Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Periods of Purification after Childbirth (Leviticus 12:1-8)

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

While 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]

In his commentary on Leviticus, 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” 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.)


Footnotes

[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 a 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. (Google Books)

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

[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. (Google Books)

[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. (Google Books)

[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.

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Further Reading

Female Purity (Niddah) by Tirzah Meacham (Jewish Women Archives)
Postpartum Impurity: Why is the Duration Double for a Girl? by Zev Farber (The Torah)

Related Articles

25 Biblical Roles for Biblical Women
The Portrayal of Women in the Bible and Biblical Inspiration
4 Obscure OT Verses Sometimes Used to Diminish Women
Is it he, she, they, or we who crush the serpent’s head? (Genesis 3:15)

artigos em portugues sobre igualdade entre homens e mulheres no lar e na igreja

40 thoughts on “Periods of Purification after Childbirth (Leviticus 12:1-8)

  1. I wonder if the length of purification is somehow related to the verse in Leviticus that forbids sexual intercourse during a woman’s period. Perhaps that has to do with the fact that it would symbolize a mingling of life and death: the sperm ready to give life while the uterine wall is shedding death. After a woman gives birth, it makes sense for there to be a time of cleansing as mentioned in your article. But perhaps there is something symbolic in the double length of time after giving birth to a baby girl in the fact that it’s two females who both have wombs that can give life—but not at the current moment. Rather than being derogatory, the extra length of purification is a way of honoring the life-giving power of the womb.

    1. That’s an interesting idea, Linda.

      Some people think that sex is forbidden during the purification period also. And it’s been suggested that a husband might be disappointed with a baby girl and may be in a hurry to try for a boy, and that’s why the purification period is longer when the mother has had a girl: to give her a break. Who knows?

      1. I can’t understand why people, family wants son not girl baby.. I have three daughter and one son.. My daughter are more love towards dady..
        One thing marriage time it is an expensive for girls parents side in India and many parts of the world..

        1. In Old Testament times many mothers are blessed by a son … they wanted a male son.
          Hanna’s prayer was for a male child, a son. Angel Gabriel brought news for Mary, a male child. Elizabeth, John the Baptist. In OT and NT we see male children only.

          1. In patriarchal and honour-shame societies, such as there was in Bible times, male children are typically preferred to female children. This is because sons can bring public honour, daughters usually cannot. This preference for sons causes many problems that we still see today in China, in India, and elsewhere. Baby girls are killed simply because they are female. And the expense of dowries can create severe difficulties.

            Hannah wanted a male child, not just because she wanted a baby, but because she wanted the shame of being barren completely taken away. In her culture, a son would do this more effectively than a daughter. And Mary and Elizabeth had sons because their children would become important leaders and prophetic teachers. The vast majority of leaders and teachers in those days were men.

            God loves and cares for his daughters as much as his sons. In Isaiah 43:6b-7 God says, “Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth—everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”

            In Genesis 1:26-28, we are shown that men and women, at creation, had the same status, the same authority, and the same purpose. In Genesis 2 we are shown that man and woman are compatible and unified; they came from the body of same first human. This compatibility and unity is spoilt after the fall, but in Jesus and with the Holy Spirit, there is now the same potential for equality and mutuality and unity between the sexes.

            In the New Covenant–in Christ–men and women, Jew or Greek, slave or free, are equal. Such social distinctions are irrelevant and minimised.

            I have grandsons and one granddaughter, and they all bring me great joy. My granddaughter is a delight.

  2. Absolutely fascinating, Marg. Pointing out the identical sacrifices is illuminating, isn’t it?

    1. It amazes me the verses people use to insinuate that women are somehow lesser in God’s eyes or less loved.

      1. Is our God a male God???

        1. Hello Peter. No, God is not male or female. The God of the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, has no sex. I write about this here.
          https://margmowczko.com/is-god-male-or-masculine/

          1. Praise the Lord. Very good explanation, thank you Marg. Adam God made out of dust but Eve made out of bone of Adam. Bone always speaks of strength. Why are woman weaker vessels? They are strong.

            Is our God one or plural???

          2. Hi G. Peter, I’ve written about what “weaker vessel” means here: https://margmowczko.com/weaker-vessel-gender-justice-1-peter-3_7/

            There is one supreme God. According to traditional Christian theology, this one God is made up of three persons: (1) Father, (2) Jesus the Messiah, Word, and Son of God, and (3) the Holy Spirit.

            (I’ve removed your phone number in case strange people ring you.)

  3. I really appreciated the conciseness of this post, and value the insights that you bring to the topic.

    On item that may contribute to the longer purification period for girls is the biological reality that girls are anatomically much more susceptible to infection through the vagina, than boys are through the penis. This ‘problem’ is often seen in situations of poverty where a newborn girl is more likely to die from infection, than a newborn boy.

    Perhaps the longer period for a girl is then simply a way in which God ensures a ‘safer’ environment for the girl, for a longer period of time, in which she is less likely to be exposed to contexts and people which could cause infection.

    Just a thought…

    1. Thanks, Charles. This is another plausible idea.

  4. Marg, thanks for this. Purity and Defilement are emerging as major missiological issues in relating to women and men in Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism. Many of the Levitical regulations (and NT re-readings) speak deeply into these contexts. I’m not sure I’ve encountered the differential time for purification between giving birth to boys and girls in other faiths: in Islam, the urine from a girl is more defiling than that of a boy.
    Some of this is explored in the Purity webzine at https://whenwomenspeak.net/issue/vol-2-no-1-april-2018/ in the context of Muslim women, and Leviticus.

    1. Thanks, Moyra. I appreciate your expertise and experience on this.

  5. Marg, thanks for the insightful post. I appreciated you connecting the two passages in Leviticus – the one that focused on the different lengths of quarantine in Leviticus 12:1-5 and then the passage focusing on the identical offerings for both female and male children in Leviticus 12:1-8. It is another powerful reminder that a verse must always be considered in context of the surrounding verses and of course the book and the Bible as a whole, rather than being considered in isolation. So while the second passage does not really help answer the uncertainty about the reasons for the different lengths of time dictated for quarantine after birth in the first passage, it certainly does refute the suggestion it was because of a value that was placed on the gender of the child. It is interesting that it remains unclear why there were differences in length of quarantine. For me there is a struggle with the suggestion that the length of quarantine increases for the femal child due to the fact some female children have a discharge generally 5, 6, 7 days after birth, only because that does not really address why the quarantine time is doubled after having a female child rather than just adding 7 days to the length of quarantine.

    1. The idea that the extra seven days is because a few baby girls may have a vaginal discharge is a guess. But the maths does work. The discharge can be up to 7 days after the baby is born and then there’s another 7 days of quarantine: 7 + 7 = 14. Why the double time for blood purification is more mystifying.

      1. There is a spiritual contrast occurring. In Lev. 17:11 Life is contained in the blood, which is used in the atonement of sin. A woman’s body is not sinful for God made women in His image. However, a woman becomes ritually impure (NOT a sin or dirty ) when she discharges blood. Her menstrual blood happens when she doesn’t conceive. Conception is life whereas menstrual blood discharges death of life (in this case an unfertilized egg—a baby). There is a discharge of blood after birth. This blood is contamination of death that the woman simply comes in contact with during and after the birthing process. Perhaps a newborn girl is symbolic of when she grows up she too will come in contact with death on a monthly basis. God is life and the Temple was in the spiritual realm of that Heavenly life. No death/blood except that which atones for sin was allowed within the Temple Courts. Because of the blood, life and death are very real during pregnancy and birth. So why the sin offering after the mothers period of impurity was over? There are several opinions to this mystery. However, I like what Nechama Leibowitz wrote. Leibowitz compares the birth experience to the Prophet Isaiah when he came face to face with God (Isa. 6:3–5). In the process of giving birth to a new baby, of giving life, the mother saw a little bit of the glory of God and like Isaiah became aware of her own impure state. Pregnancy and giving birth is most likely the only miracle we humans can assist God with while on earth.

        1. “Perhaps a newborn girl is symbolic of when she grows up she too will come in contact with death on a monthly basis.”
          That’s an interesting idea, Alison. I will keep it in mind.

  6. Thanks again for your insightful article! It’s a subject that I’ve thought about and questioned.
    I think this makes the story of the woman who bled for 12 years and touched Jesus just that more incredible! But without knowing the context and how unclean menstruation was viewed, we can easily gloss over the cultural lines Jesus broke.

  7. It seems clear that the cover-price offering is for the woman (Verses 7 she will be cleansed from the fountain of her blood, and 8, she will be clean). But for whom are the other two offerings, the burnt offering and the sin offering, perhaps for the child, the husband or the family?

    1. It’s unclear to me.
      The plural language in Luke 2:22-24 can give the impression that the offering of doves/pigeons was given by Mary and Joseph. The NRSV translates verse 24 as “and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

  8. I think the cultural dimension as fused (wrongly I think) in salvational dimensions should be our major concern. The second phase of the narrative that focuses on offerings equalises the dilemma on the import of masculinity or otherwise. Human equality in creation and redemption, therefore, is forever sealed in the “sacrifice or offering”–Christ.

    Of course, part of the offerings was and is in response to God’s mercies in the whole process. But a “sin offering” foreshadows the merits of the supreme sacrifice for humanity-Christ.

    The society is still blended in the cultural setting but the centrality of the cross–our center of equality and efficacy–becomes our ONLY HOPE.

    1. Hi Titus,

      This whole passage is grounded in a cultural and religious setting that has no parallel in many societies today. Still, it is worthwhile to try and understand the passage in its original context.

  9. Marg, I came across your post while doing research for a historical novel I’m writing around the birth of Jesus. I’m just now writing about Mary’s time with Elizabeth. It seems from the text in Luke that Mary leaves Elizabeth before the birth of John the Baptist. I’m wondering if Mary left due to any issues of uncleanness after his birth. Any ideas on that?

    1. Hi Patti,

      Jewish people were regularly unclean for all kinds of reasons. Often it couldn’t be avoided.

      I don’t think Mary left Elizabeth because of post-partum uncleanness. Perhaps she left before her belly got too big which would have made the journey back to Nazareth more tiring. But this is only a guess.

  10. Thanks for your reply! It’s amazing how much of the Christmas story Is left out by our good friend, Dr Luke. He assumed his readers would know his culture and how it worked. Digging into First-Century Hebrew culture has been illuminating. What he mentions in a sentence—Mary’s trip to see Elizabeth—presents all sorts of intriguing questions. I’m having a lot of fun. Thanks again.

    Pray you and your family are doing well during this harrowing time.

    1. I do think the authors of the books of the Bible never expected the degree of scrutiny we give the text. 🙂

  11. Praise God !I am from Orissa state..I am bless to know about purification..at this time we are lockdown periods..21 days…thank you.

  12. I was agreeing with the insights you gave until I got to “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).” I do not think she “broke the law,” rather, I think what she did was make Jesus ritually unclean without his permission or choice in the matter. However, she did it in faith and was healed. I think similar considerations apply with us when someone might commit a boundary violation seeking healing.

    1. You’re right, Don. I’ve worded that poorly.

      I’ve removed the “broke the law” phrase. I do think, though, that implicit in the menstrual regulations is the idea that an “unclean” woman will withdraw from society as much as possible to avoid making others unclean.

      1. Thank you for your wonderful insight, my wife and I had our third daughter 6 weeks ago and I’ve been pondering on the purification timeframe as well. I wonder if it has to do with the time a woman’s monthly cycle returns after giving birth

        1. Congratulations on the birth of your baby girl, Yerodin.

          It can take several months for a woman’s period to return if she is breastfeeding, and it never returns within 7 or 14 days after having a baby. And the return of her period isn’t affected by the sex of the baby. Also, when her period does come back, she is unclean again. So I don’t think the purification times after giving birth reflects the time it takes for a mother’s period to return.

  13. I have one more question about purification. What role does the mikveh play in postpartum purification around the time of Jesus’ birth?

    1. Hi Patti, There’s plenty of evidence that mikva’ot were used by pious first-century Jews living in Judea and in Galilee. One of the main uses of mikva’ot was for Jewish women to achieve ritual purity after menstruation and childbirth. (There is little doubt that Mary would have used a mikveh after giving birth to Jesus and subsequent children.)

      This article may be useful. https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/mikveh

  14. Here is a good background article on this topic:

    Matthew Thiessen, ”The Legislation of Leviticus 12 in Light of Ancient Embryology” Vetus Testamentum 68 (2018), pp. 297-319

    1. Thanks for this, Charles.

      The angle of ancient understandings of embryology is touched on in this article:
      https://www.thetorah.com/article/postpartum-impurity-why-is-the-duration-double-for-a-girl

      I’d love to read the final version of your paper “Women Presbyters/Elders in the NT and the Ancient Church.”

  15. Hello, should women still follow the purification time frame after they give birth? I have been obeying it out of habit and my parents have taught it to me since I was young enough to understand. I don’t take the Lord’s supper while on my period and I don’t attend church or any holy gatherings 40 days after birth of a boy and 80 after birth of a girl. Just curious of your opinion, should it still be followed? Thanks.

    1. Hi Narcisa, I see no reason for a Christian, especially a gentile Christian, to follow many of the regulations given to the community of bronze-age Israelites. Even most Jewish people do not follow many of the regulations given in the first few books of the Hebrew Bible.

      There were taboos surrounding menstruation for ancient people (and in some cultures today), and these ancient taboos are reflected in some regulations given to the Israelites. There are almost no taboos around menstruation in many modern societies.

      Because of the purification period after menstruation, intercourse was more likely to take place when the woman was fertile, and having babies was a vital role in societies that were frequently affected by raids, wars, famines, and diseases. Replenishing the population by having babies was necessary for survival.

      For those today who live in modern societies with modern bathrooms and easy access to modern medications, many of the purification rituals serve no purpose for hygiene or medical reasons.

      But more importantly, Jesus had no problem when a bleeding woman touched him (Matt. 9:20-22, Mark 5:24-34, Luke 8:42-48). If Jesus had no problem that he was touched by a bleeding woman, I strongly doubt that he has a problem with a bleeding woman participating in the Lord’s supper.

      Having said this, my opinion doesn’t matter. You need to do what you think is right.

      1. Thank you for your reply very much Marg. I have traditional parents that have taught me these things from a young age and I have been bringing my children to dedication as soon as the period was over, but after my 4th child I have sensed a strong desire to return to church even sooner, perhaps because of the way the world is heading my fear of the Lord is even greater.. My time is almost up and am excited to return to the house of the Lord, but disobeying my parents ways has been a burden on me, even though it isn’t what I feel is right all the time.
        I’m still young and growing closer to Jesus, so I needed a better understanding when it comes to following the laws of the Old Testament.

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