Monday, March 26, 2007

Leviticus: The Impurity of Women

These passages of the Mosaic Law are part of a much longer section concerned with impurity; that is, those conditions un­der which performing religious rituals is not permissible. Note that, although men, too, could be impure, the purification of women took longer and the amount of time required for purifi­cation after the birth of a girl was twice as long as that for a boy.
12:2–5. If a woman conceives and bears a male child, she shall be ceremonially unclean seven days; as at the time of her menstruation she shall be unclean. On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Her time of blood purification shall be thirty-three days; she shall not touch any holy thing, or come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification are completed. If she bears a female child, she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her menstruation; her time of blood purification shall be sixty-six days.
15:12–22. If a man has an emission of semen, he shall bathe his whole body in water, and be un­clean until the evening. Everything made of cloth or skin on which the semen falls shall be washed with water and be unclean until the evening. If a man lies with a woman and has an emission of se­men, both of them shall bathe in water and be un­clean until the evening. When a woman has a discharge of blood that is her regular discharge from her body, she shall be in her impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be un­clean until the evening. Everything on which she lies during her impurity shall be unclean; every­thing also on which she sits shall be unclean. Whoever touches her bed shall wash his clothes, and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening. Whoever touches anything on which she sits shall wash his clothes and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening.
From the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. Used by permis­sion. All rights reserved.
divorce and no provision was made for a dowry, which usually meant that a man could divorce his wife without financial loss. Divorces were nevertheless uncommon because Mosaic Law and Jewish custom placed a pre­mium on the family. Polygyny and concubinage, though permitted, were rare for economic reasons, and adultery was punishable by death.
Within the home, women were more respected than their legal position might indicate. They had the right to name the children and were responsible for their early instruction in moral and practical matters. Theory aside, they often controlled the everyday life of the household. Furthermore, Jewish literature reveals none of the contempt for women and their capacities sometimes found in the writings of ancient Greece. The Bible abounds in heroic women such as Esther, Rachel, and Deborah, and the Book of Proverbs holds the value of a good woman as “beyond rubies.” But the patriar­chal nature of Jewish society coupled with the divine origin of the Mosaic Law would have a profound im­pact on subsequent history. Christianity, Islam, and modern Judaism absorbed from the Bible the idea that women’s exclusion from many aspects of public and re­ligious life was ordained by God.
The Mosaic emphasis on family placed a high value on children. Infanticide, a practice common in other ancient cultures, was forbidden, and child-raising prac­tices, like every other aspect of life, were prescribed by law. On the eighth day after birth, male children were circumcised as a sign of their covenant with God. They received religious instruction from their fathers and at age thirteen assumed the full religious responsibilities of an adult. Eldest sons, who were especially honored, had extra responsibilities. Both boys and girls were ex­pected to help in the fields and in the home, but gender roles were carefully preserved. Boys learned their fa-ther’s trade or cared for the livestock. Girls were re­sponsible for gleaning the fields after harvest and for keeping the house supplied with water from wells that, in town at least, were usually communal. What re­mained in the fields after gleaning was left for the poor.
The obligation to assist the poor and helpless— symbolized by this minor, yet divinely established, injunction—was central to the Jewish conception of righteousness. A comprehensive ideal of charity and communal responsibility gradually evolved from such precepts and, like monotheism itself, spread to Western society as a whole long after Israel as a political entity had ceased to exist.
The central features of the Jewish faith were well established at the time of the Babylonian exile. The subsequent history of the Jewish people and the trans­mission of their religious and ethical concepts to other cultures are important to consider, for the interaction of the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic faiths continues to this day.

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