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Bible Commentaries
Leviticus 12

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

Verses 1-8

2. Uncleanness due to childbirth ch. 12

The laws of purification begun in this chapter connect in principle with the preceding ones that deal with unclean food and animals. The defilement dealt with in this group of laws (chs. 12-15) proceeded from the human body. Pollution could come from within the Israelite as well as from his or her environment. Contamination resulted in separation from the fellowship of the sanctuary and or fellow Israelites.

". . . at first sight no reason or rationale is apparent for the material selected in Leviticus 12. The subject matter of this chapter deals solely with the question of the impurity of childbirth. What was the ’logic’ of focusing on this particular topic at this point in the collection of laws? Many consider its placement here completely arbitrary. However, the details of the text as well as the larger structural patterns provide helpful clues about its purpose. For example, the terminology of Leviticus 12 alludes to the curse involving childbirth in Genesis 3. This suggests that beyond the parallels in Leviticus 11, the further arrangement of topics in Leviticus may also fit within the pattern of Genesis 1-11. If this be the case, then the purpose behind the narrative’s present structure may be to portray the spread of ritual defilement in Israel’s camp as a reversal of God’s original plan of blessing." [Note: Sailhamer, p. 39. He offered charts comparing the laws in Leviticus with the Flood and Babel stories in Genesis on pp. 40-41 and pp. 338-39.]

Two different situations caused uncleanness: moral transgression and ceremonial defilement. Moral transgressions caused spiritual defilement (moral uncleanness). However ceremonial defilement (ritual uncleanness) did not necessarily mean that the defiled person had sinned. Some practices that resulted in ceremonial uncleanness were not morally wrong in themselves, such as childbearing. Therefore we must not think "sinful" whenever we read "unclean." "Unclean" does not mean "sinful" but "impure." Impurity restricted the Israelite from participating in corporate worship at the tabernacle.

The ritual purification of the mother of a newborn son lasted a total of 40 days. For the first seven of these she was contagiously unclean. Even though she had not entered the sanctuary after the birth of her child, her presence in the camp had still contaminated the altar (cf. Leviticus 15:31). That is why she had to offer a sin (purification) offering. Her ritual uncleanness evidently resulted from the woman’s bodily discharge that followed the baby’s delivery (cf. Leviticus 12:4-5; Leviticus 12:7). The lochia is a discharge from the vagina that continues for several weeks after childbirth. For the remaining 33 days she was to remain separate from the sanctuary and anything holy. This period served the double purpose of allowing the new mother to regain her health and strength as well as her ritual purity. The Law did not regard a newborn child as unclean, and circumcision was not a purification rite for the child. The most extensive discussion of circumcision is in Genesis 17:9-14, not Leviticus 12:3.

Keil and Delitzsch believed that the number 40 ". . . refers to a period of temptation, of the trial of faith, as well as to a period of the strengthening of faith through the miraculous support bestowed by God." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 2:161. Cf. Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 8:2; 1 Kings 19:8; Matthew 4:2.]

According to this explanation, the strengthening of her faith was the reason for the 40-day recovery period.

All these periods were twice as long if the woman bore a female child. One explanation for this difference is that in the case of a female child the mother had given birth to a sinner who would normally bring forth another sinner herself eventually. Another explanation is that God designed this distinction since "the superiority of their [male’s] sex . . . pervades the Mosaic institutions." [Note: Bush, p. 114.] Advocates see support for this viewpoint in the fact that the redemption price of women was about half that of men in Israel (Leviticus 27:2-7). Another possibility is that the distinction resulted from the curse on Eve and her sex that followed the Fall. [Note: Bonar, pp. 236-37.] Fourth, there is some medical evidence that the postnatal discharge (lochia) lasts longer in the case of a girl. [Note: D. I. Macht, "A Scientific Appreciation of Leviticus 12:1-5," Journal of Biblical Literature 52 (1933):253-60.] If this was true in ancient Israel, this explanation may explain the difference. [Note: See Sprinkle, p. 644, for several other explanations, and the NET Bible note on 12:5.]

Why should a bloody discharge make someone "unclean"? If we apply the "normalcy" principle already observed to this legislation, we could conclude that bleeding suggested an unnatural condition to the Israelites. Loss of blood leads to death, the antithesis of a healthy normal life. Anyone losing blood is at least potentially in danger of becoming less than physically perfect and is, therefore, unclean. [Note: Douglas, p. 51.]

". . . blood is at once the most effective ritual cleanser (’the blood makes atonement,’ Leviticus 17:11) and the most polluting substance when it is in the wrong place. This is profound. Our greatest woes result from the corruption of our highest good, e.g., speech, sex, technology, atomic power." [Note: Wenham, The Book . . ., p. 188.]

"Some commentators have found difficulty with this section of purification laws, since it appears to designate as unclean the act of childbirth that resulted from God’s command to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:28). Since children were regarded as a divine heritage and gift (Psalms 127:3), and a fruitful woman was esteemed as blessed of God (cf. Psalms 128:3), it would appear somewhat surprising for the birth of a child to be regarded as a circumstance that was sinful, and therefore needed atonement. The legislation, however, deals with the secretions that occur at parturition, and it is these that make the mother unclean. Thus the chapter should be read within the context of chapter 15, which also deals with bodily secretions." [Note: Harrison, pp. 133-34.]

"It was the sense of the sacredness of the tabernacle and temple space that made purification from moral and ritual impurity essential." [Note: Sprinkle, p. 654.]

Circumcision (Leviticus 12:3) was an act of obedience to God by the parents that demonstrated their faith in God’s promises to Abraham (Genesis 17). For many years people believed that circumcision was a hygienic practice. However some medical experts now dispute this theory claiming that the practice has little value in promoting good health. Nevertheless some medical studies have indicated that the eighth day after birth is the best time to circumcise a boy because his blood clots best then in his early development. [Note: See L. Holt Jr. and R. McIntosh, Holt Pediatrics, pp. 125-26.]

Some of Israel’s neighbor nations also practiced circumcision. However they did so as a puberty rite, mainly on adolescents. Apparently infant circumcision was peculiar to Israel. It precluded any licentious puberty ritual that the other nations may have observed as well as conveying a spiritual message about the faith of the parents. [Note: See Harris, p. 574.]

"This narrative tells us that as long as the woman was unclean, ’she must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary’ (Leviticus 12:4). This statement defines impurity with respect to the sanctuary (the tabernacle) and, more importantly, in terms of one’s acceptability within the worshiping community. Impurity is not defined in terms of a vague notion of taboo but in terms of acceptance or restriction from worship. The sense of impurity is thus defined with respect to the goal of the covenant and the goal of Creation . . . , that is, the worship of God." [Note: Sailhamer, p. 334. This author proceeded to point out parallels between the creation account and this chapter.]

The fact that Mary, the mother of Jesus, brought two birds for the offerings specified here (Luke 2:22-24) indicates that she and Joseph were poor (Leviticus 12:8). It also shows that she was a sinner since she offered a sin offering (Leviticus 12:8). God made provision so the poor could offer birds instead of a lamb for the burnt offering (cf. Leviticus 1:14-17; Leviticus 14:21-22).

"God’s holy nature demands that all who experience the physical aspects of this life (here the process of childbirth) must be sanctified to enter his presence." [Note: Ross, p. 273.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Leviticus 12". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/leviticus-12.html. 2012.
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