Exposition of Genesis 1–11: Genesis 9:4–7

Genesis 9:4–7
“But you must not eat meat with its life (that is, its blood) in it. 5 For your lifeblood I will surely exact punishment, from every living creature I will exact punishment. From each person I will exact punishment for the life of the individual since the man was his relative. 6 ‘Whoever sheds human blood, by other humans must his blood be shed; for in God’s image God has made humankind.’
7 But as for you, be fruitful and multiply; increase abundantly on the earth and multiply on it.”
(NET Bible)

Matters of life and death

Life is cheap, they say. But they don’t say it in heaven!

How will God curb the spread of violence that led him to destroy the original creation? How will justice be done on the earth? Who will be summoned to give an accounting to God for the loss of human life?

In the previous post we considered the general provision God made in allowing the animals for food (Gen. 9:3). Victor Hamilton explains how Gen. 9:3 relates to Gen. 9:4 when he says, “The pattern in this verse [9:4] and the preceding one is the same as that of 2:16–17: a generous permission (‘every tree of the garden,’ ‘every creeping thing’) followed by a single prohibition (‘of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat,’ ‘flesh together with its lifeblood you shall not eat’).”[1]

There is an equating here of “blood” with “life” that does not resonate with contemporary readers. Perhaps the easiest way to understand this idea is that God is associating the shedding of blood with death. On one hand, this idea emphasizes the sanctity of life, which comes from God.

On another level the equation of death with shedding blood sets up the theology of the entire sacrificial system. Ultimately, Jesus’ blood was shed on our behalf; that is, he died in our place to pay for our sins (Rom. 5:9; Eph. 1:7).

The explanation above explains why Gen. 4:10 speaks of Abel’s blood crying out to God from the ground. The personified blood was crying out about Abel’s death at the hands of Cain.

Genesis 9:5
“For your lifeblood I will surely exact punishment, from every living creature I will exact punishment. From each person I will exact punishment for the life of the individual since the man was his relative.”

When we are reading the Bible, certain phrases should make us step on the brakes. “I will surely exact punishment” is certainly one of those phrases! Further, the phrase “exact punishment” is repeated three times in this verse, heightening its importance. A word study will help.

Word study: “require (someone’s life)”

The Hebrew verb darash, used three times in Gen. 9:5 for God’s personal response to someone taking a human life, means: “require (someone’s blood, life).”[2] The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament says: “Finally, our root is used of divine vengeance on those who take a life. God will diligently seek restitution of a life for a life (Gen. 9:5).”[3]

So, NET translates the verb darash three times in Gen. 9:5 as “exact punishment.” In Genesis 9:5, to exact punishment is to require someone’s life. The only problem with the NET Bible’s translation choice is that the reader may wrongly think that the punishment falls short of death. NIV 2011 says “I will demand an accounting,” which is an abstraction similar to the NET. The Christian Standard Bible (CSB) translates, “I will require the life,” which finally sets matters straight. The New Living Translation (NLT) says, “I will require the blood … anyone who murders a fellow human must die.” That last is a paraphrase, but the meaning is correct.

Kenneth Mathews says, “The general rule is that human life when violated, either by animal or fellow human, required the life of the offender.”[4]

A second issue in Genesis 9:5 is the translation “lifeblood” (NET, ESV, NASB, and NIV 2011). You might think that this term translates a single word, but that is not the case. The NET Bible Notes say, “Again the [Hebrew] text uses apposition to clarify what kind of blood is being discussed: ‘your blood, [that is] for your life.’”[5] By “apposition” the Notes mean that “blood” and “life” are nouns which have a grammatical relationship to one another; in this case the relationship is expressed in the following way: “your blood . . . for your life.”

The result of this analysis is shown by Gordon Wenham’s translation of Genesis 9:5, which says: “But I shall require your blood for your lives, from the hand of every wild animal I will require it; and from man’s hand, from each man his brother’s life, I shall require the life of man.”[6] Genesis 9:5 makes an intentional reference to Genesis 4 and the murder of Abel. This verse directly implies that Cain was his brother’s keeper, and the rest of us are put on notice!

Perhaps you noticed that Wenham’s translation used the word “brother” instead of the NET’s “relative.” All human beings are made in God’s image; there are no exceptions.

Genesis 9:6 (ESV)
“‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.’”

As usual, the ESV, shown above, sticks closer to Hebrew word order. Wenham says, “The tight chiastic formulation (shed, blood, man, man, blood, shed) repeating each word of the first clause in reverse order in the second emphasizes the strict correspondence of punishment to offense.”[7]

On the other hand, the NET correctly stands with NLT and CSB among major translations in saying of the slayer “by other humans must his blood be shed” (NET) rather than “by man shall his blood be shed” (ESV, NASB, NIV 2011, and RSV).[8] Such details may seem beneath mention except for the fact that this verse forms the primary biblical basis for capital punishment. Details matter in God’s inspired Word!

The one who upholds the dignity of humanity is God; we are made in his image, and he takes that very seriously. God strongly upholds the value of man in spite of man’s tendency to rebel and sin. Think about that the next time you hear someone demean a person or make light of human death.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.



[1] Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1–17, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990) 314.

[2] L. Koehler, W. Baumgartner and J. J. Stamm, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (HALOT), translated and edited under the supervision of M. E. J. Richardson. 5 vols. (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1994-2000) darash, require (someone’s blood, life), q.v.

[3] R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer and Bruce K. Waltke, eds. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, (TWOT) 2 vols. (Chicago: Moody, 1980) darash, require (someone’s blood, life), q.v.

[4] Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis 1–11:26, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996)  403.

[5] NET Bible Notes for Genesis 9:5.

[6] Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Word Incorporated, 1987) 151.

[7] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 193.

[8] E. Kautzsch, ed., A.E. Cowley, Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1910) 323 (§ 109i).