Leviticus 17 describes laws that prescribe where an Israelite could sacrifice. Sacrifices ought to be performed at the Tabernacle, so the blood could be splashed upon the altar and atone for the worshiper. The penalty for sacrificing elsewhere was that “bloodguilt shall be imputed to that man” (17:4; all Scripture ESV).
What is “bloodguilt”? The Hebrew word is dam, literally “blood.” The word is usually used in the OT to refer to either manslaughter or murder. Genesis 9:6 provides a foundation for this term: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”
In other words, the death penalty will be imposed on all people who shed the blood by murdering others. The reason for this strict command is that people are created in the image of God. To harm them is to harm God’s creation and God’s likeness.
Leviticus 17:4 references the text in Gen 9:6 – “bloodguilt shall be imputed to that man. He has shed blood.” But here in Lev 17:4, this idiom is not referring to murder or a human life taken; it refers to the ox or lamb or goat being killed improperly. How can it be that the word usually used in association with murder is now applied to someone who doesn’t sacrifice in the proper way?
The answer is found in idea of substitutionary atonement. The sacrificial animal is a substitute for the worshiper offering it. The life of the flesh is in the blood, and that blood makes atonement for the soul of the one who offers it (17:11, 14). To misuse that blood by sacrificing wrongly is to incur a death penalty because the animal’s blood that is spilled represents the human who spills the blood.
To put it another way, a worshiper brings a lamb for a sacrificial offering. That lamb dies in place of that worshiper. Its blood makes atonement for the worshiper, since life is in the blood. One life given for another. To spill the blood as a “sacrifice” in the improper way means the animal has died purposelessly. Life through the spilled blood has been taken.
This might help explain why the penalties in Lev 17 are so severe. God takes life—and blood, which represents life—seriously.