This week, the portion is named Tazria (Leviticus 12-13), meaning “conceives.” And I’d like to look specifically at Leviticus 12:
If a woman has conceived, and borne a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as in the days of her customary impurity she shall be unclean. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. She shall then continue in the blood of her purification thirty-three days. She shall not touch any hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary until the days of her purification are fulfilled.
But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her customary impurity, and she shall continue in the blood of her purification sixty-six days.
When the days of her purification are fulfilled, whether for a son or a daughter, she shall bring to the priest a lamb of the first year as a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtledove as a sin offering, to the door of the tabernacle of meeting. Then he shall offer it before the Lord, and make atonement for her. And she shall be clean from the flow of her blood. This is the law for her who has borne a male or a female.
And if she is not able to bring a lamb, then she may bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons—one as a burnt offering and the other as a sin offering. So the priest shall make atonement for her, and she will be clean.
This is yet another segment of Scripture that tends to offend people because it’s commonly construed as being misogynistic. But to determine if this is really the case, one must first understand the concept of ritual impurity as a whole, and as defined by Scripture.
So according to the Bible, there are several ways by which a person can become טָמֵא (tamei), or ritually impure:
- Exposure to, or direct contact with, a human corpse (Numbers 19:11-16): this includes being present in a building or roofed structure containing a dead body; touching a corpse or part of a corpse; contact with a grave.
- Contact with the carcasses of unclean animals, or clean animals which did not die by slaughter (Leviticus 11:24-40).
- Producing certain bodily fluids (Leviticus 15): abnormal male genital discharges; seminal emissions with or without intercourse; menstruation; irregular feminine bleeding.
- Giving birth to a child (Leviticus 12)
- Contracting צָרַעַת (tzara’ath) (Leviticus 13-14): usually translated “leprosy” in English, but actually a malady of undetermined nature which can afflict people’s skin, garments and dwellings.
- Contact with a primary source of impurity, or an object that has been in contact with a primary source of impurity.
Now when one looks at these conditions, several things become clear. Firstly, being ritually impure has nothing to do with morality per se, and does not reflect on the worth of an individual – instead, it’s a spiritual state caused by material circumstances that can be passed on through physical contact, regardless of gender. This means that secondly, in the full context of the word, women are not singled out as being inferior/dirty/monstrous; rather, ritual impurity arises out of certain life situations that are integral to human existence; it isn’t personal. And thirdly, those life situations that create ritual impurity revolve around very specific themes, mainly to do with death/corruption.
This makes sense if you think about the fact that God is the Giver of life. He abhors death and corruption as He does sin (death and corruption, after all, are the results of sin). These things were not meant to exist in His good creation, and they spoil His ability to fellowship with human beings, because death inhabits us just as sin does… and at times, its presence becomes acutely felt in the lives of His people.
This is why the laws of the Mosaic covenant include regulations that, to the natural mind, seem utterly baffling, even counter-intuitive. Most people think that when it comes to religion and spirituality, morality is the most important thing. And indeed, when one looks at the ethical parts of the Torah, it seems that they must be what really matters, because we can easily see what’s good and right and logical about them most of the time. … But the thing is, those parts of the law that we can’t easily understand pertain precisely to things of which we’re unaware.
The truth is, we don’t look at ourselves, or reality, the way God does. He’s the only One who knows just how fallen creation is compared to what He intended. He’s the only One who sees us totally, as we really are – and how we really are, is fundamentally invaded by death, and marred by sin. … In order to fellowship with His people, God couldn’t just give them a moral code and teach them how to regulate their behaviour. He also had to make provision for things that, due to the Fall, were beyond their ability to change or control: He had to give them atonement for when they sinned, and He had to set boundaries for when they could come before Him as vessels that’re inhabited by death and corruption, so they wouldn’t offend His presence. In setting up a theocracy where His very presence would dwell among the Israelites in a physical location, this was crucial for continuous, unbroken communion.
This is why the Mosaic law was so all-encompassing. In covenanting with Israel, God had chosen to do something unprecedented in history – His glory was descending to abide with human beings in a man-made structure – and the means by which this was to be facilitated had to be extraordinary. His nation had to be a suitable habitation for His presence, so the goal was not just to make for Himself a righteous people, but a sanctified people – a people who would live side by side with Him, as it were, and therefore needed to know how to properly accommodate and honour His presence – a people who weren’t just “good” by conscious choice and effort, but also spiritually clean and acceptable (that is, as much as was possible in a fallen world) – a people commended to Him not just by how they themselves lived, but by the caveats of His own grace, and ultimately, on the strength of His terms… because that was the only thing that would truly suffice.
This is why Leviticus is the heart of the Torah: it deals primarily with the things which are unseen. It gives us glimpses, via ritual and practice and mystery, of reality through the eyes of God… and that brings us back to the topic at hand.
In light of all this, how should we understand Leviticus 12? Well, let’s look at the chief conditions of ritual impurity again:
- Exposure to, or direct contact with, a human corpse
- Contact with the carcasses of unclean animals, or clean animals which did not die by slaughter
- Male and female emissions
- Giving birth
- Contracting צָרַעַת (tzara’ath)
- Contact with people/objects that’ve been contaminated by the above
The first 2 are self-explanatory, I think. 1 Corinthians 15:26 says that death is an enemy; it is opposed to everything that God has purposed for His creation since the beginning, and is antithetical to the very nature of God, who is Life – anyone who’d been in close proximity with death, therefore, couldn’t come into the sanctuary or be in contact with His holy things until they were purified (and because of His holiness, secondary contact was sufficient to defile as well, hence #6).
For the purposes of this post, I won’t be delving into #5, except to say that tzara’ath was a form of corruption that, by all accounts, possessed a unique spiritual repugnance and was therefore anathema – but I will discuss #3 and #4.
So, what do reproductive emissions have to do with death? Well, whether it was semen for men or blood for women, both represented the going out of life, or the potential for life, from the body. And this, too, was actually a form of death – while it didn’t amount to actual physical dying and we don’t know how different it was with Adam and Eve pre-Fall, Scripture teaches that the seed for life proceeds from men, while blood constitutes life itself; thus abnormal discharges/bleeding, or even emissions that’re supposed to be perfectly normal, are manifestations of our mortality – signs that death is working itself out in our flesh, for that which is supposed to produce life has borne no fruit.
As far as Leviticus 12 goes, however, giving birth presents a conundrum: it’s supposed to be an act of life, so why is it also a source of ritual impurity? And why is a woman impure for twice as long if she gives birth to a daughter? Also, why does she have to bring a sin offering for cleansing when she completes her purification?
In my opinion, there’re 2 possible ways of looking at this. The first has to do with what death is (basically, it’s the departure of life). When a woman gives birth, human life exits her body – one could argue, therefore, that this leaves her in a state of death, as witnessed by the ensuing flow of blood. Moreover, if she gives birth to a daughter, the child possesses the ability to produce offspring as well, thus a “double portion” of life has departed from the mother, thereby increasing the required period of purification.
The second possible understanding has to do with Psalm 51:5, which says: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.” Because of the Fall, all human parents pass on the sin nature to their children. This doesn’t mean that the act of procreation itself is sinful, since God commanded that people be fruitful and multiply; but since it necessarily means bringing yet another person into the world who will, by nature, be corrupted, the act of giving life is thus spoiled by the presence of death. Moreover, if the child is female, this means that she has the ability to bring yet more sinful human beings into the world, thereby doubling the impurity of her birth.
Either way, it’s clear that a woman isn’t rendered unclean because she herself is somehow dirty, or because having children (especially daughters) is a disgusting, degrading thing. Rather, depending on how you prefer to look at it, the reality of ritual impurity points to the fact that life and death and sin are highly consequential in God’s creation, with spiritual effects that cannot be reckoned apart from a God’s-eye view of the situation.
As for the sin offering, or hattath, traditional Jewish teaching explains that when a woman has given birth, she requires atonement for any resentful thoughts she may have had against her husband or even God while she was in labour, as well as any angry words or rash vows she might’ve uttered against ever co-habiting with her husband again. … Personally, I think it has to do with Psalm 51:5 as well; for even though it wasn’t through any direct fault of her own, a woman perpetuates corruption in another human life when she gives birth, and the hattath was made precisely for sins that were unintentional. Moreover, after the hattath was sacrificed, the mother was also required to make a burnt offering (olah), which signalled rededication, thereby affirming her relationship with God once more.
So there you have it – when understood in proper context, Leviticus 12 cannot be used to argue that the Bible is misogynistic. Instead, it tells us of the reality of sin in every human life, even from birth, and points us to the need for purification and atonement – things which, ultimately, are only available through Yeshua, God’s appointed Saviour for humankind.
Next week, we look at the purification processes for ritual impurity with tzara’ath and bodily discharges. Shalom all~