How one of the smartest creatures on earth illustrates one of the most important principles in the Bible.
[Keywords: octopus, mother, atonement, cover, sin, faith, Christianity, Bible, Old Testament, sacrifice, love, motherhood, woman, God.]
Length: Medium, 1616 words
For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.
- Leviticus 17:11
Iniquities prevailed against me, but as for our transgressions, you will provide atonement for them.
- Psalm 65:3
There's an amazing mother in the animal kingdom that exemplifies self-sacrificial love. However, she may not be what you'd expect. It's not a hen, with a brood of chicks following close behind, nor a mother elephant, who cares for her child for years before it's ready for independent life. Not even a ferocious momma bear, who will tear you apart if you lay a hand on her cub. We'll have to get wet if we want to meet this particular mother, as she doesn't live on land but submerged in the ocean. However, she is no fish or marine mammal. In fact, she's an invertebrate, meaning she has no spine, or any other bones for that matter. Nor does she have fins to swim. Instead, she gets around by jetting water through its body, and also by crawling along on her eight limbs. Have you guessed yet? You might not think an octopus would be a remarkable parent, but these fascinating creatures make a strong case for any Mother-of-the-Year award.
Octopuses in general are among the most intelligent creatures on earth, able to solve mazes and complex problems to attain food prizes. They can open jars from the outside and the inside. Octopuses have been observed throwing rocks, constructing their own simple tools, and even ambushing prey on land. But the female octopus in particular is a striking example of the self-sacrificing heart of mothers. This is a fascinating trait is a direct reflection of God’s self-sacrificing heart for his many children.
Let me explain.
The Giant Pacific Octopus is the largest in the world, weighing up to 150 pounds and measuring 20 feet across. They only live about five years and in that time they only mate once. Afterwards, a pregnant female will find a small rocky cave to lay her eggs, depositing thousands of them in clusters hanging from the ceiling. Amazingly, after laying her eggs, the mother octopus will thereafter never leave the cave. Not even once. She will stay there in the dark, guarding her brood, for the rest of her life, thereby ensuring the greatest possible chance of survival for her offspring.
You see, an octopus egg is the perfect food for virtually any sea creature. Small, bite-sized, soft-walled, full of protein and fat - any fish lucky enough to come upon an unguarded cache would have the feast of a lifetime. Even crustaceans, plankton, and bacteria - anything floating or crawling along - would make short work octopus eggs, quickly consuming the entire unattended clutch. However, the mother octopus, with her ever-watchful gaze and powerful arms, doesn't let that happen.
Such constant surveillance is no small task. It takes up to six months for octopus eggs to develop and hatch. And yet, in that time the mother guards them unceasingly. Since she is unable to leave the cave to hunt, she doesn’t eat anything. As a result, her body slowly wastes away, consuming itself from the inside out just to remain alive and vigilant. She continuously jets fresh water over the clusters, gently brushing them clear of bacteria and other parasites with her long tentacles. Over time, her movements become slower as her energy wanes.
Months after entering the cave, the mother octopus’ once vibrant red skin has faded to pale gray. She can barely move. But as her eggs start to hatch, releasing a baby octopus into the darkness of the cave, she expends what little energy she has to gently flush them outside with a jet of water. Out in the open ocean the tiny, newborn octopuses, with their big eyes and snort tentacles, immediately swim for the surface to find food. In this way, they begin their lives one at a time, leaving the cave and their dying mother far behind.
Eventually, the thousands of egg sacs release their precious contents into the world and now hang empty from the roof of the cave. On the floor, all that remains of the once robust mother octopus is her rubbery body laying motionless in the dark. She is dead. It doesn’t take long for the scavengers to arrive. They were constantly shooed away for months, but now the bottom-feeders feast on the remains of the most dedicated mother in the ocean. Her body returns to the sea and her cave is soon picked clean - egg sacks and all - ready for another heroic mother to make it her final resting place.
This amazing behavior has been observed in many species of octopus throughout the world’s oceans. The last thing these mothers do in life is to ensure the best possible chance of survival for their offspring. They literally give their lives for their loved ones, right to the very end.
Didn’t Jesus do the same thing for us? He willingly put himself in a dark, lonely place and allowed himself to die. As Jesus’ precious blood fell onto the earth, his once robust body was slowly drained of its life, his skin fading to gray. He allowed himself to be broken beyond repair. Eventually, all that remained was a lifeless corpse hanging from a wooden cross, and then buried in the dark. He gave his life for his loved ones, right to the very end. Just like the mother octopus, the Lord covers over his children to give them life, even though it cost him everything.
This is what atonement is all about.
In the Old Testament, kapar is the Hebrew word that translates to “atonement”, particularly referring to how the blood of a sacrificial animal covered over the sins of a repentant soul.
When the sin which [the people of Israel] have committed becomes known, the assembly shall offer a bull from the herd for a sin offering… [The priest] shall pour out [the blood] at the base of the altar of burnt offering... And the priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven. (Lev 4:14-20)
For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life. (Lev 17:11)
Israel’s whole system of religious purification depended on sacrificial animals to atone for their sins. Sin cannot be undone, but atonement seeks to make amends for the wrongdoing with outward actions. The blood of animals covered over their sin so people could be made right with God again. However, this was always an imperfect system, and was later replaced by Jesus’ sacrifice of himself on the cross.
[Jesus] bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. (1 Pet 2:24)
Worthy [is the Lamb]... for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. (Rev 5:9)
He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. (Is 53:5)
Atonement makes two divided parties “at one” with each other. This process is a necessary part of salvation, whereby a person is made right with God. He atones for us - that is, he covers us with his blood - even when we’re at our worst ("while we were still sinners, Christ died for us," Rom 5:8). When believers stand before God on the great day of judgment, he will see Jesus' blood on us, and the punishment for our sins will already have been served.
We even see atonement in the garden of Eden. Immediately after Adam and Eve sinned for the first time, “the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked” (Gen 3:7). And yet, even with a broken heart, God saw their shame and in his love covered it up.
The Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them. (Gen 3:21)
God sacrificed an animal for the good of his beloved children, so that the animal's skin literally covered over their shame. Although they still had to deal with the consequences of their sin, Adam and Eve were still cared for in their time of great need by their heavenly Father.
God’s heart is that his children would come to him and find shelter. In fact, the psalms describe this very image.
He will cover you with his pinions [feathers], and under his wings you will find refuge. (Ps 91:4)
Just as a mother shelters her young, God shelters his children. He covers us (atones for us) so we can be with him (“at one”). This is the heart of God, to do anything for his children because of his great, self-sacrificial love for us.
Like an octopus. Like a mother.
© D. B. Ryen Incorporated, July 2022.
All biblical quotes used with permission from ESV Study Bible, Crossway Books, 2008.