Sexism in the Bible: Uncleanness

This post is part of an ongoing series. The series is introduced here.

MadonnaLeviticus 12:1-8 gives instructions for purification after childbirth. It’s been cited as further evidence of the Bible’s horrible terrible no good very bad misogynistic worldview. Reading the passage, it isn’t hard to see how someone could come to that conclusion. If a woman gives birth to a boy, she is unclean for seven days, the boy is circumcised, and then she is to continue in “the blood of her purifying” for thirty-three days. But if a woman gives birth to a girl, she is unclean for two weeks, and must continue in the blood of her purifying to sixty-six days. Why is it that the mother is unclean at all, first, and why is it that she is unclean for twice as long after the birth of a girl?

It seems that in the Levitical law, everything that proceeded out from a person made them unclean. In Leviticus 13-14, skin diseases were leprous and made the diseased unclean if they went deeper than the skin, revealing the inner parts. In chapter 15, any bodily discharges which issued from the inner parts made the person having them unclean. Keep in mind that these laws for Israel were given to show them (and us) to Christ (Galatians 3:24). Cleanness was not principally a moral category. It was a ritual category which was then analogically used to talk about holiness and sin (Leviticus 18:24-25).

The impact of these laws from chapters 12-15 was to communicate that everything which proceeds from within us makes us unclean. That’s what we are. We’re unclean from the inside out. When Christ came into the world, however, he said “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink.“He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37-38, NASB). When Jesus comes, everything changes. No longer are we unclean from the inside out; now we’re made clean, and rivers of living water flow, cleansing everything around us. It’s an example of the way Jesus reverses the flow of the holiness continuum. In the New Covenant, clean things make unclean things clean, rather than the other way around.

For a woman to be unclean after giving birth was not a statement about her worth or about the innate rightness/wrongness of a woman’s sexual organs; it’s a statement about sin. Being sinners from birth, doesn’t it make sense that we would taint the world around us?

But if that is the prime consideration here, why is a woman unclean for twice as long after giving birth to a girl? Commentators on Leviticus have put forward a number of possibilities, ranging from medical complications to ancient near eastern fertility myths. I believe the answer has to do with the sign of circumcision. Circumcision is the covenant sign, and the uncircumcised nations were unclean (Isaiah 52:1). Symbolically, then, if a male is circumcised, he (and by extension, his mother) is no longer unclean. There is no corresponding ritual to circumcision for females in the Old Testament, and so they are unclean for two weeks.

This passage in Leviticus is not an example of sexism. Israel is yet again playing out a typological drama of sin and redemption before the world, much like the prophets did at times. There are roots in this passage stretching back to the curse and the first promise of redemption in Genesis 3:15, and tendrils stretching forward to the new that comes in Christ and makes all things clean.

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