Why was a woman “unclean” for twice as long after having a baby girl?

Q. Why did God consider a woman unclean longer when she had given birth to a girl than a boy? Does it have to do with the Fall?

No, the law in Leviticus that says that a mother is ceremonially unclean for seven days after giving birth if her baby is a boy, but for fourteen days if her baby is a girl, has nothing to do with the Fall.

It’s actually a misunderstanding of biblical teaching to believe that the woman was primarily responsible for the Fall and so women in general are in some way more guilty in God’s eyes than men. I will first address this concern, and then I will share what I think is the real reason for this law.

Paul does write in his first letter to Timothy that “Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.” However, when Paul says this, he is actually correcting a false teaching that was circulating in Ephesus and nearby areas. This teaching held that a deceptive god had created the physical world, including Adam, and that this god had pretended to him to be the supreme God. But Eve, or Zoe, or the pre-existing female principle, had opened Adam’s eyes to see that physical matter was a prison for the spirit (as was widely held in Greco-Roman philosophy) and that the god who had made it couldn’t really be the supreme God. Paul responds that Adam was not deceived, the Creator was the true God; the woman was deceived by the serpent to believe that God was somehow holding back on them or misleading them. I discuss all of this in much greater length in a series of four posts on this blog that begin here. Those posts link to an even more detailed discussion (17 posts), which begins here, on another of my blogs.

We need to appreciate that Paul speaks extensively in Romans and 1 Corinthians about how it was the transgression of Adam that brought sin and death into the world. He contrasts the deadly consequences of Adam’s disobedience with the saving effects of Christ’s obedient death. He says, for example, that “as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive,” and that while “sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people,” “just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.” If Eve was actually responsible for the Fall, and Adam basically was not, then Paul’s arguments here have no force.

The Genesis account itself tells us that Adam was present with Eve while she was speaking with the serpent, and that they ate of the fruit together at the same time. So we should understand the Fall as something for which Adam and Eve were jointly responsible. Anything in the Bible that seems to suggest that God regards women differently from men therefore must have some other explanation.

We can typically find this explanation in the ancient historical context. For example, a little bit later in Leviticus than the law you’re asking about, the issue is addressed of how much should be paid to redeem a person who is vowed to the Lord. I won’t get into the whole background to that practice; let me simply observe that Leviticus specifies that the equivalent value for a man is fifty shekels of silver, while for a woman it’s thirty shekels. Does this mean that women are less valuable in God’s eyes than men?

No, it doesn’t. When we consider the entire passage, we find that these are the values for adults in the prime of life. By contrast, men over sixty are to be redeemed for fifteen shekels and women over sixty for ten, while children and teenagers are to be redeemed for twenty shekels if male and for ten shekels if female. We see that what is actually in view is the value of the person’s labor. And in this pre-industrial society, that was measured in terms of physical strength. That is why older men and teenage boys are redeemed for less than full-grown men; they’re not considered less valuable intrinsically. (Babies and children under five, incidentally, are redeemed for five shekels if male and for three shekels if female, reflecting their future labor potential.) So once we understand the historical context, we recognize that no value judgment against women is being expressed.

To understand the background to the specific law you’re asking about, we need to first to appreciate what “unclean” means. It doesn’t mean “dirty” or anything negative along those lines. Rather, it’s a reflection of one of the two central thematic concepts in Leviticus. The default state of any created thing is that it is common and clean. “Common” means that something has not been set apart for a special purpose, that is, it has not been declared “holy.” If a thing is “clean,” however, it can be set apart and made holy; if it is “unclean,” it cannot, until it is made clean again. We might think of cleanness as “eligibility” for the special purposes of holiness.

As we look at the various laws regarding cleanness in Leviticus, we see that it has especially to do with the boundaries of the human body. If those boundaries are compromised in some way, then a person needs to restore them in order to become clean again. Skin diseases, for example, create a break in the outer boundary of the body. Some foods can cause uncleanness by passing into the body through its boundaries. And certainly having a baby represents a breach in the boundaries of the body, because someone who was on the inside moves to the outside.

In cases of uncleanness, Leviticus provides for a person to return to a state of cleanness after the situation that has compromised the boundaries is resolved, and this is typically accomplished through ceremonial washing, offerings, and a time of waiting, after which the person returns to the community. Since, for some reason, the waiting period after childbirth is twice as long for a baby girl as for a baby boy, the question becomes, “In what way would her birth represent twice the breach in the boundaries of the body?”

The Bible doesn’t give us the answer to that question specifically, but I would like to offer a couple of suggestions that would reflect the biblical culture. First, in ancient Hebrew society, a woman who got married moved out of her “father’s house” and went to live with her husband’s family. The double waiting period may have been intended to allow the mother to come to terms with the fact that her daughter might well “leave” her twice, first by being born, and then by getting married. (I often think of the waiting period as an opportunity for a person who was formerly “unclean” to settle into a new identity. We can recognize this as one of the purposes of the maternity leaves that modern societies offer; they’re not just for making practical arrangements to adjust to life with a baby.)

Another possibility would be that the baby girl was recognized as a potential mother herself, and so when she was born, in a sense her own child was also born with her. That would also represent twice the breach.

However, this is admittedly speculative, since, as I said, the Bible does not tell us the answer explicitly. So let me just conclude by observing one more significant aspect of the law here: The same offering is specified for either a boy or a girl. If having a baby girl really made the mother more guilty before God, then a greater offering would be required in that case.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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