Thursday, March 27, 2008

Women are Dangerous and Unclean and Inconvenient: Leviticus 12

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

The medieval scholar who wrote numbers all over my sacred scriptures took the trouble to assign an entire chapter to this very brief description of Hebrew women. The numbers are necessary in order to highlight the fact that this is sandwiched directly between unclean food regulations and rules about infectious skin diseases. Women's bodies are kind of like that.

According to the Levitican God, pregnancy is unclean. God actually says that giving birth is basically equivalent to menstruation, except worse. It renders a woman unclean not just for a few days but for many weeks! She is required to bring a burnt offering and a sin offering to God to atone for what she has done. The Bible justifies this on the grounds that there has been a "flow of blood" from her which requires atonement. As usual, the Bible lets poor people bring smaller sacrifices.

Aside from the fact that God seems to imply that giving birth is something that a woman must atone for, which no doubt would worry the pro-family conservatives had they not already been able to bury this chapter, what's intriguing about this is that giving birth to a daughter is a greater transgression than giving birth to a son. The latter makes the woman unclean only for 40 days; if you give birth to a daughter, you are unclean for 80 days. What makes female bodies so dangerous?

I'm not sure which part of this misogyny irritates me more, although in fairness, soon we'll get to the chapter that says that sex makes men unclean as well. (This might just be because of their contact with the female body, of course.) Usually the churches I have gone to have argued that we are not required to keep the "mere" regulations about cleanliness and purity in the Old Testament, because what matters are the ones that deal specifically with sin. This is coupled with a similar argument about the New Testament, in which we are free to ignore the "cultural" verses from Paul - "cultural" being essentially an arbitrary term we apply to marginalize whatever we find just too objectionable, like not letting women speak in church, or not letting women speak in church unless they're wearing veils, or letting them speak but not teach, or a variety of other instructions which don't seem entirely consistent. There are two problems with this.

First, saying that we don't need to "keep" a regulation is usually a codeword for "I don't agree with this regulation," which is quite another matter entirely than saying you're simply not bound by it. And what matters here is not whether Jewish and Christian women today are required to make some sort of atonement for the "sin" of childbirth, but why thsi moral code we claim comes from God would suggest they do so in the first place. Even if we are dismissing some regulations as merely "cultural" or merely about "cleanliness," etc., we're still suggesting that we're free to violate rules allegedly established by God. We should be honest enough to say why we're doing this, and in this case at least, I have to believe that the theological justification has followed from, not led to, our real position on the matter.

The second problem is that I'm not sure we're being honest with the texts when we attempt to categorize them so. Leviticus isn't making clear distinctions between "cleanliness" regulations and laws about "sin." Some of the former can be said to exist - in the previous chapter, for example, contact with inappropriate animals rendered you unclean for a day and required you to wash your clothes, but it doesn't appear to have been a sin requiring a sacrifice to gain God's forgiveness.

What, however, are we to make of the Levitician birth regulations in today's chapter? The Bible says women need to make burnt offerings and sin offerings. Back in chapter 4-5 (the medieval scribe screwed up the numbering on this one, I'm sorry to say), sin offerings were needed when someone "sins... and does what is forbidden" and wishes to repent of that act. Some of the things which required a "sin" offering clearly relate to cleanliness - like touching unclean carcasses - while some of them clearly relate to what we would still call sin - like perverting justice or making "thoughtless" oaths.

It's possible that, rather than some obscurantist theological arm-waving, we can just say that the Levitican law has some good moments but is generally the moral code of an obscure and long-dead tribe of Levantine goat-herders which clearly has no lasting value to those of us who are not Jews today. This, of course, would ruin the authority of those who claim the Bible is a coherent divinely-written monolith. Even without that, I would need to contrive a reason for why I like some of the social justice regulations even while I dismiss most of the rest. Doing so is going to require quite a rant and I'm still building up to that point. In the meantime, remember that women are dangerous. They're liable to become unclean for long and inconvenient intervals.