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.
Why is it longer for a daughter than for a son? It doesn't say in the scriptures. Jewish tradition says that this is to account for the purity of the daughter as well, though there is never any mention of children being unclean. Others have suggested this is because her daughter will someday produce children of her own, an acknowledgment that the cycle of bringing life through blood will continue. We don't know exactly why, just as we still don't know why is a rabbit is unclean but not a cricket.
Why was being unclean a big deal?
Some people have asserted that God chose certain things as being unclean for the sake of His people's health. Pork, for example, can make you very sick if it isn't cooked properly. Diseases can be transferred through bodily fluids. There may be a certain logic to this explanation, but it isn't the reason given in the Bible.
In the previous post on uncleanliness, I looked at how the people were called to be clean so that they would be holy as God is holy, and so that they would not profane the tabernacle. We may not know exactly why God made His list the way He did, but following God's protocols for cleanliness was important for the people spiritually. Their obedience was not optional if they wanted to remain part of the community of the people of God.
It's also important to know that unclean did not mean sinful. There was nothing sinful about burying the dead, yet it made you unclean. There is nothing sinful about having sex (the Bible encourages marital sex!) yet a couple was unclean after intercourse. This to me was a very important distinction because a menstruating woman was not bad. And if she's not bad, then she's not being punished. If she's not being punished, there should be no shame during her monthly periods and the actions that surround them, including her times of impurity.
What did life look like for a menstruating woman in biblical times?
We don't have a whole lot in the Bible about real women experiencing their time of the month. The one slightly humorous story I found is when Rachel uses her time of the month as an excuse to get out trouble in Genesis 31:35!
God gave basic rules, but what did that look day-to-day and among women of different stations? A woman was not forbidden from touching earthenware or wooden vessels, did that mean she was permitted to cook, weave, sew, and care for her household? In Leviticus, it says that anyone she touched was also unclean. Did that apply to her children and other women? Jewish leaders and rabbis have debated just how to follow these commandments for centuries. I've taken an overview look at both ancient and modern Jewish practices.
A woman experiencing her regular menses is called a "niddah” by Jewish speakers. What a niddah can and cannot do varies according to the different Jewish groups. According to this post, in ancient times a niddah was completely segregated, living in a “house for uncleanliness”. She did not eat food with others or attend to household duties. The article says: “The origin of this segregation lies in the custom, prevalent in Erez Israel long after the destruction of the Second Temple, of eating ordinary meals prepared according to the Levitical rules originally prescribed for sacred food.”
The novel I mentioned before, Jerusalem's Queen by Angela Hunt (based on the true life of Salome Alexandra) shows this segregation of niddah. The women, including the servants, are secluded in their room for the week, excused from all duties, and do not join the rest of the household for meals. During one banquet, Queen Salome Alexandra discovers a maid is in a state of impurity and orders all the food, dishes, and linens to be thrown away. The silver platters are melted down and remade, purified by the fire. Within the novel, the characters debate whether this is taking things to the extreme, a question we also might ask!
Within modern Orthodox Jews, there are many variances in what niddah may do. According to this website, a woman may cook, clean, hold her children and so forth. She must not touch her husband, and they must not share a bed to sleep, but he can sleep on her bed if she's not home. She cannot eat from a communal dish of food, though she may serve herself from it onto her plate and eat from it. She participates in regular family meals and can travel. She cannot accept something passed to her by her husband, but he can set it down for her to pick up or toss it to her. After the seven days, she visits a mikveh for immersion.
As you can tell, these rules go beyond the direct commands of the Bible. They may seem odd to us, but they are careful rabbinic attempts to take Leviticus 15 and apply it to everyday situations. By their interpretations, it seems their main concern about a niddah's cleanliness is in regards to her husband. She is not made an outcast in the household or exposed as unclean in public.
I have not found clear answers for what it was like for niddah in the first century while Jesus walked the earth, but we can take an educated guess based on what we see in both ancient and modern practices. It seems it would have varied from group to group, based on location, tradition, and rabbinic teaching. At the very least, a menstruating woman would have refrained from sex and would not have shared her bed or her seat with her husband, and probably others. I believe, because the context of Leviticus 15 is about not defiling the tabernacle (15:31), she would have not attended the temple ceremonies. I assume she could participate in family prayers at home. (I do not have research to back this, if you know a good reference, please let me know!)
A Niddah's Restrictions on Worship
Based on Leviticus 15:31, a niddah's restrictions would have mostly been on her involvement in temple worship and not excluding others from temple worship. This is likely which is why a Jewish men's prayer says, “Blessed are you, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has not made me a woman.” This prayer, which sounds incredibly sexist, also praises God that they were not made a Gentile or a slave.
As bad as this prayer sounds to us, this was not a snide barb at women, but a man's willing commitment to follow a greater number of commandments that a woman—because of times of uncleanliness—would not be required to fulfill. Jewish men were commanded to attend festivals, pay certain taxes, and perform duties that women (and also Gentiles and slaves) did not have to. A pious Jewish man was happy to step up and serve the Lord—hence the prayer praising God that they were not born a slave, a Gentile, or a woman. (If this prayer still sounds harsh to you, I get it. Keep reading!)
What the scriptures DO NOT say is important. They do not speak of a woman's shame. Indeed for all of the listed unclean persons, there is no permission to be cruel, to humiliate, or to blame. Uncleanliness affected both genders at different times. BOTH men and women were considered unclean when they had bodily discharges. BOTH men and women could transfer uncleanliness to others when they were unclean.
As I read and discover more and more women within the New Testament scriptures I have to ask, could a woman have had these restrictions and still traveled with Jesus as a disciple or been active in the early church? Yes, I believe she could, but as we can see, there would have been cultural challenges as well as physical.
How did a woman manage her period in biblical times?
This isn't the sort of information that historians generally recorded. The Bible mentions tossing away a menstrual cloth in Isaiah 30:22, so we know cloths were used. (Though likely they were washed and reused many times before tossing them out.) There is some evidence that sponges and simple tampons were used in Egypt and Greece, but these are contested by various historians. Whatever the method, considering that the people of Israel were on the move for forty years after receiving these commands, I believe women had devised a way of being mobile during their periods!
Does all this apply to a modern Christian woman?
Reading chapters like Leviticus 15 can make a woman feel inferior, gross, left out, or unfairly treated. Though we don't know all the answers to why God put the system in place that He did, I believe a careful reading of this chapter shows that in regards to a person's worth, this isn't a woman's right's issue at all. Not only that, the system laid out in the Old Testament went through a radical change.
Referring back to that infamous Jewish prayer about being blessed not to be born a woman, the Apostle Paul has some interesting thoughts. The early church was struggling with accepting uncircumcised Gentiles as equals in Christ. They weren't sure if they should be eating with them because Gentiles did not follow the purity requirements and so they were unclean. Paul launches into a sermon on being saved by faith rather than by the law, and he concludes with this statement that seems to stands in stark opposition to that Jewish prayer,
“For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither man nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's descendants, heirs according to promise.” - Galatians 3:26-29
Now of course, physically, there were still different cultural backgrounds, there were still slaves, and there were still both men and women. But when it comes to matters of faith and being heirs of the kingdom, there was no division. A man could feel no superiority that he was able to fulfill more aspects of the law than a woman, a Gentile, or a slave. His merit, like theirs, was based on what Jesus had done, not on what he was doing.
The apostle Peter also addresses the practice of being unclean. After receiving a vision from the Lord and seeing the Holy Spirit fall on the Gentiles, Peter says,
“You yourself know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean.” - Acts 10:28
That statement is bold, like a lightning bolt across a culture that based whether you were "in” or “out” on being ritually clean. There was a literal checklist of lifestyle choices that proved whether or not you were fit for association with the children of God. Peter took that list and crumpled it up. Like Paul, he was saying that it isn't what we do, but what God does that determines a person's cleanliness.
Both men were taking their cue from Jesus. We see Jesus touch the untouchable and sit down to eat with those who were considered unclean! Jesus refusal to be inhibited by cleanliness traditions got him into hot water with the authorities on numerous occasions.
Today, through faith in Jesus and his sacrifice on the cross, we know that we are freed from sin and that we are made clean and acceptable. We know that women (and men!) are no longer called unclean because of our biological systems. We are not excluded from worship or from serving the Lord. Perhaps it was this freedom that caused so many worthy women to show up in active roles within the early church!
Want to learn about how women were directly involved in Jesus' ministry? Check out my post: Women and the Gospel of Luke!