Few biblical passages draw as much ire from female readers. And, odds are, you probably haven’t heard your pastor preach through it on a Sunday morning. Tucked away in the Holiness Code of Leviticus lies a law that some have pronounced “unredeemable” for women, an illustration of rampant misogyny, and an attempt to dominate and disempower female sexuality through religion: the childbirth laws.
Even worse, it seems to punish a woman for something entirely out of her control: having a baby girl. Just do a quick read through Leviticus 12 and the disparity is inescapable. Following the birth of a boy, a new mother is ritually unclean for forty days, but if she gives birth to a girl, her time of impurity doubles to eighty days.
While there’s no shortage of theories—all of them are arguments from silence—we’re never given an explanation as to why God considered a woman doubly unclean after having a girl. Western interpreters often view this law as punitive and oppressive. To control female sexuality, mothers were marginalized from society after childbirth
But if the Law is good and reflects the character of God (and it is), and if God values women equally to men (and He does), then perhaps we need to dig a little deeper to find what this law meant for women of the Old Testament—and what it tells us about the Lawgiver.
The Childbirth Law of Leviticus 12
Like all God’s laws, this law communicated how His people were to be different from the cultures around them—worship and sexual acts were never to be conflated (Leviticus 19:2; 20:7; 20:26). When someone was ritually unclean, like a woman after childbirth, she could not encounter that which was holy (separate for the Lord [i.e. the Tabernacle]) and anyone who touched her was ritually unclean until the end of the day.
But ritual impurity does not mean moral impurity. Unlike moral impurity, her ritual impurity reflected neither guilt nor shame. A person was ritually unclean for normal reproductive processes and actions (see Leviticus 15:16-24)
After the birth of a boy, the mother was unclean for seven days, then an additional thirty-three days. Why the division in time periods? Because of what happened on the eighth day. By interrupting her time of purification on the eighth day, the mother could freely enter the Tabernacle (which was holy) for her son’s circumcision (Leviticus 12:3), an event that was both significant in the life of her son and that required her maternal care. After this, she completed her purification for the remaining thirty-three days.
Significantly, modern medicine advises six weeks (forty-two days) before the woman’s uterus has returned to normal, her system is cleansed from postpartum bacteria, and she can safely resume sexual activity. Biblical law prescribes a time of abstinence just two days short of modern obstetrics.
Additionally, this law gave women in Israel an extended time of rest. The entire community anticipated that she would slow down, have the option of staying at home, and likely be relieved of household duties and other arduous tasks a woman would have accomplished in an ancient Near Eastern culture.
Theories on the Doubled Time
Now for the tough question: Why double the time for the birth of a girl?
One theory claims this law reflects the Bible’s misogyny, that having a girl was “twice as defiling as a boy”. But this theory fails on two fronts. First, the opening chapter of Genesis describes both male and female as equal persons who image God.
And second, the sacrifice that the mother presents to reenter the community is the same regardless of whether she had a boy or a girl. Were the doubled time punitive, we would expect a different sacrifice to reflect the additional time of purification. But instead, it’s the same.
Another theory says that the mother was serving an additional time of purification on behalf of her infant daughter, who would one day be ritually impure through menstruation and childbirth. But that is inconsistent with the rest of the Levitical system. Nowhere in the Law is someone ritually unclean because of an event that may occur in the future; instead, one is ritually unclean for an immediate reason. Plus, the only people who serve as a substitute for the uncleanness of others are the priests. So that theory doesn’t hold up either.
For the woman’s benefit?
But there’s one more theory: What if this Law was for the woman’s benefit?
A pharmacology professor at Johns Hopkins University named David Macht set out to find out. Here’s where this gets a little technical. Macht examined the post-partum discharge of women who had given birth to a baby boy six weeks prior and women who had given birth to a baby girl six weeks prior.
What he discovered was illuminating: Among the women who had given birth to a girl, their post-partum discharge contained a higher level of toxins. In other words, their bodies were still regulating and recovering from labor. The higher level of toxicity was, according to Macht, too great to be a coincidence.
From this, he concluded that biblical law likely protected the people of Israel from the spread of bacteria and disease that would have occurred with sexual intercourse and with the absence of antibiotics. The additional forty days would have allowed the woman’s reproductive system to recover fully and provided an extended time of rest.
Although we don’t have a clear reason for the doubled time of purification, it’s plausible that it was in the interest of women’s health. If the birth of a girl required more time for the mother to recover, perhaps the Lord simply doubled the numbers according to the same pattern (seven days becoming fourteen days; thirty-three days becoming sixty-six days).
Whatever the reason, we can confidently say this law was not a form of gender discrimination, nor did it punish women for having a baby girl. The Law of the Lord is indeed good (Psalm 19).
Gerburgis Feld, “Leviticus: The ABC of Creation,” in Feminist Biblical Interpretation: A Compendium of Critical Commentary on the Books of the Bible and Related Literature, ed. Luise Schottroff and Marie-Theres Wacker, trans. Lisa E. Dahill et al. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 51.
Michail Spiliopoulos, “Normal and Abnormal Puerperium,” Medscape, accessed October 6, 2015, http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/260187-overview.
Leonard Swidler, Biblical Affirmations of Woman (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1979), 149.
Rooker, Leviticus, 183. It is worth observing that Rooker identified longer times of uncleanness for the birth of a girl as customary in Greek, Egyptian, and various African cultures (184).
“Lochia: Postpartum Bleeding,” What to Expect, accessed October 6, 2015, http://www.whattoexpect.com/first-year/month-by-month/your-body-postpartum-week1.aspx.
David I. Macht, “A Scientific Appreciation of Leviticus 12:1-5,” Journal of Biblical Literature 52 (1933): 259.
Macht’s theory is not in a vacuum. Other medical observations support the claim that a baby’s gender affects the mother’s pregnancy. For instance, if a woman is pregnant with a boy, she tends to take in 10 percent more calories than if she is carrying a girl, due to the boy’s average weight: Eric Nagourney, “VITAL SIGNS: PATTERNS; It’s a Boy (and 10% More Calories),” New York Times, accessed October 6, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2003/06/10/health/vital-signs-patterns-it-s-a-boy-and-10-more-calories.html. Other observations include the link between gestational diabetes for the birth of a boy, and hyperemesis gravidarum (extreme morning sickness) for the birth of a girl: “9 Scientific Hints to Predict the Sex of Your Baby,” What to Expect, accessed October 6, 2015, http://www.whattoexpect.com/ pregnancy/predicting-sex-of-baby.