As Christians, a lot of the cultural ideas that we get about our periods derive from Old Testament laws that called periods “unclean.”
We’re finishing up our series on periods today! And I thought I’d end with something that came up repeatedly in the comments over the last month:
- Why did God call periods unclean?
- Why were women unclean after having babies?
- What does this tell us about how God sees women’s bodies?
Does God think we’re gross? Does He consider us “unclean” more than men are unclean? Should women feel shame?
After all the questions came up, I did some more digging about the Old Testament laws, and here are 10 things that can help clarify our thinking about it!
1. The purposes of these Laws were twofold: To keep the community healthy, and to point to truths about God in “object lesson” ways
Old Testament Laws tended to revolve around two things: the way the Israelites interacted with the Temple and with God; and the way that the Israelites should interact with each other. o, for instance, there were rules about who could go in what parts of the Temple and when; and there were rules about who you could marry or how you should treat your servants.
These rules did two things: they showed us that God is different from us, and that the true God is different from other people’s gods, because He asked different things of the Israelites. The idea of being “separate” and called apart was solidified in these laws, which were very numerous. They included what you could eat; when you could wear; how you dealt with sin (whether intentional or not).
And, yes, they focused on when you were “clean” and “unclean”.
What’s interesting about the “clean” and “unclean” distinction is that many of the things that are called unclean are things that, if they were left unchecked, could get the community sick. So, for instance, you were unclean for seven days if you touched a dead body (Numbers 19:11). Why? Well, in a time of pestilence, going near a dead body may make you sick, too. So having a rule that you couldn’t go near someone for a time after touching a dead body actually lessened the spread of disease. Not eating meat with blood still in it made sure your meat was cooked. Not eating foods that were more likely to carry parasites made people less likely to get sick.
And then we get to the rules about menstruation, which say:
When a woman has a discharge, and the discharge in her body is blood, she shall be in her menstrual impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening. And everything on which she lies during her menstrual impurity shall be unclean. Everything also on which she sits shall be unclean. And whoever touches her bed shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. And whoever touches anything on which she sits shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. Whether it is the bed or anything on which she sits, when he touches it he shall be unclean until the evening. And if any man lies with her and her menstrual impurity comes upon him, he shall be unclean seven days, and every bed on which he lies shall be unclean.
And if one is unclean, one cannot go to the Temple or offer prayers or anything else religious, and those who do go to the Temple must stay away from you. So, in general, being unclean is to be avoided.
In the Old Testament, then, when a woman is unclean, her husband wasn’t supposed to come near her.
2. A woman’s “uncleanness” was often a time for sisterhood bonding
Because a man couldn’t come near her when she was menstruating, and he couldn’t touch what she touched, women often went into separate tents during their “time of the month”. And often other women who were menstruating were there, too. So this was a time when women could be together, could chat and talk and take it a little bit easier. They wouldn’t be able to prepare food for their husbands, and they wouldn’t have to do the normal household tasks, because if they did, then everything would be unclean. So this was often a nice “time off”, fun with your sisters!
3. Unclean laws are not about one’s moral state
It’s important to note that being unclean is not about sin. It was about ritual uncleanness and whether or not you could participate in temple activities.
Touching a dead body made you ritually unclean, for instance, but it wasn’t like Israelites weren’t supposed to prepare bodies for burial, or that this was a sin to do.
People were also ritually unclean if they had certain sores on their bodies. Again, not an issue of sin.
Why was the idea of blood so tied up in ritual uncleanness (like with periods?) Since one of the main aspects of the temple was animal sacrifice, where the animal’s blood was spilled, it was important that it not be contaminated with human blood. Even men who were bleeding could not be in the temple. In the temple, life was restored through animal sacrifice which helps get one right with God. Life is in the blood, and so the temple was to proclaim life, and that blood could not be contaminated.
4. When you think “unclean”, don’t think shame. It simply may mean you need to wash.
One of the bigger picture things that God wanted to teach people is that we were tarnished by sin, and we needed to be cleansed by Him. We need to be morally clean to approach God.
Many of the laws, then, focus on this idea of “clean” and “unclean” as a picture of needing to wash before a holy God. It doesn’t mean that we’re sinful if we’re in a particular state of uncleanness; but it helps the Israelites through their daily lives have a reminder that they needed to think about being clean before God (another way that the Law points us to Jesus, as Paul says, who makes us clean.) And the times that we’re unclean are often simply times we need to wash–after periods, after sex (or emissions of semen), after handling dead bodies, when you have open sores.
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5. Men were unclean as often as women–but we don’t seem to talk about it as much
While we’re quite familiar with the fact that women were “unclean” during their menstruation, we often forget that men were unclean frequently, too. They were unclean every time they had an emission of semen, whether through sex, or nocturnal emissions, or any other way.
It is not only women’s bodily fluids that are considered ritually unclean, then, but men’s as well.
6. When women were ceremonially unclean, men couldn’t approach them for sex
If a man approached a woman for sex during her period, he would then be unclean for seven more days. Men were not supposed to have sex with a woman during her period. To me, this is actually one of the most fascinating tidbits about the Old Testament Law, BECAUSE:
7. The fact that God asked couples to abstain during her period means that He doesn’t believe men can’t last without sexual release
We were talking last week about how Kevin Leman in Sheet Music told women that they must give their husbands sexual favors during their periods and the postpartum phase or else the husband would go crazy and would be climbing the walls and wouldn’t be able to resist porn. In Every Man’s Battle, women are called “methadone vials” for husbands’ porn addictions, and told that they need to give husbands release so that they won’t be tempted.
However, this was NOT the way that God saw things at all. It’s quite clear in Old Testament Law that God expected men to abstain for a time, and not have any release valve. And this was BEFORE the Holy Spirit came in all of His power! God felt men, even without the Holy Spirit, could honor their wives and wait. And yet too often modern Christian sex advice tells women the exact opposite.
I was talking about this on Facebook recently, and one woman summed it up beautifully like this:
God clearly assumed men have the self-control to “not come at their wives” for 7 days of bleeding and 40 days of postpartum recovery. “This law I command is not too hard for you…”
Before the New Covenant, before the indwelling power to resist sin and love your neighbor as yourself was even given, God expected men to have self-control during the times when He gave women an explicit, legally protected rest from sexual contact. There was no loophole for prostitutes or porn.
The fact that modern Christianity assumes women‘s bodies are fair game for men’s desires at any time – and then blames the woman for her husband’s lack of self-control and selfish, adulterous choices – shows how low a value the church places on women and how much it continues to elevate the (literal) pleasure of men above the Word of God and the fruit of the Spirit, which is love (your wife as your own body) and self-control.
8. The unclean period after the birth of a baby allowed healing
After giving birth, women were also ceremonially unclean for a period of time.
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.
The time of uncleanness after giving birth allowed the woman time to heal without having to do housework or care for her husband. It’s actually quite similar to the “6-week” medical guideline that we use now. In Old Testament times, a woman wasn’t to be approached for intercourse until the baby was at least 40 days old (and, in the case of a girl, 80 days old). So this was medically quite advanced, even then.
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9. Women had a longer time being unclean after the birth of a girl–for potentially a lot of reasons!
There’s much debate about why the period of uncleanness after the birth of a girl is twice as long as after the birth of a boy. Does it mean that God likes boys better, so you’re not as unclean afterwards? That’s an unfortunately easy conclusion to draw when you read it through our cultural lens.
But I’ve read a number of other interpretations which resonate with me more, based on what I know of the culture of the time, and what I know of the heart of God. I’ll just list some of them here:
It allows the baby girl time to grow, get healthy, and bond before the husband wants to “try for a boy”
Because many cultures have a bias towards male children, the pressure may be to try for another baby right away so that you can have a boy. Giving the mother a longer time to recover from childbirth lets the girl get more nourished, grow a bit, and bond before sex is resumed.
There is sacredness in “blood”, and girls represent more blood–“the life is in the blood”
Some baby girls have a “mini-period” (bloody mucous discharge) a few days after birth because of hormonal changes. This is perfectly natural, but it could be that the longer period of uncleanness takes into account this as well.
Also, there is an idea that the life is in the blood (this is why, for instance, people weren’t to eat meat with blood in it). And since life giving is reserved for God, then blood made one unclean before God. Since baby girls have the potential for more blood–and giving life–than baby boys, then their period of uncleanness is longer.
Because blood is holy, then when it is spilt, it transmits ritual uncleanness, unless it is spilt by a priest to provide sanctification for people. All other spilled blood makes one unclean.
Girls get extra time because they aren’t circumcised like boys
While boys are circumcised on the eighth day to set them apart for God, girls don’t have an analogous physical sign that is done to them. So they get “set apart” for twice as long as boys to signify this.
10. Jesus’ death took away the need to be “clean” to approach God
Finally, the big thing to understand now is that we are no longer under the law. When Jesus was on the cross, the curtain of the temple was torn in two (Luke 23:45). The curtain separated the people from the “Holiest of Holies”, where God literally dwelt. Only the High Priest could enter the Holiest of Holies, and that only once a year. Only the High Priest could be in the presence of God.
But on the cross, the curtain was torn in two, signifying that now we could all have communion with God without impediment.
In Acts 10, we read the story of Peter and Cornelius. Cornelius was a Roman centurion who wanted to follow Jesus, and Peter was sent to talk to him. But before Peter was sent for, he had a vision from God preparing him for this encounter:
And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.
The purpose of the Law was to point us to Christ. It showed us our sin, and it showed us our need for a Savior. It showed us God’s holiness, and how we were to be set apart. It showed us the need for sacrifice. But in Jesus, all of this was fulfilled.
What I find important about the Old Testament laws about periods and the postpartum phase, then, is what it tells us about how God sees women and sex.
God expected men to abstain for a time, and did not expect women to provide sexual favors at all times and under any circumstances to stop men from sinning. God has sympathy for women who are going through difficult periods, or who are going through a post-partum phase. God built in times for women to rejuvenate and to have rest.
Even if the Law no longer applies, these were God’s intentions towards us. Any teaching on sex, then, should not ignore women’s experiences postpartum or during their periods, and should not be predicated on the idea that a man cannot stay pure without a woman’s constant help (contrary to Every Man’s Battle, wives are not methadone vials).
That’s how I see it, anyway. What about you?
Does this change your thinking on the laws at all? Do you have an insight that could be #11? Let’s talk in the comments!
Our Period Series:
- All about Periods, Going to the Beach, and Teenage Embarrassment
- How Can We Help Boys/Men Be More Sensitive about Girls' Periods?
- The Period Podcast!
- When Should You Call the Doctor about Your Period?
- What Should You Do About Sex During Your Period?
- Why We Love Diva Cups
- 10 Things to Know about Old Testament Laws and Periods
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum
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