Purification after Childbirth – Leviticus 12

I confess: I did not want to write this blog post. Simply skimming through Leviticus 12 should give you all the reasons why. First, it is about childbirth. I am a male, and I’ve never even witnessed childbirth. Second, there is this bit about uncleanness after childbirth. Once again, something immediately rises up in me that wants to deny that a woman would be unclean for having a natural process take place. Third, as if the uncleanness factor wasn’t enough, God then says the woman has to offer a sin offering to be atoned for! So now it is sin to give birth… This is extremely ironic, given that there are some churches and denominations that have formed entire doctrines off of one verse where it seems that the apostle Paul is saying that a woman is saved through childbirth… What in the world is going on?

First, before even getting into some of the issues raised in this chapter, I want to point out where we’re at in Leviticus. The first seven chapters are devoted to offerings and sacrifices to be brought before God. We saw how all of these are fulfilled in Christ. After this, we see Aaron and his sons performing priestly ministry, in both being consecrated and in performing the work of priests. So, we see the sacrifices explained, and then we see the sacrifices performed. Now, likewise to the sacrifices, Aaron himself is a type of Christ, because Christ is the high priest and apostle of our confession. When we come to Leviticus 11, we begin to discuss clean and unclean, and this is the first chapter for the next five chapters about “uncleanness”. First we see the foods that are unclean, and now our attention is turned for four chapters on what makes a person unclean.

I said in regard to food that uncleanness is not sin. Now, I stand by that statement, but I want to point out that even uncleanness requires the sacrifice of an animal in order to be made clean again. There are certain purification laws, specifically in regard to people, that after you’ve gone through the washing, you’ve consecrated yourself, you’ve performed whatever other deeds are required (not all uncleanness requires the same process), you then offer the sacrifice to be pronounced clean before God. So, in relation to food, there is simply clean and unclean. Yes, there are foods that are “detestable”, which is often found in scavengers (in regard to birds) and bottom feeders (in regard to sea creatures).

When we come to Leviticus 12, what we need to understand is that God is showing to us patterns for discerning the clean and the unclean, the holy and the profane. To begin, I want to point out that this is not merely about the act of childbirth. There is something going on beyond the story. For example, we could say that maybe the reason that the mother of this child is “unclean” is to give her time with the infant. She is given seven days to spend with her newborn baby boy, or fourteen days for her daughter. It is after that time that she comes back into the camp to be made clean again, and therefore the rest of the family and the whole community will be able to celebrate with her.

Whether this is truly the best way to interpret such a passage or not is beyond the scope of my discernment. However, it is plausible. Notice how this takes the emphasis off of “uncleanness” and puts it on a God who wants to give time to the mother…

Matthew Henry claims, and I think rightly so, that the male was not circumcised until the eighth day because he would participate in the mother’s uncleanness for seven days. Now, what is important to notice is that the mother and child would only be separated from society for a week or two, and the thirty three days (or sixty six days) would be spent inside the camp. The only way the woman is distinguished during those months of purification would be in that she cannot approach the altar, she cannot attend feast days, and, if a priest’s wife, cannot take of the holy foods. In every other way, the woman is just like all others in society.

As to why the time is doubled for a female, I can’t give any word to. My best guess is that there might be some sort of special bond between the mother and daughter, and God wanted to honor that.

Now, in looking back at our teachings on the burnt offering and sin offering, it makes sense why the woman would need to bring these. For example, if the point of the burnt offering is to draw near to God, then of course she would need to bring that in order to be proclaimed clean again. She hasn’t drawn near to God – at least His holy altar – for over a month. The sin offering is for those “sins” that we perform unintentionally. It is said in Genesis 3:16 that the woman will bear children in pain. I’m not sure exactly that this is thoroughly enough to fully explain this, but it seems to me that there is an awfully good chance that the woman will have “unintentional sin”. In this, I happen to agree with Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in his commentary on Leviticus. He claims that the sin offering was merely an outward sign to display to God and everyone that the woman is reentering society, and therefore is dedicating herself to abstain from “sin”.

The issue of atonement would lay claim that the woman is in sin when she gives birth. It is difficult to say what exactly her sin is.

Now, lets go back through this. We have the uncleanness for a male child lasting 40 days (seven plus thirty three). We have the uncleanness for a girl lasting 80 days (fourteen plus sixty six). These numbers are too obvious to ignore. Israel wandered through the wilderness for 40 years, Jesus was tempted for 40 days, Elijah fled from Jezebel 40 days and nights to come unto Horeb, and so on. The number forty is significant. It resembles overcoming. In almost all cases that the number is used (I say almost because I haven’t actually thoroughly studied this out), the number is associated with some sort of temptation or judgment at the beginning, and ends with some sort of blessing or deeper revelation of God. It is about overcoming the temptation, and therefore coming to that closer walk with God the Father.

So, when we see that the woman must take either forty days, or two sets of forty days, in order to be purified, this is about overcoming. We can ask, “Overcoming what?”

Well, maybe before answering that we need to ask who is overcoming? Is it the woman or the child? Certainly if the woman is overcoming, it would make sense that she just needs some time to “get over” the trauma of birth in itself. If it is the child, I’m still at a loss for why the daughter would have a longer time of uncleanness. For the male child, we could possibly relate it to the Messiah, that the one who would come and be a deliverer out of the woman’s womb (Genesis 3:15) would need to “overcome”. But this idea does absolutely nothing in explanatory power regarding the issue of what if it isn’t the Messiah, and what about the girls?

Now, let us turn then to this other phrase, “just as… during her monthly period.” This uncleanness is to be regarded in the same manner as the monthly period. We’ll discuss this in further detail later (when we reach Leviticus 15), but for now we’ll suffice to say that this uncleanness is in regard to death. The monthly issue of blood is in relation to the egg that wasn’t a child. There was the chance of a child being born, but instead that chance has come and gone. So, here, with the issue of uncleanness for childbirth, one might assume that it also would bear the stench of death somehow.

Obviously, we’re not claiming the child is stillborn. Rather, we’re claiming that the child is born in pain, the result of the fall, the curse. Death has entered the world, and ultimately, until all things have been restored, even in birthing there is blood. We cannot be certain whether there would or would not have been blood in the birthing process before the fall, but we do read quite explicitly that even the animals will be held accountable for shedding human blood (Genesis 9:5).

Something must be held responsible for the shedding of that blood. We see quite plainly that the responsibility lies upon the woman – whether fair or not is not disputed. To sum up, and to tie this back into the beginning, what is it that is happening behind the story? How does this help us to discern between the clean and unclean? The issue is about the life being in the blood, and the overcoming of the saints. Because blood has been shed, we need blood to be atoned. Our ultimate sacrifice is Christ Jesus, who by His blood we are redeemed. However, we don’t stop there. Remember that one little verse in Revelation 12? What does Revelation 12:11 say?

“They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimonies, and they loved not their lives even unto the death.”

The issue of overcoming is the issue of the blood of the lamb. Little wonder, then, that even in Leviticus 12 we find the requirement being the blood of a lamb. Unlike in Leviticus 1, there are no other options given for the burnt offering. The woman must offer the sacrifice of a lamb. It all points to the fact that it is by the blood of the lamb that we overcome sin, death, and as the context of Revelation 12 actually states, Satan. The woman overcomes Satan, which tied into that is the overcoming of the curse itself, by the blood of the lamb, and by laying down her own life even unto the death. This is the process of her purification – and this is why it takes forty days to do so. It all points back to the ultimate sacrifice of Christ and the means by which that sacrifice has made us able in all things to overcome.


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