Studies in Leviticus: The Whole in Our Holiness (Leviticus 12 & 15) Part 1

LeviticusLeviticus 12 and 15 are easily some of the most uncomfortable chapters in the Bible. The text discusses issues which we do not discuss in public, and which we rarely discuss in any detail. Yet, the texts speaks very graphically about them. So, Leviticus 12 deals with the bleeding of a mother after delivery of a child, and Leviticus 15 deals with the various bodily discharges of men and women. They’re not very sanitary discussions, and we cringe at having to think about them. But God’s holy inspired Word details them, with specific theological agendas behind each. In fact it is this theological agenda which makes their discussion important for even modern-day readers. The issue of biological defilement has to do with the wholeness of holiness.

It’s important at the outset to establish an important caveat regarding the ideas of cleanness and uncleanness in the Old Testament. Cleanness and Uncleanness in Leviticus are not issues of morality so much as issues of ritual purity. So, Derek Tidball writes:

The concepts of clean and unclean, though linked, are not synonymous with those of the sacred and the profane. Cleanliness has essentially to do with ritual purity, not moral purity, and is what makes a person fit to approach God in worship and live in his community without causing it damage. (The Message of Leviticus, 143)

Likewise, he adds, “The categories are to be equated neither with modern ideas of cleanliness or dirtiness, nor with being free from sin or full of sin” (158). These are important distinctions to recognize. To fail to understand this distinction means that we will surely draw the wrong conclusions about the purity laws in chapters 12 and 15, which deal with natural bodily functions. Many have misunderstood cleanness and uncleanness sin Leviticus and as a result have wrongly determined that the Bible teaches that women are dirty, sex is sinful, and female children are inferior. Establishing a proper theological understanding of ritual purity allows us to avoid such conclusions.

The major issue that makes a woman unclean at childbirth is not birth itself. God had commanded procreation and rejoices in the new life of a child. The issue is the woman’s loss of blood in giving birth. Blood is of major symbolic significance throughout the Bible. Leviticus 17 establishes that blood is important because of its role as a symbol for life (17:11). The loss of blood then represented both a danger to the woman, whose life was in jeopardy, but it also represented a loss of wholeness. We have seen elsewhere in this series where wholeness was a major factor in the Bible’s idea of holiness. God only allows wholeness or completeness to come into his presence, and so for a woman to be able to return to worship she must first have her wholeness restored. That required a time of waiting.

We’ll look at the issue of her waiting timeline in just a moment, but there is a further point of clarification on the impurity of childbirth that is worth mentioning. Because blood is associated with life, the loss of blood is associated with death, and death is a major pollutant in Israel’s cultic life. People were forbidden from touch dead things, from carrying them, or eating things which had died of natural causes. And any object with death in it was to be either washed or destroyed. In view of this, then, it seems only natural that a time of cleansing and sacrifice would follow child-birth. This may also be connected to the curse which God placed on childbearing back in Genesis 3. That is to say that while childbearing itself is not sinful, the loss of blood is a reminder of the fallenness of our world. Such, then, would require a season of purification.

The waiting period is of unique interest to our modern culture, particularly because the time period for the birth of a daughter was longer than for the birth of a male child. Our modern minds immediately go to prejudice and are offended by such a distinction. Derek Tidball advises us to not read the text anachronistically, but to let it speak to us from within its own context. He writes:

In seeking to understand these chapters it is important that we enter their world, rather than reading them condescendingly through the spectacles of contemporary liberal culture (158).

The text of Scripture does not give us a lot of insight into the explanation of the difference. Several theories, some credible and some not, have been proffered. I am inclined to follow Walter Kaiser who sees the distinction as related to Adam and Eve’s creation and introduction into the Garden of Eden. According to later Jewish writing in both the book of Jubilees and in the Mishnah, Adam was created at the end of the first week and entered Eden on the forty-first day. Even, then was created at the end of the second week and entered Eden on the eighty-first day. It is suggested, then, that quarantine time varies as a reference to this ancient belief. (see Kaiser, The Book of Leviticus, 1085) Admittedly this is not a perfect resolution to the distinction, and the real truth is that none of us knows why it was given. The best guesses are just that: guesses. Whatever explanation we accept, however, we should not draw the conclusion that women are inferior to God. The Bible does not teach this, and the univocal presentation of the Scriptures is that women are equal with men in their image-bearing qualities before God and their standing in Christ. Any explanation that bends towards a chauvinistic oppression of women does injustice to the God of the Bible.

The intent of the waiting period is to give the woman time to heal and to recover wholeness that she may again enter into the worship of the community. The two sacrifices offered are intended to allow her this same privilege. The Burnt offering, as we’ve explained elsewhere, speaks of a renewal of the covenant relationship with God. The Sin offering is intended to cover over any sins that the woman surely would have committed having been apart from worship for that length of time. Since we are all so prone to sin she could not assume to have been perfect while in her purifying state. She must make atonement for any sin that would make her worship unacceptable after the end of her waiting period.

Next week I’ll explore in more detail how this applies to chapter 15 as well. So check back for the second part of this discussion.

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