Leviticus 12:5 Why are Girls Different Than Boys?

Dan Phillips poses a tough question today on Pyromaniacs: When you don’t “get” a verse. His conundrum is derived from Leviticus 12:5 but we need the whole context. So do yourself a favor and read Leviticus 12 before proceeding.

by Dan Phillips
…I hit Leviticus 12:5, which reads: “But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her menstruation. And she shall continue in the blood of her purifying for sixty-six days.” So, the time for purification after giving birth to a girl, under the theocracy, was twice the time for purification after the birth of a boy (vv. 2-4).
Why? What in the world does that mean?…

I dare not claim the end all answer to a passage that has also perplexed me. But I would like to suggest some of what I discovered in research and prayer as potential insight for Dan and the rest of us.

Prior to chapter 12 there has been a rather protracted discussion on clean and unclean. The WBC Leviticus Volume has an excellent excursus on purity which I highly commend. John Hartley does an excellent job demonstrating that the distinction between clean and unclean is not an issue of sin & holiness. Chapter 12, while problematic if read devoid of context becomes at least a little clearer when read in that light.

In brief it is not as if having a son is less sinful than having a daughter. It is an issue of differentiation in the sexes which are neither moral nor arbitrary. They are rooted in creation order (man then woman) as well as in responsibility (Eve was deceived but Adam chose to sin thus his culpability trumps Eve’s) (see “No Headship in sin“) In fact from the responsibility perspective we could argue that it was more necessary to rush a boy into God’s presence because of the greater inherent sin in him. However, since all children are born in sin, I do not hold that perspective.

I think the passage is a demonstration of future headship and perhaps a bit of pragmatism. The second verse indicates that it is the bleeding not the birth that makes her unclean. Life is in the blood as we read elsewhere. (Leviticus 17:3) Macht, a physician, sought to explain the distinction. (JBL 52 [1922] 253–60) The evidence he gathered indicates that the discharges after bearing a girl are a little longer than for a boy, but not enough longer to account for the doubling of the time of separation. WBC, 167.

From the perspective of bearing a male child there we gain some insight on the pragmatic side. The ultimate answer may be connected not to the fifth verse but to the third. Leviticus 12:3 ‘On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. I think that rather than the mother’s time being arbitrarily doubled for a girl, it is indeed halved for a boy. This is because of the requisite induction into the covenant by circumcision. Because Leviticus as a book is highly concerned with ritual and it’s impact on society that connection should be seriously considered.

From the perspective of bearing a female child the explanation may also find it’s root in the ritual focus and explanations of the book of Leviticus as a whole. A female child will presumably share her mother’s capacity to bear children and is destined to menstruate. Both of which are times of uncleanness linked to the flow of blood.

From God’s perspective the sacrificial requirements are identical. This is evidence enough to indicate that both genders were considered equal before God. This also should definitively nullify any consideration of arbitrary (and thus “unfair” to our American mindset) gender bias.

From the perspective of the mother the only difference in “cost” is the increase (doubling) of time spent being purified. It is in this that a woman is actually given a gift rather than a curse. This would be uninterrupted time to be with her new baby. With that perspective the flow of thought becomes a bit clearer. Because a female child would be destined for the same kind of living as her mother, a double length of time was alloted in order to facilitate a stronger maternal-child bond. Likewise, because the son was initiated early (eight days) into the covenant of Abraham it is clear from the beginning that he will bear the responsibilities of leading in his family and in the community (when he grows old enough). Thus a different course is set for the son. He will still require his mothers care and nurture but his life will take on a slightly different course in terms of his future responsibilities to lead. Thus a shorter time is granted to the mother of a son for uninterrupted bonding thus enabling the boy symbolically to begin his journey into leadership from the start.

The relative destiny of girls and boys wrapped up in gender identity is the most logical reason for the difference. Because in bearing a girl the woman has replicated herself together with the life giving capabilities and its requisites for cleansing. In bearing a son she has replicated her husband together with the headship responsibilities he bears.