Tag Archives: Leviticus

Interacting with Luke 2:22-24 — Pulling Apart Leviticus 12

How do we understand Leviticus 12 in light of the New Testament? First, it is important that we look at Luke 2:22-24. Here, Mary fulfills the obligations of the Law by presenting herself at the Temple and offering the sacrifices as prescribed. In this case, she offers a pair of doves, suggesting that Mary and Joseph were poor. The dove offering was for those who could not afford the lamb offering (Lev 12:8).

But what does this mean? How could Jesus be born into such an unclean state? Or, if we hold that childbirth is in itself sinful (see earlier post for that discussion), how could Jesus, who is sinless, be brought into the world through sin?

Indeed, the Church has come up with all kinds of creative ways around this supposed problem. (I, for one, don’t have a problem with the idea that Jesus descended into the muck and mire of human brokenness. It does not, in my understanding, pollute or compromise Jesus’ sinlessness).

For example, in order to protect Jesus’ divinity, his sinlessness and his perfection, it has been suggested that Mary was herself sinless.

If this is the case, then we get teachings such as she didn’t actually experience lochia bleeding after the birth of Jesus. Mary’s presention of an offering at the Temple was not to render her clean, but to “keep up appearances.” This lack of lochia bleeding would suggest then, that lochia bleeding is part of the Fall, and not part of the original design of childbirth.

If, Jesus’ sinlessness and perfection means that he cannot cause another person to enter into a state of sin, then it has been suggested that immediately after the birth, Mary’s womb was closed by the Holy Spirit so that she did not become unclean because of Jesus.

Origen taught that Mary did not experience lochia bleeding and the resulting uncleanness, because she was a virgin, and as such she really didn’t need to offer a sacrifice of atonement. How having sexual relations would impact the mechanics of labour and delivery and thus, lochia bleeding is beyond me. Indeed, what would he say about menstrual bleeding, since it happens to women independent of their sexual activity. (This, of course, is outside the realm of this current blog post, but Origen’s Homilies on Leviticus make for a fascinating read).

Next up: Some Concluding Thoughts.

The Need For Atonement — Pulling Apart Leviticus 12

Does uncleanness automatically equal sinful?
If childbirth is not sinful in and of itself, but it is the blood that renders the woman unclean, much like semen renders a man unclean, is the bleeding actually sinful?
Why would a biological process that there is no way to control be a means of sin?
If there is a difference between uncleanness and sin, why then does Leviticus 12 require an atoning sacrifice?

The inherent mystery of childbirth points to an event in which the woman enters into a space that functions between life and death. In bringing life into the world, there is the danger of death, not only for herself, but also for the child. The woman, in giving birth, participates in a process of redemption, and thus the need for atonement is not so much to cover over sin, as it is “an occasion for establishing in the heart of the mother herself and her community, a more accurate assessment of that process’ character.” (see Ephraim Radner, Leviticus, Brazos Theological Commentary, pg 128).

While Kiuchi argues that childbirth brings a woman under God’s wrath, he does also see the time of uncleanness and the corresponding atonement as a time of reflection on the general condition of humanity. Childbirth is, then, “…actually appointed by the Lord as one to remind the mother of her spiritual condition…Thus the prescription reaffirms the reality of the Fall and its ongoing nature, which tends rarely to be considered by humanity.” (see Nobuyoshi Kiuchi, Leviticus, Apollos OT Commentary, 219).

On the other hand, perhaps a distinction should be made between sin and impurity. The requirement for a sin offering does not automatically mean that a sin has been committed. As Levine notes, “All impurity, however contracted, could lead to sinfulness if not attended to, and failure to deal properly with impurity aroused God’s anger.” (see Baruch Levine, Leviticus, JPS Torah Commentary, 74)

Of course it is possible that the need for a sin offering arises from actual sin. Milgrom points to the writings of Rabbi Simeon, who suggests that the need for an offering is not because the act of childbirth is inherently sinful, but because during her labour pains, the woman “uttered a rash oath, which she never intended to keep.” (see Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, Anchor Bible, 759).

Regardless, the instruction to present an offering demonstrates two things. First, the sin offering and burnt offering are the same regardless whether the child born is male or female, thus demonstrating some measure of equality.

Second, this is one of the only places where a woman is given instruction and is specifically demonstrated to have an active role in the life of the Temple (tabernacle) sacrificial system.

Next up: Leviticus 12 and Luke 2:22-24

Reading Leviticus 12 with Genesis 1-3 — Pulling Apart Leviticus 12

Next up in our examination of Leviticus 12 is the question, “Is childbirth itself sinful?” I’ve already pointed out that the text seems to indicate that it is the blood that renders the woman unclean, not necessarily the act of childbirth. Indeed, the text is silent as to whether the child is considered unclean at birth. This is in contrast to records from the Hittite culture, for example, that specifically state that a child is rendered unclean through the act of childbirth. (See Jacob Milgrom’s commentary on Leviticus, Anchor Bible, 750).

But, some Christian scholars do indeed see the child as being born unclean. Nobuyoshi Kiuchi in his commentary on Leviticus (in the Apollos Old Testament Commentary series) argues that the ritual separation and atoning sacrifice cover not just the mother but also the child. (We’ll look at this a bit more, when we talk about Leviticus 12 and Luke 2:22 in a later post).

To start to answer the question above, we need to spend some time going back to the beginning. In Genesis 1:28 God commands the first humans to “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” Procreation appears to be part of the original design for humanity, even before the Fall.

Of course, the question is raised: to whom does this command ‘be fruitful’ apply? Rabbis in Second Temple Judaism believed that the command applied only to the men because the whole command is to be fruitful, multiply and subdue, and it is only the job of men to subdue the earth. (see Tal Ilan, Jewish Women in Greco-Roman Palestine, 107).

Would lochia bleeding have been part of the original design of childbirth? If, as most scholars argue, the lochia bleeding is best compared to semen, rather than bleeding in general (see previous posts), than I would suggest that post-partum bleeding could be seen as part of the original design of procreation, as there is nothing to suggest that before the Fall, insemination would have occurred by any other method than semen emission.

Of course, we also need to take into consideration the curse in Genesis 3. Here, the woman is told that because of her sin, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children.” (Gen 3:16). Pain will be increased, and yet there is still the hope of childbirth. Indeed, the serpent will be defeated by Eve’s offspring, and while we as Christians tend to see this as Messianic, it also has a non-messianic element. For every child born, the continuation of the human race is guaranteed. The serpent does not ultimately win.

And as we read the entire book of Genesis we see this dramatic tension over and over again. Is humanity doomed to extinction after Cain kills Abel? (No, God gives Adam and Eve another son, Seth). Is the promise to Abraham doomed? (No, God eventually gives Abraham and Sarah a son, Isaac). God does not condemn childbirth when he pronounces curses in Genesis 3, and indeed the command to “be fruitful and multiply” is repeated several times in Genesis (Gen 9:1; 9:7; 35:11).

Next up: The Need for Atonement

The Power of Blood — Pulling Apart Leviticus 12

What is it about the post-partum bleeding (and also menstrual bleeding) that makes a woman unclean? Why does this blood bring uncleanness when other blood does not bring uncleanness, and indeed sometimes blood acts as a way to include someone in the life of the community?

The sacrificial blood of animals, for example, rendered a person clean. Cuts or everyday wounds (i.e., paper-cuts) that bled did not bring uncleanness (see Richard Whitekettle, “Leviticus 12 and the Israelite Woman: Ritual Process, Liminality and the Womb,” ZAW 107, pg 395). Interestingly, the requirement for a male child to be circumcised on the eighth day (v.3) demonstrates that in some cases human blood functioned as a way to include a person into the covenant with God. As Ephraim Radner (Leviticus, Brazos Theological Commentary) notes, in early Judaism, a male child who did not produce even just a drop of blood during the act of circumcision was not considered to be male.

In Leviticus, menstrual blood and lochia are compared to semen, with a woman’s bleeding and a man’s discharge each having a period of uncleanness. Both semen and menstrual blood are considered life-giving, but once they are expelled from the body, they no longer serve that function. Lochia blood, being discharged from the body post-partum, no longer shelters and nourishes the fetus. The distinction, therefore, between menstrual and lochia blood and other human bleeding, is that the discharge is related to reproduction.

By categorizing the lochia discharge as unclean, there is a boundary set up to prevent the lochia (and placenta) from being used in magical rituals, including such practices as consuming the placenta and thus consuming the life-giving power in it, using the lochia blood or placenta in home-made remedies, or using the blood as a way to ward off evil spirits.

Next up: The relationship of Lev 12 to Genesis 1:28

The Gender Difference — Pulling Apart Leviticus 12

The ritual and rules concerning childbirth and religious cleanliness are not unique to ancient Israel. Moreover, many of the ANE cultures also required a longer purification following the birth of girl than the birth of a boy. Similar time differences, with two distinct lengths of uncleanness based on gender, are found in ancient Hindu and Arab writings. There are several possible explanations as to why the Levitical law distinguished between 40 days following the birth of a male child and 80 days following the birth of a female child.

Socio-Economic Status:
Indeed, the gender disparity was a cultural norm extending beyond the ritual of purification following childbirth, reflecting the overall lower socio-economic status of women. For example, in Israel and in the ANE in general, the redemption price for a woman was half the cost of a man (Leviticus 27:2-7). But if the length of uncleanness is based on worth or power, then Balentine argues that the longer purification time following the birth of a female would demonstrate that the longer impurity would suggest a higher worth for the female than the male:

The logic of this interpretation is faulty for at least two reasons. First Lev 27 assigns a higher value to males because of their ability to carry out the heavy labour associated with the sanctuary, not because of their inherent worth. Second, the rationale behind the priestly purity system would suggest that the potential for defilement is related to an object or a person’s power, not weakness. Thus, if a female’s impurities require more attention, it might well be argued that she must be accorded more regard, not less, than a male. (Samuel Balentine, Leviticus. (Interpretation). John Knox Press, 2002).

Biological Considerations:
If, then, the distinction regarding uncleanness between a male child and female child is not based on worth or socio-economic status, it could be based on biological considerations. It was commonly believed that the gestation period for a female embryo was longer than the gestation period for a male embryo. On the other hand, it was also thought that the birth of a female was inherently more dangerous physically than the birth of a male. It was also believed that the lochia discharge, which can last up to six weeks, was longer following the birth of a female than the birth of a male. Biological research done by David Macht (“A Scientific Appreciation of Leviticus 12:1-5″ JBL 52 (1933): 253-260) suggests that the toxicity level in the lochia following the birth of a female lasts longer than in the lochia a woman experiences after having a male child.

(Two concerns need to be noted with this research. One, this biological specimen study was conducted in 1933, and I could not find any accessible follow-up research that would corroborate this. Second, toxicity levels do not seem to be the motivational factor in the Levitical law. In general, the Levitical laws were about setting Israel apart to be holy for the Lord God. Any biological concerns should be seen as secondary. Israel was called to follow the Law because God had decreed it, not because there was scientific rationale for obeying.)

Theological Considerations:
The difference in the length of uncleanness might also have theological considerations. The Book of Jubilees explains the longer purification time for a female child by going back to the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The woman was created second, and in the second week, according to the Book of Jubilees. Likewise, Adam was brought into the Garden forty days after his creation, while Eve was brought into the garden eighty days after her creation. The forty days and eighty days of ritual uncleanness following childbirth mirror the forty and eighty days that Adam and Eve had to wait prior to being brought into the Garden. Other theological considerations could be that women were believed to be more susceptible to demonic attacks, or that the female child would in turn one day be a mother herself, and experience ritual uncleanness, thus the longer purification time reflects that future inevitability.

Next up: The Power of Blood

For further reading:
Hartley, John. Leviticus. Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word Books, 1992.
Ilan, Tal. Jewish Women in Greco-Roman Palestine. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996.
Wenham, Gordon. The Book of Leviticus. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1979.

The Need For Separation — Pulling Apart Leviticus 12

One of the first questions to be asked when reading Leviticus 12 is why is there a need for ritual separation?

Indeed, it seems that if there was no provision or command regarding childbirth and subsequent separation, Israel would have been distinct from the surrounding ANE culture. The majority of the surrounding cultures had some sort of instruction about ritual separation following the birth of a child, and even today some cultures practice this type of separation.

Scholars, trying to deduce why there would be a need to keep the woman separate after childbirth, suggest several different reasons.

Biological:
The instruction for separation may be a way to allow the woman to physically heal after childbirth. By categorizing her as unclean, she is off-limits to the sexual advances of her husband which gives her body time to rest and reduces the risk of infection and even death.

Psychological:
The instruction for separation may be a way to allow the woman to devote all of her attention to her new role as mother.

Theological:
Now this could be explained two ways. First, it could be a way to encourage and structure a season of Sabbath rest for the woman. The problem with this thought is that no where does God say that the Sabbath is unclean.
Second, the need for separation could be tied to the creation narrative. In the Book of Jubilees, it is said that Adam was brought into the Garden after forty days, and Eve after eighty days, so this separation could be a reminder of the separation between God and humanity. (Interestingly, this interpretation does not view the longer time period for the separation following a girl-baby to be a punishment based on gender. More about the gender difference tomorrow).

Some thoughts:

I’m wondering if we could look at this ritual separation as an ancient form of maternity leave: A time for the mother to focus on her new child. On the other hand, there is nothing in the text that suggests that there needs to be “rational” explanations (biological, psychological) for the need for separation. Indeed, God has decreed it for Israel without explaining the “why” and Israel has agreed to obey.

I’m struck by the contrast between the OT command and our 21st century culture that is based on western, Victorian values. Not that long ago, in western society, women would enter their time of “confinement” when their pregnancy began to show, and would not re-emerge until the birth of the baby (usually rejoining society at the christening or baptism of the child). Even in more recent times, teenaged-mothers are removed from their high schools and sent to special schools that will teach them how to be a mom, allowing for the school system to hide their pregnancy and the “bad influence” from other teenagers.

But in this OT law concerning childbirth, there is no hint that a woman who is pregnant is to be separated from religious obligations, community events, or even sexual relations. As we will see in a later post, the reason for the uncleanness is in the blood, not in the act of childbirth, and not in the nine months of being pregnant.

Up next: The Two Different Lengths of Separation Based on Gender.

Pulling Apart Leviticus 12

Time for an actual biblio-blog series of posts on my blog. (Gotta try to crack the top 50 or something, cause it seems to be where are the cool kids are these days).

So for your night-time, need to find a way to put yourself to sleep, reading boredom, I’m going to spend the next several posts pulling apart Leviticus 12.

The reason:
In today’s culture, childbirth is a time of celebration and rejoicing. In contemporary Evangelical circles, children are seen as a blessing from God, and in some traditions, motherhood is the noblest calling for a woman. Little attention, though, is paid to the Old Testament laws concerning childbirth and purity in Leviticus 12. This is not to say that Christians in the past and in other cultural contexts have ignored Leviticus 12. In fact, for several centuries, the Anglican tradition included a liturgy for welcoming a woman back into the congregation following the birth of a child and the corresponding time of healing from post-partum bleeding. (Check out the Anglican Book of Alternative Service for explanation on the evolution of the liturgy. Today, the liturgy is a more general “Thanksgiving for the Birth of Child” and in many ways functions as an alternative type of Infant Dedication for those who don’t want to do the Infant Baptism thing).

Of course, it is easy today to dismiss the purity laws of Leviticus 12 as being part of the Old Covenant. Childbirth no longer requires a sacrificial offering, since Jesus has fulfilled the entire sacrificial system through his death on the cross as the perfect Lamb of God. But I think that a better understanding of the Levitical laws concerning purity and childbirth can assist in pointing the twenty-first-century church to the Creator God, the One who desires humanity to participate in creation and to rejoice in new life.

Topics:
Here’s what we’ll look at over the next several posts.

The need for Separation — Why? Including: Biological, psychological, theological.
Two different lengths — Why is it different after a female baby?
The Power of Blood — Is the declaration that the blood makes a person unclean a way to keep the blood and placenta from being used in magical rituals? Why is this blood unclean, but the circumcision blood of the male baby not?
Is verse 3 in the wrong spot?
The relationship of Lev 12 to Genesis 1:28
The relationship of Lev 12 to Genesis 3:15-16
The relationship of Lev 12 to Luke 2:22 (with a special look at Origen)
Why does the ritual require an atoning sacrifice?

Prepping for Pentateuch

So I’ve signed up to take Pentateuch this fall with Dr. Ortlund.

These are the textbooks:

As this is a week-long modular class, there is pre-course reading and pre-course assignments, as well as post-course work.

I’ve picked my paper topic. I’m planning to write about the Levitical Purity Laws concerning women, in particular the regulations for purification after menstruation and childbirth (Lev 12, 15). I’m probably also going to travel into the New Testament and look at the woman who bled (Matthew 9; Mark 5; Luke 8). I’m going to research the “why” behind these laws, figure out what we do with them today, and maybe even explore why some fundamentalist Christian circles are adopting these laws concerning childbirth, menstruation and cleanliness.

I’ve already grabbed a bunch of commentaries from the library. Lots of reading ahead! Wahoo!!!!!!