God’s Holiness: The Foundation of Life Leviticus 12:1-8


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Leviticus 12:1-8

We are, as we noted last time, now in a section of Leviticus that deals with causes of and remedies for ritual impurity. Last time we considered the ritual impurity that is caused by certain animals. The remainder of the section, to the end of chapter 15, deals with causes of impurity related to the human body.

Chapter 12 addresses the impurity contracted through a woman’s giving birth. It identifies the somewhat different procedures to be followed, depending upon whether the baby was a boy or a girl, and concludes with the sanctuary worship which is the same in either case. As we will learn, the procedure to restore purity is three-fold:

  1. A seven or fourteen day waiting period; followed by
  2. A thirty-three or sixty-six day waiting period; followed by
  3. Certain sacrifices to be made at the sanctuary. [Wenham, 185-186]

Text Comment

v.2       Again, as in the previous chapter, purity was regained in part simply by waiting. In the case of the birth of a male baby a woman had to wait seven days. Minor impurities, as in the previous chapter, required only waiting until evening; major impurities required a wait of a week or longer. Seven being a number that symbolized completeness, a seven day wait was a full period of waiting. [Sklar, 175] The fact that her impurity was like that contracted each month meant that it would be communicated by touching her or something that she had sat on. It also meant that she could not have sexual relations during the time of her impurity.

Again, as we said last time, there was nothing wrong with touching one’s wife or mother when she was impure, and removing the impurity was a simple thing to do.

“…such laws had the practical benefit of providing women with a socially acceptable way of withdrawing from others in order to rest and recuperate, which may have been especially welcome in a world without medication to help with pain and discomfort.” [Sklar, 176] Some scholars have argued that period of impurity was related to the vulnerability of mother and baby, infant mortality being as widespread as it was in pre-modern societies. The woman thus was exposed to the forces of death and so her period of impurity served to shelter both the mother and her baby. [Levine, 249]

Reflecting a somewhat similar regard for the occasion of a childbirth that proves to have been safe and successful — a safety we take for granted nowadays but which people did not until virtually our own lifetime — the Anglican Book of Common Prayer has a short service entitled “The Thanksgiving of Women after childbirth, commonly called The Churching of Women.” In that service the new mother expresses gratitude for her deliverance from “the great pain and peril of childbirth,” and does so when she is able to return to church. [Wenham, 189]

v.3       From the beginning, as we read in Gen. 17, circumcision was to be performed on the eighth day.  Some have argued, though there is no explicit evidence to prove this, that circumcision was performed in the sanctuary and that this eighth day, a day between the two periods of waiting was, for that reason, a pause in the process of purification, allowing presence in the sanctuary on that day. [cf. Ross, 267]

v.4       On the next day, that is the ninth day, a second period of waiting would begin, this lasting thirty-three days. The specific prohibitions listed here suggest that the other restrictions no longer applied in this second period. The degree of impurity was not the same as during her period. For example, in this second period no one would contract impurity by touching her and she could resume sexual relations with her husband. In other words, while she couldn’t go to the sanctuary, her life at home returned to normal during this thirty-three day period. [Levine, 72] The thirty-three days, added to the seven, made for forty days, a number that likewise represented something whole or complete.

v.5       The length of the mother’s impurity was doubled in the case of a girl baby: the first period from seven to fourteen days, the second from thirty-three to sixty-six, the total thus doubled from forty to eighty.

By the way, there is, of course, no mention of female circumcision anywhere in the Bible, a widespread practice in many places in the world today. It was never Israel’s practice for the obvious reason that female circumcision has numerous deleterious effects and the purpose of circumcision, being a sign of God’s favor, would be overturned if the procedure did actual harm to the person. In Israel’s culture, the father was the head of the family and his sons future heads of families. It was accepted as a fact of both nature and religion that those who belonged to that family were included in the acts of their representative. So when Israel is referred to as a circumcised people, the women and girls were included in the number even though they had not themselves been circumcised. [Sklar, 177]

Now comes the obvious question: why the longer period of impurity when the baby was a girl? No explanation for this difference is given anywhere in the Bible and so, as you might have guessed, there have been any number of rationales proposed.

  1. Nowadays, you are likely to hear that it is an artifact of Israel’s primitive sexism, females being less respected and less valued. There are a number of problems with that view. No people of the ancient world, I mean no people of the ancient world came anywhere close to as a high view of women as you find in the Scriptures of the OT and among the Jews. Both men and women were created in the image and likeness of God (in the rest of the ancient near east only the king was in the image of God); they were both entrusted with the responsibility of exercising dominion over the earth, and so on. 2. The sacrifices required in the following verses are the same whether the baby is a boy or a girl. 3. Nor is it even clear whether the longer period of waiting required for a girl baby diminishes or exalts the sex of the baby born or does neither. After all, it could be argued that if the female were regarded as inferior to the man, then the impurity she caused should have been less than that caused by the male child. [Ross, 271n.] 4. Finally, as we will soon learn as we read on in Leviticus, if women were rendered ceremonially unclean — unfit for the sanctuary — for some natural discharges, so were men. [Ross, 267]
  2. Others have suggested that the circumcision in the boy’s case somehow shortened the time of impurity.
  3. Others have suggested that it had something to do with conventional medical opinions about the physical aftermath of the birth of boy as opposed to the birth of a girl. The famous medieval Jewish rabbi, Maimonides (also known as Rambam) thought that the birth of a female baby caused the post-partum discharges to last longer. [Levine, 250]
  4. Others have suggested that there is no rationale for the distinction; it was rooted in common practice in the ancient world , a practice so ancient that no one could remember the reason for it any longer.
  5. Finally, it has been thought that the longer period of impurity sustained after the birth of a girl was in some way a repudiation of the fertility theories of ancient near eastern worship. [Levine, 250] The fact is no one can explain this difference in the length of impurity.

v.7       To complete the process of recovery from impurity the mother was to bring to the sanctuary two offerings that are often found together in the liturgy of Israel: a sin or purification offering (of which we read in chapter 4) and a burnt offering (chapter 1). The first offering purified both the mother herself and the sanctuary from her impurity. The second was a more general offering atoning for the mother’s sin before God and expressing her thanks to God, in this case for the gift of her child. [Sklar, 179] Whatever we think about the differing lengths of the mother’s impurity, she was just as welcome in the sanctuary as any man.

v.8       As always provision was made for those too poor to afford a lamb.

Now, before we go any further, it is important to recognize at the outset that giving birth to children in ancient Israel was not defiling because of any negative attitude toward children. Israelites placed a higher value on their children than almost most Americans do today. They saw them not only as one of God’s supreme gifts to his people but as the future of their nation and their people. And for a people who were oriented to the future children were fundamental to their faith. The Lord had commanded that man multiply and fill the earth. In giving birth the woman was doing what God had told her to do! What is more, and this is very interesting, the child himself or herself was considered to have been born pure. Mary may have become unclean in childbirth, but Jesus didn’t! [Ross, 266] The baby did not need to be recovered from ceremonial impurity, not matter that he was a sinner from the time he was conceived. [Levine, 72] Indeed childlessness, as we know from a number of OT texts, was a heavy burden in ancient Israel. The Old Testament everywhere reflects a highly positive attitude toward children.

“Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.”

So we read in Psalm 127:3. In Psalm 127:4-5 we read:

“Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them.”

It doesn’t appear that one could have had too many kids in the OT! And in Leviticus and in Deuteronomy we read that to those who are faithful to his covenant the Lord promises: “Blessed [will] be the fruit of your womb” (Deut. 28:4) and “I will turn to you and make you fruitful and multiply you…” (Lev. 26:9).

It was not children that made the mother ritually impure, but blood. You will have noticed this as we read the chapter. Twice the ritual impurity that follows childbirth is likened to that caused by menstruation, twice we read of her continuing in the blood of her purifying, and at the last we read of her having been purified from the flow of her blood. There is blood loss for days after childbirth — indeed some discharge of fluid, not necessarily blood, can in extreme cases last for as long as six weeks — and this may account for the length of her impurity. [Wenham, 188] In any case, however “normal” it is in some respects, childbirth is an unusual condition, an interruption of ordinary life and, as we all now know since fathers joined the birthing process, (and so have made it so much easier for women!), it continues to be a somewhat dirty and even bloody affair.

Once again, the notion of blood loss causing impurity was hardly unique to Israel. As with a great deal else in Israel’s cultic regulations, well-established ancient near eastern customs were exploited in service of a radically different theology and worldview. Sanctuary architecture, animal sacrifice, and laws of purity and impurity were features of religious life that Israel had in common with her neighbors, different as were the forms in some important respects and different as their meaning was in absolutely fundamental respects.

Now, we don’t get an explanation of the importance of blood to Israel’s ritual life until chapter 16 and the ritual of the Day of Atonement, but we have already read of the importance of blood being drained from the animals before being cooked on the altar fire, of Israel being prohibited from eating bloody meat, and of sacrificial blood being splashed on the altar in sacrifice after sacrifice after sacrifice. Blood was a big deal in this entire system! And the first reason for that was the connection between blood and life, or, better, between the loss of blood and the loss of life.

Anyone losing blood, therefore, is not only in danger of death, but, even if not, is losing life force. I remember once as a seminarian going to a blood bank in St. Louis because someone in our church was in the hospital and needing a lot of blood and folk from the church were asked to make up the loss to the blood bank. It would decrease his bill if the pints of blood he had used were replaced by his friends. As it happened, another seminary friend and I arrived at the same time a young mother from the congregation was there. We each gave our pint and she got up and left, fit as a fiddle. We soon followed after, except that after taking a few steps we were both so dizzy we were forced to return to our beds, drink some fluids, and lie still until we were able to get up without dizziness. It was a blow to our manhood as you can imagine! Anyone losing blood is, in a way, losing life. Blood was connected for these obvious reasons, particularly in an agricultural society where the blood of an animal spurting out of a slit throat was a not unfamiliar sight. It is not blood in the body — where it belongs — that rendered a person ritually impure, but blood coming out of the body.

Thus blood was both the most effective ritual agent of purification (sacrificial blood made atonement and brought forgiveness of sins) and the most polluting substance when in the wrong place, because it was so suggestive of death. As a symbol of sacrificial, substitutionary death in the sanctuary it was powerful to heal; outside the sanctuary it symbolized death, but death without the power to atone. Your shed blood signified death; it was the shed blood of another, a substitute that purchased atonement and forgiveness. In the one case, blood outside of the sanctuary, the symbol of death was incompatible with God who is Life itself and the source of all life. As Gordon Wenham observes, “This is profound. Our greatest woes result from the corruption of our highest good, e.g. speech, sex, technology, atomic power.” [188] Or, put it this way. Death is one thing if it brings us to God — and Christ’s death did that, the Lamb of God who took away the sin of the world –; death is another thing entirely if it is the cause of our facing the judgment of God! Just remember, the place of blood in this entire ritual system, blood as signifying death, is the explanation for the Bible’s concentration on the blood of Christ. It is not the actual liquid that circulated in Christ’s body that matters; it is the shedding of his blood, that is, his death, that obtained atonement for us and our forgiveness with God. It is a metaphor for death, we know that because Jesus didn’t actually shed much blood on the cross, nor did he die from the loss of blood. When we refer to the blood of Christ we mean by it simply his death in our place. Another died in our place, his death being the punishment of our sin, and one powerful way of saying that for someone steeped in the ritual system of Israel was:

“[In Christ God reconciled] to himself all things…making peace by the blood of his Cross.” [Col. 1:20] Or

“…the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” [1 John 1:7]

Those statements depend absolutely on the ritual place of blood in Israel’s system of sacrificial death. The narrative of the crucifixion in the New Testament makes nothing of blood. As I said, the Lord did not in fact die from blood loss. But he did die as a sacrifice for sin and that it what it means to speak of the “blood of the cross.” It is a phrase that means “sacrificial death on the cross.”

The second thing very important to keep in mind about all of this is that, as we have already said in previous sermons, ritual purity and impurity were signposts to moral states. The fact that one could contract impurity by touching a dead animal but also by ordinary bodily functions, reminded Israel that her status as a holy nation faced challenges both outside and inside. Purity before God was threatened as much by a person’s inner life as by his or her environment. [Wenham, 186]

As we pointed out last time, the ordinary believing Israelite knew very well that the entire system of ritual purity and impurity existed to enforce Israel’s conviction that Yahweh being holy, she must be holy as well. As we read near the end of the previous chapter, “You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy,” a refrain that will occur frequently in Leviticus. For this reason the language of ritual purity as we saw last time was often used in the OT to describe moral purity, and in fact in the NT as well. The fact that this entire system of ritual purity and recovery from ritual defilement was almost entirely abandoned when the church became an international community after Pentecost is further proof that the true meaning and value of this system of laws and regulations about purity and impurity were found in its sacramental and educative effect. There was no magic in the blood, but it was an excellent and very natural symbol of death. There was nothing sinful about childbirth, but, along with many other experiences of life, it was in this way made clear that this dimension of life as well was subject to the demands of God’s holiness.

So, before we blithely pass by such a chapter as Leviticus 12, assuming that there is nothing for us here, let us pause to reflect on the fact that the fatal index of our peril, as a society and all the more as the church in this society, is our so severely diminished sense of the holiness of God. It is the transcendence, the majesty, the otherness, and the relentless moral purity of God that has largely ceased to be a living part of our understanding of the divine life. As one scholar summarizes the lesson of these regulations and their importance: the fact that nothing unclean may enter the sanctuary is a “truth that will govern our entrance into glory.” [Ross, 268]

No one gets to heaven, no one finds peace with God, and no one will receive the forgiveness of sins without the satisfaction of the demands of God’s holiness. But that is a fact about which hardly anyone really seems to care in the western world of our day. Listen to this from David Wells:

“It is… [the] holiness of God…without which the Cross of Christ is incomprehensible, that provides the light that exposes modernity’s darkness for what it is. For modernity has emptied life of serious moral purpose. Indeed, it empties people of the capacity to see the world in moral terms, and this, in turn closes their access to reality, for reality is fundamentally moral. God’s holiness is fundamental to who he is and what he has done. And the key to it all has been the loss of God’s otherness, not least in his holiness, beneath the forms of modern piety.

“The loss of the traditional vision of God as holy is now manifested everywhere in the evangelical world. It is the key to understanding why sin and grace have become such empty terms. What depth of meaning, P.T. Forsyth asked, can these terms have except in relation to the holiness of God? Divorced from the holiness of God, sin is merely self-defeating behavior or a breach in etiquette. Divorced from the holiness of God, grace is merely empty rhetoric, pious window dressing for the modern technique by which sinners work out their own salvation. Divorced from the holiness of God, our gospel becomes indistinguishable from any of a host of alternative self-help doctrines. Divorced from the holiness of God, our public morality is reduced to little more than an accumulation of trade-offs between competing private interests. Divorced from the holiness of God our worship becomes mere entertainment. The holiness of God is the very cornerstone of the Christian faith, for it is the foundation of reality. Sin is defiance of God’s holiness, the cross is the outworking and victory of God’s holiness, and faith is the recognition of God’s holiness. Knowing that God is holy is therefore the key to knowing life as it truly is…

“It is this God, majestic and holy in his being, this God whose love knows no bounds because his holiness knows no limits, who has disappeared from the modern evangelical world.” [No Place for Truth, 300]

Israel, on the other hand, was hemmed in on every side by regulations that reminded her of God’s holiness, of the impossibility of approaching him without regard to his holiness, of the immense privilege it was to be his people given the fact that they were sinners and he was so impossibly holy, and of their duty to live in a way that reflected his holiness and their reverence for it. We all should be intensely and intelligently aware of how different our world today is — in a bad sense! — from the world described in Leviticus 12!

I read a fascinating article a few weeks ago about our modern American conception of virtue, another term for moral holiness. If we are to be holy, then virtues are the things we ought to practice! The article began by recollecting that it was not so long ago — 1993 to be exact — that William Bennett’s The Book of Virtues was published to widespread acclaim across the culture. It was celebrated as just the thing the country needed even in the liberal press! Time and Newsweek both drew favorable attention to the publication of the book. But just these 20 years later, the book now seems like a relic of a by-gone and largely forgotten era. The virtues it celebrated and described with readings from various periods of human history were the classical virtues: such virtues as humility, love, chastity, courage, temperance, faithfulness, and justice.

Those are certainly not the virtues that are taught or commended in American public life just twenty years later. The writer of the article offers the example of the recent public shaming of Donald Sterling, the owner of a professional basketball team, who was recorded by one of his mistresses, making racist remarks. Everyone sprang into action: sports journalists spent days outdoing one another in condemning the man, the NBA took action forcibly to terminate his ownership of the Los Angeles Clippers, even the President of the United States took time in a press conference to excoriate Donald Sterling. He was an easy target. He is by all accounts a disreputable human being and a man who got what he deserved, though there was precious little humility on display among those who vilified him, precious little sense of our mutual tendency to unbecoming thoughts and bad behavior. I’d like to follow some of those sports journalists around with a tape recorder! But in all this paroxysm of moral outrage, virtually no one paid any attention whatsoever to the fact that Sterling had betrayed his wife of almost 60 years, the woman who had born his three children, with a series of young mistresses whose attentions he purchased with lavish gifts. Nor, of course, was any attention paid to the women themselves, who were content to offer themselves to this old man for monetary reward. We ordinarily call that prostitution. It was clear enough that they weren’t with Donald Sterling for love! Adultery, apparently, did not deserve comment; but racist thoughts and words — even though he is, after all, paying his almost entirely African American team untold millions of dollars – called down a torrent of moral condemnation. The Scarlet “A” that Hester Prynne was forced to wear has disappeared from American life; replaced by a scarlet “R.” Racism deserves peremptory condemnation, of course, but the utter lack of comment on his adultery illustrates our changing mores.

We still are preoccupied with virtues, but they are different virtues. The modern virtues are such things as freedom, convenience, progress, equality, authenticity, health, and non-judgmentalism. If you need seven virtues, there are seven. Equality was the virtue that Donald Sterling lacked and so the moral outrage was entirely justified. And so it goes. We no longer dare to judge someone’s sexual practices — who are we to judge? — but we are outraged about fast food (sugared drinks, trans fats, and the like), about smoking, and about a failure to be sufficiently “green” in one’s thinking about the environment. There is no public condemnation of promiscuity or, for that matter, of adultery, but smokers are treated as if they had a contagious disease. Health has become a cardinal virtue and smokers are, therefore, unvirtuous people, properly subject to shaming tactics and treated as pariahs. On the other hand increasingly Americans can smoke marijuana — also unhealthy — because that is a matter of freedom and personal freedom is a cardinal virtue of modern western life. Freedom trumps health in this case, though not in the other. That kind of tension between virtues exists with the classical virtues as well, of course. The difference between prudence on the one hand and cowardice on the other was always difficult to describe or the difference between charity and justice.

Consider the moral judgment of sexual activity, where such a sea-change has occurred in American and European life. The German Ethics Council has just recommended the decriminalization of incest between brother and sister. Incest will eventually go the way of other sexual sins in our nation as well. You can count on that. We no longer judge anyone for his or her sexual preferences or practices: when, how often, and with whom one has sex — that is a matter of personal freedom — but we have no fear of passing peremptory judgment if one has unprotected sex. How irresponsible to risk your health and the health of another! How wrong. The concern is not so much the possibility of pregnancy, as abortion is a ready solution to that eventuality, but the threat to health, a supreme virtue in modern western life, perhaps understandably among people without confidence in a life to come.

And, to be sure, there is nothing inherently wrong with the modern virtues per se. Freedom is a good thing; so is health. The Bible itself condemns a judgmental attitude. But they are very definitely second order virtues, and in some cases third or fourth order virtues. They do not strike at the root of human life as do humility, love, gratitude, chastity, faithfulness, courage, and justice, and they are certainly much easier to practice than those virtues. [The above from Jonathan Last, “Virtues, Past and Present,” The Weekly Standard (Vol. 20, No. 9 2014)] Indeed, a far more powerful antidote to racism will be found in humility, love, and justice than in some commitment to “equality,” whatever that means.

But what strikes me about the difference between the classical virtues and the modern virtues is that the modern ones are so obviously divorced from the holiness of God. If we live our lives before God and if God is holy in the ways he is said to be holy in Holy Scripture, our freedom to live as we please does not exist. It is mirage, an illusion. There is very definitely such a thing as freedom and freedom is a good thing. But in the real world, the world defined by the holiness of God, the only virtuous freedom is the freedom to do what God approves. It is most definitely not the freedom to live as we please! Convenience is well and good, but it is of little moral consequence. Sacrifice is more pleasing to a holy God than convenience, especially in the life of a sinner where self-denial is so fundamentally a part of true goodness. The courage to do what is difficult is far more virtuous than the desire to avoid difficulty. Health is certainly something that we ought to cultivate, because our bodies are a gift of God, but health is peanuts compared to humility, chastity, and faithfulness. After all, we live long lives nowadays and are going to die relatively soon in any case.

The loss of any sense of the holiness of God has radically reshaped our understanding of virtue, of what true goodness actually is. It is really remarkable when you stop to think of it how quickly this has happened. The collapse of our culture’s sense of divine holiness, and its collapse in the church which should be the conscience of this culture, has meant that we have a completely different idea nowadays of what it means to be good and to do good. Our ethics are more pagan than Christian as a country precisely because our view of God is more pagan than Christian. The pagan gods were not holy in any moral sense of the term. They were not committed to what is truly good because they themselves were goodness incarnate. But Yahweh was and is. In this way he was utterly different from the gods of Egypt and Canaan. The living God is much less concerned about your health than he is about your holiness, because health is a temporary thing, but holiness lasts forever. The living God is more concerned with your humility because humility is simply sinners being honest about themselves with God, themselves, and one another. God is more concerned with chastity because chastity is simply a matter of faithfulness to the divine order as God created that order for human life; husbands and wives as sexual partners. I say, the God who actually is is more concerned with humility and chastity than he is with your freedom because the exercise of freedom is not virtuous in itself; the virtue comes from its being employed in the service of God. People use their freedom all the time to do all manner of wrong. Our failure as a people to grasp this obvious truth is the index of our peril.

What this means, at last, is that we have lost any sense of the problem created by our moral failure. People, even Christian people, with a view of goodness shaped by the modern virtues — freedom, equality, health, and the like — have entirely lost the conviction that nothing unclean may come into the presence of God. They have no sense that the nature of God, his holiness, is an insurmountable barrier to life and happiness for sinners such as themselves. They are not threatened by God’s holiness only because they have no sense of it; they are living in a dream, not in the world that actually exists. They have created for themselves a fantasy world, a world in which they can live as if the living God did not exist and as if his holiness were not a real thing.

Israel was taught better. Wherever she turned she was reminded that the controlling fact of human life was the holiness of God. She was never allowed to forget that there was that in her life that posed a danger to her peace and fellowship with God. There was a barrier between God and man that only God could remove and only in that way that was consistent with his holiness.

These are the defining facts of human existence and, therefore, any worldview not based fundamentally on those facts is a denial of reality. That is how fundamental to reality the divine holiness is and how impossible it is to live life as it must be lived apart from a living conviction of the holiness of God. And that is the message of Leviticus 12.