Reading Leviticus 12: Impurity Post-Birth

Leviticus 12 denotes the requirements for women after they have given birth. In summary, a male child is unclean for seven days and circumcised on the 8th day. The woman is impure for thirty-three days. Female children are unclean for two weeks and the women for sixty-six days. Following each designated period of impurity, the same sacrifice is required for a male or female child and the mother. Based on the double time for uncleanliness on the part of women and female children, sixty-six days and two weeks, Leviticus 12 is controversial because it implicitly notes that women are more impure than men, a true assumption within the text. Patriarchal patterns should be expected, to a certain extent, in Leviticus considering its existence in a patriarchal society.

But to stop at this point is inadequate for proper exposition of the text. Leviticus is not oriented towards defining impurities and the time required to wait for sacrifice. Rather, Leviticus 12 is oriented towards the recovery from such impurities, recoveries which would permit the presence of God to permeate the community of Israel. Hence it is important to read Leviticus 12 in two parts: the first defines the impurities, and the second offers the expiatory solution.

First, Leviticus 12:1-5 discusses the nature of impurities for a mother and her children, whether male or female. It defines the time of separation for her from the Israelite camp. These details are very much culturally rooted in what ancient Israel considered to be taboo, to be disgust. Such disgust is present throughout the ancient Near East. Yitzhaq Feder explores a Hittite birth ritual, noting that the woman’s blood may potentially transfer sin, and hence punishment, to her child (2011, pg. 13). Presence of ritual for women giving birth within Hittite ritual indicates that issues about impurity upon birth were an important aspect of the cognitive environment in the ancient Near East. Leviticus 12:1-5 addresses this very taboo and notes the required response to the taboo of impurity via the lens of ancient Israel.

Following, Leviticus 12:6-8 demands sacrifice for expiation on her behalf. Within this section, two things are notable. First, circumcision is absent, suggesting that it is more universal focus on the issue of blood expiation following birth. Secondly, and consequently, male and female children, and the mother, are on the same plane. There is no extra sacrifice required for expiation. Thus the actual sacrifices, that which is the expiatory solution, are egalitarian within their context in which birth is an impurity.

In summary, my reading of Leviticus 12, while not denying the patriarchal tones of Leviticus, draws out the importance of the sacrifice for the impurities. Sacrifice, and hence worship, drew Israelites closer to the presence of God. Impurities from what 21st century readers consider “natural” were a functional aspect of the human relationship to the divine. And the sacrifice for recovery of the relational aspect in Leviticus 12 is equal for males, females, and mothers. Because the focus of Leviticus is upon the recovery of relationship via expiation, Leviticus 12 is not nearly as sexist as some may claim it to be.


Musings on “The Exegetical Captivity of the Book of Ruth”

In a recent post by Jim Gordon, he raised a point to consider regarding the nature of commentaries about the book of Ruth (Click here to read the original post). The essence of his question will be considered/answered/discussed in this blog post. Because the first question is the best summary of his post, I will quote his first question and proceed.

Question: Can a man write an adequate commentary on a book in which women’s experience is definitive and central in the story? Is gender irrelevant to how a person approaches a narrative text like Ruth?

Consideration: One point to consider is the amount of scholarship and time being placed into study of the Megilloth. My former professor, Dr. Brad Embry, currently leads the Megilloth group at the Society of Biblical Literature because it has received so little attention. Thus, the amount of people seeking to actively research the book of Ruth is dramatically decreased. This is an important factor to consider in questioning why there aren’t more female author’s.

Furthermore, the hermeneutic utilized by one significantly affects how Ruth is and should be understood. Within a recent class at Northwest University, I experienced this factor. The entire class was about Ruth and each student participated in discussion about the text as we moved through it over the semester. As we moved through the text, it became more and more apparent that each student held a differing view about Ruth as different aspects stood out to them. Interestingly enough, nobody approached Ruth as a piece of literature about women’s experience. Nor do I. To assume that Ruth is specifically about a woman’s experience is a presupposition that should be proven prior to approaching it in that manner, or else the eyes of the interpreter become tunnel visioned to that idea. In my view, Ruth seems to transcend issues of a woman’s experience. Ruth, as a character, is the vehicle through whom God acts, a vehicle which could just as well be a male. Although a male would have conjured up different allusions and spoken to the reader differently, many of the basic concepts could still have been expressed.

I view Ruth as a sort of “indie” book of the Bible (read original post here) intended to speak about issues that transcend the issues of a woman’s  experiences. Emphasis is placed upon the nature of God and the community. Ruth may even be a sort of commentary, though not polemic, regarding traditions of strict separation between Israel/nations. In essence, the hermeneutics and aim of interpretation make a huge difference as to whether or not the gender of reader is relevant in interpreting Ruth. However, that is not to disdain to the value of a female’s interpretation about Ruth as a women’s experience, for this approach yields positive results in that it separates the tangle of patriarchy and permits one to move towards the transcendent value of Ruth.

In conclusion, I pose my own questions. What is the focus of Ruth? While a woman’s experience is an element as play within the book of Ruth, is it really the focal point of the book? Or are there multiple focal points as with indie films?