human generations of this first reckoning the human “experiment” seems to have failed utterly.

Genesis 6:5–8 (ESV): 5 The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7 So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” 8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. 

There’s no need to rehearse the rest of this story in any detail; you know the general outline well enough.  It is the aftermath of the flood story that’s pertinent, what happens when Noah and family exit the ark.

Genesis 9:1–6 (ESV): And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. 2 The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered. 3 Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. 4 But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. 5 And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. 6 Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image. 

There it is again, a reckoning for blood.  This time, having seen the depravity of man, God declares the shedding of human blood — the taking of human life — to be a capital offense.  This is the reckoning for blood:  “whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed” (Gen 9:6).  There is a strict proportionality between offense and reckoning.  Is this what Joseph’s brothers expected and feared?  They had confined Joseph in a pit; now they are in prison.  They had sold Joseph into slavery; now they may become slaves in Egypt.  Perhaps Joseph had been killed through their enmity.  Perhaps they will now be killed as spies.  Proportionality, reciprocity:  “So now there comes a reckoning for his blood.”

We move forward in the story some four centuries and we see new facets of this reckoning, a significant change.  Moses has met God on Sinai, and God has given newly liberated Israel a Law for corporate life and worship.  And in this Law there is a most significant reorientation from reckoning for blood to reckoning by blood.  That is the heart of the sacrificial system:  reckoning by blood — the reckoning for the sin of man by the blood of bulls and goats.  Of course, there were still capital offenses in the law, but the theological essence of the Law was animal blood reckoning for human sin.  It was foreshadowed in the Passover lamb whose blood — smeared on doorposts and lintels — spared the Hebrews plague and destruction in the land of Egypt.  It moved out of the shadows in the regulations for sin offerings; read Leviticus 4.  And it came to the fore in the blood sprinkled by the high priest in the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement.

And so it goes throughout the years.  But, beginning perhaps with the Psalms, we get a hint that all is not well with this reckoning for the sin of man by the blood of animals, that it is somehow inadequate, that something more, something different, something better is on the horizon.

Psalm 50:12–15 (ESV): 12  “If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine. 13  Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats? 14  Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High, 15  and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” 

This gestures toward a qualitatively different sacrifice:  not blood, but obedience and thanksgiving.  The trouble is that people are not able to be obedient; hence the necessity of sacrifice in the first place.  Then there is this:

Psalm 40:6–8 (ESV): 6  In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.  

7  Then I said, “Behold, I have come; in the scroll of the book it is written of me: 

 8  I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.” 

Apparently, there is someone — Who is speaking here in the Psalm? —  apparently there is someone who actually delights in obedience, for whom the Law is not a set of external commandments, but a living presence written in the heart.  And the implication of this Psalm is that this someone might spell the end of burnt offerings and sin offerings, that there just might be a different kind of reckoning for human sin than the blood of bulls and goats.

Who is this someone, and how will he put an end to reckoning for blood by blood?

Hebrews 9:11–14 (ESV): 11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 12 he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. 

Like the high priest of old, Christ enters the Holy of Holies to sprinkle blood on the mercy seat, but not the blood of bulls and goats, and not repeatedly year after year.  He enters the Holy of Holies — the very presence of God — to pour out his own blood, once for all.  This is not a reckoning for blood.  It is not quite even a reckoning by blood, “for it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb 10:4).  It is the final reckoning through the blood of the Lamb of God, by which we have been sanctified once for all (cf Heb 10:10).  For by this “single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Heb 10:14).

And that has changed the story:  no, not changed, but fulfilled.  We are no longer Joseph’s brothers fearing the reckoning for blood.  We are no longer children supervised by the Law, bound under the Law to a reckoning for sin by the blood of bulls and goats.  No; we are the sons and daughters of God now reckoned righteous before him through the blood of Jesus.  And that has consequences.

Hebrews 10:19–25 (ESV): 19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. 

This is our hope.  This is our assurance.  This is our salvation.  This is our vocation. This is the Sacraments.  This is the Church.  This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

What can we say to all this?  Words fail, but for doxology and blessing:

Hebrews 13:20–21 (ESV): 20 Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, 21 equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen. 

About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN.
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