Leviticus 12 – Cleansing After Childbirth
A. Ceremonial impurity after giving birth.
1. (1-4) When a male child is born.
Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, saying: ‘If a woman has conceived, and borne a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as in the days of her customary impurity she shall be unclean. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. She shall then continue in the blood of her purification thirty-three days. She shall not touch any hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary until the days of her purification are fulfilled.
a. If a woman has conceived, and borne a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days: After giving birth to a male child, a mother was considered ceremonially unclean seven days. The boy was then circumcised on the eighth day.
i. Mary, the mother of Jesus, brought Him to the temple on the eighth day after His birth (Luke 2:21). Jesus fulfilled the law in every respect, including His circumcision on the eighth day.
b. On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised: God commanded Abraham that his male covenant descendants (through Isaac and Jacob) should be circumcised when eight days old (Genesis 17:12). This was a sign of the covenant God made with Abraham and his covenant descendants (Genesis 17:11), and here is also commanded as an aspect of the Law of Moses.
i. Circumcision was not unknown in the ancient world. It was a ritual practice among various peoples. Yet for the Israelite, “Circumcision was to every man a constant, evident sign of the covenant into which he had entered with God, and of the moral obligations under which he was thereby laid.” (Clarke)
ii. There were undoubtedly hygienic reasons for circumcision, especially making sense in the ancient world. In his book None of These Diseases, S.I. McMillen noted studies in 1949 and 1954 that showed a remarkably low rate of cervical cancer for Jewish women because they mostly have husbands who are circumcised.
iii. But more importantly, circumcision is a cutting away of the flesh and an appropriate sign of the covenant for those who should put no trust in the flesh. Also, because circumcision deals with the organ of procreation, it was a reminder of the special seed of Abraham, which would ultimately bring the Messiah.
iv. In Colossians 2:11-12, the Apostle Paul connected the ideas of circumcision and Christian baptism. His idea was that in Jesus we are spiritually circumcised, and we are also buried with Jesus in baptism. Paul did not say that baptism is the sign of the covenant Christians receive and live under, the New Covenant. Even if that connection is made, it is important to note that one was genetically born into the covenant described here and in Genesis 17. One is not genetically born into the New Covenant; one is born again into it by God’s grace through faith. It is wrong and harmful to make the analogy, “babies were circumcised, so babies should be baptized.”
c. She shall then continue in the blood of her purification thirty-three days: When a son was born, a mother’s ceremonial uncleanness lasted an additional 33 days, for a total of 40 days of ceremonial impurity after giving birth to a male child. There were several reasons for this, but one important reason was to give an Israelite mother an ancient equivalent to the modern maternity leave. Here ceremonial uncleanness relieved her of many social obligations. Mothers welcomed these days of rest, seclusion, and bonding with the newborn.
i. In the law of ancient Israel, blood had sacred associations. It was understood that the life of a being was in their blood (Genesis 9:4, Leviticus 17:11); loss of blood can mean the loss of life. The blood of menstruation made a woman ritually unclean (Leviticus 15:19-24). Even animals had to be bled in a certain way in sacrifice or slaughter. Since childbirth is always associated with blood, it makes sense that there was a special ritual purification after childbirth. “Because life is in the blood (17:11), the loss of blood required some purification to acknowledge the sanctity of life.” (Rooker)
ii. Mary, the mother of Jesus, also fulfilled these days of purification (Luke 2:22-24). It was on this occasion that Simeon (Luke 2:25-35) and Anna (Luke 2:36-38) met Jesus and His family and spoke their words of blessing and thanks.
iii. When Mary gave birth to Jesus, she was not responsible for bringing a sinner into the world. Nevertheless, Jesus identified with sinful humanity – even as an infant.
d. She shall not touch any hallowed thing: The commanded time of ceremonial impurity should not be regarded as a negative attitude towards birth or childbearing on God’s part. God commands childbearing, in that humanity is commanded to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:28), that children are regarded as a gift from God (Psalm 127:3), and that a woman with many children is considered blessed (Psalm 128:3).
i. The key to understanding this ceremony is to understand the idea of original sin. As wonderful as a new baby is, God wanted it to be remembered that with every birth another sinner was brought into the world, and in this symbolic picture, the mother was responsible for bringing a new sinner into the world.
ii. She shall be unclean: “Motherhood is one of the most sacred and beautiful things in the whole realm of human experience. This needs no argument. But motherhood is exercised in a race which is defiled. When the great singer of Israel, in his penitential psalm, said: ‘Behold, I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me’ (Psalm 51:5), he was casting no reflection upon his own mother, but rather stating a racial fact, from which no human being escapes.” (Morgan)
2. (5) When a female child is born.
‘But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her customary impurity, and she shall continue in the blood of her purification sixty-six days.
a. If she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean two weeks: The time period for each phase was double what was required when giving birth to a son. For the birth of a daughter, a woman was unclean for 14 days followed by 66 days. A mother of a female child received double of the ancient equivalent of maternity leave.
i. “On the purely physical side it will bear close and reverent consideration, providing as it did for the perfect repose of the new mother.” (Morgan)
b. She shall continue in the blood of her purification sixty-six days: 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.
i. It has also been suggested the longer period of time in connection with the birth of a girl was because girls are usually smaller at birth, and this would allow more time for the mother’s focused care and attention on the child. As well, since sons were more prized, the longer time at home for a mother with a newborn girl would force the family to bond more deeply, over a more extended period of time with the newborn girl.
B. The purification rite for cleansing after childbirth.
1. (6-7) The sacrifice required.
‘When the days of her purification are fulfilled, whether for a son or a daughter, she shall bring to the priest a lamb of the first year as a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtledove as a sin offering, to the door of the tabernacle of meeting. Then he shall offer it before the LORD, and make atonement for her. And she shall be clean from the flow of her blood. This is the law for her who has borne a male or a female.
a. Then he shall offer it before the LORD, and make atonement for her: This was a fairly standard sacrifice for atonement, holding the woman symbolically responsible for bringing another sinner into this world. The mother had to bring a lamb of the first year to be a burnt offering, marking the dedication of the child to God. The mother also brought a young pigeon or a turtledove to be a sin offering, making atonement.
b. For her who has borne a male or a female: The mother’s required sacrifice was the same whether she gave birth to a boy or a girl.
2. (8) Allowances for the poor.
‘And if she is not able to bring a lamb, then she may bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons; one as a burnt offering and the other as a sin offering. So the priest shall make atonement for her, and she will be clean.’”
a. If she is not able to bring a lamb: God knew that not every family in Israel could afford to bring a lamb for sacrifice at the birth of a child. Therefore, He also allowed the lesser sacrifices of two turtledoves or two young pigeons.
i. Jesus’ family offered only a pair of turtledoves (Luke 2:22-24) at birth. This shows that Jesus did not come from a wealthy family. It also means that the wise men, who gave costly gifts to Jesus (Matthew 2:11), had not yet visited the family of Jesus.
ii. “What a glimpse into our Master’s humiliation! He owned the cattle on a thousand hills, yet He so emptied Himself that His parents were compelled to bring the poorest offering the law allowed. He stooped that we might rise; emptied Himself that we might be full; became poor that we might be made rich; was made human that we might be made Divine.” (Meyer)
b. So the priest shall make atonement for her: This sacrifice marked the end of her time of ceremonial impurity; the mother was regarded as clean.
i. “If men are born in sin, through expiation and devotion a way is yet made for their restoration to the place of communion with God. Thus at the beginning of every life the appalling need and the gracious provision were brought freshly to mind.” (Morgan)