Leviticus 12 gives the ritual of purification for a woman after she gives birth to a child. One issue that is particularly difficult to understand in this chapter is why the time for purification for woman is twice as long when she gives birth to a daughter versus when she gives birth to a son.
As when we looked at Genesis and Abraham’s offering of Isaac, most of the commentaries are not very helpful in truly understanding what this passage is about. Many of the commentary writers even admit they are stumped as to why the ritual of purification was different for a daughter than for a son.
In this teaching, I am going to offer a possible explanation.
COMMENTARIES: NATURAL OR CULTURAL EXPLANATIONS
The New American Commentary: Leviticus provides a typical view of Leviticus 12. It says, “The reason purification needed to be made after childbirth is not given in the text. Some in fact find it curious in view of the fact that God gave man the mandate to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. Calvin believed that the existence of a depraved offspring in the womb created uncleanness. While there may be truth to this assertion, a more likely explanation would be that it was the contact with the blood of childbirth that defiled. The latter explanation is supported by the fact that being in the menstrual state rendered one unclean. The similarity of this condition to giving birth is explicitly made in the text.”
When one sees that menstruation is the shedding of blood, which I believe is linked to the crucifixion of Jesus, then the need for purification is pretty obvious.
Again, The New American Commentary: Leviticus provides a typical view on the longer time of purification for the mother after the birth of a daughter. “Common explanations include: (1) females were understood in some sense seen [sic] as inferior to males, (2) the longer amount of time involved for the formation of the male and female embryo, (3) the fact that the blood discharges after the birth of a female last longer or have greater toxicity than they do after the birth of a male, and (4) the fact that women are associated with the pains of childbearing that come as the punishment for sin. With regard to the uncleanness of the mother after the birth of the son being only one week as opposed to two, the difference of this length of time may be found in the text itself. The length of uncleanness after the birth of a son is interrupted by the command to carry out the circumcision on the eighth day. If the mother was considered ceremonially unclean on the eighth day after the birth of her son, it could be conceivable that she would be able to witness her own son’s circumcision.” The commentary continues that there is no consensus. It details other cultural issues that may speak to the longer time of purification at the birth of a daughter.
In another commentary, the author admits that he has no idea why the time of purification is double for a daughter versus a son. The author simply chalks it up to the whim of God. At least he’s honest.
Take note that virtually all the commentaries focus on natural or cultural explanations for the uncleanness of the mother and for the time of uncleanness lasting twice as long for a girl than for a boy. Hardly a one considers any “supernatural” explanation of Leviticus 12. Jesus is almost never mentioned. But, before we get to Jesus, let’s get a handle on the surface understanding of the Leviticus 12.
MOTHER, SON, AND DAUGHTER
The focus of this short chapter is on the mother who gives birth. The chapter details how the mother is to become clean after giving birth. There are two different cleansing rituals: one for the birth of a son and one for the birth of a daughter.
UNCLEAN AND CLEAN
The words unclean and clean appear a total of five times in this short chapter.
The first half of the chapter details the woman’s uncleanness and the length of time she is unclean.
If the woman conceives and bears a son, then she is unclean for seven days. After this seven day period, the son is circumcised on the eighth day. Then, the woman continues in the blood of her purifying for another 33 days, which includes the eighth day.
If the woman bears a daughter, then she is unclean for 14 days. After this 14 day period, the woman continues in the blood of her purifying for another 66 days.
Therefore, the time periods are twice as long for the birth of a daughter as they are for the birth of a son. The time of the woman’s uncleanness is 7 days for a son but 14 days for a daughter. The time for the blood of the woman’s purification is 33 days for a son but 66 days for a daughter. The total time of uncleanness is 40 days for a son but 80 days for a daughter.
We are also told what it means to be unclean. While the woman was unclean she could not touch anything holy and she could not come into the sanctuary. This means that the woman could not worship with the rest of the congregation of Israel. The issue at stake was worship. It is important to note that the son or daughter was not unclean. Therefore, they were able to worship while the mother was not.
The second half of the chapter details how the woman becomes clean after the 40 or 80 days of uncleanness. The process for becoming clean is the same regardless of the child born being a son or daughter. This shows that the difference in the length of time of the woman’s uncleanness for having a son or daughter does not have to do with the sex of the child. If it did, then we would expect there to be a difference in the process of becoming clean for a son or a daughter.
In either case, the woman needed to bring to the priest a lamb a year old for a burnt offering and a pigeon or turtledove for a sin offering. If the woman was too poor to afford a lamb, then she could offer two pigeons or two turtledoves, one for a burnt offering and one for a sin offering. The priest would offer these before the Lord and make atonement for the woman.
The words blood and menstruation appear five times in the chapter.
In the first half of the chapter, the word menstruation, which is the shedding of blood, and the word blood, as in the blood of the woman’s purifying, occur four times. The process of giving birth is linked to menstruation, or the shedding of blood. Therefore, it is the shedding of blood that makes the woman unclean.
In the second part of the chapter, the word blood is mentioned just one time. When the priest has made atonement for the woman, the woman is said to be clean from the flow of her blood.
A LITERAL FULFILLMENT BY MARY AND JESUS
Luke 1 and 2 records the literal fulfillment of Leviticus 12 by Mary and Jesus.
The angel Gabriel was sent from God to Mary. Mary was a virgin betrothed to Joseph. In Luke 1:31, Gabriel said to Mary, “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son.” Leviticus 12:2 says, “If a woman conceives and bears a male child.” Notice that in both cases the woman conceives a child and no father is mentioned. This is about the woman.
Luke does not specifically say that Mary was unclean for seven days. But, Luke does write in 2:21 “at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised.” This is in fulfillment of Leviticus 12:3, which says, “And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.”
Luke 2:22-24 says, “When the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.’” Here we have Mary and Jesus completing the fulfillment of Leviticus 12.
Mary and Joseph were taking Jesus up to the temple to set him apart to the Lord. This was in fulfillment of Exodus 13:2, which says, “Consecrate to me all the firstborn. Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine.” When Jesus was presented in the temple before the Lord, he would be consecrated, set apart, holy to the Lord. But, Leviticus 12:4 said that Mary, as the woman who bore a son, could not touch anything holy or come into the sanctuary until the 33 days in the blood of her purifying were completed. So, we know that Jesus was not presented in the temple, which would have made him holy, before this 33 days was completed, otherwise Mary would not have been able to touch. Also, Luke 2:27 says that Mary and Joseph brought Jesus into the temple. Mary would not have been allowed to enter the temple if the 33 days in the blood of her purifying had not been completed.
Another confirmation that Mary’s 33 days were completed was that they offered a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons at this time. This was what those who could not afford a lamb offered when the mother’s days of purifying were completed according to Leviticus 12:6, 8. Interestingly, 2 Corinthians 8:9 says that Jesus was rich but for our sake he became poor. We know this because Mary and Joseph offered two turtledoves or pigeons instead of a lamb.
So, Luke 1 and 2 gives us a literal fulfillment of Leviticus 12 by Mary and Jesus. The only problem is that this doesn’t address the woman who bears a daughter and the times of her purification being doubled because she had a daughter instead of son. Therefore, I think there is a greater fulfillment to be found.
A GREATER FULFILLMENT – ISRAEL, JESUS, AND THE CHURCH
According to the Passover, Jesus was selected as the lamb of God on the 10th day of the month, which was the first day of the week. He was crucified on the 14th. The seventh day would have been the last day of the week, Saturday, or the Sabbath. This speaks to a week of uncleanness.
Luke 24:1 says, “But on the first day of the week.” The disciples went to Jesus’ tomb the first day of the week, eight days after he was selected as the lamb to be sacrificed. When Jesus was resurrected on the eighth day he had put off his natural body and taken on a spiritual body. We know this because nobody was able to recognize him right away after the resurrection. It was as if his natural body had been circumcised on the eighth day.
Acts 1:3 says, “He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” In Leviticus 12, we know that the woman that bore a son had seven days of being unclean, on the eighth day the son was circumcised, and then she continued in the blood of her purifying for 33 days. The total time of her purification was 40 days.
Therefore, in Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension we can see a second fulfillment of Leviticus 12, which I believe speaks to a greater fulfillment.
Throughout the Old Testament, Israel is pictured as God’s wife. In Leviticus 12, I think we can look at Israel as the woman who bore a son. Jesus was the son that came forth from Israel. Israel was unclean for seven days, or a complete period of time. The woman in Leviticus 12 was unclean for seven days as at the time of her menstruation. Menstruation is the shedding of blood. So, Israel, as the woman, was unclean for these seven days because it was the time when she shed the blood of Jesus.
Jesus, as the son, was resurrected, or circumcised from his natural flesh, on the eighth day. Baptism, circumcision, and resurrection are linked together at different points in the New Testament.
Then, Israel continued in the blood of her purifying for 33 days. The number 33 speaks to the complete time of Jesus’ work. Also, the total time of 40 days for Israel’s purifying represents the complete time of her testing.
But, where does the woman who had a daughter come in?
Like Israel, the church is pictured as a woman throughout the New Testament. The church is the bride of Christ. But, where did the church come from? Well, the first believers were Jews. They were from Israel. It’s as if the woman, Israel, gave birth to a daughter.
If the woman, Israel, had a daughter all the times of her purification were doubled. Why were the times doubled? The number two in the Bible represents union. Genesis 2:24 says, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” The two became one.
Paul quotes this passage in Genesis when he says in Ephesians 5:29-32, “For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” Jesus, the bridegroom, was joined to the church, his bride, and the two became one.
So, the seven days that Israel was unclean for shedding the blood of Jesus became 14 days for shedding the blood of the church, which was Jesus’ body. When did this happen? In Acts 7:54-60, we are told of the stoning of Stephen. For the first, but not the only, time, Israel shed the blood of a member of the church. But, not just a member of the church. This was a member of Christ’s body.
When Saul was converted on the road to Damascus in Acts 9, Jesus said to him, “Why are you persecuting me?” Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?” Jesus responded, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Saul and Israel weren’t just shedding the blood of the church, they were shedding the blood of Jesus and the church, the two that had become one. Therefore, the time of uncleanness, which was likened to the time of menstruation, again for the shedding of blood, was doubled from 7 days to 14 days.
Of course, daughters were not circumcised in the Bible. Plus, unlike Jesus, we have not been circumcised of our flesh yet. We have been baptized into Christ and have had a circumcision of the heart. But, we have not had our flesh circumcised and received our new bodies like Jesus did. Therefore, there is no doubling of the eighth day.
But, the woman, Israel, does need to continue 66 days in the purifying of her blood for the daughter that she bore. The number 66 is twice the number of the time of Christ’s finished work, 33, because the two have been made flesh. In Luke 21:24, Jesus says, “They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” The finished work of the Gentiles, their time, was double because they had been joined as one with Jesus. Remember, Jesus’ bride is generally pictured as a Gentile woman throughout scripture.
So, the total time for the woman’s purification because she bore a daughter was 80 days. Again, the period of testing was doubled because the church, the daughter of Israel, had been made one with Jesus.
An interesting side note to all of this, is that Leviticus 12 pictures Jesus, the son, and the church, the daughter, as having the same mother. But, there’s the sense that Jesus and the church have different fathers. With the son, the woman conceived and bore a son. But, with the daughter, the woman just bore a daughter. Therefore, Jesus and the church are step brother and step sister.
Why is this interesting? Because that was the relation of Abraham and Sarah. Genesis 20:12 says, “Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father though not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife.” Abraham and Sarah were step brother and step sister.
WHEN THE TIME OF PURIFICATION IS COMPLETED
Whether a son or daughter was born, when the time of the woman’s purification was completed she brought an offering to the priest. The priest would offer the offering to the Lord and make for atonement for the woman.
I think there’s a possibility that this pictures the time when Israel reaches the conclusion of her test and recognizes that she has crucified her Messiah. Israel brings this recognition to the priest in acknowledgement of the offering that Christ made for her. Then, Christ presents Israel’s recognition of his sacrifice for them and makes atonement for her.
Having been atoned for, the woman is now clean from her menstruation, which is to say that Israel, having recognized her crucifixion of the messiah, has an offering presented by the priest to the Lord. This makes Israel clean from shedding the blood of the savior.
Perhaps others will see Leviticus 12 differently, but this does seem to be a way that this law as fulfilled by Jesus and bearing witness to him.