Levitical Purification After Childbirth

Christian Life & Theology, Motherhood, Podcast Episodes

In this episode Phylicia breaks down the Levitical laws about purification after childbirth and answers the hard question of whether boys and girls were equal to God.


Listen Now



Welcome to Verity Podcast. I’m your host, Phylicia Masonnheimer, and I am here to teach you how to know what you believe, to live it boldly, and to communicate it graciously to the world around you. I believe that women are ready to go deeper in their faith than ever before and they don’t have to go to seminary to do it. I am so glad you’re here and I hope you’ll join me on this journey because Every Woman is a Theologian. 

Hi friends, and welcome back to Verity Podcast. Thanks for your grace as we had a little bit of an unforeseen break between this episode and the Prayer series. We had so much going on with the launch of the Fall Collection, the new Leviticus Bible Study, our new Quick Theologies, Labor Day, everything. So busy, I didn’t even get a chance to sit down and record, especially in a timely fashion.

So we are finally getting you this new episode as we go into the fall. I am excited to kind of take our series back to deep dives into theology and theological topics. And this week we’re actually going to take a closer look at a portion of Leviticus. I thought it was appropriate since we launched the verse by verse Leviticus Bible study in the Every Woman a Theologian shop. We’re going to look at a topic I have been asked about frequently. It is in Leviticus 12 and it’s about purification after childbirth.

So many people wonder, why did a woman have to be purified after childbirth? And why was it a longer period of time, double period of time to the period for a boy? If you had a girl, you would have to be purified and go through this ritual for a lot longer than if you had a boy. And so in this episode, we’re going to talk a little bit about that and I’m going to use some of the content directly from the verse by verse Leviticus study.

But before we get into that in detail, I want to talk a little bit about Leviticus as a whole. When we come to these tough passages in this book, a book which a lot of people struggle with, we often forget the overall intent of Leviticus and the cultural setting. So scholar J. Sclar says that Leviticus is God returning his people to his intent at creation. And God does this, Sclar says, through Separation, blessing and calling. So at creation, God separated Things into their rightful order, and he blessed Adam and Eve. He commissioned them to rule the world to fill it. And in Leviticus, God separates his People into their rightful place.

He sets them apart from the world as a light to the nations to draw the nations to God. And he offers to bless them with earthly and spiritual blessings, calling them to represent him on Earth. And this is what Jay Sclar says. He says that the Israelites are not only a signpost back to Eden, they are to become a manifestation of Eden. And so when we look at the Church today and as Christians reading this book, we can think of ourselves as this new grafted in reality, we’re part of Israel’s legacy. We’ve become a part of the family of God. And we are continuing that.

We are pointing to Eden. We’re pointing forward to the Great Reconciliation that Revelation 22 Promises. And so when we look at Leviticus, we have to see this as the people of God set apart to be a light to the nations. They are the city on a hill that Jesus talks about in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. Now, when you’re reading Leviticus, there are some really significant themes. And there’s no question that the primary theme in Leviticus is Holiness. Holiness of priests, holiness before God, Holiness in the Tabernacle, holiness toward other people. So it’s concerned with making people holy so that God can dwell with them.

And that’s what God was doing in Eden. Right? In Eden, he walks with Adam and Eve. Sin comes into the world. God can no longer walk with man. He can no longer dwell with them. And then God sets out on this epic story of how he’s going to dwell with men again, he’s going to dwell with humanity again. And what does he do? He does it through Abraham, he does it through the Tabernacle and through the Levitical Law, and then ultimately he does it through the temple in David and Solomon, and then through Jesus Christ, who is the fulfillment of all of those things. It’s absolutely amazing to see how God’s story of trying to reach down and dwell with his people, not trying, but actually accomplishing it, ultimately in Revelation, is the story of redemption.

But I don’t want to get us distracted. So the sacrificial system in Leviticus, which is so difficult for many of us to understand, wasn’t just for priests, it was for members of the community. And they were very involved in offering the sacrifices. They even rotated duties with the priests during the offerings. Thomas King points out that God even made the bird and grain offerings available to those who couldn’t afford a larger animal, revealing how inclusive the sacrificial system really was. And the law of Leviticus is an inclusive law, right? It’s a law that invites everyone to participate and dwell with God. So this holiness code that’s in Leviticus, the sacrificial laws, this is not abstract. This is rooted in the daily life of Israel.

God’s law in Leviticus is otherworldly in the sense that it’s perfect, but it’s also very earthly. It’s grounded in normalcy. So God is calling Israel through the Levitical law to treat children and spouses and parents and neighbors and foreigners with holiness and love. He even demands that animals be cared for, that bodies be cleansed and protected, and that foreigners be welcomed in. So he told Israel in the law how to rest, how to work, how to protect themselves from disease. The law of God distinguished Israel from participation in the death and decay and evil that was in the world. They are the city on a hill. They are set apart in their culture of the time.

So when we look at Leviticus, we need to see this through the lens of love. Leviticus is saying that God loves his people and wants to dwell with them. And so as we read through these laws and in this section about childbirth, remember that they are evidence of God’s great affection. He could have left people unable to stand in his presence, but instead he makes a way for them to dwell with him, just as he will do again thousands of years after Leviticus in the person of Jesus Christ. 

So that’s the theme that I want you to keep in mind as we look at this passage and try to understand what purification after childbirth was all about. So when we’re reading in Leviticus 12, we’re actually coming into a section of Leviticus that is talking about purification, dietary laws. So you’re coming right off of the dietary laws about what animals you can eat and can’t eat, mostly for the protection of the human body in a time when there was not a whole lot of health code. So when we are looking at this concept in Leviticus 12, well, you know what? Let’s do this. Let’s back up. I’m going to redo the passage, and then we’ll discuss. 

“The Lord said to Moses, say to the Israelites, a woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for 7 days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period. On the 8th day, the boy is to be circumcised. Then the woman must wait 33 days to be purified from her bleeding. She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over. If she gives birth to a daughter for two weeks, the woman will be unclean, as during her period, then she must wait 66 days to be purified from her bleeding. When the days of her purification for a son or daughter are over, she is to bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a year old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering. She shall offer them before the Lord to make atonement for her, and then she will be ceremonially clean from her flow of blood. These are the regulations for the woman who gives birth to a boy or a girl. But if she cannot afford a lamb, she is to bring two doves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. In this way, the priest will make atonement for her and she will be cLean. This is the word of the Lord.”

Okay, so knowing the context here, what we just read about kind of the ritual purification that was expected for boys and girls, here are some things to keep in mind. Keep in mind that birth, children and sex in Leviticus and in the Bible as a whole are not in and of themselves unclean. Also keep in mind that unclean does not mean bad, evil, wrong or sinful, okay? It means in need of ritual purification, in need of cleansing, to remain in the ritual community.

At the time, it was the blood, or in Leviticus 15, the discharge or bodily fluids that created the uncleanness, not because blood was bad or evil. It is the means of atonement in the sacrificial system, but because the loss of blood is, according to Gordon Wenham, the most polluting substance when it is in the wrong place or used the wrong way. So what does Gordon Wenham mean? He means that blood belongs in the body to give us life. Right? When blood is leaving the body, even in the process of birth, even in the process of having a period, it is a loss. It is a quote unquote, death, evidence of what’s happening in the world of the impact of sin. So even childbirth has been impacted by sin. 

We see this in Genesis three. That pain in childbirth was increased. Labor in childbirth, the work to be fertile and to have babies, the whole process has been impacted. So now we experience infertility, we experience miscarriage, we experience painful periods. Like, all of that is a part of the labor of giving birth in a fallen world, and that’s evidence of the fall. And so for the community of Israel at this time, what the sacrificial system was doing was allowing the entire holiness of God to dwell in that place. And so the people had to be purified to have that holiness residing with them. Okay? And so this idea of blood creating uncleanness is, again, not because sex, blood, childbirth, children are bad, evil, wrong. That’s not what unclean means. It simply means that the process of childbirth had to be cleansed, just like the process of Sex had to be cleansed.

When you found mold in your house, when you had leprosy or a skin disease or eczema, you had to be cleansed ritually. None of these things are sinful things. They are things that are operating in a fallen world. And so therefore, they had to be purified for God’s Holiness to be in the presence. And so when we look through this verse by verse, we see that a woman gives birth to a son. She is ritually unclean, so not able to come into the Tabernacle for 7 days. This would be the time when she’s bleeding the most after birth. So you can bleed a long time, you can bleed 4 or 5 weeks or more.

Most women bleed around 4 to 5 weeks after they have a baby, and those first 7 days are usually the heaviest. So on the 8th day, he is circumcised if she has a son. Interestingly, this is when the blood naturally produces its own clotting factor, when it has the vitamin K on the 8th day. Isn’t it fascinating that it’s the 8th day that God said, circumcise these baby boys? Now we’re not going to get into circumcision. I should do another episode on that. But circumcision was a sign of the Covenant for Israel, and all of their baby boys were circumcised not in the exact way we do it today in Hospitals, but in a Jewish sense. So interesting though, it’s the 8th day, once the blood is naturally clotting, that is when he said to circumcise. So she waits 7 days, and then she waits another 33 days for her full purification.

So when giving birth to a son, a woman spent a total of 40 days for blood purification. So the fact that a mother is only unclean for 7 days, a period of what’s called contagious uncleanness, when she could transfer her uncleanness ritually to others, and two is afterward only limited from touching sacred items or entering the sanctuary, tells us that this uncleanness has to do with the ceremonial law. It is not a negative statement about birth, womanhood, or her body that is very important. The only things that she couldn’t do is go into the Tabernacle OR touch sacred items enter the sanctuary. That. That was what this was about, okay? It’s not about her being dirty or gross. That’s not what unclean means. When giving birth to a daughter, a woman spent a total of 80 days for blood purification.

There are several reasons why purification may have been longer for a daughter’s birth. So here are some theories. Number one, a female child has the ability to bear life. Like the mother, baby girls are born with hundreds of thousands of eggs in their ovaries. Pause. One of the funniest things Adeline said to me once when I first told her about this, we were talking about the female body, was, “am I going to have 400,000 children?” It’s like, no, dear, don’t worry about that. It’s okay. So baby girls are born with the full capacity to bear life in their ovaries.

This sacred ability required a longer purification period because the daughter was also in need of that ritual purification. So 40 days times two equals 80 days. That’s the first theory, because you’re doing 40 days for the mother, 40 days for the baby girl. The second theory is that occasionally, baby girls will have this discharge of uterine blood in the first few days after birth. So this is brought on by hormonal changes after leaving her mother’s body. It doesn’t happen to all baby girls, but in the event that it did happen, a longer purification period covered it. And the third reason is suggested by Jewish scholars, ancient rabbis. They offer a spiritual reason.

They said that because Adam was created in the first week of creation, 7 days, and Eve in the second week, 14 days, the purification periods correlate to the creation narrative. So it’s double everything for the girl, not because she’s bad, evil, wrong. A girl is worse, and therefore needs to be extra purified. If anything, it’s a time of extra purification and rest, which should equal extra honor. And in our modern Western culture, we’re so inundated with these conflicting messages about women and culture that I think we’ve almost started to look at Leviticus through a lens of one spiritually abusive or manipulative people who’ve talked about it in a very condescending or misogynistic way. But we also are going to the opposite extreme. Looking at it through this lens of misandry, which exalts women above men and says, assumes that the Bible is being condescending to women when it’s actually not, when it’s saying, actually, we’re giving you double the rest after you have a baby girl, as double honor. Could that be a possibility? That instead of it being an insult, it’s double honor, something to consider.

So after the purification through childbirth, the mother has to bring an offering, and it talks about bringing a sin offering. We’re going to talk about that in a second. But one thing I want to note is that these offerings apply to either a boy or a girl. And this is a significant piece of Leviticus 12, often overlooked by skeptics of the passage. If the sacrifice for a baby was identical for both a boy and a girl, what does this tell us about how God views gender? If God really thought that boys were better than girls and that the purification laws were reflective of that, why is the sacrifice atoning for a boy and a girl? Why is it exactly the same? If a girl is worse, shouldn’t she have like double the atoning sacrifice? Shouldn’t she have more to atone for more sin offerings? But she doesn’t. The offerings are exactly the same. And on top of that, God even gives an alternative sacrifice if a family could not afford a lamb. 

I think it’s so cool that he puts that in there, because when I think about Mary and Joseph, it says in the Gospels that Mary took Jesus to the temple after the days of her purification were over. And what did she bring? She brought a sacrifice. And probably because Joseph and Mary were poor, they probably brought those two little doves or pigeons. And I love to see that concession, because it shows us that God wants everyone to have access to him. God wants everyone to be able to dwell with him and walk with him. 

So in conclusion, the act of bringing a child into the world, it’s one of the ways that women image Christ. Now, if you are a woman who has struggled with infertility, if you are single and you have not been able to bring a child into the world, I’m not saying that you image Christ less. I’m saying that this is one of the ways that women are capable of imaging Christ. And men are not capable of this. They are not designed for this. Women are designed with a unique capacity to bear within themselves an eternal soul. And this is incredibly profound. Even if a woman never bears a physical child or loses the child of her womb through stillbirth or miscarriage, her body is a memorial to God’s creative, loving, and life giving nature. The Levitical laws, usually seen as limiting, instead show us a pattern of honor for women and their image bearing design. Because of sin and brokenness in the world, not every woman will physically give birth, but every woman can image God’s nature through the spiritual mothering that Christ equipped us for through the Great Commission. 

I hope that this aligned your view of Leviticus a little bit with the heart of God. I hope it gets you excited about Leviticus because I think it is one of the best, most exciting books in the Bible and if you want to study it for yourself, you can head over to our shop, Every Woman a Thologian at phyliciamasonheimer.com and grab the Leviticus Verse by Verse study in the book section. I’ll see you next week.

Thank you so much for listening to this week’s episode of Verity Podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, would you take the time to leave us a review? It helps so many other women around the world find out about Verity and about Every Woman a Theologian as a ministry and a shop. We appreciate you and I hope you’ll be back next week as we continue to go deeper into God’s Word and the heart of Jesus Christ.


    Your Cart
    Your cart is emptyReturn to Shop