Monday, February 15, 2016

What Does it Mean for a Woman to be "Unclean" in the Bible?


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 Germany
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.


37 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing this liberating information! Whenever I come across something in the scriptures that seems...off to me, I decide to chalk it up to mistranslation on another's part or misunderstanding on my part, because I believe that the scriptures are truly God speaking. This clears up one of those "Uh...what?" ideas from the Bible, and I really appreciate it.

    You may find interesting that mikvah is practiced by Jewish women today, too; I remembered this article I came across a few years ago that explains it: http://www.kveller.com/everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-mikveh/ and was so fascinated by the very font-like design of the mikvah itself. Many inter-religious thoughts there.

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    1. I agree... sometimes giving the Bible the benefit of the doubt is the best way to go :) And I love that about Jewish women. It almost makes me wish we still did this purifying after menstruation, it would be a nice physical reminder. Or maybe I just need to take my sacrament attendance more seriously :)

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    2. If a man was considered Tuma after intercourse, why did he not take a mikvah also to get clean?

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    3. He did. You can read about all the tuma laws in Lev. 15. A man who had an issue (of blood or something else) also had to bathe in the mikvah. In fact, i think the laws for men with an issue of blood are much more tedious than the ones for women!

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    4. Also, you could become tuma other was as well. Like with leprosy or eating "unclean" animals.

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  2. This also explains the woman with the issue being shunned by everybody as tuma for 12 years. She could never perform the mikvah, and thus be cleansed, because her flow never stopped. In curing her, Christ not only healed her body, but made it possible for the rest of the community to see that she was spiritually cleansed as well, and again a part of the community.
    When I had fibroids, I spent about 6 months with a constant issue, at times so bad that I would pass out from the loss of blood. Doctors wouldn't perform surgery because I was "too young" (55. Really?), and my insurance company wouldn't pay for it. I never felt clean that whole time, no matter how often I bathed. When my ob-gyn was finally convinced that other therapies wouldn't work, she finally said OK to a hysterectomy. They found a grapefruit-sized fibroid outside the uterus that was causing all the problems. That surgery was my salvation, and I'll always be grateful for the knowledge and skill we have now. Miracles are still happening.

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    1. Thank you for sharing - I'm about to undergo the same procedure and can see the benefit but I've been feeling the finality of it all!

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    2. I also believe that the woman with an issue of blood must have had the illness of Von Willebrands Disease - a form of hemophilia that is prevalent in woman.

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    3. I just went through this same surgery three weeks ago. When I started having a "period" that wouldn't stop (long story, but it took three months to see a specialist), the surgeon wanted to try some other therapies. When I protested that I am 63, he scheduled the surgery the next week. :)

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    4. I also had tumors and the flow was for most of the month. There was also pain and each tumor had its own little cycle with the waves of emotions that go with it. I debated on having a hysterectomy. What was right? I had alreqdy had my family of five children and I was in my forty's. One day I prayed and asked what I should do then took my scriptures and let them fall open. I reached out a finger and touch a scripture then read. It was Alma 41:4. "Therefore all things shall be restored to their proper order, evething to its natural frame." I knew that the Lord had answered my prayer. Not everyone is heqled by a miracle. He had, in effect, created the smith that blows the coals. In this case "he created the doctor who had the gift of surgery." Through the talents of the doctor the Lord would bless me.
      After the surgerey I felt so much better, and it was immediate, the minute I woke. Witht the constant mini cycles and flow I was better able to meet the needs of my growing family and do my work in the Lord's kingdom.

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  3. Thank you so much for all the research you do that you in turn share with us. This is fascinating and enlightening. So much to think and ponder about . . .

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  4. Thank you very much. This type of article helps me want to delve more into similar 'strange' words, perspectives and rites from scriptures. I'll also pass it onto my daughter who is planning pregnancy very soon to give her more of a sacred view of reproduction.

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  5. Anything that sheds light on the power of womanhood is so sacred to me. Thank you for your work.

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  6. I wrote my master's thesis specifically on the doubling of days of uncleanness after the birth of a daughter and more generally on uncleanness of women in Leviticus. (I was in the Ancient Near Eastern Studies program at BYU.)

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    1. Oh! Do you have a copy of your research I could read. I'd be so interested!

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    2. Adding my interest in reading your thesis, too!

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    3. Me too! If you wouldn't mind sharing!

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  7. AuntSue
    Thank you! This explanation is so beautiful. I loved when our Bible came with the
    Joseph Smith translations in the footnotes. Then when scriptures like Lot offering his daughters, instead of the strangers, to the men of town, finally made sense. The mistranslation cleared up. Thank you!

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  8. I really appreciate this context! And as an above commenter asked, if the tuma comes from the potential of life that's being wasted, and men also become tuma after intercourse...why don't men remain tuma for seven days after every time they have intercourse? Or until they bathe in the mikvah?

    It seems like that would be the case, if it's really all about life potential and not just about an aversion to women's bodies and blood. But is there something I'm missing?

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    1. I'm not sure about why men aren't unclean 7 days but the sitpulations are the same for both men and women after sex. They BOTh have to wash in the mikvah after. It seems to me that menstruation is its own thing, something that men don't really have an equivalent for. I think sometimes we try to make things so "equal" between men and women when really there are some things that are just more purely female and other that are more male. I feel like menstruation is a powerful reminder of female power-- of the type of blood sacrafice that is symbolic of the saviors life giving blood. Men don't really have an equivalent and so I think that is one reason they don't have the 7 day rule... but that is pure speculation on my part :)

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    2. Remember, men have to deal with wet dreams, which I assume puts them in a similar state of uncleanliness.

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  9. Oh, and I meant to say: I love finding out that the original term doesn't mean "dirty," but can better be phrased as "energy of death"! That makes me feel a lot better about those verses.

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  10. Great post, Heather. For the benefit of your commenters, I wanted to add that Leviticus also outlines the codes for men and yes, after intercourse or any issue of semen, men were also required to complete their own ritual washing (which included washing themselves and their clothing or anything that came in contact with their semen). In Hebrew this is referred to as "keri." With certain related medical issues men were also required to complete a seven-day cleansing period and an animal sacrifice at the temple (known in Hebrew as "zav"). There is a lot of information out there on this topic for anyone curious to know more.

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  11. Where can I get a copy of this information and the comments made that were also helpful. I too wondered why they were not clean. Now it is clear. Thank you.

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  12. Where can I get a copy of this information and the comments made that were also helpful. I too wondered why they were not clean. Now it is clear. Thank you.

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    1. I have written a lot of this in my book Walking with the Women of the New Testament, if you liked this you might really enjoy it. You can purchase it on amazon, seagull Book or at Deseret Book.

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  13. Thank you for a great post!
    A friend of mine read and commented to me that as a sign of the covenant, men were commanded to be circumcised. As women, we don't ask for a female counterpart to that. We know that to be equal does not mean being the same.

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  14. Thank you for a great post!
    A friend of mine read and commented to me that as a sign of the covenant, men were commanded to be circumcised. As women, we don't ask for a female counterpart to that. We know that to be equal does not mean being the same.

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  15. Can I share this on Pinterest, and if yes how can I do so?

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  16. What great insight. This was beautifully written!

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  17. Thank you Heather for such incredible insight! I can hardly wait to share this with my daughters and to read your book.

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  18. I appreciate the insight and have followed with my own research. I am having difficulty arriving at the same conclusions after looking up "tuma", "tamai" and related words in the available lexicons. I agree that your approach makes perfect sense, as a teacher of the Gospel, I would like to be able to pin point the meanings you have derived.
    Would you mind sharing more of your etymological sources which speak of the "spirit of death" and sin and death in the World?
    Thank you,
    Don

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    1. Don, I wish I had a better source to send you to but a lot of my own understanding of this has come from speaking with modern Jewish people, and reading things that they have written about it. The way I described "tuma" or "tamai" (these can be spelled and said different ways) was my best attempt to describe how modern Orthodox Jews understand these words and concepts today, from my own personal observation. With that said, it may have been diffent back in Bible time, but I'd like to think that the main jist of the word has survived.

      The phrase "energy of death" came from this website (which isn't a primary source or anything) and I used it because I thought that it was the best way to say what I'd seen other Jewish people say in different ways. http://www.donmeh-west.com/hiddenwater.shtml

      I also found that the Wikipedia entry for Tumah had some really good references at the bottom. I didn't check them all, but they would be a good place to start if you wanted to do some more research on the words.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tumah_and_taharah

      If you find out anything new, or anything I got wrong :) Let me know. I've been trying to wrap my head around these words for a long time and I think I finally got the jist of what they mean... but I could always be wrong :)

      It seems like the word is a complex one, and that it is hard to translate it out of its original Hebrew into something that makes sense in English :) It is also always possible that different groups of Jews interpret the meaning of the word differently, and that adds to the confusion!


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  19. This is all nice and wonderful, but hindsight at best. The consequences for being unclean (in actual ancient society, not just stories) would not have been fun and games. The people were so obsessed by the rules they completely missed the point. They focused on ceremony and checklists instead of symbolism and spiritual enlightenment. Kind of like we do today. I think that is the major lesson we can learn from the stories. We have to take them symbolicly or we miss so much. They took them literally, and failed to comprehend what they were supposed to.

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  20. A female scientist's perspective:

    I have always taken the Leviticus 15 chapter on uncleanness completely literally. I see it as health code, just like the word of wisdom. They did not know about infectious disease back then. They did not wash hands or linens except when they became extremely, visibly gross. They did not wash hands when caring for sick people. It was only a couple hundred years ago that surgeons were moving from one patient to the next with blood and fluids on their hands from previous patients. Sickness has been the scourge of civilization for all time. They did not understand it. It ravaged their families. Their babies and wives died after childbirth and they had no idea why. You can imagine why it would be important for Heavenly Father, in his mercy, to intervene via his prophets, and tell us a little bit about how to care for the sick. To me, this chapter is the doctrine of infectious disease spelled out in words that people thousands of years ago can understand. You can also imagine how menstruation might cause a particular problem in a world where the same clothes were worn over and over again and washing was a sometimes thing. And women are particularly at danger of infection after childbirth. To me, it all makes perfect sense, and I have never been bothered by it. I think these verses have become ritualized by centuries of practice in the Jewish faith, and the original necessity has been lost. But originally, they were very, very necessary. It was a mercy of Heavenly Father to step in and say, "you guys are doing that wrong and it's making you sick."

    I could see the perspective that it sort of focus too much on the uncleanness of women, but these things were passed down by word of mouth, and later written down by man. So man's views tend to creep in. Again, to me, not really a problem in terms of doctrine.

    I was listening to a conference talk by Russell M Nelson this morning, and he started talking about this exact thing! It was awesome. You do a lot of research for these things, so it's possible you've already read it. But if not, check it out: https://www.lds.org/ensign/1992/11/where-is-wisdom?lang=eng

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  21. I agree with Amy the female scientist's perspective. "Unclean" is a pretty easy way to say that something is a biohazard. Which bodily fluids are.

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