Old Testament Childbirth Laws

Stacy Mouat

The Lord said to Moses, "Say to the Israelites: 'A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period. On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised. Then the woman must wait thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding. She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over. If she gives birth to a daughter, for two weeks the woman will be unclean, as during her period. Then she must wait sixty-six days to be purified from her bleeding.

"'When the days of her purification for a son or daughter are over, she is to bring to the priest at the entrance to the tent of meeting a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering. He shall offer them before the Lord to make atonement for her, and then she will be ceremonially clean from her flow of blood.

"'These are the regulations for the woman who gives birth to a boy or a girl. But if she cannot afford a lamb, she is to bring two doves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. In this way the priest will make atonement for her, and she will be clean.'"
Leviticus 12
Leviticus can be a challenging book to understand as whole, which is why most people avoid it, but it does have numerous applicable principles in it that are helpful for us to know and even practice today; as God laid them out not only to set the nation of Israel apart, but to protect them from things they didn't understand (such as germs) and for others nations to learn from.

Leviticus 12 seems strange to us today, especially the difference time frames to be set apart when having a girl vs. a boy baby. One physical suggestion may be that a woman experiences lower estrogen levels after giving birth to a girl than a boy, and may need more time to fully recover. It has additionally been noted that female babies often have lower birth weights and higher mortality rates, so this longer period at home with the mother was meant to give them a better start in life. A spiritual explanation may be that the man was created before the woman, yet it was the woman who sinned before the man. The world often associates babies with innocence, virtue and goodness, yet the mother has actually brought forth another sinner into the world, because she and the father are both sinners (1 Timothy 2:15), hence the reason for the sacrifices after childbirth. The uncleanliness associated with childbirth was most likely a reminder that, with the exception of Jesus, we are all brought forth in and conceived in sin (Psalm 51:5). The emphasis in this part of Leviticus is on the internal character of sin. Not only do we become sinners by contact as with some of the communicable diseases addressed in Leviticus, but we are also sinners by birth. Sin is an incurable disease (apart from a Savior) transmitted by inheritance.

Physically speaking, after giving birth a woman's body undergoes numerous changes as it reverts back to pre-pregnancy status, which we are told by doctors today can take 6-8 weeks. For example, immediately following childbirth the discharge of a woman is extremely alkaline which causes a highly favorable terrain for the multiplication of bacteria. The woman is extremely vulnerable to infection during this time, therefore strict cleanliness practices should be followed. The uterus provides an ideal environment for microbes to multiply since it is still distended. Any laceration or bruising will have weakened the vulva and vaginal tissues making it difficult for the woman's body to combat infection in that region, especially if an episiotomy was performed. Microbes can also enter the cervix directly, because the opening is still enlarged. Many women may also experience erosion of the cervix postpartum. When erosion occurs, however, it too provides a favorable environment for infection and even cervical cancer. Immunity is always lowered in a woman who has just given birth, due to the fact that she has lost strength and sleep, has eaten little during the long hours of labor and delivery, as well as lost blood, possibly a severe amount.

Additional benefits that may not be obvious from the initial instructions is that a new mother was free from the duties of cooking and ordinary housework — giving her time to regain her strength after delivering a baby. During this purification period, she remained in semi-isolation, thus avoiding crowds and contact with germs that could harm her or her newborn child. She was not required to travel to a place of worship to make an offering until the end of her purification period. Since travel was often arduous, this gave a nursing mother time for her breast milk to come in, to establish a feeding routine, and for the baby to build antibodies and gain strength.

In any case, spiritual or physical, we can see God's tender care given through the law in protecting the new mother, husband, and baby from premature sexual intercourse as well as visitors during a time when weakness and the danger of infection are the greatest. This "law" also set a hedge of protection around the woman within the unity of marriage, by stating the proper time of withstanding from sexual intercourse. We see evidence of this throughout the book of Leviticus as God cared for his people physically while teaching them spiritual truths. Therefore, we are wise to adhere to many of the principles given in Leviticus though for us they are not "law," just best practice from our Creator who knows how our bodies are uniquely made and function. I am not a doctor, therefore it is best to seek actual medical advice on the subject. I know it has been indicated by some medical professionals that once the blood flow/discharge has stopped that it is safe to resume sexual activity. However, if both the husband and wife are willing to follow the Levitical law on birthing purification, we have to assume that is the best practice, since it is was instituted by God Himself, whether we fully understand it or not (1 Corinthians 7:5). History has proven that by following the practices established by God, the Israelites have been spared many negative outcomes that other cultures/people groups have had the misfortune of experiencing simply due to a of lack of knowledge. We know that God gave these laws to His chosen people so they could be an example to the world. God wanted their better health to be a witness to the surrounding nations, who would then inquire about how they too could gain the same results (Deuteronomy 4:1-8). When studied in depth, we see that through these laws, God, out of His love, was showing all human beings a better way to live.

Image Credit: 789083; untitled; Creative Commons

TagsBiblical-Truth Controversial-Issues Family-Life God-Father Health-Wellness History-Apologetics

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Published 1-18-17