Purification after childbirth is a levitical matter that has posed many problems for commentators and biblical scholars throughout the centuries. One can definitely see how social influences and limited knowledge has played a role in interpreting God’s intent for the parturient. While it is important to understand the context under which all generations have interpreted this function it is also vital that modern medicine and scientific advances not be disregarded as aids to interpretation. Due to the difficulty of accumulating data as it pertains to pregnancy and childbirth because of legal statutes that protect the sanctity of life, advances in this area are slow in development and as of yet not reflected in most Bible commentaries.
The looming issue, to which most commentators address first, is that of compatibility between the commands of Genesis 1:28 “to be fruitful and multiply” and the surrounding implications of uncleanliness associated with this function in Leviticus 12:1-8. As Lloyd Bailey notes, “unfitness for worship that results from the natural processes of childbirth and menstruation seems hardly fair!” Bailey is quite correct if an understanding of the passage lies in the functions of reproduction alone.
At the time of the giving of the Law to the people of Israel, surrounding cultural context dictated much of the people’s interpretation. The creation of sexually polar spheres was characteristic of surrounding cultures of that day. The men dealt with hunting and war while women dealt with birth. In these two areas alone there are similarities in the laws that governed these spheres. Numbers 31:19 outlines specific restrictions for men returning from battle so as to draw a clear boundary between the rigors of war and death and the everyday life of the people. Likewise, women combating the pain and toil of childbirth were also separated from society. In light of more recent developments in the studies of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and postpartum depression we can understand the need for recovery, reorientation and reintegration following these tasks. Outside of cultural norms and within the realm of theology we must also view the Law as mandates of God for the protection and in the best interests of His chosen people.
A second assumption given leeway to in light of surrounding cultures was that of demonic activity associated with the parturient and menstruant. Allen Ross combats this notion in his work on holiness and suggests that “the flow of blood did not imply demonic activity to the Israelite; it was a sign of possible death. Any loss of vaginal blood (or seed) meant a diminution of life. It was therefore incompatible with God, the source of life.” Both parturition and menstruation can thus be seen in this light as indicators of death. While the child itself is a symbol and incarnation of joy and life, menstruation is a sign that no life is present in the body of a woman and the elements (placenta and lochia) of parturition mark the end of sustainment by the womb of woman. In the matter of menstruation, primate females differ from the majority of the animal kingdom in that the endometrial lining is not reabsorbed to replenish the following estrous cycle thereby marking the end or death of conceptual opportunity for the current cycle. In like manner the bodily seminal secretions of men constitute uncleanliness as they are also evidence of unfulfilled life and therefore incompatible with the source of all life.
Early Church views of sexual activity heavily impacted interpretation of levitical law pertaining to parturition, but later on proved to be helpful in countering heretical concepts such as Mary’s “immaculate conception.” Origen associated sin therein with conception and birth itself while Augustine attached transmission of sin to the sexual act, which he stated, took place only outside of Eden. Catholic tradition, understanding well the implications of the blood and placenta, removed such presence from their birth accounts. Protestants later countered this notion with Mary’s observance of ritual cleansing sacrifices as evidence of a normal birth. However, this also absolves any accountability of sacrifice to the sin nature of the child birthed since Mary observed this ritual in spite of Jesus sinless nature.
The association with a child’s sin nature was long the supposition associated with the sacrificial requirements following parturition. Some have suggested that iniquity was imputed on the woman for bringing a sinner into the world. Calvin believed that the existence of a depraved offspring in the womb created uncleanliness. This becomes illogical in light of similar sacrificial demands on the menstruant where a child is not present. This also poses a problem in light of the fact that Mary presented the same offering after giving birth to the sinless Son of God. Andrew Bonar suggests that the offering is for the cleansing of the woman’s sins. This presents difficulty since no act leading up to parturition involves a sin. The order of offerings in Leviticus 12 also suggests that personal sin of the mother is not the issue. The best and most logical understanding of the postpartum sacrifice is then in direct relation to the loss of blood and life-sustaining elements of the placenta rendering the woman “unholy” and therefore incompatible during the length of her courses with the source of all life.
Reprieve for the parturient has traditionally been interpreted patristically as a means for a man to avoid infection himself, but is refuted by modern medicine and the exact requirements in present day practice to postpartum procedures in order to prevent any damage to the mother’s reproductive system. The concern for abstinence for six weeks following childbirth is a safeguard for healing and restoration in the body of the mother. Sexual activity will potentially exacerbate any internal bleeding resulting in infection and possible death to the woman while posing no threat to the man. Such interpretation may also reflect some of the surrounding cultural superstitions associated with the fear of a bleeding woman and the concept of fluctuating power that accompanied menstrual and parturient bleeding. A better understanding of this practice however, is as a protection for women against male whims and impulses that would harm her body in its vulnerable and impaired state.
The most puzzling aspect of all, which has long baffled commentators, involves the contents of Leviticus 12:5, and the demands for an additional time of separation following the birth of a female child. Bonar assumed the additional time was associated with the impurity of woman overall or a possible sanctifying element that accompanied the circumcision of a male child. This of course, seems absurd in light of the fact that there is no additional sacrificial offering required for females over males and suggests that there is no difference in value based on the gender of the child. Additionally, the sacrifice and any obligatory and purifying elements are referred to in regards to the mother. It is difficult to say with all certainty why God designed postpartum rest in this fashion, but I believe science and medicine may eventually offer the answer to this confounding question.
In a recent paper published by Oxford University Press, the theory was presented, tested, and published that maternal serum human chorionic gonadotrophin (MSHCG) is higher in women carrying a female fetus than in those carrying a male fetus. Male and female gonads differentially regulate placental gonadotrophin production and levels change in specific relation to the development of the fetal pituitary-gonadal system. The gender-related differences should therefore be attributed to differential expression of placental proteins by female compared to male fetuses. Some women carrying female fetuses rendered hCG results almost twice that of women carrying male fetuses.
The implications of this discovery bear testimony to the level of stress and hormonal fluctuations a woman’s body undergoes and the greater taxation of these efforts in forming a female child. As such it seems logical that a longer period of rest would be necessary before a woman’s hormonal production returned to a healthy, whole and normal state. The presence of hCG in the mother’s body remains at an elevated level for at least six weeks after giving birth. Since the definition of a disease is that which creates an abnormal state or impairs wholeness, the production of hCG in a woman’s body, one of the key indicators of pregnancy and this abnormal state, would fall under the category of a disease.
This accommodates for the double portion of time allotted to the overall period for purification of eighty days to be observed by the mother of a female infant, but there is still the matter of the initial two weeks of separation in contrast to the one week allowed for a male child. During gestation the female fetus’ reproductive system has absorbed the pregnancy hormones of the mother and the female fetus responds to the hCG hormones by retaining an endometrial lining. Upon birth the female infant menstruates for one week where the endometrial lining sustained by the pregnancy hormones is shed in the absence of the mother’s hormones. Since the time of separation for a menstruant is two weeks this would explain the two weeks of separation before the female infant can join society whereas the male child joined society upon his initiation into the covenant on the eighth day following circumcision.
Many feminist considerations, while valiant in effort, pose a hindrance to women’s understandings and appreciations of their bodies and the functions of God’s design in them. Such attempts to absolve all differences between genders thus consternate some of the necessities of rest and healthy living. While man and woman were created equal and are viewed spiritually as equal in the eyes of God, our physiological differences possess purpose and cannot be ignored. What I may learn from this passage in Leviticus 12 is, first and foremost, that God had and always will have my best interests as a woman at heart. Secondly, I may know that my body physically and hormonally grieves all loss of life and I must validate that reality. Thirdly, I must not take offense to past interpretations no matter how harmful they may seem to me. The biblical scholar is dedicated to understanding the Scriptures in light of the information they have available at the time and one cannot fault the scholar for lack of scientific support. Ultimately, we are all products of the cultures and societies in which we are born.
 Lloyd R. Bailey, Leviticus (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1987). 74.
 Erhard S. Gerstenberger, Leviticus: a commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 147.
 Allen P. Ross, Holiness to the Lord: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 267.
 Strassmann, B. I., "The evolution of endometrial cycles and menstruation," The Quarterly Review of Biology 71, no 2 (June 1996): 181-220.
 Ephraim Radner, Leviticus (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008). 120-134.
 Andrew A. Bonar, An Exposition of Leviticus (Grand Rapids, MI: Sovereign Grace Publishers, 1971), 99.
 Mark F. Rooker, Leviticus (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 2000), 184.
 Gerstenberger, Leviticus: a commentary, 152.
 Bonar, An Exposition of Leviticus, 99.
 Yuval Yaron, Ofer Lehavi, AVi Orr-Urtreger, Ilan Gull, Joseph B. Lessing, Ami Amit, “Maternal Serum HCG is higher in the presence of a female fetus as early as week 3 post-fertilization,” Oxford Journals 17, no. 2 (October, 2001): 485-89, http://humrep.oxfordjournals.org/content/17/2/485.full (accessed June 20, 2011).