Woman, Childbirth, Impurity, and Leviticus


When Dorothy Sayers asks, Are Women Human?, we expect the Christian answer to be a simple and emphatic yes. But the simplicity of the question betrays the bewildering complexity of historical discussion over women. It seems impossible, but for long stretches in history, including Church history, women were in fact regarded as ontologically and psychologically inferior to men. In the early modern period, even accomplished writers known for their notoriously liberal proposals for women in marriage and society retained the conviction that women were not the intellectual or relational equal of men. John Milton is a classic example.

But we should drop our tsk, tsk condescension in relation to centuries of confusion, argument, and tradition. Are the Scriptures so clear on the question, or have we assumed they are because we read them through the cultural lenses of a more-modern era? Do we assume a kind of ontological equality of men and women in Scripture because we assume this equality is wrapped up in the image of God idea, even though many historically did not see it that way? Why didn't they always make this connection the way we do? The flip side is also possible: perhaps our more-modern default mode of assuming ontological equality has blinded us to the significance of the differences between man and woman. We'll explore some of these historical and theological questions later on. What about the Bible itself?

Modern criticism has functioned for at least a century with a default reading of Leviticus which regards it as undeniable proof-positive that the Bible is part of the problem. Instead of dismissing this notion, attending to it carefully enriches our appreciation of how Leviticus is in fact part of the solution. We begin now to explore how this is the case.

Our first example is the conundrum of the legal disparity in the purification of a mother who bears a male child on the one hand and a female child on the other. (A study by Richard Whitekettle ("Levitical Thought and the Female Reproductive Cycle: Wombs, Wellsprings, and the Primeval World," Vetus Testamentum XLVI, 3: 376-91) is notably insightful on this question, and for careful discussion of the issues see too the commentaries by Wenham, Milgromanother Milgrom commentary, Hartley, Radner, and of course many other articles and essays. I have these at hand as I write.)

Levitical law stated that a woman is impure for 7 days during menstruation (Lev. 15:19-24) and for 40 days following parturition (Lev. 12:2-4). The number of 40 days is the total of 33 days which continue beyond the 7 for menstruation. However, these 40 days apply in the case of a woman who delivers a male, whereas the duration is doubled to 66 days (as 33 x 2) in the case of a woman who bears a female: "But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her menstruation. And she shall continue in the blood of her purifying for sixty-six days" (Lev. 12:5 ESV). Why this extra time for female babies? Does it indicate that girls are less pure or more defiled and thus require a longer period of purification than boys do?

At least two possibilities commend themselves, and both may be true in a complementary way. Firstly, and perhaps more obviously, female children lacked the rite of passage (circumcision) which marked all Israelite male children publicly as clean unto the Lord, so it may be that doubling the time reflects this fact and even substitutes for it in a way conducive to babies lacking a foreskin to cut, thus allowing in its own way for that public rite of passage. At the least, that there is a period of purification at all places the birth of baby girls alongside the birth of baby boys who also require the purification of circumcision. However, this does not explain the higher figure for females. Another possibility, again perhaps complementary to the first, is that this legal stipulation functions as a polemic against the surrounding nations by elevating the cultic importance of women.

There is - tentatively for now - at least a prima facie attractiveness to this proposal. Israel's neighbors (let us be content with the general category of "the Canaanites" until we fill this out later) represented the unrighteous impurity which always threatened Israel's sancta. But this was not a general reality but regularly a concrete one: they embody the mashal principle of Gen. 3:16 in their relationships to their neighbors, women, and children, and thus precisely (in part) in their devolution of the integrity of the feminine (pace Deuteronomy and Judges). The threat to Israel posed by the surrounding nations along the lines of cultic sancta becomes a climactically tragic issue for Israel as a whole in Ezra-Nehemiah. Thus this is at least highly plausible, though later studies in this series will have to bear this out with close exegesis. On this reading, rather than indicating a lesser quality or purity, the Levitical increase in the number of required days for purification indicates instead a recognition (and polemical argument for) the increased cultic significance of the female as such. This latter possibility fits naturally within the picture of how Leviticus deliberately and carefully weaves an aesthetically and morally beautiful tapestry of the woman's reproductive physiology in relation to the sacred spaces of the tabernacle set-up.

Why an impurity at all, though? Since reproduction is normal and a constituent part of human createdness, why is it apparently seen here as problematic? Gen. 1:28 and the regular biblical theme of the blessedness of procreation would seem to push in the opposite direction. And why these specific lengths of time?

The common assumption in the scholarly literature is that the impurity is due to the presence of a bloody discharge. The classic and highly influential (and often very stimulating) work in this area is Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger. Wenham, working with Douglas's basic model, has commended a reading along these lines. Basically, the idea is that because blood represents life (Lev. 17:11, 14), the loss of blood represents death, so that the menstruous woman is surrounded by what Wenham terms the "aura of death."

This seems to make a lot of sense and many have taken it and run, so to speak. But careful consideration shows that Levitical thought did not in fact connect vaginal discharge with death, and the locus of impurity was neither the female body nor the discharge itself.

We note, for instance, that other situations of potential blood loss (wounds, accidents, etc.) are not a concern in Leviticus, which is only interested in male and female genital discharges (Lev. 12, 15). Impurity was  ascribed to menstruous and post-partum women not because they experienced a bodily discharge but because it came from their reproductive system. The locus of the impurity is not the body generally, but something pertaining to the reproductive system specifically. But what is it?

We also note that although the onset of the discharge marked the onset of the impurity, the cessation of the impurity was not coordinated with the cessation of the discharge. This is quite remarkable and an important signal to us of what is going on. A menstruous woman was impure for 7 days even though the duration of the menstrual discharge was in fact variable and can last from 3-9 days. Similarly, a post-partum woman was impure for 40 days but the discharge can last 20-60 days. This disassociation between the impurity and the discharge shows that impurity is linked to some underlying aspect of the female reproductive system of which the discharge is a surface manifestation, and that the numbers, since they are not strictly coordinated with the varied physiological reality, are symbolic of something.

In the next post, we explore what that "something" is. Anticipating that next installment, ruminate on the following:

1. The numbers for the period of duration indicate that purity and impurity are sequential categories, unlike the fixed constancy of the purity or impurity of animals in Leviticus (a fish, for instance, is considered always pure, while a crab is considered always impure).

2. Alongside categorical distinctions are behavioral ones which also affect purity and sancta. In Leviticus, sancta pertains to anything "wholly given over to" the divine realm, the realm of the Creator and the God of life. The closer one approaches to the center of the wilderness camp, the closer one approaches to sancta and life. The further away from the center, the further away from sancta and life. The surrounding wilderness, as the realm of unbounded disorder, is the realm of anti-life or death.

3. The numbers 7 and 40 indicate wholeness or completeness, and the woman's womb is conceptualized in Leviticus as a wellspring. In a range of verbal and thematic links with Genesis, and the Levitical use of the wellspring (and field) homology, we note the high importance of the ideas of boundedness-order-life on the one hand, and unboundedness-disorder-death on the other, when describing environments suitable for the flourishing of life. Consider, then, the creation narrative in Genesis 1 and the flood narrative of Genesis 6-9. And then read Leviticus 12 and 15 again.

4. The symmetry presents the woman as a microcosm (of the world, as per Genesis) and a microsanctuary (for cultic degrees of approaching the central, holiest space). Presumably you are familiar with Eden as a sanctuary,  not least because of the very helpful work by Vos, Beale, and others. We can begin re-thinking that theme now in light of the Levitical woman as we anticipate exploring biblical teaching on Eve later on.

5. In light of this symmetry and its function in Leviticus and the rest of the OT, what has taken place in Christ, especially as per Mark 5:25-34 (Jesus heals the woman with the 12-year "discharge of blood"; Matt. 9; Lk. 8), is nothing short of revolutionary. Something like a new creation, and precisely in connection with the Levitical figure of the woman's reproductive physiology, namely, that unique physiological reality which identifies a woman - whether single or married, mother or not a mother - as woman.

We will read Leviticus closely and consider these features of the text in detail in our next installment. And, yes, we will see, in time, how these ideas are at work in a biblical solution to our problem.