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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Women and the Cult.

1.

The place of women in society and literature has become a much-discussed subject in the past couple of decades (see e.g. Newsom and Ringe 1992; Schüssler Fiorenza 1994a and b). Some have seen the treatment of women as very negative. It is not my purpose to enter into this debate, but Wegner (1992 ) gives a mainly positive assessment of Leviticus on women, recognizing its general context in the ancient world. Women are mentioned specifically in only two sections of Leviticus: one concerns childbirth, which made a woman impure for ritual purposes (Lev 12 ). In order to be allowed to re-enter the temple, she had to undergo a period of cleansing which culminated in sacrifices in the temple. The implication is that the woman herself is envisaged as participating in the sacrificial cult. Although the directions relating to sacrifice are addressed in the masculine form of the verb (whether singular or plural), this could be thought to include women under normal circumstances. Women are not specifically excluded in the P legislation. If women were not allowed to enter the altar area, as was the case in the time of the Second Temple, this is nowhere stated.

2.

The other occasion of impurity with women was menstruation ( 15:19–24 ). The regulations about bodily issues in Lev 12–15 do not make a particular point about menstruation; on the contrary, it is only one of a number of issues of blood or fluid which are polluting. Nevertheless, most of the other regulations concern unusual occurrences, whereas the rules about menstruation would regularly affect all women between puberty and menopause, as well as their families more indirectly. It is clear that these purity regulations were extremely important to all Israelites of both sexes. However, it should be noted that menstruation, like the impurity contracted from normal sexual intercourse, did not require a sacrifice for cleansing. These were in a different category from ‘abnormal’ discharges.

3.

Anthropological studies have suggested that regulations about menstruation often mirror the relationship between the sexes and the place of either sex within the society. Societies in which women have considerable freedom of choice and independence from men will usually have this reflected in various customs about ritual purity, including menstruation. Those societies in which women are restricted to a particular place and function and are discouraged from entering the province of men will usually have constrictive regulations about menstruation.

4.

It seems clear that in Israelite society, women had a particular sphere and place in which they were confined. They were not generally allowed to participate in activities which were associated with the male Israelite. These customs were not necessarily absolute since the OT tradition has stories of exceptional women who broke through the traditional boundaries. But any woman who carefully observed the rules about menstrual pollution would have found her activities severely restricted in certain ways. A similar purpose seems to be associated with the rules surrounding childbirth. The longer purification time after bearing a daughter could be a symbol that women had an appropriate place in society which was different from that of men. On the other hand, any evaluation of these regulations would do well to take account of the fact that many Jews still observe these or similar regulations today and give them a positive value (cf. Wegner 1992 ).

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