This whole chapter is about how gross childbirth is, which I can definitely understand. When I was in labour with my son, my water broke and spewed forth a torrent of amniotic fluid and meconium, splashing all over my midwife who then had to leave the room and change. I’m also pretty sure I pooped myself. So let’s be honest here, childbirth isn’t exactly the neatest or cleanest of activities.

But even if we grant the authors of this short chapter that fact, there’s still a lot here to unpack.

Gender-based uncleanliness

Leviticus 12The first big issue we encounter is with the length of time that a woman is considered “unclean” after she gives birth. If she has a male child, she’s considered totally gross for 7 days, and then must spend the next 33 days in active purification (which means no touching hallowed things or going into the sanctuary – in other words, no religious activities). If she gives birth to a female child, her time spent in a state of total yuchiness is doubled to two weeks, and her time of active purification is also doubled to 66 days.

I can see the kindness in excusing a woman who has just been through childbirth from ordinary household duties for 1-2 weeks. I can also see the kindness in excusing a woman who has just had a baby from having to go to participate in religious stuff for 1-2 months. I can tell you, I was trashed for at least two months after my son was born – something that wasn’t helped by having some difficulty in breastfeeding and finding a good sleep rhythm – and getting out of the house was very difficult and tiring.

But the discrepancy between the period of uncleanliness for boys and for girls drives home the point that the Bible absolutely does not consider men and women to be of equal, nor of equal potential for either goodness or sin. No matter how much apologetics try to make excuses for this chapter, this discrepancy simply cannot be explained away.

Why is childbirth sinful?

In Genesis 1:28, God gives his command to “be fruitful and multiply.” And yet, here we’re told that at the end of a woman’s purification time, she must make both a burnt offering and a sin offering, which tells us that God views childbirth as something that is sinful. So what’s going on here?

The most plausible explanation that I’ve found is from EnduringWords: “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 the woman was here symbolically responsible for bringing a new sinner into the world.”

But does that jive with what the ancient Hebrews might have been thinking? Jewish websites are saying no, but there’s definitely a theme running through the Bible so far that humans are pretty given to sinfulness and that an individual can be born with the responsibility for the sins of his/her great-grandparent (Exodus 34:7) or even of his/her nation (we’ll mostly be seeing this later, but one example is Joshua 6:17).

Lastly, this chapter leaves me with a lot of questions. We were told multiple times and in excruciating detail about how to properly put on a priest’s loincloth, but the first chapter we’ve read so far since Genesis 1 to deal specifically with women’s issues seems rather lacking. What are the protocols for twins? Does it matter if the twins are different-gendered? What about intersex babies? What about miscarriage or stillbirth?