Were Men and Women Equal in the Old Testament?

By Clement Harrold

One Old Testament text which skeptics will sometimes point to as evidence of biblical misogyny is Leviticus 12:1-7:

The Lord said to Moses, “Say to the people of Israel, If a woman conceives, and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Then she shall continue for thirty-three days in the blood of her purifying; she shall not touch any hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying are completed. 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. And when the days of her purifying are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the door of the tent of meeting a lamb a year old for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering, and he shall offer it before the Lord, and make atonement for her; then she shall be clean from the flow of her blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, either male or female.”

What are we to make of this strange amalgam of laws? Let’s first summarize what the Levitical text is saying.

If a woman gives birth to a male child, then she is to circumcise that child on the eighth day after birth. As for herself, she is considered unclean for the seven days leading up to the circumcision, and she must undergo an additional thirty-three days of purification beyond that. At the conclusion of this combined period of forty days, the mother is to bring an animal offering to the priest, at which point she becomes ritually clean again. (Notice that this is what is happening in Luke 2:22-38 when the newborn Jesus is presented in the Temple.)

If, on the other hand, a woman gives birth to a female child, then the procedure is slightly different. Obviously there can be no circumcision on the eighth day; instead, in the case of a female baby, the mother is considered unclean for two weeks, and this time the purification lasts sixty-six days—so eighty days total. Once again, the mother is required at the end of this period to bring an animal offering to the priest.

All of this raises an obvious question: why would God’s law demand that a mother be deemed unclean for eighty days in the case of giving birth to a female baby, but only forty days in the case of a male baby? Is this a straightforward instance of the Bible suggesting that women are only worth half as much as men?

Before jumping to conclusions, there are a number of important points worth making here. First, we should note that the animal offering to be presented to the priest is exactly the same in the case of both the male and the female child. If the Bible were trying to tell us that men are more valuable than women, this is not what we would expect. The fact that the sacrifice required in both cases is the same implies an equal worth between the sexes. And this makes perfect sense given that the Bible itself affirms in its very first chapter that men and women are both crafted in the image of God in equal measure (see Gen 1:27).

Secondly, a point which many skeptical commentators will skip over in their reading of the passage is the fact that the male child is forced to undergo circumcision on the eighth day. This is a critical part of what’s going on in the text, yet one doesn’t hear many people complaining about how the law discriminates against male infants! From an objective standpoint, it could easily be argued that the ladies get a much better deal in this arrangement.

Thirdly, we should remember that uncleanliness in the Bible does not mean “evil” or “lesser” or “immoral” or anything like that. Rather, it refers to a ritual state whereby one is unfit to approach God’s holy dwelling place. This means that a person might become unclean for a whole range of reasons. When a woman would bleed during her period, for example, or when a man ejaculated during sexual intercourse, then they would be considered ritually unclean due to the emission of bodily fluids (see Lev 15).

The reason for the Bible including all these strange rules is a topic for another blog post, but the very brief explanation is that all of the Mosaic laws—even the so-called chukim, meaning the commandments with no discernible rationale behind them—existed to teach the people of Israel a profound lesson in holiness, i.e., in being set apart for God.

In a basic sense, all of the many rules, regulations, prescriptions, and prohibitions are about hammering into the Israelites’ thick heads the fact that they are a people set apart for a liturgical purpose; and all of the external reminders (some of them burdensome and even bizarre!) are about giving them exterior reminders a couple of dozen times a day about who they are and what they are called to, as well as their desperate need for an interior conversion of heart.

Through this process of obedience, the people of Israel learned to participate in God’s plan for the sanctification not just of their own souls, but of the whole world. In the case of Leviticus 12, moreover, scholars think it quite possible that the period of purification is doubled in the case of a female baby because of the tendency of newborn girls to bleed from their vaginas, meaning there are two individuals (mother + baby) emitting blood.

In the case of newborn males, the purification period is shorter, admittedly, but the bleeding is much more violent insofar as it stems from a deliberate cutting of the flesh. In any event, the message in both cases, whether male or female, is the same: from birth, this child (along with their mother, father, and wider community) is being called to obedience to God’s law for the sake of their salvation, and that of the whole world.

We can therefore detect something quite beautiful in the passage from Leviticus 12. While it is true that male and female births are not treated the exact same way, there is no indication that male babies fare better than female babies under this system. Furthermore, there are good reasons within the text, and within the Old Testament more broadly, to maintain the equal dignity and worth of men and women.

Men and women aren’t always treated identically in the Mosaic law, but they are treated equally. In their own ways, both sexes are invited to participate in a covenantal relationship with God, and in His redemption of the world.


Further Reading:


St. Thomas Aquinas on the fittingness of circumcision: https://www.newadvent.org/summa/4070.htm (Summa Theologiae, III.70.3)

Clement Harrold is a graduate student in theology at the University of Notre Dame. His writings have appeared in First ThingsChurch Life JournalCrisis Magazine, and the Washington Examiner. He earned his bachelor's degree from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2021.

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