Thoughts and teaching on Leviticus chapter 12 (Unclean Women)

The reason

Though the chapter is only eight verses long (one of the shortest in the Bible), there are a few puzzling aspects to the legislation.

Firstly, its position. These rules seem better placed somewhere within chapter 15 which deals exclusively with bodily discharges from genital areas but, for some reason which is unknown to me, the legislation surrounding the leper and leprosy divides the two passages.

There may have been good cause for seeing in the division a compilation that has placed the laws out of chronological order if it were not for the fact that the Lord speaks here to Moses (12:1) and then, later on, to both Moses and Aaron (15:1). So they’re definitely two different passages even though the subject matter forms a common thread between the two.

Also puzzling is why a female child should require the mother to be ‘contagiously’ unclean for 14 days and remain ‘in the blood of her purifying’ for a further 66 days before cleansing sacrifices are offered (totalling 80 days) whereas a male child requires 7 and 33 respectively (40 days). Though it can be showed that the inheritance was through the male line and that the male responsibilities in Israelite society were greater, there seems no satisfactory Scriptural explanation for the difference except to say that ‘this is the way it was’.

Another unusual occurrence is the mention of the burnt offering before the sin offering - we would have expected them to be offered in the opposite order as the implication of what those sacrifices achieved makes it seem logical. However, the passage doesn’t actually say in what order they had to be sacrificed so perhaps they were offered in the ‘logical’ one?

The rest seems straightforward (even though, at first glance, we may not fully understand why such legislation was instituted).

The ‘uncleanness’ of childbirth is the discharge of the lochia - as I know nothing about these sorts of things, it’s best that I quote from Harrison (page 135) to describe the physical condition. He writes

‘The discharges involve tissue debris, mucus and blood, and are known as the lochia. Two stages are normally experienced after parturition, the first (lochia cruenta) being stained with blood, while the second (lochia alba) has a paler appearance and is free from blood. Unless there is some retention of the lochia in the uterus, the discharge is often of comparatively short duration, but it can last as long as six weeks in certain circumstances. The laws of purification after childbirth thus cover the maximum amount of time that the lochia could be expected to continue’

Wenham also notes (page 188) that

‘For the first few days after delivery this discharge is bright red, then it turns brown and later becomes paler. It may last from two to six weeks’

This first red discharge is, therefore, the 7 or 14 day period required for the mother to be unclean ‘as at the time of her menstruation’ - that is, she ceremonially contaminates anything that she comes in to contact with, Wenham calling the state ‘contagiously unclean’. For a further 33 or 66 days, the mother continues ‘in the blood of her purifying’ during which time, I presume, the ‘contagious’ nature of her uncleanness and discharge is finished but it may be that this continues - it’s impossible to be able to tell definitely from the text.

The important thing to note here is that the baby is not unclean and neither is the act of childbirth considered to be. The mother is only considered unclean because of the discharge that she experiences for a time and the legislation is in keeping with the subsequent rules that are laid out for the people of Israel in chapter 15.

There are two options for the mother after the days of her purifying are complete - either a lamb and a young pigeon/turtledove are offered for her cleansing or, if she’s poor, two young pigeons/turtledoves.

The relevance

As this bears similarities with the situations described in chapter 15, I’ll deal with the passage there in order to save unnecessary duplication.

The incident in the life of Christ

In Luke 2:22-24,39 we find the application of the legislation to the life of Christ.

It would have been forty days after the birth of Jesus that Joseph and Mary arrived in the Temple to offer the compulsory sacrifice for Mary’s purification. At this time in the family’s life, they were considered to be poor judging by the bird offerings that they sacrificed (2:24).

Concerning the choice of the two birds, Harrison notes (page 136) that

‘It was important for the Israelites to have a choice between these two closely related species, since the [dove] was migratory...spending its winters in Africa and occurring in Palestine only between April and October. By contrast, the nests of the pigeon could be found locally at any time of the year, and so these birds were suitable for sacrifices occurring during the winter’

If the New Testament Scripture had specified which type of bird had been used, we would have been able, perhaps, to approximate the date of Jesus’ birth but, as it is, it makes no mention of the option chosen.

Luke records for us (2:39) that they

‘…performed everything according to the law of the Lord’

and then returned to Nazareth. Though the Scriptures show us that the legislation was observed even in the life of Jesus, it doesn’t appear to give us any spiritual application of the passage anywhere in the New Testament.

But these laws were brought in for the separation of the Jewish nation as a holy and distinct people from all the nations round about them. Therefore, along with the ceremonial discharge laws of Leviticus chapter 15, we wouldn’t expect these to be binding upon believers under the New Covenant.

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