When looking at potential employers, one of the first questions on your mind (after how much do I get paid?) is usually what are the benefits? Employer benefits vary as widely as jobs themselves — from no benefits, to healthcare, to paid vacation, and even free spa services. Benefits are the extra perks on top of the salary.
So, I know you must be wondering, what do employer benefits have to do with Leviticus 12? Well, when it came to the ancient world (and even today in most cases!) God had the best benefits around. This chapter is all about the expectations for women after giving birth. In other words, what is God’s FMLA (Family Medical and Leave Act) policy?
Simply put, if a woman had a son, she was considered "unclean" for forty days. And if she had a daughter, she was considered "unclean" for eighty days. Scholars aren’t sure what to make of the time difference. It could have to do with the cultural inferiority placed on women and girls at the time. Or it could have to do with something biological that we aren’t even aware of. For instance, we know that there are hormonal differences in a woman’s body depending on the sex of the baby she is carrying. It’s possible that some of these hormonal differences contribute to the body’s ability to heal following pregnancy.
Regardless of the gender of the baby, however, a mother was considered "unclean" for at least nearly six weeks following any birth. What would that mean, in practical terms?
1. She couldn’t go to the sanctuary. What did this mean? She wouldn’t have to worry about finding animals for sacrifices and getting everything ready to go make offerings. She was relieved of that entire part of Israelite life for at least six weeks.
2. She was exempt from household work. As an "unclean" person, anything she touched would become unclean. Unless you wanted your home environment turned into an unclean place, Mama wasn’t sweeping the floors for six weeks!
3. Her body was given time to rest and heal. Given the "property" status of women in the Israelite culture, it’s likely that — without the "unclean" label — women would have been expected to have their babies and continue being of service to their husbands, whether that was in the household realm or the sexual realm. Prohibiting others from having significant contact with a woman who has just given birth meant that her body would be given plenty of time to heal before she was expected to engage in wifely duties.
So, at the very least, a woman who had just given birth was pretty much ordered to take at least six weeks off to rest and bond with her baby. Sounds pretty good to me! This was much longer than the usual resting period for Egyptian women who had just given birth; they only received two weeks of rest. God offered at least three times as much opportunity for healing/bonding.
This extended time included an initial "unclean" period which was even more stringent — where nobody could have any contact with mother and baby. Does that seem a bit harsh? Perhaps. But consider this: until the 19th century, as many as 1 in every 5 women died following childbirth as a result of puerperal fever. When this was discovered, it was noticed that women who gave birth in their homes and were more isolated rarely became infected with this disease, while women who gave birth in public hospitals died in high numbers.
Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweiz determined that this fever was caused by bacteria and that women who had just given birth (as well as the newborns) were highly susceptible to it. Additionally, it was something that couldn’t be remedied with simple soap and water. Nowadays, antibacterial soap and gloves have virtually eliminated the hospital risk of puerperal fever. However, out in the desert, the Israelite’s "antibacterial soap and gloves" was God’s pronouncement that the mother was "unclean, so stay away from her!" Sort of ironic, isn’t it, that she was the one who received the "unclean" label in order to save her from the
You know, the more I write about this chapter, the more I love it. But I’ll close with one more thought: even as I’m writing, I have been wondering if God doubled the bonding time given for a daughter in order to help lift the Israelites out of their male-dominated thinking. By extending the "vacation" for the mother to nearly twelve weeks, perhaps God was trying to confer some special honor upon the female sex — certainly the mother would have been ecstatic to see a girl! (Woohoo! Twelve weeks of vacation!) And with the extra family/husband help that would have been required to keep the household running smoothly for a longer period of time, the birth of a daughter probably contributed to increased family bonding overall.
Even though God was dealing with a seriously male-dominated culture, He proves (quite unabashedly) in Leviticus 12 that women are important and ought to be cared for. Far from advocating for the slave-status of women (as has been charged against Him by many feminists and others who read the Bible), here He is doing just the opposite: advocating for, outright commanding in fact, policies that have the health of the mother and the nurture of the baby in mind.
So, I don’t care where else you look in this world. Hands down, God has all the best benefits! I’ll take His FMLA policy any day of the week!