In today's study, we look at another set of instructions to the people of God, this time, for after childbirth.
(A) Unclean by blood discharge: gritty reality of uncleanness (v.1-5)
Verse 1 begins with the writer telling us that the LORD spoke to Moses, and told Moses to "speak to the people of Israel". Before we gloss over this, let's consider this: why doesn't God speak directly to the people? God is holy, but the people are sinful and unholy. Hence, if God spoke to them directly, they might die. They need a mediator. In fact, when God spoke to them, the people were fearful (c.f. Ex 19). God speaks through a mediator, also for the same reason that He does not speak writing words with clouds. He chooses sovereignly not to. He just chooses to, and it just is. This is the fundamental answer. God chooses that way of speaking, because He is not us. He does not need to account to us, or humanity as a whole. He is, because He is. In fact, that He speaks to us at all is something amazing and wonderful. The God of the Bible even wants to be understood, and does not exist in our imagination. He is not a character in our play. But rather He is the playwright, and we are His, and the Bible documents the stage of His play.
But, who is "the LORD"? This is the Lord God Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth. If we realise that He is who He is, we realise that He is perfectly legitimate to speak with authority on all of our lives, even on something like menstrual cycle. This is important to establish, and keep in mind before we look at this passage.
Verses 2-5 outline the cases that God is concerned with in this set of verses. It speaks about childbearing and menstruation, with separate consequences outlined for each. A woman is considered unclean for the entire duration of her menstruation (v.2b). In the case of childbearing, there are separate instructions for the woman who bore a male child (v.2a) compared to a female child (v.5).
- The woman with a male child is unclean for 7 days and on the eighth day the child needs to be circumcised. Following that, she is to continue in purification for another 33 days. This makes it a total of 40 days.
- The woman with a female child is unclean for 2 weeks, and continue in purification for another 66 days, to make a total of 80 days.
There are some important things to note here before we get side-tracked by issues. Note that it is speaking about the mother and not the child. Thus, it does not mean that a male child is considered "cleaner" than a female child. Gender is not the main issue here, and if get embroiled in the gender debate, we are sorely missing the point of the text.
If we read this text positively, what does this show about God's priorities in dealing with these matters? This is a God that is so thorough and detailed-minded, loving enough to care this much about sensitive issues like menstruation (c.f. v. 4). Remember that this text is not about menstruation per se, but the monthly cycle is situated in a larger context of childbirth and God's design for life. Menstruation is not about pain and relief and moving from inconvenience to convenience, but gives us also a picture of life and death. The Christian God also has a design for a woman's monthly cycle. This is a real God who doesn't just deal with abstractions but also practical things, and has a view on these matters. He bothers because He designed our bodies. This is the God that dwells in unapproachable light, yet cares about our flesh and blood. Isn't it amazing?
Why does God need to talk about these things? God is concerned about cleanness. God is not worried that things outside you make you unclean, but about how things inside you make you unclean. This quote from Gordon Wenham's commentary on Leviticus is helpful"
“Whereas the previous chapter dealt with causes of pollution that are external to man, these chapters deal with internal sources of pollution…these uncleanness laws reflect the fact that Israel’s status as a holy nation faces challenges inside and outside.”
This is a powerful lesson on ritual uncleanness, and Jesus uses the same principle in Mark 7:14-23. Blood is both a symbol of life and death, and Mark 7 lists out the things that fill our evil, corrupted hearts. Leviticus serves as a picture as to what really makes us unclean and in these chapters, we are meant to see how these things proceed from the heart of man towards death.
This is really not so different from the the world we live in. We too live in a world of blood and death, and it's not just physical but also spiritual death. Everyone of us with blood flowing through our veins may appear physically alive, but is spiritually dead. Women get a monthly reminder of death at both a physical and spiritual level that exists when we live apart from Christ.
(B) Clean by blood purification: reality of Christ’s gruesome death (v.6-8)
Verses 6-8 show us the purification ritual for the women. The woman has to present herself to the priest and make a burnt offering and sin offering as her atonement.These are the 2 types of payment that has to be made, but she cannot do it herself. She has to approach the priest and he will help her get clean. Lev 1-11 told us the process, and we read of how the animal needs to be killed by the worshipper for both offerings. The worshipper is actively involved in this process and does not stand distant, passive and uninvolved. As a result, she is constantly reminded that she becomes clean only when something else gives its life and shed its blood.
But why is blood so important in the Bible? Isn't it unclean? Lev 17:11 tells us that life is in the blood and therefore, the blood can make atonement because life must be given for life. Even as early on in Gen 9:4, God makes this command. Once more, Gordon Wenham's commentary is helpful for us:
“Loss of blood can lead to death, the antithesis of normal healthy life. Anyone losing blood is at least in danger of becoming less than perfect and therefore unclean. Thus blood is at once the most effective ritual cleanser (“the blood makes atonement”, 17:11) and the most polluting substance when it is in the wrong place. This is profound. Our greatest woes result from the corruption of our highest good.”
We may struggle to understand it today, because our daily exchanges take place with abstract currency, but the physical representation in the world of the Bible paints a vivid picture of the exchange taking place. This is what we are reminded of every time we go to the Lord's Supper and hear the words of Matt 26:26-28. Years ago, He actually shed blood, as a the final sacrifice to end all sacrifices (c.f. Heb 10:5, 8-10). He was the final sacrifice that the blood of animals pointed to. The Bible gives us the picture of cleanness and uncleanness that we are actually familiar with. We need cleansing and washing on the inside, and what can make us whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus, And we need to be washed again and again everyday. Jesus is not a concept, but also had a physical body. Monthly periods serve as a reminder and an experience of what it means to die every month. Sometimes we forget that the cross and resurrection is real, but Leviticus 12 points to the final sacrifice of Jesus to make all things unclean, clean again, and real blood was shed to display this very real love of God. Let us remember this the next time we sing hymns that speak of the blood of Jesus, hymns we love like "There is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Emmanuel's veins, and sinners plunged beneath that flood, lose all their guilty stains".
Meanwhile, Christ’s blood justifies, redeems, reconciles, sanctifies, justifies, cleans, frees, ransoms, brings peace, and unites us. There is not an aspect of the work of Christ that the New Testament does not connect to his blood. Blood is beautiful. Blood is horrifying. Blood means life. Blood means death. Jesus’ blood is an object of deepest devotion and deepest horror.”
('There’s Still Power In The Blood’ in Christianity Today, March 21 2015)