Updated: Apr 15, 2020
The research for this post began in frustration and a little anger I'll admit. Recently I read Jerusalem's Queen by Angela Hunt. It's a biblical fiction novel set in the period between the old and new testaments. It was a great read! There was one historical detail within the story that stuck with me, and that was the fact that menstruating women were unclean. The women in this book seclude themselves away so that they don't touch anything and pass their uncleanliness onto others.
My first thought was, is this accurate? My second was, how did this work? From a practical standpoint, this idea seems impossible, especially in poorer households where extra servants can't pick up the slack. On top of these questions, as a modern woman in a developed, 21st century country, the concept seems bizarre and insulting. It also reminded me of the hardships felt by young women in parts of the world who still experience stigma when they are having their period—causing them to miss out on education, employment, gatherings, and other opportunities. It made me wonder, did God want it to be this way? Is God picking on women by giving them a natural biological function and then punishing them for it? I couldn't believe that to be true, but I needed to know.
I began by first digging into the Old Testament books of law to see what it said about unclean people and things.
The list of things/animals/people considered unclean includes:
Leprosy on people, cloth, or houses
Certain animals, and their carcasses
Human corpses, bones, and graves
People with bodily discharges, which includes men with unhealthy discharges, seminal discharges, women's menstruation, abnormal vaginal bleeding, and women after giving birth
The list of unclean foods might seem strange to us, but we can shrug our shoulders. The avoidance of lepers we can understand considering what we know about transferring disease through touch. We can also see how a God of life wants His people to avoid obsessing over death like their ancient neighboring groups of people. But what was going on with reproductive processes being called unclean? I found myself reading Leviticus 15 over and over again to try and understand.
I freely admit I felt a LOT better when I saw that men had their own uncleanliness to deal with. Immediately, I shifted from feeling like God was picking on women to believing that God was concerned with something else as He was creating His list.
Leviticus 15 is a little confusing, at least it was for me as I tried to compare how people were unclean and what they had to do about it. I made a little chart to help show the differences between men and women. I hope you find it helpful!
One other purity concern for women was that they were unclean after giving birth. Leviticus 12 gives the steps to return to a state of cleanliness after childbirth:
When she has a son, she is unclean for seven days as in the days of her menstruation.
When she has a son, he is circumcised on the eighth day, and then she remains in the blood of purification for thirty-three days. She cannot touch any consecrated thing or enter the sanctuary. (It seems as if on that eighth day she would be able to attend her son's circumcision.)
When she has a daughter, she is unclean for fourteen days as in the days of her menstruation. She remains in the blood of purification for sixty-six days.
After the days are complete for either a son or a daughter, she brings a sacrifice to the priest and is cleansed from the flow of her blood.
A woman's blood of purification is different than her menstrual blood. It is considered a pure blood, and the restrictions were on activities concerning the tabernacle/temple only. This would concern a Levite's wife particularly, as her husband would be involved in service to the tabernacle. The restrictions on personal contact would be removed after the initial seven to fourteen days.