What It Really Means When Women Are “Unclean” in the Scriptures

I found this article by Heather Farrell  on her Women and the Scriptures website and want to post it so I remember what I learned here:

There is one word in the Bible that bothered me for a long time. It was the word unclean, especially when it was used in connection with menstruation, childbirth, sexual intimacy and women’s bodies. For example in Leviticus 15 it says this, “And if a woman have an issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be put apart seven days: and whosoever toucheth her shall be unclean until the even. And every thing that she lieth upon in her separation shall be unclean: every thing also that she sitteth upon shall be unclean.” (Lev. 15:9-20)

These scriptures go on for thirteen more verses explaining all the ways women can be unclean during menstruation. In Leviticus 12 it explains how a woman is unclean after childbirth, and how she is doubly unclean after giving birth to a girl. It seems like the Bible is filled with examples of how a woman’s body, especially the blood she sheds, is unclean. So unclean in fact, that just being around a woman who is bleeding can make you unclean.

This all really bothered me. I know that are there are some women who were taught to be ashamed of their ability to menstruate, or who are embarrassed or inconvenienced by it,
but my mother did a wonderful job instilling in me the beauty, joy, and responsibility of having a female body. I’d been taught at home, and in church, that things like menstruation, childbirth and sexual intimacy were good things, ways designed to bring new life into the world, and that they were important parts of fulfilling God’s plan for His children. It confused me why God would call them “unclean” and even require extensive rituals to become “clean” from them.

When I was writing Walking with the Women of the New Testament I did some research about the Woman with an Issue of Blood. I was interested in knowing what she would have experienced and why she was considered to be unclean. The first thing I learned was that the Hebrew word that is translated as “unclean” in the KJV is the word tuma and it does not mean “dirty” or “contaminated.”

In fact, the word tuma is a complex word that can’t be directly translated into English. The simplest explanation is that it is the “energy of death” that fills the world. It comes from the word tamai which means “spiritually impure”, as in being separated from the presence of God. In fact, according to Jewish teachings tuma is what Adam and Eve brought into the world when they took of the fruit of the Tree of Good and Evil. Tuma is the loss of spiritual power that comes from being distanced from God and being able to die, both physically and spiritually.

A dead body is the highest form of tuma (“uncleanliness”) because as a living person, organized in the image of God, it has the greatest spiritual potential of all God’s creations. When a human dies their spiritual potential departs and creates a “spiritual vacuum”, and their body becomes tuma. In a similar way, a woman who has given birth is also tuma because when she was pregnant she was filled with potential life and the spiritual power of creation. When her child is born that spiritual power departs and she becomes tuma. In addition by bringing a new child into the world she has also brought more death, because each child who lives must also one day die.

In a sense each one of us “fell” on the day we were born, leaving the presence of God where we were pure and sinless. When we were born we become subject to the “natural” man and gained the ability to sin, thus distancing us further from God. Perhaps this is also the reason that a woman who gave birth to a girl was considered twice as “unclean” (see Leviticus 12) because each girl born meant more life and thus more death and sin…more tuma.

A man was also considered to be tuma after sexual intercourse because of the loss of potential life contained in each one of the sperm he spilled. In a similar way a woman was considered unclean after menstruation because each egg that she shed had the potential to become a new human life. Each egg inside a woman is filled with divine power, the power to activate and create human life. While the egg remains inside of her its spiritual potential is high. Yet once the egg passes through her body that spiritual potential leaves putting her in a state of tuma.

In order to become “clean” (ritually pure) from tuma you had to bathe in a ceremonial bath called a mikvah. The mikvah served no hygienic purpose because before someone bathed in it they had to wash themselves completely from head to toe. In many ways it was much like baptism; immersing yourself completely under the water to become spiritually clean and reconciled with God. I loved how this Jewish woman explained her understanding of tuma and the mikvah. She wrote:

“… in the words of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, ” . . . water represents the womb of Creation. When a person immerses in the mikvah, he is placing himself in the state of the world yet unborn, subjecting himself totally to G-d’s creative power.”In this context, it is easy to understand why immersion in a mikvah removes tuma. After the contact with death, we submerge ourselves in the substance from which life emerged….

Under the law of Moses each person– male, female, young, old– had to atone for their own sins, in order to bring them back into a state of purity or holiness. Yet we know that because of the atonement of Jesus Christ the law of Moses is no longer required. Christ fulfilled the law of Moses and enabled us to become clean from our sins, and from our tuma, by communing and accepting His divine sacrifice. Children are born pure, without the ability to sin (see Moroni 8). Each week we take the sacrament we are becoming clean– re-born– in much the same way that the mikvah made ancient Jews clean from their fallen state, their state of tuma.

A Medieval Mikvah in Germanymikvah
It is beautiful symbolism and was designed to turn the Children of Israel’s hearts towards their need for a Savior, the One who saves us from our continual state of tuma. These laws also had other lessons to teach. The same Jewish woman I quote above also wrote this, “The menstrual Laws, like all the Laws of Judaism, imbue us with a constant consciousness of the miracles which comprise our daily existence. We certainly do not view the menstruation cycle as disgusting, or even as routine and ordinary. Rather, these Laws enable us to recognize the awesome potential of life as it regenerates itself within our very own bodies.”

I love how she says that the menstrual laws are/were designed to help women recognize the incredible power that is housed within their bodies. I think too often in our culture we see menstruation as something routine, inconvenient, embarrassing, and even shameful. We don’t celebrate when a young woman begins her period or do anything to acknowledge the blood sacrifice that women give each month; a sacrifice that makes all human life on earth possible.

I think that if we as women really understood what incredible power we house within our bodies it would change the way we feel about ourselves. Just think about how incredible it is that every woman was born into the world with hundreds of thousands of eggs laying wait in her body. Then at puberty her power to transform those eggs into another human being becomes activated. From that point on every month, for the next thirty or forty years, she will shed her blood as a constant tribute to the continuation of life. Even if none of those eggs ever become a living human person, her body is a powerhouse of life, creating and sacrificing each month with continual hope. And that isn’t “dirty” or “unclean” in any way… just plain miraculous.

About Ann Laemmlen Lewis

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1 Response to What It Really Means When Women Are “Unclean” in the Scriptures

  1. Amy says:

    Thank you for explaining this. It has always bothered me too. This has changed my perspective entirely. I need to do a better job teaching my girls the beauty of their bodies’ potential too!

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