Last night I had a lively discussion with a complete stranger about the ritual uncleanness of women in childbirth, according to the book of Leviticus.
You, too, probably.
Seriously, I think that was a first. But it was very interesting.
I think modern people have a lot of trouble with Leviticus. There’s all that stuff about going bald in various patterns and which ones are unclean, and mixing fibers, and not eating camels. It’s hard for us to relate to that. Our lecture last night compared these things to the idea that doctors should wash their hands between cadavers and childbeds: it was a wild idea when it first was considered, and most people just couldn’t see the point of it.
That attitude is what a lot of modern readers do with Leviticus. “The bit about not eating pork,” they say, “was to protect these people from trichonosis. They just didn’t know it.” Without the technology needed to do it right, mixed fibers would make a weaker fabric. Eating cooked meat that sat around for three days could lead to food poisoning. Eating camels… I don’t know. But there must be something about it that’s not good for you.
The ritual uncleanness of women? Hard to see anything there but sexism. And while we can certainly see that the culture was sexist, and even attribute some of Paul’s odder remarks to his human sexism, Leviticus is supposed to be God’s instructions to the priests. God’s not sexist. Look at the life of Jesus and you’ll see that.
Our lecturer cautioned us against trying to make Leviticus be all about health and wellbeing. The book is making a point, she said, about holiness and being set apart. Having to follow rules that were completely different from everyone else’s way of life was the point. That was what the people needed at that time. Uncleanness was not the same as sinfulness. If people used those rules — and they did — to display their lack of compassion and desire to be better than anyone else, then that was a human issue.
But Partygirl and I, talking it over later, thought that perhaps the position of women in those days might have had something to do with it. Without the notion of ritual uncleanness to give women a little rest, they might have been expected to hop right up and get back to work, without time for resting or bonding with their new babies or healing. Having come up with this theory, we felt better. We hadn’t been planning on eating camels anyway.
I guess it’s the human drive to make sense, which is perhaps only slightly stronger than the human drive to discriminate against others.