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Bible Commentaries
Leviticus 12

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-8


THE reference in Leviticus 12:2 to the regulations given in Leviticus 15:19, as remarked in the preceding chapter, shows us that the author of these laws regarded the circumstances attending child birth as falling under the same general category, in a ceremonial and symbolic aspect, as the law of issues. As a special case, however, the law concerning child birth presents some very distinctive and instructive features.

The period during which the mother was regarded as unclean, in the full comprehension of that term, was seven days, as in the analogous case mentioned in Leviticus 15:19, with the remarkable exception, that when she had borne a daughter this period was doubled. At the expiration of this period of seven days, her ceremonial uncleanness was regarded as in so far lessened that the restrictions affecting the ordinary relations of life, as ordered, Leviticus 15:19-23, were removed. She was not, however, yet allowed to touch any hallowed thing or to come into the sanctuary, until she had fulfilled, from the time of the birth of the child, if a son, forty days; if a daughter, twice forty, or eighty days. At the expiration of the longer period, she was to bring, as in the law concerning the prolonged issue of {; Leviticus 15:25-30} a burnt offering and a sin offering unto the door of the tent of meeting, wherewith the priest was to make an atonement for her; when first she should be accounted clean, and restored to full covenant privileges. The only difference from the similar law in chapter 15 is in regard to the burnt offering commanded, which was larger and more costly, -a lamb, instead of a turtle dove, or a young pigeon. Still, in the same spirit of gracious accommodation to the poor which was illustrated in the general law of the sin offering, it was ordered (Leviticus 12:8): "If her means suffice not for 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." The law then applied, according to Leviticus 15:29-30. A gracious provision this was, as all will remember, of which the mother of our Lord availed herself, {; Luke 2:22-24} as being one of those who were too poor to bring a lamb for a burnt offering.

To the meaning of these regulations, the key is found in the same conceptions which we have seen to underlie the law concerning issues. In the birth of a child, the special original curse against the woman is regarded by the law as reaching its fullest, most consummate and significant expression. For the extreme evil of the state of sin into which the first woman, by that first sin, brought all womanhood, is seen most of all in this, that now woman, by means of those powers given her for good and blessing, can bring into the world only a child of sin. And it is, apparently, because we here see the operation of this curse in its most conspicuous form, that the time of her enforced separation from the tabernacle worship is prolonged to a period either of forty or eighty days.

It has been usual to speak of the time of the mother’s uncleanness, and subsequent continued exclusion from the tabernacle worship, as being doubled in the case of the birth of a daughter; but it were, perhaps, more accurate to regard the normal length of these periods as being respectively fourteen and eighty days, of which the former is double of that required in Leviticus 15:28. This normal period would then be more properly regarded as shortened by one half in the case of a male child, in virtue of his circumcision on the eighth day.

Verse 3


"And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised."

Although the rite of circumcision here receives a new and special sanction, it had been appointed long before by God as the sign of His covenant with Abraham. {Genesis 17:10-14} Nor was circumcision, probably, even then a new thing. That the ancient Egyptians practised it is well known; so also did the Arabs and Phoenicians; in fact, the custom has been very extensively observed, not only by nations with whom the Israelites came in contact, but by others who have not had, in historic times, connection with any civilised peoples; as, for example, the Congo negroes, and certain Indian tribes in South America.

The fundamental idea connected with circumcision, by most of the peoples who have practised it, appears to have been physical purification; indeed, the Arabs call it by the name tatur, which has this precise meaning. And it deserves to be noticed that for this idea regarding circumcision there is so much reason in fact, that high medical authorities have attributed to it a real hygienic value, especially in warm climates.

No one need feel any difficulty in supposing that this common conception attached to the rite also in the minds of the Hebrews. Rather all the more fitting it was, if there was a basis in fact for this familiar opinion, that God should thus have taken a ceremony already known to the surrounding peoples, and in itself of a wholesome physical effect, and constituted it for Abraham and his seed a symbol of an analogous spiritual fact; namely, the purification of sin at its fountainhead, the cleansing of the evil nature with which we all are born. It should be plain enough that it makes nothing against this as the true interpretation of the rite, even if that be granted which some have claimed, that it has had, in some instances, a connection with the phallic worship so common in the East, or that it has been regarded by some as a sacrificial ceremony. Only the more noteworthy would it thus appear that the Hebrews should have held strictly to that view of its significance which had a solid basis in physical fact, -a fact, moreover, which made it a peculiarly fitting symbol of the spiritual grace which the Biblical writers connect with it. For that it was so regarded by them will not be disputed. In this very book {Leviticus 26:41} we read of an "uncircumcised heart"; as also in Deuteronomy, the prophecies of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and other books of Scripture.

All this, as intimating the signification of circumcision as here enjoined, is further established by the New Testament references. Of these the most formal is perhaps that in Colossians 2:10-11, where we read that believers in Christ, in virtue of their union with Him in whom the unclean nature has been made clean, are said to be "circumcised with a circumcision not made with hands, in the putting off of the body of the flesh, in the circumcision of Christ"; so that Paul elsewhere writes to the Philippians: {; Philippians 3:3} "We are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God, and glory in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh."

And that God, in selecting this ancient rite to be the sign of His covenant in the flesh of Abraham and his seed, {Genesis 17:13} had regard to the deep spiritual meaning which it could so naturally carry is explicitly declared by the Apostle Paul, {; Romans 4:11} who tells us that this sign of circumcision was "a seal of the righteousness of faith," even the righteousness and the faith concerning which, in the previous context, he was arguing; and which are still, for all men, the one, the ground, and the other, the condition, of salvation. It is truly strange that, in the presence of these plain words of the Apostle, any should still cling to the idea that circumcision had reference only to the covenant with Israel as a nation, and not, above all, to this profound spiritual truth which is basic to salvation, whether for the Jew or for the Gentile.

And so, when the Hebrew infant was circumcised, it signified for him and for his parents these spiritual realities. It was an outward sign and seal of the covenant of God with Abraham and with his seed, to be a God to him and to his seed after him; and it signified further that this covenant of God was to be carried out and made effectual only through the putting away of the flesh, the corrupt nature with which we are born, and of all that belongs to it, in order that, thus circumcised with the circumcision of the heart, every child of Abraham might indeed be an Israelite in whom there should be no guile.

And the law commands, in accord with the original command to Abraham, that the circumcision should take place on the eighth day. This is the more noticeable, that among other nations which practised, or still practise, the rite, the time is different. The Egyptians, for example, circumcised their sons between the sixth and tenth years, and the modern Mohammedans between the twelfth and fourteenth year. What is the significance of this eighth day?

In the first place, it is easy to see that we have in this direction a provision of God’s mercy; for if delayed beyond infancy or early childhood, as among many other peoples, the operation is much more serious, and may even involve some danger; while in so early infancy it is comparatively trifling, and attended with no risk.

Further, by the administration of circumcision at the very opening of life, it is suggested that in the Divine ideal the grace which was signified thereby, of the cleansing of nature, was to be bestowed upon the child, not first at a late period of life, but from its very beginning, thus anticipating the earliest awakening of the principle of inborn sin. It was thus signified that before ever the child knew, or could know, the grace that was seeking to save him, he was to be taken into covenant relation with God. So even under the strange form of this ordinance we discover the same mind that was in Him who said concerning infant children: {Luke 18:16} "Suffer the little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God." Thus we may well recollect, in passing, that, although the law has passed away in the Levitical form, the mind of the Lawgiver concerning the little children of His people is still the same.

But the question still remains, Why was the eighth day selected, and not rather, for instance, the sixth or the seventh, which would have no less perfectly represented these ideas? The answer is to be found in the symbolic significance of the eighth day. As the old creation was completed in six days, with a following Sabbath of rest, so that six is ever the number of the old creation, as under imperfection and sin; the eighth day, which is the first day of a new week, everywhere in Scripture appears as the number symbolic of the new creation, in which all things shall be restored in the great redemption through the Second Adam. The thought finds its fullest expression in the resurrection of Christ, as the Firstborn from the dead, the Beginning and the Lord of the new creation, who in His resurrection body manifested the first fruits in physical life of the new creation, rising from the dead on the first, or, in other words, the day after the seventh, the eighth day. This gives the key to the use of the number eight in the Mosaic symbolism. Thus in the law of the cleansing of the man or the woman that had an issue, the sacrifices which effectuated their formal deliverance from the curse under which, through the weakness of their old nature, they had suffered, were to be offered on the eighth day; {Leviticus 15:14; Leviticus 15:29} the priestly cleansing of the leper from the taint of his living death was also effected on the eighth day; {; Leviticus 14:10} so also the cleansing of the Nazarite who had been defiled by the dead. {Numbers 6:10} So also the holy convocation which closed the feast of tabernacles or ingathering - the feast which, as we shall see, typically prefigured the great harvest of which Christ was the First fruits-was ordained, in like manner, for the eighth day. {; Leviticus 23:36} With good reason, then, was circumcision ordered for the eighth day, seeing that what it symbolically signified was precisely this: the putting off of the flesh with which we are born through the circumcision of Christ, and therewith the first beginning of a new and purified nature-a change so profound and radical, and in which the Divine efficiency is so immediately concerned, that Paul said of it that if any man was in Christ, in whose circumcision we are circumcised, {Colossians 2:11} "there is a new creation". {; 2 Corinthians 5:17, margin, R.V}

Verses 4-8


"And she shall continue in the blood of her purifying three and thirty days; she shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying be fulfilled. But if she bear a maid child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her impurity: and she shall continue in the blood of her purifying threescore and six days. And when the days of her purifying are fulfilled, for a son, or for a daughter, she shall bring a lamb of the first year for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon, or a turtledove, for a sin offering, unto the door of the tent of meeting, unto the priest: and he shall offer it before the Lord, and make atonement for her; and she shall be cleansed from the fountain of her blood. This is the law for her that beareth, whether a male or a female. And if her means suffice not for 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."

Until the circumcision of the newborn child, on the eighth day, he was regarded by the law as ceremonially still in a state of nature, and therefore as symbolically unclean. For this reason, again, the mother who had brought him into the world, and whose life was so intimately connected with his. life, was regarded as unclean also. Unclean, under analogous circumstances, according to the law of Leviticus 15:19, she was reckoned doubly unclean in this case, -unclean because of her issue, and unclean because of her connection with this child, uncircumcised and unclean. But when the symbolic cleansing of the child took place by the ordinance of circumcision, then her uncleanness, so far as occasioned by her immediate relation to him, came to an end. She was not indeed completely restored; for, according to the law, in her still continuing condition, it was impossible that she should be allowed to come into the tabernacle of the Lord, or touch any hallowed thing; but the ordinance which admitted her child, admitted her also again to the fellowship of the covenant people.

The longer period of forty-or, in the case of the birth of a female child, of twice forty-days must also be explained upon Symbolical grounds. Some have indeed attempted to account for these periods, as also for the difference in their length in the two cases, by a reference to beliefs of the ancients with regard to the physical condition of the mother during these periods; but such notions of the ancients are not justified by facts; nor, especially, would they by any means account for the greatly prolonged period of eighty days in the case of the female child. It is possible that in the forty, and twice forty, we may have a reference to the forty weeks during which the life of the unborn child had been identified with that of the mother, -a child which, it must be remembered, according to the uniform Biblical view, was not innocent, but conceived in sin; for each week of which connection of life, the mother suffered a judicial exclusion of one, or, in the case of the birth of a daughter, of two days; the time being doubled in the latter case with allusion to the double curse which, according to Genesis, rested upon the woman, as "first in the transgression." But, apart from this, however difficult it may be to give a satisfactory explanation of the fact, it is certain that throughout Scripture the number forty appears to have a symbolic meaning; and one can usually trace in its application a reference, more or less distinct, to the conception of trial or testing. Thus for forty days was Moses in the mount, -a time of testing for Israel, as for him: forty days, the spies explored the promised land; forty years, Israel was tried in the wilderness; forty days, abode Elijah in the wilderness; forty days, also, was our Lord fasting in the wilderness; and forty days, again, He abode in resurrection life upon the earth.

The forty (or eighty) days ended, the mother was now formally reinstated in the fulness of her privileges as a daughter of Israel. The ceremonial, as in the law of issues, consisted in the presentation of a burnt offering and a sin offering, with the only variation that, wherever possible, the burnt offering must be a young lamb, instead of a dove or pigeon; the reason for which variation is to be found either in the fact that the burnt offering was to represent not herself alone, but also her child, or, possibly, as some have suggested, it was because she had been so much longer excluded from the tabernacle service than in the other case.

The teaching of this law, then, is twofold: it concerns, first, the woman; and, secondly, the child which she bears. As regards the woman, it emphasises the fact that, because "first in the transgression," she is under special pains and penalties in virtue of her sex. The capacity of motherhood, which is her crown and her glory, though still a precious privilege, has yet been made, because of sin, an inevitable instrument of pain, and that because of her relation to the first sin. We are thus reminded that the specific curse denounced against the woman, as recorded in the book of Genesis, is no dead letter, but a fact. No doubt, the conception is one which raises difficulties which in themselves are great, and to modern thought are greater than ever. Nevertheless, the fact abides unaltered, that even to this day woman is under special pains and disabilities, inseparably connected with her power of motherhood. Modern theorists, men and women with nineteenth-century notions concerning politics and education, may persist in ignoring this; but the fact abides, and cannot be got rid of by passing resolutions in a mass meeting, or even by Act of Parliament or Congress.

And so, as it is useless to object to facts, it is only left to object to the Mosaic view of the facts, which connects them with sin, and, in particular, with the first sin. Why should all the daughters of Eve suffer because of her sin? Where is the justice in such an ordinance? A question this is to which we cannot yet give any satisfactory answer. But it does not follow that because in any proposition there are difficulties which at present we are unable to solve, therefore the proposition is false. And, further, it is important to observe that this law, under which womanhood abides, is after all only a special case under that Jaw of the Divine government which is announced in the second commandment, by which the iniquities of the fathers are visited upon the children. It is most certainly a law which, to our apprehension, suggests great moral difficulties, even to the most reverent spirits; but it is no less certainly a law which represents a conspicuous and tremendous fact, which is illustrated, for instance, in the family of every drunkard in the world. And it is well worth observing, that while the ceremonial law, which was specially intended to keep this fact before the mind and the conscience, is abrogated, the fact that woman is still under certain Divinely imposed disabilities because of that first sin, is reaffirmed in the New Testament, and is by apostolic authority applied in the administration of Church government. For Paul wrote to Timothy: {1 Timothy 2:12-13} "I permit not a woman to teach, nor to have dominion over a man For Adam was not beguiled, but the woman being beguiled hath fallen into transgression." Modern theorists, and so-called "reformers" in Church, State, and society, busy with their social, governmental, and ecclesiastical. novelties, would do well to heed this apostolic reminder.

All the more beautiful, as against this dark background of mystery, is the word of the Apostle which follows, wherein he reminds us that, through the grace of God, even by means of those very powers of motherhood on which the curse has so heavily fallen, has come the redemption of the woman; so that "she shall be saved through the childbearing, if they continue in faith and love and sanctification with sobriety"; {1 Timothy 2:15, R.V} seeing that "in Christ Jesus," in respect of the completeness and freeness of salvation, "there can be no male and female". {; Galatians 3:28, R.V}

But, in the second place, we may also derive abiding instruction from this law, concerning the child which is of man begotten and of woman born. It teaches us that not only has the curse thus fallen on the woman, but that, because she is herself a sinful creature, she can only bring forth another sinful creature like herself; and if a daughter, then a daughter inheriting all her own peculiar infirmities and disabilities. The law, as regards both mother and child, expresses in the language of symbolism those words of David in his penitential confession: {Psalms 51:5} "Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me." Men may contemptuously call this "theology," or even rail at it as "Calvinism"; but it is more than theology, more than Calvinism; it is a fact, to which until this present time history has seen but one exception, even that mysterious Son of the Virgin, who claimed, however, to be no mere man, but the Christ, the Son of the Blessed!

And yet many, who surely can think but superficially upon the solemn facts of life, still object to this most strenuously, that even the newborn child should be regarded as in nature sinful and unclean. Difficulty here we must all admit, -difficulty so great that it is hard to overstate it-regarding the bearing of this fact on the character of the holy and merciful God, who in the beginning made man. And yet surely, deeper thought must confess that herein the Mosaic view of infant nature-a view which is assumed and taught throughout Holy Scripture-however humbling to our natural pride, is only in strictest accord with what the admitted principles of the whenever, in any case, we find all creatures of the same class doing, under all circumstances, any one thing, we conclude that the reason for this can only lie in the nature of such creatures, antecedent to any influence of a tendency to imitation. If, for instance, the ox everywhere and always eats the green thing of the earth, and not flesh, the reason, we say, is found simply in the nature of the ox as he comes into being. So when we see all men, everywhere, under all circumstances, as soon as ever they come to the time of free moral choice, always choosing and committing sin, what can we conclude-regarding this, not as a theological, but merely as a scientific question-but that man, as he comes into the world, must have a sinful nature? And this being so, then why must not the law of heredity apply, according to which, by a law which knows of no exceptions, like ever produces its like?

Least of all, then, should those object to the view of child nature which is represented in this law of Leviticus, who accept these commonplaces of modern science as representing facts. Wiser it were to turn attention to the other teaching of the law, that, notwithstanding these sad and humiliating facts, there is provision made by God, through the cleansing by grace of the very nature in which we are born, and atonement for the sin which without our fault we inherit, for a complete redemption from all the inherited corruption and guilt.

And, last of all, especially should Christian parents with joy and thankfulness receive the manifest teaching of this law, -teaching reaffirmed by our blessed Lord in the New Testament, -that God our Father offers to parental faith Himself to take in hand our children, even from the earliest beginning of their infant days, and, purifying the fountain of their life through "a circumcision made without hands," receive the little ones into covenant relation with Himself, to their eternal salvation. And thus is the word of the Apostle fulfilled. "Where sin abounded, grace did abound more exceedingly: that, as sin reigned in death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord."

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Leviticus 12". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/leviticus-12.html.
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