Period shaming in the Bible

Photo by  Stephany Lorena
When a woman has her regular flow of blood, the impurity of her monthly period will last seven days, and anyone who touches her will be unclean till evening.
— Leviticus 15:19

I’ve never understood why periods are talked about the way they are in the Bible. So, I approached this post asking God a lot of questions.

And actually, the verse above is only part of the discomfort we have to deal with in Leviticus. A few chapters earlier we also learn that women are unclean during childbirth as well (Leviticus 12:1-7).

But…why?

Why would God design the female reproductive system to involve periods and childbirth, and then label those things as dirty?

Before I go further, it’s important to note that there are a wide range of things that God named as unclean in this section, including male reproductive functions (Leviticus 15:16). Scripture does not say that being unclean is a sin; impurity was a normal, unavoidable part of life which could be the result of anything, from a skin infection to mold in the house.

The reason I want to deal with periods and childbirth specifically is because the stigmas surrounding these issues have reverberated across centuries.

Even with today’s cultural shift towards female empowerment, periods can still carry lingering shame. Pregnancy might not be considered “unclean,” in the Western mindset, but it is often demeaned as inconvenient and of less value than pursuing a career. While childbearing is by no means the only thing that gives women value, it is still a uniquely female trait that should be celebrated as part of what it means to respect women.

I understand that the oppression and abuse of women throughout history comes as a result of the Fall and God’s curse (Genesis 3:16). Sin has led humanity far, far away from its intended order, and this is just one example of that.

However, it seems like some of the ordinances God gave the Israelites propagated these problems—both within the Church and without—by making periods and childbirth seem dirty and impure.

There has to be more going on here, right?

I know this isn’t how God views women’s reproductive systems. Jesus healed a woman who’d suffered from bleeding for 12 years (Luke 8:43-48). According to Old Testament teaching, she would have been unclean for the duration of her bleeding, which meant that anything or anyone who touched her would also be unclean (Leviticus 15:25-27).

Despite this, Jesus does not shy away from her. When she touches him, he turns around and publicly acknowledges her, clearing her from shame, honouring her and healing her. Rather than treating her condition as dirty and socially unacceptable, he speaks to her with gentleness, calling her “daughter.”

There are also countless passages talking about the blessing of pregnancy and children (for example, Deuteronomy 30:9-10; Psalm 127:3). It is also clear from the beginning that God views women as equal to men (Genesis 1:27-28).

So, I don’t think that the issue here is how God views women, or whether or not he is condemning them for the way he created them. Rather, the issue is figuring out what these childbirth and menstruation rituals would have meant to the Israelites in their context.

To do that, we need to talk about blood.

In instructions for both periods and childbirth, God talks specifically about blood. Blood is highly symbolic throughout Scripture. It is the life source of a living creature; it’s also God’s chosen symbol for atonement from sin.

“For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life. Therefore I say to the Israelites, ‘None of you may eat blood, nor may any foreigner residing among you eat blood.’ ”
— Leviticus 17:11-12

Sin results in death. Either, the death of the person sinning, or the death of something else on their behalf. The whole story of the Israelites since Abraham onward establishes this story. Moses summarizes this when he tells the people they can choose either life or death when they enter the land God promised them (Deuteronomy 30:15-18).

But either way, blood will be spilled.

We have to remember that all of God’s commands were meant to saturate his people with a deep understanding of the vastness of his holiness and the cost of their sin.

The Old Testament is brutally, astonishingly, beautifully physical. It is written for the Israelites’ Eastern mindset, which involves a holistic, body-and-soul spiritual experience that can often be lost in our Western, mind-oriented way of thinking.

The Lord chose blood to be a symbol representing the way to freedom from sin. This meant it had to be treated with special attention.

There are passages in Leviticus that say that anyone who sacrifices an animal anywhere but the place set aside for that purpose would be guilty of bloodshed (Leviticus 17:3-5). In other words, the symbol of blood is not meant to be taken lightly or used in our own terms.

In fact, blood is arguably the most powerful and sacred symbol in all of Scripture. When Jesus became a human and died on the cross he gave up his life’s blood. Because he was holy and perfect—God himself—his death was the ultimate payment for sin (Romans 23-26). Christians continue to honour the importance of his blood through the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:27-28).

The extraordinary thing here is that blood is also a very regular, almost mundane reality for women. This means that even when blood appears in normal circumstances, like periods and childbirth, God wants it to be marked, set aside and treated seriously.

On her blog, Women in the Scriptures, Heather Farrell writes:

“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. […] 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.”

Being “unclean” in this context did not imply the shameful connotations our sinful world has added. Over time, we’ve twisted and misinterpreted what was meant to help us honour reproduction and point us to Christ into opportunities to oppress and belittle women.

While I know I’m barely scratching the surface of the meaning behind this imagery, I do think that God wants to clearly indicate the sacredness of blood and its role in both death and new life.

FURTHER READING:

So much more could be said on this topic! I’d encourage you to start with the articles below. The second one discusses what the Hebrew word for “unclean” actually means, which I found helpful.

A 5 minute theology of periods

What does it mean for a woman to be "unclean" in the Bible?

Ilana ReimerComment