Different Lengths of Quarantine in Leviticus 12:1-5

The Lord said to Moses: Say to the Israelites: If a woman conceives a child and gives birth to a son, she will be unclean for seven days—just as she is during her menstrual period. On the eighth day, the flesh of the boy’s foreskin must be circumcised. For thirty-three days the mother will be in a state of blood purification. She must not touch anything holy or enter the sacred area until her time of purification is completed. But if the woman gives birth to a daughter, she will be unclean for two weeks—just as she is during her menstrual period—and will be in a state of blood purification for sixty-six days. Leviticus 12:1-5 CEB

I’ve often heard questions about these ancient regulations, especially about why a new mother was “unclean” for 7 days after the birth of a son but “unclean” for 14 days after the birth of a daughter (Lev. 12:1-2, 5a). In fact, this question has come up twice this week. One reason for the extra week of isolation and quarantine may be because a few baby girls bleed vaginally a few days after being born.

Tirzah Meacham writes,

It is possible that the doubling of days is due to the fact that the infant girl may have a discharge of uterine blood as a result of the hormone withdrawal at birth from her mother’s pregnant state. This occurs in a certain percentage of infants and the discharge of blood or, more commonly, blood-stained mucus, is nearly always for three days on the fifth, sixth and seventh days after birth.[1]

The Hebrew Bible has numerous regulations that charge any Israelite who was experiencing certain discharges from the body, including an “issues of blood,” to steer clear of others. These discharges rendered a person “contagiously unclean.” (Note that “unclean” does not denote or imply sin.[2] And being ritually unclean, and thus prohibited from entering the tabernacle or temple, was not an uncommon state and was usually short-lived.)

After giving birth, a woman was “contagiously unclean for one or two weeks, as unclean as she was during her menstrual period (Lev. 12:2, cf. 12:5). . . . In the week following menstruation a woman was not only unclean in herself and unable to visit the sanctuary, but anyone or anything she touched became unclean as well.”[3]

After this initial period of quarantine, however, new mothers went through a longer period of “blood purification”: another 33 days after the birth of a son (33 + 7 = 40 days) (Lev. 12:4), and another 66 days after the birth of a daughter (66 + 14 = 80 days) (Lev. 12:5). During this second period, new mothers were not permitted to touch anything holy or enter a sacred space (Lev. 12:4b), but they were no longer “contagious” and they could touch “common” things and “common” people; that is, “The woman remained unclean in herself but she would no longer pollute other people.”[4] The shorter “contagious” period meant that, eight days after giving birth, a new mother could witness her baby boy’s circumcision in the company of others (Lev. 12:3).

There are two plausible reasons for the shorter isolation time after having a boy—uterine bleeding in a few baby girls; circumcision for all baby boys—but I have no real idea why the lengths of time for purification are different; no explanations are given in Leviticus 12. Though, the longer purification period may have allowed a mother to bond more closely with her daughter and it may have prevented a husband “trying for a boy” too quickly. I do realise how odd these ancient regulations sound to modern ears.

Identical Offerings in Leviticus 12:6-8

When the time of purification is complete, whether for a son or a daughter, the mother must bring a one-year-old lamb as an entirely burned offering and a pigeon or turtledove as a purification offering [literally: sin offering] to the priest at the meeting tent’s entrance. The priest will present it before the Lord and make reconciliation for her. She will then be cleansed from her blood flow. This is the Instruction for any woman who has a child, male or female. But if the mother cannot afford a sheep, she can bring two turtledoves or two pigeons—one for the entirely burned offering and the other for the purification offering. The priest will then make reconciliation for her, and she will be clean.
Leviticus 12:6-8 CEB

Leviticus 12 explainedWhile the length of quarantine and purification times were different, the offerings that were required after the birth of a baby were the same regardless of its sex (Lev. 12:6).[5] John Hartley observes that “the offerings were the same whether the mother bore a son or a daughter. This fact undercuts any interpretation that the different lengths of impurity indicated that a baby boy had more intrinsic value than a baby girl.[6]

Even though being unclean does not equate with sin, the offering of a pigeon or a turtledove is referred to, literally, as a “sin offering” in Leviticus 12:6c. And yet nothing in the Bible indicates that any stage of procreation, including giving birth, is somehow sinful.[7] Rather, having children is considered a blessing from God. Still, after ejaculation, menstruation, or childbirth, a period of quarantine and cleansing was required. The fluids of semen or blood leaving the body were the cause of impurity, not the actions of sex or giving birth, and the baby was not considered unclean.

Why Purification Regulations?

So why did the Israelites have such regulations? “The purpose was to enable the Israelites to have a relationship with the holy God by maintaining ritual purity. To do so, they must be whole/clean before entering any sacred space, lest the holiness of God destroy them.”[8]

More specifically, John Hartley offers a few suggestions for possible reasons behind the purity regulations of a new mother. I found this one interesting:

In giving birth the woman challenges the penalty of death on mankind for sinning against God in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:16-17), for each birth insures the continuation of the race.  Symbolically each birth strikes a blow on the head of the paradisiacal serpent, the champion of death (Gen. 3:15). Giving birth was a momentous act of victory. But the regulations of ritual purity did not allow a new mother to exalt herself as divine in her great accomplishment.[9]

Apart from religious reasons and possible symbolic reasons, purification regulations after giving birth had practical benefits. They facilitated hygiene and allowed a new mother to rest, but there is no obvious or compelling reason for the length of “blood purification” to differ depending on the baby’s sex.

Ritual Purity and the New Covenant

Mary and Joseph followed the regulations in Leviticus 12:1ff when Jesus was a newborn (Luke 2:22ff). As an adult, however, Jesus showed that he was not especially concerned by becoming ritually unclean.[10] He was not bothered when a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years and was “contagiously unclean” broke the law and touched him (Matt. 9:20–22//Mark 5:25–34//Luke 8:43–48). Jesus does not chastise but encourages her and says, “Take heart, daughter, your faith has healed (or saved, sōzō) you” (cf. Gal 2:15-16).

For us today with access to clean water and modern medicine, the purification regulations have little practical value. And for us who are followers of Jesus, they have little spiritual value, as in the New Covenant, there is no requirement of physical purity in order to have access to God’s presence.[11] (See Hebrews 10:19-22.)


Notes

[1] Tirzah Meacham, “Female Purity (Niddah),” Jewish Women Archives. <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/female-purity-niddah>

[2] “Although, some of the concerns [in Leviticus chapters 12-15] are gender specific—only females discharge menstrual blood, only males discharge semen—these instructions as whole do not discriminate between the worth of men and women or the susceptibility of their bodies to impurity.”
Samuel E. Balentine, Leviticus (Interpretation) (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2002), 100.

[3]  Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (TNICOT) (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), 186. (His italics)

[4] Wenham, Leviticus, 186.

[5] “Sacrifice was generally required when a person’s uncleanness lasted more than seven days.” Wenham, Leviticus, 185.

[6] John E. Hartley, Leviticus (WBC) (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 169.

[7] Samuel Balentine writes,

Further confirmation that a woman’s impurity is not a moral failure comes from observing that when her purification period is completed, she once again becomes “clean” (vv. 7, 8). Her defilement is a ritual one, not a moral one. When the priest effects expiation on her behalf, he in effect recognizes that her uncleanness has already been eliminated. She is not “forgiven” in the sense that is implied in the previous cases where “purification offerings” are required (cf. 4:1–5:13). Indeed, at no point does chapter 12 say or suggest that either the priest or God has judged the woman to have “sinned” or “brought guilt” on herself or the community. Rather, once she brings the required offerings, she is “cleansed” from a natural impurity that has only temporarily restricted her normal participation in the life and worship of the community.
Balentine, Leviticus, 100.

[8] Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Second Edition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity: 2006), 193.

[9] Hartley, Leviticus, 169.

[10] Jesus even touched dead bodies (e.g., Luke 8:54). Impurity caused by contact with a corpse was considered the most severe form of ritual impurity.

[11] The regulations surrounding worship in the tabernacle/temple and the Old Testament priesthood were mostly to do with the physical. In the New Covenant, worship and the qualifications for ministry are mostly spiritual.


Further Reading

Female Purity (Niddah) by Tirzah Meacham (Jewish Women Archives)

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