New Life and Restored Holiness

1 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, If a woman conceives and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days. As at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Then she shall continue for thirty-three days in the blood of her purifying. She shall not touch anything holy, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying are completed. But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her menstruation. And she shall continue in the blood of her purifying for sixty-six days.

“And when the days of her purifying are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb a year old for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering, and he shall offer it before the Lord and make atonement for her. Then she shall be clean from the flow of her blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, either male or female. And if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. And the priest shall make atonement for her, and she shall be clean.” – Leviticus 12:1-8 ESV

This chapter, if taken out of its context within the rest of the book of Leviticus, can pose significant problems for the modern reader. A cursory and isolated reading would seem to suggest that women are somehow unclean and unacceptable to God just because they have given birth. But is that what the passage is saying? Is the same God who commanded Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply now equating obedience to that command with defilement? If so, why is the woman the only one penalized for her role in the procreative process?

The key to understanding Leviticus 12 is to keep these verses firmly planted within the overall context of the rest of the book. Ultimately, Leviticus is about the proper protocol for worshiping God. It contains rules and rituals pertaining to both the priests and the laity, that prescribe God’s non-negotiable requirements for His set-apart people. He had released them from their captivity in Egypt, but they were far from free. As His chosen and redeemed people, they were expected to live according to His divine will and model holiness to the world around them.

The book of Leviticus deals with issues of holiness and commonness, cleanliness and uncleanness. These are to be viewed as ritualistic categories that designate one’s status before God. For something to be viewed as “common” was to declare it ordinary and not sacred. It does not mean that the object or person is somehow flawed or worthless, but that it had not been set apart for God’s use. It had not been consecrated and deemed as belonging to God. From God’s perspective, everything in the world is common until He sets it apart as holy. At one point, the people of Israel had been just another nation living as captives in the land of Egypt, until God chose to redeem them from their captivity and make them His prized possession. In a sense, they had been common and God made them holy.

“Now if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own special treasure from among all the peoples on earth; for all the earth belongs to me. And you will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation.” – Exodus 19:5-6 NLT

God went on to reiterate the call that His chosen people embrace their newfound status as His holy, set-apart people.

“You must be holy because I, the Lord, am holy. I have set you apart from all other people to be my very own.” – Leviticus 20:26 NLT

They were no longer to view themselves as common or ordinary. Their close relationship with God had transformed them into “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6 ESV). But because they lived in a fallen world, they faced the constant temptation to revert back to their ordinary and common ways. That is why God ordered the priests “to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean” (Leviticus 10:10 ESV). And God commanded that they instruct the people to know the difference between what God had set apart as holy and everything else. There was to be no confusion or uncertainty because their relationship with God was dependent upon their ongoing holiness. And to ensure that His people grasped the weight of the matter, God repeated His words to them.

“For I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not defile yourselves with any swarming thing that crawls on the ground. For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.” – Leviticus 11:44-45 ESV

This brings us back to the matter of childbirth and uncleanness. What is God attempting to teach His people about the holy and the common when it comes to the matter of childbirth? Is He suggesting that the newborn baby is unclean or unacceptable? Is God somehow penalizing the woman for her role in bearing children? One way of looking at this passage is to consider that childbirth is a common and very ordinary part of the human experience. Giving birth to children was not a special right that was reserved for the Israelites alone. Ever since the garden, all mankind had obeyed God’s command to multiply and fill the earth. But, as a result of the fall, childbirth had been marked by pain and suffering. Because of her role in disobeying His command, God told Eve, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children” (Genesis 3:16 ESV).

The birth of a child, while a joyous experience, is marked by physical pain and the presence of blood and bodily fluids. The bringing forth of new life can be a difficult and physically draining experience for both the mother and the child. A newborn baby enters the world covered in blood and amniotic fluid. The mother’s body must discharge the placenta and amniotic sac after giving birth to her child. This purely natural and normal process is common to all births. But it is important to note that God is not declaring childbirth to be unclean.

“…it was not childbirth per se that was unclean, but the ritual defilement that immediately followed the childbirth because of the fluids and secretions connected with childbirth. Childbirth is blessed by God; it is part of his plan of creation. But it is very physical, very earth or ‘this-worldly,’ and not he usual normal, healthy condition for the woman. And therein lies the problem, for access into the sanctuary of the Lord required the individual to be whole.” – Kenneth A. Matthews, Leviticus: Holy God, Holy People

This common, ordinary, and fully natural procedure rendered the woman ceremonially or ritually unclean. The presence of blood and bodily fluid temporarily separated the mother from her God. It is interesting to consider the fact that the bringing of new life into the world is accompanied by the shedding of blood. God had told the people of Israel that “the life of the flesh is in the blood” (Leviticus 17:11 ESV). They were forbidden to consume blood. This life-giving substance was the key to their ongoing existence and the means by which they received atonement for their sins.

“The connection between the body’s power to reproduce life and the various bodily fluids make for a symbolic picture of the power of life and death. Blood is the most natural evidence of life and death. It is indicative of the life-force, both of humans and animals. The blood belonged to God alone because he alone is Sovereign over life. Leviticus tells us that ‘the life of the flesh is in the blood’ (Leviticus 17:11a). This theological rationale explains why the Mosaic law required a new mother to experience a purification ritual after childbirth. There had to be an accounting for the postnatal blood flow of the new mother in the ceremonial life of the people.” – Kenneth A. Matthews, Leviticus: Holy God, Holy People

As part of the purification process, the new mother was required to remain at home for a prescribed period of time. During that interval, she was forbidden to “touch anything holy, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying are completed” (Leviticus 12:4 ESV). But once her period of isolation came to an end, the woman was to appear at the Tabernacle in order to offer sacrifices to God.

“When the time of purification is completed for either a son or a daughter, the woman must bring a one-year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or turtledove for a purification offering.” – Leviticus 12:6 NLT

The birth mother was required to offer two different sacrifices. One was a burnt offering, which was intended to restore her relationship with God. In a sense, it reestablished her holy status before God. This offering was not an admission of guilt. The woman had not committed a sin by bearing a child. She was simply presenting an offering to the Lord as a request for restored fellowship. In giving birth, she had become temporarily “common” or unholy. The presence of blood had “defiled” her and her sacrifice was meant to illustrate her desire to have her communion with God restored. The purification offering was just that; a sacrifice intended to purify the woman from the defilement caused by the shedding of blood. Sadly, many translations refer to this sacrifice as a “sin offering,” even though no sin was committed. There was no need for forgiveness or repentance because the woman had done nothing wrong.

“The legislating of the ritual makes it clear that it is the discharge of blood that made the woman unclean after childbirth. It was simply a matter of incompatibility with the sanctuary purity that prevented the woman from entering; and the blood ritual completed her purification.” – Allen P. Ross, Holiness to the Lord: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus

Even the common and completely natural process of giving birth to a child could impact a woman’s access to God. It was not that childbirth was a sin, but that the presence of sin in the world had impacted every area of life. That which was common to all biological life had been dramatically altered by sin’s entry into the world. But God provided a way for the common to become holy once again. By following God’s prescribed plan of purification, the mother could be restored to a right relationship with God.

The priest will sacrifice them to purify her, and she will be ceremonially clean. – Leviticus 12:8 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

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