We continue a series of reflections on the plight of women in the church and home, and the biblical teaching regarding men, women, and what it means to be safe. These reflections are truncated and snapshot versions of material for a book which is being organized under the title, Are Women Safe in the Church? In my view, to answer this question we must ask first what a woman is, then ask why she would be unsafe, then why she could be unsafe in the Church of all places, and then finally why, in the end, the Church as Christ has redeemed her and as his Spirit inhabits her is in fact – or, in every place it is applicable, must become – the safest place for a woman to be. Of course, though it is difficult and painful to admit, it will also, invariably, expose ways the Church has failed to be this. But let us take heart: even for Churches like these, and for fathers and husbands and sons and brothers and uncles and cousins and employers and neighbors like these, there is a way forward. Truly, there is. It doesn’t have to be like this.
Now, I know that endeavoring, even in this very roundabout way, to return us all to the flawed and restless Church, may sound to some a bit too close to betrayal. After all, I have said we have a problem, and that problem is far too often the Church. Granted, and I wrestle with this far more than I let on. But I cannot refuse the Church while I plead for her health: after all, in divine grace, the solution is in her, too. Yes, in her. As I point to what the Church must become in order to be, in deed and not just in word, the safest place for a woman, I will ask us to love our Mother:
“But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother” (Gal. 4:26).
Woman and Levitical Life
The following reflections presuppose the material reviewed in previous posts, and so we pick up midstream, bringing some of our disparate remarks on the Levitical woman together for a – hopefully – more fruitful, or least less scattered, end. Again I note my indebtedness to the fine work of the scholars noted in our previous study, and particularly Richard Whitekettle, whose work I continue to summarize and interact with in this section on Leviticus, though largely invisibly.
As we have learned, in Leviticus 12:2-4 and 15:19-24, prior to the onset of the menstrual or puerperal discharge, a woman was pure. Following the onset, she was impure. After 7 or 40 days, she was pure again. This pure/impure distinction, then, involves not constant categories but sequential ones. This sets the woman apart from the purity/impurity of the animals: a fish was always pure, a crab was always impure, but a woman was sometimes pure, sometimes impure. And when a woman was pure, she was not a threat to sancta; when she was impure, she was a threat to sancta.
Sancta, to speak briefly, included any object which had been symbolically or physically set apart/devoted/transferred to the divine realm. In the Levitical schema, the divine realm was located at the center of Israel’s wilderness encampment, in the tent-dwelling of Yahweh, who created life and gave order to the cosmos. Contraposed to this spatial center is the periphery located in the wilderness beyond the encampment, a place of disorder and desolation. The parallel works as follows:
Center of the camp = divine realm = life
Periphery of the camp = divine absence; wilderness = disorder and desolation
As Wenham explains, the physical condition needed to approach the divine realm is epitomized by the phrase “fullness of life.” This “fullness of life” is a quality commensurate with the vivific character of the divine realm. God is, particularly in terms of the Leviticus-Genesis interplay, the God of creation, of holiness, of glory, of full life. Purity, then, and the notion of being unblemished, is a matter of fullness of life in the sense of being devoted or dedicated to life. Disqualification from the area of sancta comes with any lack of the fullness of life. A disqualifying thing was thus often relegated to the wilderness, the area of non-life and of desolation (Lev. 4:11-12; 10:4-5; 13:46; 21:1-4).
We return to the woman. What principle explains this Levitical schema in which the non-menstruating, pure woman = fullness of life = approach to the divine realm? (This schema will become clearer later, when we look at Lev. 15.) What was the basis of the timetable for the woman’s impurity noted in our last study, since purely physiological indicators (the cessation of discharge) evidently were not that basis?
The focus of Leviticus on reproductive systems (male and female) is key, since they determine purity or impurity. Note, in this light, the following highly significant features in the Levitical scenario:
1. The numbers 7 and 40 are hardly coincidental figures. Each connotes wholeness and completion.
2. The anatomical source of the menstrual and puerperal discharge was conceptualized in Leviticus as a geologic wellspring (maqor; cf. Hos. 13:15). In Lev. 12:6-7, following the 40th day of impurity, a post-partum woman was cleansed from the maqor of blood when certain sacrifices were offered. In Lev. 20:18, a man who has sexual intercourse with a menstruous woman is said to expose her maqor. I will say more about this shortly.
3. The womb-wellspring link, in which the womb is conceptualized as a wellspring, indicates that a vaginal discharge was seen as overflowing its boundaries, just as a wellspring overflows. (For those interested in the historical-geological phenomena, crops destroyed by overflowing, flooding wellsprings, and estuaries are still a common problem in the region. The overflowing wellspring is also a part of Mesopotamian cosmology.)
4. A woman’s spatial orientation with regard to the sanctuary (either synonymous with sancta or a threat to sancta) was correlated to the condition of her reproductive system. Thus the overflowing, dysfunctional womb-wellspring was associated with the disorder of the wilderness, the periphery of the sanctuary, while the functioning, continent womb-wellspring was associated with the vivific center.
Woman, Waters, and Genesis
But we need to say more about this, and try to bring these observations together. We return to the maqor, which is an example of a biblical “homology.” A homology is a means of conceptual interpretation in which understanding one thing helps us to understand another. Another, and more familiar, closely-related homology is the female body as a farmer’s field. This leads to an understanding of impregnation controlled by agricultural realities: just as a farmer plows and plants seed in a field, so a male plows and plants seed in the womb during intercourse. Song of Songs plays on these homologies repeatedly, and they are common in the OT. In fact, I suspect that in many places we still use the field homology ourselves.
In this case, the Levitical understanding of the womb is shaped by the Levitical understanding of the wellspring, and vice versa. But the significance of this fact requires a glance back to Genesis.
Within Israel’s “primeval history” (Gen. 1-11), both the creation account in Gen. 1:1-2:4a and the Flood narrative in Gen. 6-9 exhibit intrinsic canonical (Pentateuchal) affinities with Levitical thinking. (And remember that Israel is herself a Bride.) For instance, both the Genesis and Leviticus passages work with a tripartite structure of the world and its inhabitants: water, land, and air in Gen. 1-2 parallels the tripartite division of the animal kingdom in Lev. 11. Also, the Leviticus 11 distinction between pure and impure animals is assumed in Gen. 7.
We further note, however, that both of the Genesis textual groups (Creation and Flood) are concerned with the varying conditions of a physical environment within which the (re)production of human life takes place, with this difference: in Lev. 15/17 the environments are physiological whereas in Genesis 1-2 and 6-9 they are geological.
Also, the wellspring dynamic is part of both environments: as in Leviticus (12:2-4; 15:19-24) so also in both Genesis 1 (where unbounded waters are confined) and in Gen. 7:11b. In the latter of these, waters burst forth from the confines of geological wellsprings, the mayanot, and then are confined again in the wellsprings in Gen. 8:2a. Here the liquid or fluid become again, we could say, “living waters.”
Finally, remembering the clearly defined timetable of a woman’s time of impurity, we cannot overlook the fact that both Genesis textual groups also contain the numbers 7 and 40, and in each case they serve as temporal parameters during which the unbounded is bounded, disorder is reordered, non-life becomes life (Gen. 1; 6-9; Lev. 12:2-4). Note the structure that results:
1. At the beginning of the 7 days of Genesis 1, the world is flooded by unbounded waters (Gen. 1:2). During the 7-day process, and specifically on the first day, the waters are bounded or confined (Gen. 1:6-10).
2. Gen. 7:11b-8:2a describes the aquatic destruction of the terrestrial world, a process that extends over the course of 40 days. At the beginning of the 40 days, water bursts forth from the wellsprings (mayanot; Gen. 7:11b) and at the end of the 40 days, the wellsprings are closed (Gen. 8:2a).
3. Similarly in Lev. 12:2-4 & 15:19-24, with the onset of the discharge, fluid overflows from the womb-wellspring (maqor) flooding the uterine reproductive environment. At some time during the subsequent 7 or 40 days, the womb-wellspring ceases overflowing and becomes continent.
4. The primeval world is first described in Gen. 1:2 as tohu wabohu, something like “wilderness and waste,” or at least “unproductive and uninhabited.” During the 7-day process of creation, this world is transformed into a habitable environment within which humanity is able to reproduce (Gen. 1:28; cf. 7:1). The confinement of water is a contributing factor to this transformation in both the Creation and Flood accounts. Similarly for the womb in Leviticus: it moves from dysfunctional or uninhabitable to functional or habitable with the bounding or cessation of the discharge.
Thus, the symmetry suggests that the woman is uniquely seen as microcosm (for the cosmic relationship) and microsanctuary (for the cultic relationship), though this conclusion should be suspended a bit longer as we await a close reading of Lev. 15:18, which follows soon (d.v.).
In short, the movement of creation to un/decreation to recreation is recapitulated historically in the Flood narrative but, in the Levitical world, is also figured in the physiological experience and condition of the woman. Inseparably related to this, the relationship of holy center to unholy wilderness to holy center again is figured in the sequential physiological condition of the woman as non-menstruous to menstruous to non-menstruous again.
If the wife/woman/girl has this kind of symbolic-cultic and homological significance, we can better appreciate why, on the one hand, special concern for the female distinguished Israel from her neighbors and was constitutive for her covenant relationship with Yahweh, and, on the other hand, why this special concern was sometimes expressed by connecting the welfare of Israel’s land with Israel’s women. Not mothers only, or wives only, but women. But more on that later.
In our next installments, our Lord willing, we pause over Lev. 15:18 and the conundrum posed by defilement even in a normal, healthy, pure sexual relationship between husband and wife, and then connect our reflections to the beautiful transformation of the Levitical world in Jesus’s healing of the woman in Mark 5. This, in turn, will set us up for exploring the great tragedy of Gen. 3:16 and the continuing temptations unique to men and women, and then the roles and status of women in Israel and in the New Testament. Throughout, we are learning what our problem really is, and being prepared to receive the Christ-saturated and life-giving solution.