Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The Red Tent: childbirth and menstruation in the law (passages in Exodus through Leviticus)

When it comes to our female identity, these topics are where the rubber meets the road. They are the details of life that make women different from men. This is evident, not just from the way the Bible talks about these things, but from observation available to anyone.  This part of female experience is common ground for all of us, regardless of our other ideas about what it means to be women. Not all women have children, and not all of us even have periods, but no one does either of those things who is not a woman.

What we learn about women
  • Women experience ceremonial uncleanness while they are having their periods or bleeding after childbirth.
  • Normal bleeding is distinguished from abnormal bleeding or discharge--with normal discharge you don't have to live outside the camp like you do with possible contagious disease processes.
  • Though men are also "unclean until evening" when they ejaculate, women spend much more of their lives unable to enter the temple than men do.
What I'm wondering
  • Since discharges keep you from being allowed to approach God in the temple, perhaps this kind of body function will not occur in our redeemed bodies?
  • What was it like "outside the camp"? I assume they didn't just leave sick people out there with no shelter. Was there a sort of hospital there?
  • Do we acknowledge the physical toll of being a woman too much or too little these days?

Passages about childbirth and menstruation
Ex 21:  If a pregnant mother is injured and her baby is lost, the baby's death is taken into account legally.

Ex 23:26  no infertility or miscarriages is a promised reward for serving the Lord only

Lev 12: purification after childbirth

Lev 15: discharges, and menstruation

The importance of giving birth
In the law, childbirth and menstruation are mentioned in a couple of ways. The obvious gift of new children to God's people is a primary and unmitigated blessing, brought about by women, but at the center of everyone's concern and joy. Success in reproduction was God's initial promise to the patriarchs and their wives, and it is promised as a blessing to all of the Israelites in Exodus 23:26 "You must serve only the Lord your God. If you do, I will bless you with food and water and I will protect you from illness. There will be no miscarriages or infertility in your land, and I will give you long full lives."

A theme of blessing for your children is a primary promise of blessing through the scripture, and is a prime area of concern for all people. We've already mentioned often how central and irreplaceable for humanity is the reproductive work women do. Minimizing this role for women or disassociating it from women's identity does us a great disservice. We only do it when we become jaded to the wonder of life, and distracted from what is arguably our main biological purpose as people--to continue the survival of humanity in order  to continue worship of God and enjoyment of him. We do this by creating, nurturing, and protecting human life. I'd venture to say that all other facets of civilization ultimately serve this goal in some fashion. Childbirth, and the menstrual cycle it depends on, are where the work is accomplished or not.

However, the bulk of the text to do with menstruation and childbirth is in the middle of Leviticus, in the midst of how to take care of kind of gross physical problems like mildew, sores, discharge, and skin diseases. Menstruation, and bleeding after birth are counted as fairly standard "discharges" with required washing, changing of clothes, and waiting. These discharges cause people to be ceremonially unclean until they have been taken care of in the proper way.

The first obvious question is, what does it mean to be ceremonially unclean? The next is, why would this go along with bleeding? And then, practically, what would this mean for the lives of women? If you are unclean, what does life look like compared with when you are clean?

From Numbers 5, it seems that those who were unclean must live outside the camp. But if you count a seven day period and seven days waiting afterward, as it sounds like you might need to in the text, does this mean women were spending half of their lives during their childbearing years outside the camp? Who was making dinner?! In doing some research, I found two excellent articles which I highly recommend if this topic interests or confuses you.

The first helpful article is an entry from Baker's evangelical dictionary ( I found these few sentences defining clean/unclean to be very helpful in understanding what we are talking about here:
In Old Testament times the ordinary state of most things was "cleanness, " but a person or thing could contract ritual "uncleanness" (or "impurity") in a variety of ways: by skin diseases, discharges of bodily fluids, touching something dead ( Num 5:2 ), or eating unclean foods ( Lev 11 ; Deut 14 ).
An unclean person in general had to avoid that which was holy and take steps to return to a state of cleanness. Uncleanness placed a person in a "dangerous" condition under threat of divine retribution, even death ( Lev 15:31 ), if the person approached the sanctuary. Uncleanness could lead to expulsion of the land's inhabitants ( Lev 18:25 ) and its peril lingered upon those who did not undergo purification ( Lev 17:16 ; Num 19:12-13 ).

It seems that a lot of the concern with ceremonial uncleanness is related to like, physical uncleanness. Though menstrual blood and semen are not infectious generally, they still could create unsanitary conditions if not cleaned up afterward. (The mother of young children in me is very curious as to how vomit got left out of this discussion, in my mind the most disgusting and infectious symptom there is! But have I gone too far?) It's interesting that there's a jump from these hygiene problems to the approach to God in his temple. Cleanliness is next to godliness? People with really contagious problems are asked to live away from the camp, while men and women with normal discharge are just to keep away from the temple. What we know about God's character tells me that these people outside the camp would have been in deep fellowship with him, perhaps even more than those healthy ones less aware of their physical weakness and mortality who were worshiping at the temple. But if the temple is a representation of people actually redeemed and in open fellowship with God as we will be when creation is restored, perhaps this is why symptoms of disease and even physical phenomena that are just a little less than sanitary are to keep away.

This article  ( about female purity is VERY THOROUGH, i.e. long, but so so helpful for thinking through how the verses about menstruation should be read, and how they have been interpreted by the Jewish community over the last few (thousand) years.  To attempt to grossly summarize (see what I did there?), the author shows that in the text there is a contrast between normal female and male discharges, which are menstrual bleeding and ejaculations, and abnormal bleeding and male discharge. Normal menstrual periods do not require a 7 day waiting period afterward afterward before purification, while abnormal bleeding does. But in the interpretation of these laws by (male) rabbis over the years, the traditions became more and more restrictive about waiting times after menstruation and requirements for women to be sure they were not bleeding and causing uncleanness to their families, especially in priestly families. The author points out that for a man to have sex with a menstruating woman, and then enter the temple for worship is an almost unforgivable sin which can curse the entire nation and be punished by death (see above description of clean/unclean). That's worth thinking about! Why on earth?

I think we have some real food for thought when it is implied that regular menstruation (and ejaculation) which is part and parcel of the normal experience of post fall men and women is not a part of God's ideal fellowship with us. Are periods a consequence of the fall?? We have Jesus's statement that after the resurrection we will not be married, could this have something to do with the way our bodies will work and not work for reproduction when they are glorified? No babies were born that we know of until after the fall, and it looks like no marriage, and possibly no menstruation or ejaculation afterward. Does that mean that this period of post-fall pre-redemption will be the only epoch where new humans are created? Whew the speculation is running wild here!

Weighing the burden
But leaving all that aside and taking as a given that this is just what God asks of the Israelites under the law, we should consider that this abstaining from the temple while menstruating creates a big difference for men and women in how they participate in the public life of the faith community. Periods heavily influenced the lives of women in the Israelite community, and still do for women today.

Even in the age of lots of reasonably convenient feminine hygiene products, periods are still a pain. And at this point in our blogging journey, it is perhaps time to lay out in detail what it means for women physically that ours is the burden of bearing children. Though it is also the greatest privilege, here let's look at the cost we cover to do it.

During our most productive adult years for one week out of four, we will have periods, which entail, at least, the extra logistical difficulty of constantly managing bloodflow. This absolutely must be dealt with, no matter how long the bathroom line, or how inconvenient to find and carry the necessary supplies. In addition, many women suffer physical pain and weakness from cramps, and headaches, and emotional trouble from chemical storms in our brains. Even if we are not pregnant, our immune systems take the week off to protect a potential new invading life, and we get sick more easily. This is happening for 25% of our lives when we are about 12-47. This, alone, is a uniquely female vulnerability that has serious consequences for what we are able to accomplish in life. But women are amazing, and we surmount these obstacles pretty deftly to compete with men, until . . . we become pregnant.

Bearing a child is an incredible experience. Though some people say they aren't interested in doing it, for many women, we know from the get go that this is something we hope desperately for. Until children our born, there's no way to understand how profoundly we will be changed, but for most women, we instinctively know we want to do this. The pursuit of this goal makes it a fairly straightforward decision for women to arrange their lives around giving birth to and caring for their children. And though again of course we are not speaking in absolute universals, for most women, this heaviest burden brings the most powerful joy. Joy in the life and blessing of their children causes women's priorities to change so that their own individual happiness and purposes are no longer in the drivers seat. Once a baby arrives, the ability to advance your own agenda is compromised by the alignment of your own goals with those of a completely helpless infant who turns into an unruly and irrational child. This is where the most profound weakness happens for mothers. Good men realign their lives in a similar way, though perhaps not quite as profoundly as women experience. But the standard biological man is free to create a child and never think about the fact again in a way that a woman is not.

These economics of power and blessing in reproduction are at such a deep level of human experience, that we often have to challenge ourselves to remember that they are going on despite the fact that they order the world we live in. The specific parts of the law that deal with hygiene related to bodily discharge are a testimony that this physical phenomenon is a real factor in daily life that it is fair to acknowledge. The fact that this kind of human dirt is not permitted in the temple is thought-provoking tidbit, tempting me to to think that our redeemed bodies will be easier to manage and (please God!) involve less cleaning up. But for now, it's good to know that in the law, some of the cost of the blessing of bringing new life into the world is counted.

As for an acknowledgement of the work of motherhood itself, I think this is reflected in the entire structure of Israelite society where women as a class are acknowledged as needing support and care from the men in their lives, their fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons. You can see how the vision for patriarchy makes sense even though God knows, we all know, it has been horribly abused almost always. Next time we'll explore more about that in the context of how the law deals with marriage and sex.

But one final thing to think about: the law says menstruating women must not come to the Temple, and that sick people can't even live in the camp with everyone else. This seems like an additional level of hardship for people already dealing with some difficulty. But though it is not mentioned in the law, we know that God is with those who are weak and who suffer in a way that can be even more profound than when we experience in health and strength. Though they are not joining God's people assembled to meet him in cleanness in the Temple, I feel sure that God would have been meeting them in their trouble on the outside. He comes to sinners, to the weak, to the sick, to meet us, heal us, take up our cause and ultimately redeem us. When we are weak, then we are strong.