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.