RITUAL PURITY MUST BE REESTABLISHED AFTER CHILDBIRTH VIA THE REQUIRED PERIOD OF SECLUSION AND THE APPROPRIATE SACRIFICES
Richard Hess: Turning from foods to childbirth, ch. 12 continues the theme of impurity. Indeed, this change signals what the rest of the section on impurities will consider. Ch. 11 dealt with the whole of the animal kingdom; chs. 12–15 focus on people. Even in this section there is a pattern, for chs. 12 (childbirth) and 15 (genital discharges) consider uncleanness related to sexual matters; between these sections, chs. 13 (diagnosis) and 14 (cleanness) deal with skin diseases. . .
The major questions that arise in this section are:
(1) Why is the woman unclean?
(2) What differences exist between the male and female child as far as the cleanness of the mother is concerned?
(3) Why is there a difference between the number of days of uncleanness for a boy and a girl?
These questions are interrelated.
Kenneth Mathews: How does the Leviticus requirement of purification after childbirth square with the Bible’s high view of children and motherhood? We will find that the ritual of cleansing testifies to the sacredness of life and the importance of birth and motherhood and conveys the spiritual message of birth into the family of the Lord. We will come away from this passage with a renewed devotion to God as the source of all life who through his Son Jesus Christ has redeemed fallen humanity.
Allen Ross: It will be very helpful if, from the outset, people can get past the English term unclean and think more in terms of the contextual usage in Leviticus. Basically, we are dealing with ritual purity: what was clean was free to participate in the ritual in the sanctuary where the ark was; what was unclean had to wait. . .
The physical discharge after the birth of a child prevented a woman from entering the holy place and required a period of purification (interrupted only by the rite of circumcision) followed by ritual sacrifice to restore full participation in the sanctuary. . .
God’s holy nature demands that all who experience the physical aspects of this life (here the process of childbirth) must be sanctified to enter his presence.
I. (:1-5) REALITY OF UNCLEANNESS REQUIRING PURIFICATION AFTER CHILDBIRTH
“Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,
‘Speak to the sons of Israel, saying,’”
A. (:2b-4) For a Male Child
1. (:2b) Unclean for 7 Days
“When a woman gives birth and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean for seven days, as in the days of her menstruation she shall be unclean.”
Kenneth Mathews: First, we must clarify what is meant in the text by a new mother being deemed “unclean” (v. 2b). The word “unclean” is not a term that refers to immorality; rather, it speaks of ritual impurity. A ritual is a symbolic act or series of acts designed to convey a message. When a mother gives birth to a child, there is a flow of blood that follows the baby’s birth.1 This is a natural function of the birth cycle. At this critical moment in the life of the mother and child, in the life of the family, and in the life of the community, the passing of blood provided a powerful image of the significance of life and its opposite, the loss of life. The flow of blood conveyed to the parents that life and death are in view. The emission also sent the message that human life is imperfect. The Bible tells us that God is the only true perfect One. He is flawless in his personal attributes, such as his love, moral purity, and faithfulness. Therefore, anything or anyone that had a physical disorder could not be admitted into the house of worship. The thought that a woman giving birth could be viewed as a disorder is difficult for us to understand since giving birth was and is considered a divine blessing, a cherished experience valued by Hebrew society. But further reflection on what we mean by the word disorder helps us accept this idea. A disorder technically means what is not the normal, regular experience of life, a change whether for good or bad. The stages of conception, pregnancy, and birth require extensive changes in the body and are not the usual daily condition of a woman’s body. This means a woman’s pregnancy and childbirth reflect an unusual condition, not her typical healthy, whole state. . .
The second clarification is that Israelite women were not the only ones to have a disorder. Men, who had physical irregularities such as emissions or skin diseases (chapters 13–15), also were deemed ritually impure. Also, our passage does not teach that the newborn child was considered “unclean.” There is no instruction given regarding the cleansing of the child. The ritual of circumcision was not a ritual of purification (v. 3); it was a ritual of covenant initiation that declared the child’s acceptance into the community of Israel. If it were a purification rite, making the child pure, then females remained in a perpetual state of uncleanness since there was no comparable rite for the daughter. The children then were not considered inherently impure.
2. (:3) Circumcision on the 8th Day = Covenant Initiation
“And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.”
Allen Ross: An interruption on the eighth day of purification allowed for the circumcision of a boy baby. Here we see that a higher law (the positive command for circumcision was the sign of the Abrahamic covenant) was preferred over the law of uncleanness. The point is included here because the Israelites needed to know how the two commands were harmonized.
3. (:4) Seclusion for 33 Days
“Then she shall remain in the blood of her purification for thirty-three days; she shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary, until the days of her purification are completed.”
Mark Rooker: The real disadvantage to being in a state of impurity was that the individual would not be able to enter into the tabernacle, so the person would be prevented from worshiping God with the covenant community.
Robert Vasholz: Again, that women were not excluded from the Tent-Sanctuary is confirmed in Leviticus 12:4. There, the woman is excluded from the sanctuary during her time of uncleanness, a restriction that assumes that she was not normally excluded (cf. 1 Sam. 1:7). The woman herself is to bring her offerings according to Leviticus 12:6, 8.
B. (:5) For a Female Child
1. Unclean for 2 Weeks
“But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean for two weeks, as in her menstruation;”
2. Seclusion for 66 Days
“and she shall remain in the blood of her purification for sixty-six days.”
David Guzik: The longer period of ceremonial uncleanness for the birth of a daughter should not be understood as a penalty. Instead, it is linked to the idea stated in the previous verses – that the time of impurity is for the symbolic responsibility of bringing other sinners into the world. When giving birth to a female, a mother brings a sinner into the world who will bring still other sinners into the world.
Kenneth Mathews: What may be at work here is the presence of two females; the mother and the daughter require twice as many days as the birth of a boy. If this is the case, then the assignment of the additional forty days for the daughter may be explained by the potential she has to be a child-bearer.
II. (:6-8) RESTORATION OF CLEANNESS BY OFFERING FOR ATONEMENT AFTER CHILDBIRTH
A. (:6-7) Customary Offering
1. (:6) The Offering
“And when the days of her purification are completed, for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the doorway of the tent of meeting, a one year old lamb for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering.”
2. (:7) The Atonement
“Then he shall offer it before the LORD and make atonement for her; and she shall be cleansed from the flow of her blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, whether a male or a female.”
Mark Rooker: Though the passage states that the new mother presents these offerings to the priest to receive atonement, we should not consider the act of giving birth to be in any case a sinful act. This is supported from our passage in two ways. First of all, in the order of the offerings the burnt offering was offered first and then the sin offering followed. The order was reversed when sin was at issue. When an offering was made in response to the commission of sin, the sin offering preceded the burnt offering. The order of the offerings in Leviticus 12 suggests that the personal sin of the mother is not the issue. Moreover, the result of the sacrifice renders the mother “clean”; it does not say that she is forgiven (see 4:20, 26, 31, 35). The issue is thus not the sinfulness of the mother or of the process of giving birth; rather the issue seems to be that of the issuance of blood. Because life is in the blood (17:11), the loss of blood required some purification to acknowledge the sanctity of life.
Kenneth Mathews: The sin offering, however, did not address some specific sin in the life of the mother. No sin had been committed by the mother. Rather, the sin offering was a purification offering, a shedding of blood whereby the ritual impurity that had compromised the purity of the altar in the sanctuary might be removed. The new mother’s physical discharge of blood had brought impurity to the sanctuary and required purgation. This is what the text means by “atonement” (v. 7). The Hebrew word for “atone” can have various meanings, depending on the context. In the case of sin, the word means to “expiate,” that is, to make amends for sin. The outcome is that the Israelite was “forgiven” by God (e.g., Leviticus 4:20). For physical impurities, however, there was no sin involved (Leviticus 12–15); the blood in such cases wiped away ceremonial corruption. By carrying out the ritual, the mother had full acceptance once again in the sanctuary and had the freedom to touch holy things, such as food dedicated to the Lord (e.g., Deuteronomy 26:14).
Wiersbe: The bunt offering symbolized her dedication to God as she returned to her normal life, and the sin offering took care of the defilement involved in the birth process.
B. (:8) Discounted Offering
1. The Offering
“But if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two young pigeons, the one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering;”
Mark Rooker: After the birth of the Lord in the New Testament, Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day. Following his circumcision Mary offered two birds to declare her days of purification were completed. What is of interest here is not only that Mary carried out the prescription of the Law in perfect obedience but that she rendered the offering of the poor (Luke 2:21–24). This indicates that the Savior of the world, who created all that exists, not only humbled himself in becoming a man but was born in the most meager of circumstances in ancient Israel. Yet even for the poor like Jesus’ parents, God was gracious, for the less expensive offerings achieved the same result—the new mother was atoned for and became clean.
2. The Atonement
“and the priest shall make atonement for her, and she shall be clean.”
John Schultz: The sacrifice to be brought at the end of the period of purification consists of two parts: a burnt offering and a sin offering. The sin offering refers to the corrupted nature of man. The burnt offering points to the divine love that gives itself and that is the “raison d’être” for man.