Thoughts and teaching on Leviticus chapter 15 (Genital Discharges)

The passage

Lev 15:1-30 deals solely with genital discharges - the mention of such occasions shows us that God is extremely practical. He’s not embarrassed to talk about such problems as these that occur and which we tend to shy away from - but how often are such subjects dealt with clearly and definitively within a church setting or, to give us a criteria by which we can judge it, how often have we heard a sermon on the two chapters 12 and 15 (this is a bit of an unfair rule by which to assess - these two chapters are extremely difficult to draw relevant spiritual teaching from)?

We tend to shy away from such subjects but God meets them head on and expresses His mind on the problem. Primarily, His concern isn’t medical - as it wasn’t when we looked at the legislation surrounding the leper and leprosy - but to do with the ceremonial purity of the believer and their protection from judgment. Thus YHWH says (15:31)

‘ shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst’

Had an Israelite - either male or female - come to the Tabernacle to offer worship to God in an unclean state, then they were in danger of being judged by God.

This subject has already cropped up in connection with the Peace offering (7:19-21) and in God’s first approach to meet with Israel at Sinai to make a covenant with them (Ex 19:10-15, 21). Uncleanness had already resulted in the death of Nadab and Abihu (Lev 10:1-3) and that occurrence must now be prevented from happening again.

Having said that God’s primary concern wasn’t a medical one, it wouldn’t be too much of a shock if, with our modern medical knowledge, we were to discover that the legislation’s practicalities did find an outworking in some positive medical way.

There are four main areas of uncleanness dealt with here: male discharges that weren’t semen (15:3-15), male discharges that were semen (5:16-18), women’s natural discharges as part of their menstrual cycle (15:19-24) and women’s bloody discharges that occurred at unexpected times and which could continue for some time (15:25-30).

They read pretty straightforwardly but a few points need to be made.

1. The first section doesn’t mention male genitalia - how can we be sure that the discharges mentioned are meant to be limited to just this bodily area? After all, the passing of blood with the condition of haemorrhoids could surely be referred to and, besides, this discharge of blood would render the person unclean. Wenham, however, notes (page 217) that

‘...there is no mention of any loss of blood, which Leviticus would hardly fail to mention if hemorrhoids were involved. Second, v.19 uses the same word “flesh” for the woman’s vagina [as it does in v.2-3], so it is most natural to suppose that in vv.2-3 the corresponding male organ is intended’

Therefore it seems reasonable to see in Leviticus chapter 15 just the treatment of male and female genital discharges that rendered the person ceremonially unclean.

2. Verse 18 needs a few comments seeing as it reads

‘If a man lies with a woman and has an emission of semen, both of them shall bathe themselves in water, and be unclean until the evening’

making, in some people’s eyes, the sexual union a matter of uncleanness (and, by implication, a source of sin). But this isn’t what the Bible is commenting on and, by reference to the couple of verses that immediately precede it, it can be seen that it’s the emission of semen that’s considered to be ‘unclean’, not sexual union. In sexual intercourse, the man who has the emission is unclean by reason of the discharge (according to v.16) but so is the woman (according to v.17) because she’s come in to contact with the discharged semen. Both male and female therefore become unclean by reason of the semen and not by reason of sexual intercourse - how could the law condemn as ‘unclean’ an action that’s commanded by God upon mankind to multiply them throughout the earth (Gen 1:28)?

This piece of legislation in particular (if implemented) would have had the effect of restricting any idea the Israelite may have had of participating in ‘fertility rites’ (as practiced by many of the ancient civilisations) in their worship of God. Such sexual acts would render the Israelite ‘unclean’ (that is, not acceptable to God) - both male and female. Prostitution as a profession would also have been rendered impossible for a devout Israelite for the same reason.

Two side effects would have been that it would have limited the number of Israelites that could have been offering sacrifice at any one time during the day in the Tabernacle (I’ll leave you to compute the maximum number that could have been there by an assessment of how many were unclean on average every day) but, perhaps more significantly, the High Priesthood would have had to have arranged between themselves when they were going to have sexual intercourse with their wives, otherwise it could be the case that, some days, there would have been no ‘clean’ intermediary who could offer sacrifice and make atonement.

3. The instructions of 15:24 would have had the effect of encouraging the Israelite not to have sexual intercourse with his wife during her menstrual discharge, seeing as he would then become unclean for a period of seven days.

The male and female Israelites were not forbidden to have sex during this period (excuse the pun!) but the legislation strongly discouraged it. It seems to me that, in the wisdom of God, His intention was to give the women rest and recovery from what can be a difficult time both emotionally and physically - that’s just my opinion, though.

The reason and relevance

As noted under the treatment of chapter 12, the two chapters seem to go together as they both deal with genital discharges. True - the first chapter deals with it within the context of childbirth, but the relevance for all the situations is based upon the same phenomenon.

These two passages have bugged me for quite some time - I’m not embarrassed to say so, too! Looking at the commentators that I have on the subject, they appear to be equally baffled even though they make valiant attempts to try and yield some direct teaching from the legislation.

So I’m hardly likely to make a successful attempt at coming to grips with the reason of God and the relevance to the Israelite of such laws. I mean, apart from the Law being legalistically observed (as the Pharisees did thus missing the weightier matters of it - Mtw 23:23-24) just what was it that God was attempting to show them through these statutes? Neither does there appear to be too much Scriptural context (either here or in later parts of the Bible) to make the passage easier to understand.

So, having seen that this passage is an open noose, I’ll gladly put my head through the hoop and give my opinion (it’s no more than that) - just don’t pull too hard on the rope if you disagree with me, will you?!!

The principle, then, is this - a source of life can bring about a source of death.

This is initially a puzzling statement - I make no apologies. But both the male member that produces semen to produce life and the female counterpart that unites with the male semen to conceive and nurture life can also be instruments that impart death.

[NB - Though it may be accepted that the Biblical concept of semen - ‘seed’ - may by it’s very translation imply the giving of life; and the reference to Abraham’s offspring still being ‘in his loins’ (Heb 7:10) speaks of the male imparting life into the woman, it’s not easily seen that the woman was also regarded as a bestower of life in sexual union and conception. But the Bible speaks of the regular menstrual discharge (Lev 20:18) and the lochia previously described (12:7) as being a ‘fountain’, the Hebrew word being the same one used when speaking of the ‘fountain of life’ as flowing from both mankind and God (Ps 36:9, 68:26, Prov 10:11, 13:14, 14:27, Jer 2:13, 17:13) and is used of Babylon in the context of drying up the source of their enlargement and fruitfulness (Jer 51:36). Interestingly enough, it’s also used of the fountain of cleansing that’s opened to cleanse the Jewish nation in the time of their Messiah (Zech 13:1). Therefore, both the male’s and female’s discharge is considered to be a source of ‘life’ - that is, that it can produce new life.]

That concept may be difficult for us to grasp but it’s present elsewhere in the Levitical passages when blood is mentioned. Blood can bring atonement (for instance, Lev 17:11) but it can also impart condemnation (Lev 7:27 - even more apparent in Gen 4:10) - the one object that can bring cleanness to mankind is also the object that condemns him to death before God (Deut 19:10).

The shedding of blood in the right circumstances brings cleanness from uncleanness. The shedding of blood in the wrong circumstances brings uncleanness from cleanness.

But the Truth is brought home just as forcibly in the New Covenant with the death of Christ. The greatest gift that could ever have been given to mankind to reconcile him back to God and so impart life is also the greatest source of condemnation that imparts spiritual death. The blood of Christ immediately becomes both a source of life to those who believe and live by it (Rom 5:9, Heb 10:19, I John 1:7) but a source of judgment to those who don’t (Heb 10:29, I Cor 11:27).

Therefore Jesus talks about His mission in terms of division (Mtw 10:34-36) rather than of unity, because there’s no alternative outside His death for acceptance before God. Acceptance of the work of the cross brings life but rejection brings death. The cross, therefore is an instrument that both brings new life and death. In similar manner, the legislation of Leviticus chapters 12 and 15 taught the principle that what can be an instrument of new life may also be an instrument that brings ceremonial (and possibly physical) death.

As Wenham notes (page 188 - referring solely to the blood of the discharge mentioned in Leviticus chapter 12)

‘...blood is at once the most effective ritual cleanser...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, eg speech, sex, technology, atomic power’

Therefore, by extension, the use of all manner of neutral substances can bring about both positive or negative consequences and, ultimately, the believer is warned to be wise in their application and employment of everything which is in their power.

An incident in the life of Christ (Mark 5:24-34)

Even though there are virtually no direct references to these Levitical statutes outside the law, we find an incident in the life of Christ which relates directly back to Leviticus chapter 15.

There was a woman who’d had a flow of blood for twelve years (Mark 5:25-26) who would have been deemed ‘unclean’ by the law and therefore unable to offer sacrifice and worship to God in the Temple. More than this, though, she would have had the effect of ceremonially contaminating all the objects that she came in to contact with (Lev 15:25-27), presumably including people.

All that the law could do was to offer a cleansing ritual once the flow of blood had stopped but it had no power or instruction that would heal the woman (Lev 15:28-30). Here are the limits of the Mosaic Law - they may indeed show the believer what’s both acceptable and unacceptable to God, but it can’t provide healing and wholeness - only Christ can do that.

I find the scene in Mark mildly amusing - perhaps ‘ironic’ is the better word. There are crowds pressing in to touch Jesus (5:24, 31) and the woman, part of the crowd, is ceremonially defiling all the people that she’s coming in to contact with, so desperate is she to receive healing. The requirements of the Law in this situation made unclean but the presence and power of God transforms the woman’s situation into one of cleanness.

But Jesus doesn’t command her to wait seven days until she’ll be able to receive acceptance before God (Lev 15:28) and neither does He instruct the crowd to bathe themselves in water and consider themselves unclean to God until the evening (Lev 15:27) - even though He did, on occasions, use the Mosaic Law to demonstrate the petitioner’s faith (Luke 5:14), He chooses not to do that here because the life of God imparts cleanness into the situation.

The woman immediately knew that she’d been healed (Mark 5:29) even though she had no demonstrable proof. And it appears as if Jesus never once made it known to the multitudes what the condition of the woman was - this may have been declared by the woman at a later occasion as a testimony to the healing power of God.

But the backdrop of the passage in Mark is Leviticus chapter 15 and it cannot truly be understood without this context.

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