These Levitical laws in those two chapters are about reproduction and childbirth, in other words, male and female body parts. The laws, seemingly primitive by our standards, reveal the heart of the God who looks out for his people by promoting cleanliness and health. What does the New Testament teach about ceremonial cleanness and uncleanness?
Sex is part and parcel of our humanity. God ordained mankind and womankind to have an anatomical fit. How would the world improve if we were all virgins before marriage and remained faithful within this God-ordained institution? Would sexually transmitted diseases disappear in a generation? What if everyone practiced cleanliness when discharges happened from the reproductive organs?
These laws were motivated by the love of God to keep people safe from disease and contamination. Laws that protect people come from the God who loves them.
This post does not examine the sanitary and cleanness or uncleanness laws in Lev. 12 ans 15 symbolically, but it asks how the New Covenant Scriptures deal with these laws.
For a general overview of the interrelations between the Old Sinai Covenant and the New Covenant, click on:
Many (not even close to all) elements are retained, and what is kept is improved on or streamlined.
The NIV is used here, unless otherwise noted. Readers are invited to go to biblegateway.com, choose their own translation, and open another window to follow along.
Let’s look at Leviticus 12.
Childbirth, like menstruation, made the mother unclean. She could not live the normal life, like do the cooking or cleaning the house. She had to be quarantined, so to speak. So another woman in the household would have to do the household chores. Maybe this gave her two weeks of rest (for menstruation).
In childbirth, if the baby was a boy, she would be quarantined for seven days, and then the father and mother would have the boy circumcised on the eighth day. Then she is to wait thirty-three days before her purification. She must not touch anything holy or go near the tabernacle. If the baby is a girl, she was unclean two weeks and had to wait twice as long: sixty-six days before her purification. Why twice as long? Commentator Harris speculates that this may symbolize the future impurity that the girl would undergo when she reached puberty. Girls are smaller than boys, so maybe the double wait added protection to them. Thoughtless fathers generally favored boys and may have taken better care of them. The longer time for girls gave them the chance to grow and be established–mortality rate for girls was higher back then (Harris p. 574). A Jewish commentator notes that Christian commentators of long ago connected the double impurity duration because of Eve (Torah p. 826). The curse she was placed under involved pain in childbirth (Gen. 3:16). This curse theory is far from clear, however. In any case, no reason is given for the time differences in purification..
However, the sacrifices were the same for boys and girls. Having a child was not a sin; indeed, it was a divine command (Gen. 1:18). So the ritual purification was not to atone for sins (Torah, p. 826). However, Harris points out that everyone is born in sin (Ps. 51:5). “Surely I was sinful at birth, and sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” So this atonement or wiping away sin or guilt may refer to a belief that saw humanity as bound by sin in their nature. The atonement sacrifice made the mother and child spiritually clean, as well. But the text does say she shall be clean (v. 8), not forgiven, so let’s not push this spiritual cleanness too far in this specific passage. As we shall see, Mary gave birth to the Messiah, so she did not need any sins forgiven merely for birthing him.
To sum up so far, in defense of a basic noncontamination principle in Lev. 12, if we strip away is ceremonial uncleanness, the chapters do offer good advice for a woman to rest and remain quarantined with her child. Isolation gave the baby a fighting chance to avoid communicable diseases in the days of unadvanced medicine.
Now let’s briefly look at Lev. 15.
This chapter deals with these categories of the unclean: (1) a man with an unusual bodily discharge; (2) marital sex with a woman when semen flowed; this does not say marital sex is wrong, but care must be taken afterwards, so a bath was ordered; (3) a woman with a regular flow of blood (menstruation); (4) a thoughtless man who had marital relations with his wife in her uncleanness; (5) a woman with an unusual or ongoing discharge.
The basic path towards ceremonial cleanness is for all of them is to take baths and rinse their hands before touching anything or not touch anything at all. Those who were unclean must must separate from clean things. In effect, they were quarantined. The bathing and washing and not touching or sitting is advanced for its time, because now we know that germs are spread by touching. One verse even says an unclean man must not spit accidentally on someone else (v. 8).
How do the New Covenant Scriptures deal with laws of uncleanness?
Jesus’s parents followed the law. “On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived” (Luke 2:21). The law says eight days the boys is to be circumcised (Lev. 12:3). Mary was ritually unclean for seven days, and then she could participate in the circumcision ritual on the eighth day.
Then the birth narrative continues:
When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord’) [Exod. 13:2, 12], 24 and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: ‘a pair of doves or two young pigeons’” [Lev. 12:8] (Luke 2:22-24).
The purification ritual required her to wait thirty-three days (Lev. 12:4). During these thirty-three days she was able to do the household chores. Yet no doubt some relatives stepped in to help her. With those days completed, Joseph and Mary took Jesus all the way to the temple in Jerusalem, because a synagogue may not have been adequate to present the child to be consecrated. Or maybe it was. More research is needed to sort out whether Jewish families sacrificed closer to homes at designated holy places. In any case, these verses explain why children are dedicated to the Lord in church services and are not water baptized in restrictive Protestant churches, like Baptists and Calvary Chapel and Pentecostal and other Renewal Churches.
Further, Lev. 12:8 and 15:14, 29 refer to a pair of doves or young pigeons which were for poorer families. Joseph was a craftsman, not a rich landowner with plenty of livestock to choose from. Therefore, he brought the birds.
Joseph lived under the law, so it would be unrealistic to demand that he not sacrifice as the law prescribed. He lived before the Cross and the Resurrection and Pentecost. After those three things, many commands changed or were never brought forward in the first place. No sacrifices like that are needed.
Here are verses in Lev. 15 that are relevant for a sad story with a happy ending in the Gospels:
25 “‘When a woman has a discharge of blood for many days at a time other than her monthly period or has a discharge that continues beyond her period, she will be unclean as long as she has the discharge, just as in the days of her period. 26 Any bed she lies on while her discharge continues will be unclean, as is her bed during her monthly period, and anything she sits on will be unclean, as during her period. 27 Anyone who touches them will be unclean; they must wash their clothes and bathe with water, and they will be unclean till evening. (Lev. 15:25-27)
Jesus healed a woman who had an issue of blood for twelve years, in the Gospel of Luke. She was not allowed to touch anything. When she did, it became unclean.
42b While he was leading the way, the crowd was smothering him. 43 And a woman being in a flow of blood for twelve years, who, although spending excessively all her living on doctors, was unable to be healed by anyone. 44 When she came up from behind, she touched the edge of his garment, and instantly her flow of blood stopped. 45 And Jesus said, “Who touched me?” While everyone was denying it, Peter said, “Master, the crowd presses in on you and crowds you!” 46 But Jesus said, “Someone touched me, for I perceive power has gone out from me.” 47 When the woman saw that she did not escape notice, she came trembling and fell before him and announced in front of all the people the reason she touched him, and how she was instantly healed. 48 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.” (Luke 8:42b-48 my translation)
Jesus allowed her to touch him, and she became clean by his healing virtue. After the woman was healed, she counted off seven days from her healing, and afterwards she was ceremonially clean (Lev. 15:28)
And so the apostolic community never taught that Christian women were unclean for x-number of days. Just the opposite. This is the great declaration of Paul: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” Gal. 3:28).
Jesus said to his twelve disciples: “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you” (John 15:3). There is no reason why this cleansing by the Word could not reach everyone in the kingdom community, including women, and not just the twelve.
Here is Peter’s vision about clean and unclean animals:
9 The next day, while they were traveling and nearing the town, Peter went up on the housetop to pray around noon. 10 He got hungry and was wanting to partake. While they were preparing the meal, a trance happened to him. 11 He saw heaven open up and an object coming down, something like a huge sheet, lowered by the four corners to the ground. 12 On it were four-footed animals, ground crawlers, and birds of the sky. 13 And a voice said to him, “Get up, Peter, slaughter and eat!” 14 Peter said, “No way, Lord! I have never eaten anything common or unclean!” 15 And again a voice said to him a second time, “What God has cleansed, don’t you reckon common. 16 This happened a third time, and instantly the object went back up into heaven. (Acts 10:9-16, my tentative translation).
Peter figured out by revelation that this vision applied to humans and salvation. Gentiles were perfectly acceptable to God and were declared clean in his sight. Now can this apply to ritual laws that taught people that women were ceremonially unclean after childbirth or men were after marital sex? It may be a stretch in its original context in Acts, but today I believe we can reach that conclusion. No one is unclean by virtue of their not belonging to the Sinai covenant. The apostolic community left behind those ceremonial laws and no longer applied them.
Here is Paul saying in the context of the family that Christ loved the church and cleansed her by the Word:
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word” (Eph. 5:25-26)
The church included women, so Jesus cleansed them too by the Word. Women in the household by virtue of this cleansing were also ceremonially clean and could live a normal life after childbirth and bodily discharges, unless, of course, the woman needed the rest after a difficult birthing process. But this need now has nothing to do with ceremonial uncleanness.
Peter: “But whoever does not have them [virtues] is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins” (2 Pet. 1:9). It is not a far leap to conclude that with an inner cleansing women and men were not outwardly unclean after childbirth or during her menstruation and unusual bodily discharges.
How does this post help me to grow in Christ?
Please don’t make fun of or condescend towards these ancient laws. They were put in place by God Almighty to protect his people from harm. As noted, laws that protect people come from the God who loves them.
The loving motive behind this quarantine after childbirth and unclean discharges is that blood and other bodily fluids can contaminate, if not tended to. If anyone doubts that laws of cleanliness are needed, he is looking at it from today’s advanced Western world. For centuries people lived in squalor–as they still do in many parts of the globe, even today. People have to be taught to leave their basic mammal urges and customs behind and must realize that they are made in the image of God.
See my post with lots of Scriptures:
With that said, however, we do not have to be subjected to the laws of ceremonial uncleanness. We can be ceremonially clean from the inside out.
Jesus’s blood will cleanse our inner being by the eternal Spirit:
How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! (Heb. 9:14)
He fulfills the law as the new high priest. No woman or man now needs to sacrifice a pair of doves or pigeons (or more expensive animals) to get themselves ceremonial cleansed after childbirth or bodily discharges. Jesus does this already by virtue of his high priesthood overseeing his own sacrifice. The woman and man can serve the living God as soon as she is up to it physically.
Therefore the basic principles behind the laws–cleanliness to avoid contamination–are still useful for today, though we now know more and can improve on them. But the ceremonial aspect of these laws is no longer valid, for the New Covenant has canceled it.