35. Childbirth

Meditations in the Law : No.35 : Childbirth?

Lev 12:1-4 1The LORD said to Moses, 2″Say to the Israelites: `A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period. 3On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised. 4Then the woman must wait thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding. She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over.

This is going to be a challenge!  If I was a betting man (which I’m not) I would place a mighty wager that this chapter probably rates as one of the least read passages of Scripture. The reasons are obvious: it needs thinking about to make sense, especially in the age in which we live. There are some obvious things that need to be dealt with before we move on to consider the detail.

The first is that this IS part of the Law that was given by God to Moses. It is not something that goes with the cultural mores of that day; it is specific instruction from the Lord and, as we’ve seen previously, God has practical reasons for everything He says. Second, we need to remind ourselves that specific Scripture is to be read in the light of overall Scripture. We may jump to the (wrong) conclusion, that when the word ‘unclean’ appears it means that there is something nasty about childbirth. No, definitely not. It was God who said, “Be fruitful and increase in numbers.” (Gen 1:28) and then, For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.” (Gen 2:24,25). Sex is God’s idea and so the sexual act and childbirth are God’s design and are not to be seen in a negative light. Similarly in the psalms we find, “Sons are a heritage from the LORD, children a reward from him.” (Psa 127:3). Having children is good! To make the point even further, the blessing on a godly man was, “Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house,” (Psa 128:3) which is a clear indication of divine approval to having a family. Childbirth was God’s idea, so what is this chapter about?

Well, let’s see the various things this chapter speaks about. First, “A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period.” (v.2) Please observe the word ‘ceremonially’. Ceremonially refers to everything that happened at the Tabernacle (and later on the Temple). The word ‘unclean’, I would suggest, refers less to any moral or sanitary state but simply means ‘not in a fit state’ to go through the various rites of the Tabernacle worship. We may live in a day when drugs help many women to cope with their menstrual period, but many would still acknowledge that this is an ongoing painful period in their monthly cycle that they would rather do without. In Old Testament times such helps were not available and a woman’s period would often be quite debilitating. Indeed Rachel, Jacob’s wife, used it as an excuse not to get up: “Rachel said to her father, “Don’t be angry, my lord, that I cannot stand up in your presence; I’m having my period.” (Gen 31:35). What we thus come to realise is that the Lord in fact excused the woman having her period, or recovering from childbirth, from having to attend the ceremonial rites. It was in fact, a relief for her.

The next item covered was that of circumcising the boy: “On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised.” (v.3) Modern science tells us that the eighth day is the very best time to carry out such an operation with as little pain or risk as is possible. We then find, “Then the woman must wait thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding. She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over.” (v.4) Again ‘purification’ simply means ‘is completely finished with and her body is starting to return to normal’. The ‘not touch anything sacred’ simply is an embargo on her going anywhere near the Tabernacle and the required rites. She is excused all this while she gets over her childbirth. If we think negatively of her in all this, it is more an expression of our prejudices than of God’s feelings towards her. If anything these rules highlight the special feeling of the time of childbirth and say, “You don’t have to worry during this time about all the ceremonial things; you just concentrate on recovering.”

Now I am aware that there will be those who feel that this interpretation of these rules takes away from the awareness of God’s holiness which was emphasized in the Law by the requirements of cleanliness, but I when I look at all of these laws I see God’s concern for His people – all His people – and He is constantly making provision for their well-being. He is not putting down any particular group, especially when they are performing the most natural procedure than ensures the ongoing human race. No, it’s our own legalistic and ‘nasty’ prejudices (because we feel badly about sex or about bodily functions) that see these laws negatively.

But there is more to come: “If she gives birth to a daughter, for two weeks the woman will be unclean, as during her period. Then she must wait sixty-six days to be purified from her bleeding,” (v.5) i.e. the periods are doubled for a girl. Commentators go all over the place in trying to deal with this. I’d like to make a simple suggestion, which may or may not be true, and perhaps only science will verify this, that in fact, even as the apostle Peter spoke of the ‘weaker’ sex (1 Pet 3:7), it is may be possible that the Lord knows that female babies were weaker and more vulnerable than male babies and therefore He allows a longer time of recovery and caring. Someone suggested to me that perhaps baby girls need a longer period to bond properly to their mothers. I don’t know the answer because we aren’t told. Time, science and medicine might shed light on this. My certainty is that whatever it is, we see here rules that provide God’s care and concern for women.

The final verses of the chapter are about the woman then bringing a burnt offering and a sin offering (v.6) to make ‘atonement’ (v.7). Is this because she has been sinful? Of course not!   Even the Virgin Mary had to do this. It is simply a recognition that for the times prescribed she has been out of contact with the available access to God (the Tabernacle) and these offerings bring her back into complete communion with the Lord. The very act of going and making these offerings, brings her right back into the life of Israel with God. It is to reassure her and re-establish her in the covenant community so she can have no doubts. Every new mother did it so there was no stigma attached to it. It was just part of God’s process for making sure she would come to meet Him after having been through childbirth. Perhaps we cannot understand the reassurance that she would receive; a re-establishing of ordinary life after this most significant of events in her life! How wonderful!  ‘Atonement’? See it as being re-established. ‘Clean’? See it as being brought back into the covenant process and being able to stand before God with thankfulness. Remember, ultimately the function of all the offerings was to bring the people to God and deal with anything that might separate them from Him. Hallelujah!