I was reading some of Jacob Milgrom's Leviticus commentary and I am a bit stumped as to what to make of the purification process, and how to explain the disparity between the length of purification for male and female. From what I get, it comes down to the following.

  1. The postnatal discharge was longer when giving birth to women (Macht 1933)
  2. Shows the relative status of women to men (Wenham 1979)
  3. They adopted Greek biological formation of the sexes (Rabbi Ishmael)

I was wondering if someone can help me out by giving their take on the verse and tell me if the whole double 'uncleanness' effect reflects the social worth of women.

  • 1
    The 'uncleanness' is nothing to do with propagation itself or with the real (or imagined) 'status' of male and female. The reason for the ritual required after childbirth is the matter of bringing such a sinful creature into the world, and the responsibility for having done so. Man, in Adam, has sinned. And every one born of Adam, is a part of a sinful race. The part of woman is greater than the part of man in the formation of a new human.
    – Nigel J
    Jun 1, 2018 at 13:09
  • 1
    Your question is really a dupe of this one hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/27556/… but since there are no good answers there, I will leave yours for now.
    – bach
    Jun 1, 2018 at 13:54

3 Answers 3


From my own research on the matter the rationale for the biblical male\female distinction cannot be known with certainty. However, we do know that this was common practice in the ANE. For example, the Hittites required three months purification for a boy and four for a girl (The IVP Bible Commentary). It is likely that prolongation for the girl's purification process was founded upon old misconceptions regarding gender and menstrual discharge, but as far as i know, it cannot be known with certainty.

Keil and Delitzsch concur with your third point,

The prolongation of the period, in connection with the birth of a girl, was also founded upon the notion, which was very common in antiquity, that the bleeding and watery discharge continued longer after the birth of a girl than after that of a boy (Hippocr. Opp. ed. Khn. i. p. 393; Aristot. h. an. 6, 22; 7, 3, cf. Burdach, Physiologie iii. p. 34). But the extension of the period to 40 and 80 days can only be accounted for from the significance of the numbers, which we meet with repeatedly, more especially the number forty (see at Exodus 24:18).

My personal take on the matter is that these laws do not reflect a general negative attitude towards woman in the ancient world (Wenham). This is given the fact that these purification laws were not founded on moral and ethical grounds but on taboo and fear of menstrual blood, which was associated with demonic power in the ancient world. So no matter which interpretation you choose to go with, it will only reveal the ancient cultural attitude towards menstrual blood (and how it may have been affected by gender), not women per se.


I will summarise in a few lines what I have found in different sources:

  1. Top 2 of the sources for this point: Cabal, T., Brand, C. O., Clendenen, E. R., Copan, P., Moreland, J., & Powell, D, The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith, Holman Bible Publishers, Nashville, TN, 2007, p. 169; see also W. W. Wiersbe, Be holy. "Becoming 'set apart' for God"--Cover.; "An Old Testament study--Leviticus"--Cover. (Le 12:1), Victor Books., Wheaton, Ill.,1996

There is no really a stigm on the sex. We can see that from the fact that the sacrifices a mother was to offer were the same for either a girl or a boy:

Leviticus 12:6-7 And when the days of her purifying are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb a year old for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering, (12:7) and he shall offer it before the LORD and make atonement for her. Then she shall be clean from the flow of her blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, either male or female. (ESV)

This is indicating that both genders were considered equal before God. However, one possible reason would be that the baby girl would someday be subject to uncleanness associated with female discharges and childbirth. So it takes longer if the baby is a girl, as a matter of communion of fate between the mother and the new born girl.

  1. Top 2 of the sources for this: Believer's Study Bible. Criswell Center for Biblical Studies. (electronic ed.) (Le 12:2). Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997. See also M. J. Lenz, Leviticus (2nd ed.). The People's Bible, Northwestern Pub. House., Milwaukee, Wis., 2002, p. 104

Actually I think this is valuable: the mother of a boy was ceremonially unclean for a week, at the end of which the child was circumcised.

Leviticus 12:3 And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. (ESV)

The rite of circumcision of the male child incorporated the idea of cleansing, as well as the obvious meaning of inclusion in the covenant people of God. So perhaps it had something to do with the fact that new born males entered a formal relationship with God when they were circumcised on the eighth day and this will have an effect on the ritual status of the mother.

  1. Last but not least, in Daat Zkenim on Leviticus 12:5:1 there is this comment:

... it depends on the woman’s position during marital intercourse. If she lies on her right side, she will give birth to a male child, i.e. her ritual impurity will depart from her relatively quickly. This is why the Torah provided for her to be ritually unclean for relations with her husband for only seven days after giving birth. If she had been lying on her left side, her ritual contamination departs more slowly, and that is why the Torah put her out of bounds for marital intercourse for a period of fourteen days. This is why Solomon said in Song of Songs 2,6: שמאלו תחת ראשית וימינו תחבקני, “his left is under my head, and his right embraces me.” The love-sick partner in this poem indicates her desire to bear male children.

How about that?

I would rather go for number 2.


As others have stated, the fact that the same sacrifice is required after a boy or girl, indicates that the duration of uncleanness and postpartum confinement cannot reflect on the relative worth of boys and girls, but has some other intended meaning.

One possible interpretation not yet given by others is that the longer postpartum confinement was instituted for the protection of girl babies, who are on average born smaller and lighter than boys. It may have been a practical mercy to provide a longer confinement following the birth of a girl.


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