The other day, I read the comments to an agony aunt column in The Guardian concerning a family issue.

One of the paper’s readers remarked that ‘blood is thicker than water’, which received this response

The original meaning of “Blood is thicker than water” was that a blood bond (where two friends or comrades cut their hands or wrists to mingle their blood together and vow eternal support) was regarded as stronger and of more importance than the accident of birth (the “water” being the amniotic fluid, as in the phrase, “Her waters have broken”).

… followed by this one (emphases mine below):

Incorrect. The phrase is a corruption of the original saying, which is “The blood of the Covenant is thicker than the water of the womb”.

The original saying meant that people’s relationship to each other through their Christian faith was even more important than kinship. Over time, it was shortened to “blood is thicker than water” and the modern meaning is now precisely the opposite of the original meaning.

I learned something new that day.

By His Grace; For His Glory has a thought-provoking devotional on this saying, affirming its religious meaning. Excerpts follow.

One example from the Bible is Luke 8:19-21:

Over the past 8 months of devoted Bible study I have come to terms with the grief I often felt by what I had considered a “lost relationship” in my life. One that should have been much stronger than it is. My lesson from the Lord began in Luke chapter 8.

19 Then Jesus’ mother and brothers came to see him, but they couldn’t get to him because of the crowd. 20 Someone told Jesus, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, and they want to see you.” 21 Jesus replied, “My mother and my brothers are all those who hear God’s word and obey it.”

Here I began to understand that the relationship I grieved was not necessarily a void in my life; but rather, God began to show me He has provided the satisfaction and fullness of what that relationship should bring through others that are not of any blood relation.

The author of the devotional gives several other examples from Scripture, one of which is from the Old Testament, involving Jonathan and David in 1 Samuel 20:16-17:

I Samuel 20:16,17, “So Jonathan made (cut) a covenant with the house of David, saying, ‘Let the Lord even require it at the hand of David’s enemies.’ And Jonathan caused David to swear again, because he loved him: for he loved him as he loved his own soul.”

The author then cites an explanation from Pastor Johnie Akers of how the blood covenant ceremony in the ancient world was done:

The expression “blood is thicker than water” may be familiar with us in general terms, but its true meaning, especially in Western culture, is somewhat foreign. An understanding of ancient Eastern covenants brings new light to this obscure phrase. During the ritual of ancient covenant making, the two parties involved would divide an animal in half, and stand together in the blood, with their right hands clasp, and swear a mutual oath binding them to each other. In some cases, each party would cut their respective hands, bind them together with the other party, allowing their blood to mingle. The resulting union of this blood oath was never to be broken. In effect, the two participants in the covenant would become “blood brothers,” and thus become one flesh. The relationship born of this union was so knit, that brothers made through the blood of covenants were closer to each other than brothers who were born from the same womb. Hence, blood (of the covenant) is thicker than water (of the womb).

In the … scripture above, Jonathan and David cut a covenant and become, likewise, blood brothers. This bond lasted until deathChrist, too, makes a blood covenant with his disciples and thereby binding himself to them, and all disciples to follow, with a covenant that exceeds any natural relationship. As ancient covenants go, Christ’s was also “till death us do part.”

The devotional concludes:

Of course we should love and pray for our families. However we must be aware that some boundaries are needed even between family. We can love without enabling, we can care without subjecting ourselves to a situation that brings harm. We can pray for them but one thing we have to remember is that we can not change them! Only God can bring about true change. I’m not saying it’s easy to do but proper relational balance is in order.

So pay close attention to those you spend your time and energy with. If you don’t have a good relationship with the ones you think should be closest to you, don’t count it as a loss. God can still fulfill that desire through others in the family of God.

Wise words, indeed.