Today’s reading: Leviticus 14-15.
Reading straight through the Bible means that you bump into a number of subjects that are difficult, unfamiliar, and sometimes uncomfortable. Because I’m not thoroughly discussing every chapter, I skip over some of these topics. Today I thought I should go ahead and talk about the difficult issue of the “unclean” classification that Leviticus gives to menstruation.
When a woman has her regular flow of blood, the impurity of her monthly period will last seven days, and anyone who touches her will be unclean till evening. Anything she lies on during her period will be unclean, and anything she sits on will be unclean. Whoever touches her bed must wash his clothes and bathe with water, and he will be unclean till evening. Whoever touches anything she sits on must wash his clothes and bathe with water, and he will be unclean till evening. Whether it is the bed or anything she was sitting on, when anyone touches it, he will be unclean till evening. Leviticus 15:19-23
Let me say up front that in the grace of the new covenant paid for by Jesus’ death on the cross, there is no longer any such classification given to menstruation. None of the previous steps of purification are required. Nevertheless, for over a thousand years before Jesus’ birth this system impacted the lives of Hebrew women, and continued to do so for Jewish women even after Jesus’ birth. It meant that women were excluded from regular social interactions and worship during their period and for seven days afterward. All this took place for something which was natural, unavoidable, and involved no guilt on the part of the woman.
As was the case with the food laws, much is written about the possible health benefits of this practice, and much is said about possible improvements in the rate of child bearing (because sex was forbidden during this time and therefore concentrated during the more fertile time of the woman’s cycle). I think these speculations cannot be supported by anything in the Bible. I believe it is, again, a spiritual matter rather than a physical one.
At this point I want to talk about the whole area of holiness, cleanness, and uncleanness in more detail. Gordon Wenham describes it well in his commentary on Leviticus:
Everything that is not holy is common. Common things divide into two groups, the clean and the unclean. Clean things become holy, when they are sanctified. But unclean objects cannot be sanctified. Clean things can be made unclean, if they are polluted. Finally, holy items may be defiled and become common, even polluted, and therefore unclean… . cleanness is a state intermediate between holiness and uncleanness. Cleanness is the normal condition of most things and persons. Sanctification can elevate the clean into the holy, while pollution degrades the clean into the unclean. The unclean and the holy are two states which must never come in contact with each other (pp. 19-20). Gordon Wenham, The Book of Leviticus
Things progress from holy to clean to unclean, and can go back the other way.
HOLY <—-> Clean <—-> Unclean
The best explanation I have read of what makes things unclean is the effects of the curse brought on by Adam and Eve’s sin. Like everything else, child-bearing suffers under the curse, and labor pains and menstruation are part of the result. Diseases are caused by the curse, and result in uncleanness. Rot and mildew are part of the curse, and therefore are unclean. Not one of these things is sinful, but all are unclean as a result of the curse.
The good news is that under the new covenant of grace the uncleanness has been taken away. Not all the effects of the curse are gone, but the barrier to holiness has been taken away. One day even the effects of the curse will be removed. Jesus gave a glimpse of that when he healed the woman who had lived with uncontrolled menstrual bleeding for twelve years. She touched him, unclean as she was considered then, and he did not criticize her for it, but commended her faith. He did not mention her sanctification or lack of it, only her suffering. In the new covenant, even the unclean comes into the presence of God to find healing and holiness.