Light from the Sidra


Leviticus 12:1-13:59.Haftarah.Ezekial 45:16-46:18

Criticism of the Bible is not new but in my experience, most critics of the Bible have never read it. Their cavils are usually second hand and limited to “the-Bible-is-full-of-contradictions” type of objections, or “the-Bible-has-a-low-view-of-women” kind of attack. It has to be said that Leviticus 12 does, at first reading, appear to justify the second category of attack.

Israel was a people holy to Yahweh. They had been redeemed from Egypt by the power of Yahweh and set apart as his special people. They were to be different from the other nations, “set apart” for their God. The divine plan was that he, the one true, holy God, would live in the midst of his holy people with the result that Israel’s holiness would attract the nations to their God. But this would only work if Yahweh really was living in the midst of his people. How was Israel to remain holy so that God’s presence did not leave them?

Holiness was not simply a matter of morality and ethics.

John Goldingay, suggests that the word “unclean” is a misleading translation of the Hebrew word tume. Tume, says Goldingay is actually a positive concept, indicating the “possession of a quality”, not the absence of cleanness. Tume suggests something “mysterious, extraordinary, perplexing, and a bit worrying”. There is certainly something mysterious, extraordinary, perplexing and worrying about childbirth. In the ancient world childbirth was a dangerous process; many women died while giving birth to children.  

What is mysterious, extraordinary and perplexing about childbirth is the close connection of life and death. The conception and birth of a child produces new life but it also involves the shedding of blood, the pouring out of life: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood” (Lev 17:11). The pain of bringing a child into the world is a reminder of the curse of Genesis 3:16.

So after giving birth the mother stays at home for a week and does not go to the tabernacle or temple for another month. Just as it is inappropriate for a man who has come in contact with a dead body or who has buried a dead person to approach the living God until they have been purified, so it is inappropriate for a new mother who has come in contact with a symbol of death to enter the presence of the living God, the God of life.  

Women are not dirty and childbirth is not evil. However, the birth of a child teaches us all lessons about the human condition and about God.

The reality is that in the midst of life we are in death; and death is a reminder that we live in a world that is not as God intended it to be. Our world is a fallen, abnormal place in which there is little holiness. It will not remain so, however. The Haftarah looks forward to a new, purified, truly holy temple in which the Prince of Israel, the Messiah, lives. Rashi thinks the “Prince” is the high priest but no priest could be prince, and no prince could be a priest.

Just as the temple was greater than the tabernacle, so Messiah’s temple is greater than that constructed by Solomon. The first temple was made of stones; Messiah’s temple is his own body, destroyed by men but rebuilt by himself (see The Gospel according to John 2:19-22), of which his own people are the living stones (First Letter of Peter 2:5).

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