Russell and Duenes

Hard O.T. Texts: A Woman’s Menstrual Uncleanness

with 12 comments

A Bible teacher I am; an expert in the Old Testament I’m not. I have done a good deal of reading on the O.T., and I set myself at the beginning of this year to read the Pentateuch six times in 2010 (and I’m almost done with my third time through) in the hopes of knowing Christ better by “living in” the Law of Moses. Of course, as one reads the Law, one encounters many “hard teachings” on such issues as personal uncleanness through bodily discharges, slavery, rape, sexual and marital ethics, food laws, and more. What I’d like to do in some brief posts on these “hard teachings” is not to assert some kind of expertise on and final answer to such texts, but rather to try to come to some provisional conclusions and open the way for further reflection, research and study. So, starting with the law on a woman’s menstrual uncleanness in Leviticus 15, here goes.

The ESV text of Leviticus 15:19-24 reads:

“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. 20And everything on which she lies during her menstrual impurity shall be unclean. Everything also on which she sits shall be unclean. 21And whoever touches her bed shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. 22And whoever touches anything on which she sits shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. 23Whether it is the bed or anything on which she sits, when he touches it he shall be unclean until the evening. 24And 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.

A few observations are in order. First, when reading through the Law of Moses, especially when doing it repeatedly, one gets a distinct sense of God’s concern for holiness and cleanness from his people. In Leviticus in particular, we are reminded too many times to count that the people should be holy because God is holy. And God is concerned that the Israelites be set apart – “clean” – over against the pagan nations.

Second, the text does not give us a specific reason as to why menstruation caused a woman to be unclean. V.31 gives the only indication that I can see when it says, “Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst.” I’m not sure what the significance of this is.

Third, the animal sacrifices that Israel is to offer to God are to be “without blemish or defect.” One must ask why this is so? Surely it has something to do with the one to whom they are offering the sacrifice. What would it say about God if they were sacrificing to him their lame, blind and otherwise worthless animals, ones they would have discarded as junk anyway? But it also seems to be saying something about the perfection of the animal. If the animal is to point to a greater sacrifice – the sacrifice of Christ – then that animal has to have a bodily integrity that reflects such perfection. And wouldn’t it stand to reason that God would want this idea of “cleanness” in his people to also reflect this bodily integrity? Gordon J. Wenham, in his wonderful commentary on Leviticus (which I highly recommend), comments, “Holiness is symbolized by physical perfection. Blemishes preclude animals from being used in sacrifices or priests from officiating in the sanctuary…Throughout their history the Israelites were a hard-pressed minority. They believed that all the bodily issues – blood, pus, excreta, semen – were polluting…In other words, the rules about bodily discharges give symbolic expression to the laws barring intermarriage with the Canaanites and the prohibitions against foreign customs and religion, which conflicted with Israel’s special status as the one elect and holy nation” (Wenham, The Book of Leviticus in The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, 222-3)

Fourth, I’m not convinced that this law concerning menstruation was given for health reasons. Though there could have been good hygiene issues, it wouldn’t seem to call for a state of uncleanness lasting seven days. Further, Wenham also points out, there is too much variation in the Mosaic laws for there to be a consistent hygiene element to all of these cleanliness laws (ibid., 222).

Fifth, making a menstruating woman unclean might have had the effect of preventing certain kinds of pagan sexual immorality. Wenham again notes, “Because sexual intercourse made both partners unclean, and therefore unable to participate in worship for a whole day, this regulation excluded the fertility rites and cult prostitution that were such a feature of much Near Eastern religion. It also served to make ordinary prostitutes social outcasts” (ibid., 223).

Finally, as I mentioned in response to one of my commentors, we cannot read this law through our 21st century eyes. Women married far younger when this law was given, and they did not share our reticence about childbearing. Thus, it becomes a pertinent question: How many actual menstrual periods would a woman have over the course of her child-bearing years, thus incurring uncleanness? Not once a month for months on end. Wenham again, “The only women likely to be much affected by the law of Lev. 15:19-24 would be unmarried teenage girls. The relative frequency of their periods and the contagiousness of the uncleanness associated with menstruation should have made any God-fearing young man wary of physical contact with a girl he did not know well…In this way these regulations may have promoted restraint in relations between the sexes and have acted as a brake on the passions of the young” (ibid., 224).

Frankly, I’m attracted to the view given in my third point above. Somehow all of this may point to and echo the perfection and holy value of Christ as Lord and our union with him in righteousness. The clean body is meant to be a symbol of something. Of course, this law is not reiterated in the New Testament, and Jesus does not become unclean by touching the bleeding woman. He abrogates this law and others like it. The heart is more of the issue, and ultimately, Jesus is the one who makes us clean, both inside and out. As Hebrews 10:14 says, “By a single offering, [Christ] has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”



Written by Michael Duenes

June 14, 2010 at 10:16 pm

Posted in Duenes, Theology

12 Responses

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  1. Good post, Mike. Having lived in Central Asia in cultures that give a slight picture of life in OT times, I have often wondered if some of these regulations were God’ mercy to these women. As I understand it, in these cultures women did a lot of work with little to no breaks. Because of this system they had to depend on community. A couple of things come to mind and maybe I am way off here. One is that every month in which they were not pregnant they got a break from the daily hard work. Also, it forced families to help each other as other women would have to step in to help while the one woman was “unclean”. Also, at least during the time in the desert, the “unclean” women had a chance to be together outside of the camp, time they probably would not have had otherwise.
    Again, I have not done deep study on this and may be way off as I said, but hopefully these thoughts will spur some new ideas/insights on these kinds of laws. Could it have been at least in part God’s mercy to the women living in that time?

    Duke Dillard

    June 14, 2010 at 10:43 pm

    • Duke – Undoubtedly you are correct in seeing these laws as his mercy and kindness toward the Israelites. Perhaps we are not correct in our understanding of how that mercy was being applied, but God’s character is clearly reflected in these, indeed in all OT laws. I would want to write that again and again as a banner over everything I write about these “hard texts.” Thanks for the thoughts. It all helps.



      June 14, 2010 at 11:30 pm

  2. Great post.

    Joshua House

    June 15, 2010 at 10:27 am

  3. […] I think an additional note needs to be clearly made based on Duenes’ most recent post: “Hard O.T. Texts: A Woman’s Menstrual Uncleanness.” Leviticus has strict regulations regarding blood mentioned throughout.  For example, in […]

  4. I don’t think the regulation was intended as a mercy to women, because they are called “unclean” and “impure”, which is a bad thing. The scriptures make clear that they are to be avoided because their bodily function is bad, not because they need an honorable break.


    June 15, 2010 at 1:52 pm

    • Bates – That’s one way to look at it, although you’d then need to mention that the man becomes unclean from his “bad” bodily function of ejaculation as well. And no, the text nowhere says that her “bodily function is bad.” Being unclean is not a sin. As I said, I think it is meant to point to something, namely, that we are “bad” and in need of redemption and wholeness.

      The text doesn’t say women need an “honorable break” either, but all of God’s laws are a mercy to people; his law is “perfect” (Ps.19:7), otherwise the God of the Bible ceases to be who the Bible says he is. If you want to go that route and attribute unmerciful motives to God as he commands his chosen people, you’re free to do so, but in that case, it doesn’t matter what the Bible says about God.



      June 15, 2010 at 8:20 pm

  5. D-

    “the text nowhere says that her “bodily function is bad.” ”

    I think it’s strongly implied, though.

    Everyone essentially has to avoid a woman like the plague when she’s on her period and 7 days following. She can’t go anywhere, and no one can touch anything she’s touched. That sounds bad to me. And she’s called “unclean”, which means “dirty”. Being dirty sounds bad. She’s also separated from God, in sense, because she can’t go worship God in the regular way, which sounds like a bad thing to me.

    My modern mind tells me there’s nothing bad about menstruation, or an occasional wet dream, but that’s not what I get from the reading Deuteronomy. That’s why it’s so challenging for me.

    It seems like everything presented so far has been an attempt to soften it, but none of the explanations match the tone of the text itself, in my opinion.



    June 16, 2010 at 9:48 am

    • OK, and I’m not trying to be argumentative or inflammatory, let’s say that we don’t “soften” it. What alternative explanation would you suggest, and how would it show forth God’s character, whatever it might be? I agree it’s challenging, which is why I’m attempting to explain it. I may not be right, but I think I’m being true to the context. I’m just trying not to go beyond the text itself or what I think can be validly inferred from it. But I’m open to alternatives, even if they seem “harsh.” Again, what would you suggest? Why do you think God gave this law about menstruation (and about semen emissions)?



      June 16, 2010 at 7:54 pm

    • Also, I’m not convinced you are correct in saying “on her period and 7 days following.” The sentence does not say that, but I’ll look at the original.



      June 16, 2010 at 7:57 pm

  6. D-

    I know you well enough to know you’re not being inflammatory, you don’t have to worry about that.

    Unfortunately, I don’t have a good explanation.



    June 19, 2010 at 8:30 pm

  7. The path to holiness requires that we are declared unclean, become clean and then some of the clean are declared holy and fit for godly service (many are called [clean] few are chosen [made holy]. Only the clean can be declared holy.

    This law teaches heirarchial representation. Each month the women is declared unclean and must therefore rely on her male heir to cover her with sacrifices and prayer. If the male heir is defiled then the family covering must come from a source higher heirarchial representative such as a sub-tribe or tribal leader. Unclean males were not permitted to offer the peace offerings in the tabernacle.

    Our hightest and last representative is the High Priest that dwells in holiness in the tabernacle. Since he alone is our last hope of representation then we must protect his holiness at all costs.

    Le 15:31 “Thus you shall keep the sons of Israel separated from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness by their defiling My tabernacle that is among them.”

    Keep the sons of Israel (males) separated from their uncleanness (wives and daughters) so they will not defile My tabernacle. An unclean man entering the tabernacle would defile it along with the serving priest servants. That would be an abomination.


    September 10, 2010 at 6:04 pm

  8. One last thought. Because Mosaic Law stressed hierarchical representation with a strong emphasis on masculine authority this law prevents women from establishing themselves as ecclesiastical representatives over men. It prevented “Eve’s” desire to rule men (Gen 3.16).


    September 10, 2010 at 6:21 pm

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