Sometimes the Bible surprises us in its beauty and majesty, at other times it surprises us in its rather gross detail. We find the latter to be evident in chapters 12 and 15 of Leviticus. These two chapters delineate the impurities arising from both childbirth and bodily discharges. While the descriptions in these two passages are rather “icky” the point is not merely to describe the impurities that arise from ejaculation or menstruation. The point, rather, it is to reiterate both God’s standard for purity and the fallenness of our world.
Last week we looked at chapter 12 and attempted to understand God’s commands regarding impurity associated with childbearing and delivery. We were reminded in that text that wholeness is part of God’s understanding of holiness. Loss of blood, which is symbolic of life (Leviticus 17:11), meant that a person was not whole, that the curse of death was still present among God’s people and that it continually needed to be addressed. The same interpretive grid must be applied to Leviticus 15 to understand its discussion of bodily discharges accurately.
The passage is outlined simply as follows:
A1: Introduction (1-2)
B1: Chronic male discharges (3-15)
C1: Short-term male discharges (16-18)
C2: Short-term female discharges (19-24)
B2: Chronic female discharges (25-30)
A2: Conclusion (31-33) (See Tidball, The Message of Leviticus, 164)
One of the unique things we can see in this outline is the equality among both men and women. The same expectations, the same principles, and the same level of impurity is applied across the board here. Lisa Chisholm-Smith makes a compelling argument for this equality in her discussion of “Menstruation,” in the IVP Women’s Bible Commentary. She writes:
What is striking about Leviticus 15 is how consistently the laws regarding bodily emissions are applied to both sexes. Not only are the discharges of males and females alike regarded as unclean, but chronic or unusual emissions for both males and females require precisely the same purification rites (cf. Lev. 15:13-16, 28-30), and in both cases the uncleanness is transferable to other people and objects to a similar degree. (62)
Though both causes of impurity in women mentioned in these chapters are related to the uniqueness of female biology (childbearing and menstruation), this is not an indictment on women. Leviticus 15 makes clear that the same guidelines apply to men.
The point of the passage, however, is not the nature of the emission. Whether talking about gonorrhea or natural ejaculation in men, or discussing natural menstruation or an extended flow of blood in women, the point has more to do with wholeness and associations with the curse of death than with the actual bodily discharge. Tidball clarifies:
What is clean is associated with life and what is unclean is associated with death. The situations that are described as unclean in Leviticus 12 and 15 all involve the loss of the bodily fluids – blood and semen – that bring life. The key principle of Leviticus 17:11 – that “the life of a creature is in the blood” – means that any loss of blood is a symptom of the ebbing away of life. To lose too much blood results in death. Equally, when a man’s urethral tract is not functioning as it should, or when he spills his seed, for whatever reason, the possibility of new life is precluded and, in some cases, potential life may even be deliberately wasted. (167)
The reminder of the curse placed upon humanity after the Garden requires a regular accounting. It must be acknowledged and addressed at some level. So, when a person is pronounced unclean, they are being declared, in these cases, as lacking wholeness. And God only allows those who are whole to approach him – which is why he puts regulations on who may serve as a priest (Lev. 21:16-23). Thus, sacrifices must be offered in the aftermath of impurity. Not because menstruation and sexual intercourse are sinful, but because within each are reminders that man is cursed to die. The Fall has so impacted us that even normal, natural, and good things are contaminated at some level. But thanks be to God that He is in the business of redeeming all of life.
The Levitical code took seriously the holiness of God and our consistent lack of wholeness. It took seriously that we are sick and broken and cannot enter into the presence of God without first addressing these matters. But while it may offer away for the worshiper to re-enter into worship, it never actually offered a cure for uncleanness. This would have been particularly troubling to the chronically ill. But then Jesus comes and in Himself provides the cure for uncleanness. We see this most visibly displayed in the woman who had chronic bleeding for twelve years. Mark 5 records the events surrounding her healing:
25 And there was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years, 26 and who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse. 27 She had heard the reports about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. 28 For she said, “If I touch even his garments, I will be made well.” 29 And immediately the flow of blood dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.30 And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone out from him, immediately turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my garments?”31 And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing around you, and yet you say, ‘Who touched me?’” 32 And he looked around to see who had done it. 33 But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling and fell down before him and told him the whole truth. 34 And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
Jesus physically and permanently healed her and he connected such healing to faith in Himself. Jesus is the permanent solution to our uncleanness. He demonstrated this routinely not only by touching those who were labeled as unclean, note especially his touching lepers, but Jesus demonstrates this most of all in his redeeming sinners. Jesus draws all men near to God. The Levitical laws tended to draw up a separation of sorts between man and God. They were certainly full of grace too, in the ways that they invited men to reenter the presence and worship of God. But Jesus does this in completely new ways. Cleanness is no longer dependent upon what the worshiper does, but is granted them based on the work of Jesus Christ. Christ heals all our uncleanness and He makes us whole.