February 27

Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible

Reading schedule

Matthew 18:21-35; Acts 28:1-16; Psalm 50:1-15; Leviticus 12-13

Following on from the clean and unclean creatures of Leviticus 11, chapter 12 introduces a more problematic idea: that a woman is unclean as a result of giving birth. Furthermore, the requirements for purification are different depending on whether the child is a boy or a girl. It takes twice as long to become pure again after the birth of a girl. Some have suggested that such thinking reflects a sexist mentality in Scripture, and contributed to negative attitudes towards girls and women.

As mentioned yesterday, part of the challenge in interpreting Leviticus is that its literary style is very different to what we are used to. Mary Douglas is an anthropologist who has investigated these literary styles. She says, ‘Bible students have to choose between accepting the muddle made by imposing a Western linear reading upon an archaic text, or trying to read the book through its own literary conventions’ (Leviticus as Literature, p. 51). Rather than using linear arguments, Leviticus presents its arguments in rings. This ring section begins with Leviticus 12 and ends in 15:33 with a summary. For this reason, the laws on childbirth are closely related to those of leprosy and other bodily emissions. We will examine these in more detail tomorrow.

The common theme in this section makes it clear that child-birth itself is not what makes the woman unclean. The discharge of blood after birth is three times stated as the source of uncleanness, and the discharges are the issue in the other chapters. While these discharges are discussed at length, we are given no explicit reason for them bringing uncleanness. Likewise, reasons are not given for the different purification rules for boys and girls. Medical reasons have been proposed, such as a belief that bleeding after giving birth to a girl tended to be longer than after a boy, or that the discharge contains different biochemicals. Such proposals reflect our modern search for rational causes rather than the literary style of Leviticus.

Although alien to our thinking, the view that women were unclean after childbirth was widely held in cultures all over the world. Different purification rituals were required, with differences between boys and girls being common. However, the reasons for this varied widely. In a biblical context, the three types of discharges have a common theme of life and death. Childbirth, menstruation and loss of semen involve life, while the skin disease called leprosy was symbolic of death (more on this tomorrow). Each represents a breach of boundaries set up by God. In creation, God separated the waters above and below; Israel was to separate from the nations; clean and unclean were to be separated. The bodily discharges were a visual reminder that the world did not faithfully model God’s plan. They were to remind people of the need to purify themselves before God, something they called being unclean.

All interpretations of this passage will remain somewhat speculative. Leviticus does not give the type of explanation we might like. We can know that the passage is not critical of reproduction given the value placed on child-bearing throughout Scripture. Nowhere are these discharges said to be sinful or due to sin. Neither are men and women valued differently. The requirements for purification are the same for a woman after childbirth (Lev 12:6-8), a man after a genital discharge (Lev 15:14), or a cleansed leper (Lev 14:30). The passage is not about differences between men and women, but the importance of holiness (Lev 11:45).

Male and female do not differ in cleanliness, but all are prone to uncleanness. And all are called to keep uncleanness separate from God’s dwelling place (Lev 15:31). For Christians, our bodies are now the dwelling place of God, and we should honour God with them (1 Corinthians 6:18-20). More generally, we are still called to be holy in all we do because God is holy (1 Peter 1:13-16).

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