In the Bible, why is a woman unclean for twice as long after giving birth to a girl?

Ruth Baker

(Photo: Unsplash)

I wrote a blog a week or so ago that looked at a passage of Leviticus that appeared to set the value of a woman at almost half that of a man. Spoiler: Its not what you think it is, but you can read all about it here. After that post, a friend asked me about another passage in Leviticus (why is it always Leviticus?) that also appears to disproportionately place value on boys over girls – seemingly at odds with our understanding of equal value as equal image bearers of God. The passage in question is this:

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 seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period. On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised. Then the woman must wait thirty-three 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 sixty-six days to be purified from her bleeding. (Leviticus 12:1-5)

So if a woman has a boy, there is 40 days for purification but 80 days if she has a girl.

Is this the smoking gun? Is the evidence of what the world often accuses us Christians of – of valuing women less?

There’s actually a lot to pick out and so first we need to take out our 21st century brains and try and tap into 2nd millennium BC ancient near east brains.

The first thing to note is that when a woman gives birth, it says she is unclean for 7 days “as she is unclean during her monthly period.” Leviticus 15:19-23 gives us the information on what that means but you get the idea from just verse 19:

“When a woman has her regular flow of blood, the impurity of her monthly period will last seven days, and anyone who touches her will be unclean till evening.” (Lev. 15:19)

So when she has a period, she is unclean herself and can make anyone else impure also.

Regarding the time after the birth, after that initial time that is akin to the discharge of blood during her period, she may be still considered impure, but she would not make any she came into contact with unclean (Wenham, p186). In this sense, the uncleanness does not come from the child (whether boy or girl), but from the discharge of blood.

We should also note that after her time of impurity from discharge after childbirth, the mother must make atonement – which is the same for a boy or a girl:

“When the days of her purification for a son or daughter are over, she is to bring to the priest at the entrance to the tent of meeting a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering. He shall offer them before the Lord to make atonement for her, and then she will be ceremonially clean from her flow of blood.” (Lev. 12:6-7)

Those are 2 key points – it is not the child (or its gender) that causes any sense of impurity. The sacrifice of atonement to make the mother ceremonially clean again is the same for both genders. This is key in looking at our assumptions about valuing genders differently.

But why the extra time?

I’ll tell you now that everyone, including Jewish writers in the 5th century AD, had trouble understanding this one.

There is one possible explanation that is definitely gender related. In the 3rd century BC book of Jubilees, the difference in postpartum purification is linked back to Genesis and the Garden of Eden:

“In the first week, Adam and the flank, his wife, were fashioned, and in the second week he (God) showed her to him. And for this reason a commandment was given to maintain [postpartum mothers] – seven days for a male [child] and for a female two seven-day [units] – in their impurity. Afterwards, when for Adam forty days had been completed in the land where he had been fashioned, we brought him into the Garden of Eden to till and maintain it. And his wife was brought [there] on the eightieth day. Afterwards, she entered into the Garden of Eden. For this reason a commandment was written in the heavenly tablets for the one who gives birth…” (Jubilees 3:8-10)

In this way, the 8 days for a boy commemorates the creation of Adam at the end of the first week of God’s work and the creation of Eve at the end of the second week. Then the rest of the timeframe commemorates when each of them was brought into the garden of Eden.

The book of Jubilees is known as part of the Apocrypha and is not accepted as part of the Jewish or Christian canon. There is no other source that talks about these time periods of creation of Adam and Eve and this passage is generally understood to have been specifically written so as to provide an explanation for the difficult Leviticus passage.

A better way is to look at what the cultural and societal beliefs were at the time and then go back to exegesis.

On the eighth day, a boy baby is circumcised. This doesn’t occur for a girl child and so could explain at least part of the difference. This rite of passage brought the boy child into the covenant and so changed his societal and spiritual status. A girl baby had no such rite of passage that might cut short the period of purification for the mother. Because lets remember – this is not anything to do with the child being unclean. This is about the postpartum impurity of the mother.

The more plausible explanations are to do with an ancient understanding of medicine.

We know from the Greek philosopher, Empedocles, and the Greek physician Hippocrates (both from the 5th Century BC) believed that boys were formed quicker in the womb than girls and therefore boys needed less time outside of the womb. Obviously this is far from perfect medicine and later thinkers and theologians (notably Philo in the 1st century BC) were using it to try and back engineer an understanding of medicine to explain the Leviticus passage.

More interesting is that there is a proportion of baby girls that may have a discharge of uterine blood “as a result of the hormone withdrawal at birth from her mother’s pregnant state” (Tirzah Meacham, Female Purity (Niddah)). If this is the case, the baby girl is considered as subject to the laws around abnormal bleeding which is regulated by Leviticus 15:25. This might explain the additional time – 7 days impurity from her postpartum state, plus 7 days impurity from the mother being in contact with someone (the baby girl) who has abnormal bleeding.

By this understanding, it all comes down to the discharge of blood and how long it might be expected to occur. The immediate postpartum bleeding is considered a discharge as a woman’s period. The additional time in the immediate aftermath for a girl is to do with the mother’s contact with the baby girls abnormal bleeding (whether real, assumed or suspected).

After that, during the 33 days for a boy and 66 days for a girl, any further bleeding is considered blood of purification (as opposed to the initial postpartum discharge). Again, there is an assumption that there is further bleeding in the case of a girl child and hence the longer period allowed for the blood of purification to cease.

So is the time difference based on gender? Absolutely. Is it based on their value in the eyes of God or the people? No. It would appear to be based on assumptions about postpartum physiology. This may seem overly bureaucratic to us, but remember that for the ancient Jews, this could create the difference between being able to approach God in the tent of meeting or not. It could create the difference between ceremonially clean items and people or impure items and people. That is why the timeframes are conservative and important. God’s laws in the Old Testament create a rule of law. They created certainty for people so they could obey with as little ambiguity as possible. These rules around postpartum purification fall into that category.

When we look forward to the New Testament, this makes the story about Jesus’ healing of the woman subject to constant bleeding all the more significant. He didn’t just heal her, he liberated her. He made her able to interact freely with her community and with God.

A reading of Leviticus 12 that places a difference of value on the genders doesn’t fit with either the exegesis of the passage or the arc of the Bible narrative. With the former, as we’ve seen, the impurity is not to do with the child or their gender, and the sacrifice after the time of purification is the same for boy or girl births. Also, as we look forward to the New Testament, a value differential doesn’t fit with Jesus’ treatment of the bleeding woman as a continuation of God’s purposes from the old covenant to the new.

While this passage is difficult for us to interpret, it does not represent what we might think (or fear) that it does. I don’t believe that the differences are based in our value. Exegesis of the passage would not support that conclusion, nor would the internal consistency of the Bible narrative as a whole. God loves and values both boys and girls, men and women equally. While God created us differently, specifically and uniquely, and has different functions and purposes for us, we are completely equal in his eyes, in his favour and in his heart.

Republished with permission from Ruth Baker from Meet Me Where I Am.

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