March 30, 2005
“Defiled on Delivery”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Leviticus 12. We have been in the Book of Leviticus for a number of months now, first on Sunday nights and now on Wednesday nights. Let me just remind you a little bit of where we’ve been in the book.
As we have looked at Leviticus 1-7, in those chapters we have seen a description of the five great personal sacrifices that were to be brought by the people of God to the priests for worship on a variety of occasions in the life of believers in the Old Testament. Sometimes that occasion was a recognition that they had been far from God, and that God in His mercy had drawn them back into fellowship with Him, and so a fellowship offering was lifted up. Sometimes it was acknowledgement of a sin that had been committed unwittingly, which the person had been made aware of and brought sacrifice to the Lord for this unconscious, undeliberate sin that had been discovered. Sometimes it was a sin (or a guilt) offering, when that person had been estranged from a brother and sister through his own sin, or from the Lord from a sin. But these offerings are described in Leviticus 1-7.
Then in Leviticus 8-10 we came to a second section in the Book of Leviticus, and that is the section of the Book of Leviticus where the inauguration, the beginning, of the ministry of Aaron’s sons, the sons of Levi, the Levitical priests is described for us there in those three chapters. And so you’ve moved from the sacrifices in Leviticus 1-7 to the ones who are charged with offering those sacrifices in chapters 8-10.
And then when you get to Leviticus 11, you get into a section of Leviticus that deals with how the Old Testament believer is to deal with uncleanness, and to distinguish between that which is clean and unclean. Very basically, when a person is in a state of being unclean, having been defiled by coming into contact with something or someone that is unclean, that person is unable to enter into public worship with the rest of the people of God until there had been actions and deeds of purification. And in setting forth these laws, God clearly distinguishes to the people of God the difference between that which is holy and unholy; that which is clean and unclean; and stresses the fact that holiness is necessary for fellowship with God, for the experience of the blessing of the presence of God...for the worship of God. If we’re going to draw near to a holy God, who has drawn near to us in both righteousness and mercy, then we must draw near to Him in holiness. Fellowship with God presupposes, requires, holiness. And that’s certainly one of the lessons that we learn from this long and sometimes perplexing section on cleanness and dealing with uncleanness in Leviticus 11-16.
Tonight we’re going to look at a passage that deals with the uncleanness that is attendant upon a mother in Israel upon the occasion of the delivery of her children. Now, that’s a strange thing to be dealing with, and I must say, my friends, that these words are...some of these words that I’m going to read in a few moments from God’s word are not words that I’m used to saying out loud, much less saying in mixed company! And so I come distinctly uncomfortable, knowing that were my father sitting about right there, he would be turning red in the face as I read some of these things. (In fact, I just can’t understand why Derek didn’t want to preach from this passage last Wednesday night! Can you imagine passing up an opportunity to preach on Leviticus 12?) But this is the word of God, and so in all seriousness we will read every word of it, even when those words are not things that we normally would say out loud or speak of in mixed company, because we know that God has a word for us in this passage. This is His word.
Maybe it will help you to have some idea of where I’m going to go as we work through this passage tonight, so let me just outline where I’m going to go for you.
The first thing that we’re going to attempt to do tonight is just give you an explanation of what Moses is talking about in Leviticus 12. It’s a short chapter, but it’s strange. It hits our minds, it hits our hearts, and it feels strange. There’s nothing like this parallel in our experience. So I’m simply going to try and explain. We’ll walk through the passage and explain what Moses is saying.
Then, secondly, I want to try and explain the rationale for this. What is the biblical logic? What is God’s reason for making these kinds of ritual commands?
Thirdly, I want you to see how this passage is fulfilled in the person and life of Jesus Christ, and so we’ll look at the Christ-application of the passage.
And finally, I want to look at the personal application of this passage for us as new covenant believers, as believers who love and serve the Lord Jesus Christ, who trust in Him alone for salvation, who are not under the burden of the requirements of the ceremonial law of the Old Testament. What does this passage have to say to us? Well, it has something to say to us, indeed; something quite encouraging, I might add.
So that’s where we’re going to try and go tonight. With that introduction, let’s hear God’s holy word in Leviticus 12. Before we hear that word read and proclaimed, let’s look to God in prayer and ask His blessing.
O Lord, this is Your word, and we thank You for Your word. And we even thank You for the earthiness of this word—the fact that You would speak about matters that pertain to our physical bodies. You have made us, O Lord; You knit us together in our mothers’ wombs, and Your demands of cleanness and uncleanness, holiness and exclusion from the sanctuary pertain even to the physical aspect of our being. We pray, O Lord, that You would speak to us tonight a word by Your Spirit, as Your holy and inspired word is read. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Hear God’s word.
“Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘When a woman gives birth and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean for seven days, as in the days of her menstruation she shall be unclean. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Then she shall remain in the blood of her purification for thirty-three days; she shall not touch any consecrated thing, not enter the sanctuary, until the days of her purification are completed. But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean for two weeks, as in her menstruation; and she shall remain in the blood of her purification for sixty-six days.
“‘And when the days of her purification are completed, for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the doorway of the tent of meeting, a one year old lamb for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering. Then he shall offer it before the Lord and make atonement for her; and she shall be cleansed from the flow of her blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, whether a male or a female. But if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two young pigeons, the one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for her, and she shall be clean.’”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
In this passage, the purity laws...which we have already seen beginning to be expounded in the Book of Leviticus starting in chapter 11...the purity laws are applied to the process of childbirth, and specifically to the mother who has given birth. Now immediately you have to ask the question, ‘Why? Why in the world would God consider a mother—a covenant mother, a mother of Israel, a believing mother, one who believes in the promises of God to Abraham—why in the world would God consider her unclean when she has borne a beautiful son or daughter: a covenant child, a child who is privileged to be born into the believing household of Israel? Why in the world would she be considered unclean?
Well, very briefly let me say that pregnancy, childbirth, and post-pregnancy were (and of course they still are, but especially they were in the days of these laws) a very dangerous physical state for a woman to be in. Surely the infant mortality rates were much higher in Israel than they are today, but the maternal mortality rates would have been much higher in Israel than they are today; and so, for a woman, a pregnancy still now today can be a dangerous thing. (Just tonight we prayed for a mother who has been a member of this congregation, who experienced something in the course of the delivery of her children, her twins, that has been very, very serious; and in days gone by, could have been seriously life-threatening. And even today she is going to have to undergo surgery in just a few days in order to correct this problem which occurred in the delivery.)
But in these days, delivery was even more of a serious matter for the woman. And hence, we have in that fact a clue as to why a woman who has delivered a child is placed in the category of unclean. One common reason for declaring a man or a woman to be in the state of ritual uncleanness—as we look through this passage together from chapter 11 all the way to chapter 16, we’ll see this—one common reason for declaring a man or a woman to be in a state of ritual uncleanness was because of bodily discharges or other signs or physical conditions that might indicate that a person was in less than ideal physical condition, and childbirth was one of those states. And that fact is a key to our understanding this passage.
This passage is not denigrating the wonderful privilege of motherhood. This passage is not saying that there is something sinful about sexual relations or childbirth. This passage is not saying something like the ancient Manichean heretics, or the Gnostic heretics that called into question the value of physical life, and stressed that it was the spiritual that was pure, and that the physical was impure. In fact, if you understand this passage correctly, it’s the opposite point that is being made. Let’s explore it together. What is this passage all about?
I. Purity laws are applied to the process of childbirth.
Here’s my first point, and that has to do with explaining this passage: The physical discharges after the birth of a child referred to in this passage rendered a woman ceremonially unclean because they indicated an abnormal physical state: a physical state in which the woman was less than whole. After a period of ritual purification and sacrifice, she could be restored to the fellowship of God’s people in worship by being declared whole again.
Now, let’s walk through the logic of this in the passage, and I’m going to try and make seven points here as we walk through each verse of the passage.
First of all, let’s look at verses 1 and 2. Here we’re told this: a woman who gives birth to a male child is declared to be unclean (and when you see that phrase, that’s referring to her ritual uncleanness, her inability to enter into and be involved in corporate worship, or public worship with the people of God). A woman who gives birth to a male child is declared to be ritually unclean for seven days, and therefore unable to participate in public worship. Look at how Moses puts it in verses 1 and 2:
“The Lord spoke to Moses saying, ‘Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘When a woman gives birth and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean for seven days, as in the days of her menstruation she shall be unclean.’”
The basic idea is that if she bears a male child, for seven days she’s ritually unclean. She can’t engage in public worship during that time.
Now look at verse 3. Here’s the second thing we see in this passage: on the eighth day, she is able to participate in the ceremony of circumcision for her son. You remember the law that the Lord has given about circumcision is that on the eighth day the male child is to be circumcised in Israel. And so, she is declared ritually unclean for seven days, but on the eighth day she is able to participate in that service of worship in which circumcision is applied to her son. We read in verse 3, “On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.”
Thirdly, if you’ll look at verse 4, we learn that after the circumcision of her son she resumes a thirty-three-day period of purification in which she does not participate in public worship. Listen to what Moses says in verse 4: “Then she shall remain in the blood of her purification for thirty-three days; she shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary, until the days of her purification are completed.” And so she’s got a seven-day period where she’s ritually unclean; on the eighth day she can participate at the circumcision of her son; and then, for thirty-three more days she is considered in the process of ritual purification. At the end of those thirty-three days, she will offer a sacrifice that will initiate her back into the public worship of the people of God.
But fourthly, if you look at verse 5, there is a little bit of an addendum made with regard to the birth of a female child. We’ve been dealing with what happens when a boy is born; now we find out what happens if a girl is born. If the child was female, the woman is ritually impure not for seven days, but for fourteen days—not for one week, but for two weeks, followed by not a thirty-three day period of ritual purification, but a sixty-six day period of ritual purification. So, if a woman has a boy, she goes through a purification period of forty days total; if she has a girl, she goes through a ritual purification period of eighty days before she is considered clean, or ritually purified. We read this in verse 5: “If she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean for two weeks...and she shall remain in the blood of her purification for sixty-six days.”
Now, fifthly, if you look at verse 6, Moses goes on to explain that after her season of purification was complete—whether it was forty days for a boy or eighty days for a girl, depending on son or daughter—she then presents sacrifices for restoration. Listen to what he says in verse 6: “When the days of her purification are completed, for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the doorway of the tent of meeting, a one year old lamb for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering.”
Sixthly, if you look at the second half of verse 6 and also verse 7, we find out that the priest was to offer for her a sin offering, or a burnt offering, atonement for her via a one year old lamb, or a pigeon or a turtledove. So you have a lamb, and you have a bird that is to be offered on her behalf as part of her purification. When the days of her purification are completed, we read in verse 6, “She shall bring to the priest at the doorway of the tent of meeting a one year old lamb for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering. Then he [that is, the priest] shall offer it before the Lord and make atonement for her, and she shall be cleansed from the flow of her blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, whether a male or a female.”
So this ritual purification period is brought to a completion and she’s made clean from this offering as it is lifted up by the priest before the Lord.
And then, seventh and finally, if you look at verse 8, if the woman is poor, then instead of offering a lamb and a bird she’s allowed to offer two birds. She can offer two turtledoves, or two young pigeons—and we read this in verse 8: “If she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two young pigeons, the one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for her....”
Now, you’ll notice over and over in this passage that it is emphasized that it is not that the child is unclean, and it is not that the woman has sinned; but over and over in this passage, what is referenced? The flow of blood or the discharges from the woman that are part of the process of childbirth. So the focus in this passage is on those discharges from the woman that are what is said here to make her ceremonially unclean. Why? Because they indicated a dangerous physical condition, an abnormal physical condition, one of less than wholeness, and after that period of ritual purification and sacrifice, she could be restored to the fellowship of God’s people in worship.
II. The logic – the rationale.
But you’re still asking the question, “Why? What’s the rationale for all this?” Well, let me move to my second point, and that is simply to describe for you the rationale, the reason, the logic behind this particular ceremonial ordinance, and it’s simply this: this passage of Leviticus indicates that the process of childbirth was incompatible with the holy presence of the Lord in worship because the woman who has given birth and had these discharges is involved in a state of physical danger to herself. It’s an abnormal physical state, where she is uniquely vulnerable. The bleeding indicates a condition of dis-ease. By the way, if you think about the etymological root of our word disease, dis-ease, she is in a state of dis-ease, of physical unwholeness that is incompatible with the presence of the Lord. And holiness involves complete wholeness, moral and physical, and therefore only those who were whole were to come into the presence of the Lord. That’s why, for instance, lepers were not allowed to come into the presence of the Lord in the Old Testament. Those with certain deformities were not allowed to come into the presence of the Lord. God has created us as psychosomatic beings: we have souls and bodies; and because of this God is concerned for the wholeness of us, both physically and spiritually. And because of the case of this woman in a situation of not being at her fullest in terms of personal physical wholeness, she is declared to be ceremonially unclean.
There is a lesson behind this, and we’ll emphasize this in just a moment.
Now, a couple of further questions that we can ask about the logic behind this: you may be asking yourself already, ‘Why double the time for a girl child? Why is it that this poor woman, this poor mother in Israel, has to be in a state of ritual purification twice as long for a female child than for a male child?’ Well, let me start by saying, “I don’t know!”
I really have worked on this, and I don’t know. There have been many suggestions. As you might imagine, a liberal commentator will quickly seize on this and say, ‘This is a classic example of male chauvinism! Males are valued more highly than females, and therefore the ritual purification only takes half the time.’ I can’t see that.
Some commentators said, well, the ancients believed that those discharges that occur after childbirth last longer after the birth of a female child than a male child. Hmmmm----no.
Thirdly, some have suggested that the female child caused the woman to be ritually unclean twice as long because one day that female child would be subject to the same purification laws. Hmmmm----perhaps. But my basic answer is, “I don’t know.”
Now, you may be asking an even more profound question: why does this poor mother in Israel, who is doing exactly what God says is good in Genesis 1-2, that is, having children who are going to express the dominion which God gave to Adam and Eve in the earth in serving as His stewards in this world, why is this dear mother in Israel having to offer a sin offering and a burnt offering in order to be declared ritually clean? I mean, after all, hasn’t she done a good thing? Yes. Has she done anything immoral by having a child? No. Why does she have to offer a sacrifice?
Not because she was immoral; not because she had done anything immoral; but because—why? She was physically unwhole, and the experience of the presence of the Lord requires our complete personal holiness. We will get to some other uncomfortable passages later in the Book of Leviticus when male bodily discharges make men to be ritually unclean so that they can’t come into the presence of the Lord. The point is, physical wholeness is a part of the wholeness that is required for the experienced of the presence of the Lord. And because she is in a weakened physical state, a danger to herself especially expressed in this process of bodily discharge, she is counted as ceremonially unclean. The important lesson in that is that God cares about our physical state (and we’ll come back to that, as I said, in just a moment).
Now, my third agenda tonight is to point to the fulfillment of this passage in Jesus Christ, and in order to do that I’d like you to turn in your Bibles to Luke, chapter two—from Leviticus 12 to Luke 2, verse 21. Do you realize that Luke 21 contains a direct reference to this passage in Leviticus 12? Bet you didn’t know that Luke quoted from Leviticus. Maybe you didn’t know that the parents of our Lord Jesus Christ were so poor that when they offered Him for circumcision, they could only offer the birds; they couldn’t offer a lamb. Let’s hear God’s word in Luke 2:21: “And when eight days has passed before His circumcision [again, you see by the way that language comes right out of the Law of God to Moses], his name was then called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb. And when the days for the purification according to the Law of Moses were completed [and, by the way, you see that reference to the very passage that we’re talking about:
“...When the days of purification were completed”—what are those? Those seven days that Mary was required to undergo before she could enter into the worship of the Lord], ...when the days for their purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord’), and to offer a sacrifice according to what was said in the Law of the Lord, ‘A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.’”
Now, Luke only quotes, doesn’t he, from verse 8? But because we’ve read verse 7 and verse 8, we realize (and of course, Luke expected all of his readers to realize) that the very fact that they came offering those two birds indicated that Jesus was born into such a poor family that they were unable to offer a lamb on His behalf.
I just want you to pause and think, my friends, about our gracious and almighty heavenly Father bringing His child into the world, and putting Him in a family that wasn’t even able to offer a lamb on His behalf for His ritual purification and circumcision. And you see something of the humiliation of Christ and the humility of God in that glorious action which He did for you as a part of the sufferings and the humiliation that Jesus Christ would endure for His people, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him. And so even in His conception and birth, being born into a family of low estate, we see the Lord Jesus undertaking on our behalf a course of obedience through suffering; of active obedience on the part of His people.
Now, it doesn’t stop there. We have these beautiful passages about Simeon and about Anna, and I just point you to verse 27: “And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to carry out for Him the custom of the Law... [so Jesus’ parents are coming to do this to fulfill the commands of the law...and then again, notice verse 39. Luke goes out of his way to say, “...When they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own city of Nazareth.”
Who would have thought, in Israel, that in the fulfillment of the commands of God’s Law, the Messiah would not have a lamb and a turtledove, or a lamb and a pigeon offered for Him at circumcision, but would have only those two birds offered, because of the poverty of His people. You know, the people of God in the Old Testament, they never would have guessed it: that God would have sent the Messiah into the world that way. And that’s just one of the ways this passage is fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
IV. Personal application
Well, one last thing in the final minute that we have to ourselves. How about the application of this passage to us? Let me simply say this: holiness involves the whole of ourselves, and the laws of cleanness and uncleanness and ritual purification that pertain to the body (and that will be emphasized in these chapters from Leviticus 11-16), holiness involves the whole of ourselves, body and soul; and these laws that point to a distinction between physical cleanness and uncleanness remind us that before we can fellowship with God forever, God will transform not merely our souls or spirits, but our bodies.
Think of it, my friends! When Paul calls us to the lifelong task of growing in grace, what does he say in Romans 12:1, 2? “Therefore, I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice.” For Paul there’s no disembodied spirituality. We carry out our love for God and our love for one another through the vehicle of these physical bodies, and so our growth in grace involves not some disembodied spirituality, but living out the truth through and in and by these bodies. That’s why in the New Testament ministry in the local congregation entails not only the ministry of the word, but ministry of deed amongst the brethren, as brothers and sisters in Christ care for one another tangibly. What’s one of the ways that James indicates a person who’s not a believer? He says to the needy brother or sister in Christ, ‘Go, be filled. I’m praying for you’; whereas, the one who truly loves the Lord his God and his neighbor as himself seeks to meet the need of that brother and sister in Christ tangibly and physically.
And so, in the life of the local congregation, God has given elders who focus on the ministry of word and prayer, and deacons who focus on the ministry of tangible expression of mercy to Christians within the congregation. And so there is this tangible embodied spirituality even in the design of the New Testament church; but of course, ultimately, as the Apostle Paul reminds us in the Books of Corinthians on several occasions, when we die and our bodies are laid in the grave, though our spirits, our souls are immediately in the presence of the Lord, that is not the last word. Paul is emphatic, isn’t he, as we heard so beautifully proclaimed by Derek on Sunday evening from I Corinthians 15:12-18, Paul is emphatically concerned for the day when our bodies will be raised and joined, and we will as embodied beings be with the Lord forever and ever. That’s the resurrection hope of the Apostle Paul, and Paul also goes out of his way to say, ‘What about those bodies? Will those bodies have the infirmities that our bodies have now? No. They will be raised as glorious and immortal bodies,’ he says. Paul is emphatic about the fact that when we are joined, body and soul again together, to be with the Lord forever and ever in the age to come, those bodies will be perfect: impervious to decay, glorious in every aspect. And Jesus’ own resurrection body is a testimony to what kind of glory those future bodies will have.
Well, this Old Testament passage reminds us, doesn’t it, that in order to stand in the presence of the Lord we are expected to reflect the fullness of personal wholeness in morality, in spirit, and in body. And so, the distinctions that are made because of physical cleanness or uncleanness in Leviticus 11-16 point to this grand truth: holiness involves the whole of ourselves, body and soul. That’s one reason, by the way, why we cannot claim to worship God in our hearts while we defile ourselves in our bodies. The whole of the New Testament is against that kind of idea, that somehow we can worship God in our heart and yet in our bodies defy His Law and the standards of holiness. Our holiness must be full; it must be whole; and this is one of the great truths that this passage has for us.
Let’s look to God in prayer.
Heavenly Father, we thank You for Your word; and as difficult as it can be sometimes to understand these great passages from the Old Testament, we thank You that You have placed them here for us to teach us truths, and to show us Your Son. We ask now that You would bless this truth to our hearts by Your Spirit. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Would you stand for God’s blessing?
Grace, mercy and peace to you, from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
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