January 22, 2007

Blood Is Thicker than Water
by Pastor George Van Alstine

We’ve probably all heard this proverbial saying, and we probably all have the same immediate sense of what it means: The connection between people of the same family—“blood relativesâ€?—is stronger than any other connection that binds people together.

Sometimes the saying is used to predict where a person’s final loyalty will lie. I once listened as a brother and sister, young adults, went on and on about their father’s bizarre behavior. Actually, he was a very eccentric guy, and I made the mistake of agreeing with them. Of course, they both turned on me for daring to say anything negative about their dad. I’ve learned to just listen attentively in such cases. Blood is thicker than water.

There are some problems with this family-first notion. One is that it can become an excuse for tolerating bad behavior; we have to stand by brother Jack, even though we know he’s in the wrong. Another problem is that the emphasis on blood-relationship can make adopted children feel like outsiders in spite of very strong commitment and bonding. Finally, taken to the extreme, applying this family-first principle can lead to exclusivity, clannishness, and even bigotry.

And yet, there’s something very comforting about the notion that there are some people, our family, who will be there for us regardless of the circumstances.

Maybe here is where this article should end, with an affirmation of family loyalty. But thinking about this proverb made me very curious. I can see what the blood relationship means, but what is the contrasting water? I couldn’t get a picture that made any sense.

So I did a web search. Yes, I have become a twenty-first century man. The computer is now my friend. I found that this phase could be traced back to literature as early as AD 1421, and that even then its meaning was about the same as it is now. Every reference since that time seems to have used and interpreted the proverb the same way. But no one gave me any clue as to the meaning of the contrast between blood and water.

And then I stumbled on an interpretation by a Christian writer that turned this thing upside-down. He pointed out that in the Fourth Gospel account of Jesus’s crucifixion, John tells about the Roman spear thrust into Jesus’ side, and that “at once blood and water came outâ€? (John 19:34-35). Later, the same John reflected on the meaning of Jesus’ life and death:
“This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with water only but with water and the blood.â€? (1 John5:6)
John apparently gave a theological, even mystical meaning to the water and the blood.

Jesus came “with waterâ€? when he was born. He came “with bloodâ€? when he died. So it could be that this proverbial saying grew out of a Christian understanding of the two-fold relationship we have with Jesus. He identified with us in his birth (water), and even more in his death (blood). At the Last Supper, Jesus said, “This is the new covenant in my bloodâ€? (Luke 22:20). So our proverb may have originally meant“The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.â€? As closely-bound as we are to Jesus because of his birth, the covenant-bond is even “thickerâ€? because of his death.

In the early church believers often found themselves cut off from their birth-families (water), but their new family of faith was bound together by something even greater—the blood of Jesus. Still today, many people find that their blood-relationship through Jesus is more profound and lasting than their water-relationship with their earthly family.

If my historical analysis of the genesis of this proverb is correct, people during the Middle Ages still used the saying, but outside the context of the church, it took on a new meaning. Not having clear teaching about the gospel, they didn’t understand about Jesus’ two-fold connection with us. In time, the proverb came to be applied in a way that is really upside-down, implying that family bonds are the most basic. And this usage of the proverb has stuck.

So the next time you hear someone say “Blood is thicker than water,â€? agree with them—“Yes, that’s right.â€? but give them a little wink to communicate to them that you know something they don’t. Your mama loves you through thick and thin. But Jesus’ blood shows that he loves you through even thicker and thinner.