me, my period, and Jesus

[this is a mikvah]

We’re not under The Law anymore.

It’s the typical Christian go-to explanation for why modern believers usually don’t attempt to follow all the prohibitions laid out in the Torah. We’re in the Church Age now, which means were Under Grace, which means those rules don’t really apply to us anymore. We can eat all the bacon we want. Of course, since I grew up in fundamentalism, I occasionally ran into families and churches that did actually try to do their best to follow “The Law,” although the way they applied it was a little silly. No eating pork or crab, but they were fine using the same bowls for cereal and stew.

However, even though we all knew that The Law didn’t apply to us anymore, it’s still in our Bibles, and so it’s something we have to struggle with at least a little bit. Why did God tell the Jewish people to not trim their sideburns? Why couldn’t they wear clothing made out of two kinds of fiber? For questions like that, we usually said “because God wanted them to be a peculiar people.” He wanted them to stand out from the surrounding cultures, so everyone could instantly tell who was a Jew. That same reasoning applied to why modern Christians are called to be “separated.”

However, for things like “why couldn’t they eat catfish?” the answer changed: “because God knew something they didn’t. God was protecting them.” For example, pork is more likely to carry a host of bacteria, and it has to be handled and cooked carefully in order to be safe. Given that the Torah was recorded by a Bronze Age people group, saying “just don’t eat this” was probably an easier thing to communicate generationally than “make sure its internal temperature reaches 145 degrees Farenheit, and oh, by the way, this is how you make a thermometer.”

So, when I stumbled across the prohibitions surrounding menstruation, that was the explanation I got: God was protecting women.

I accepted that answer up until the moment I got my period, and then I decided they sucked.

Because I was niddah, I could not be touched, held, comforted. Anything I sat on would become unclean. And not only that, after my period was over I’d have to march myself over to the Temple in order to present a sin offering for being a woman.

Even at fourteen years old, that rankled.


My small group is reading through Rachel Held Evan’s A Year of Biblical Womanhood, and a few weeks ago we read her “April: Purity–The Worst Time of the Month to go Camping” chapter; reading it reminded me of all my old questions about Leviticus 15.

So, I did a little digging into the term “sin offering,” just to be sure. It’s from the Hebrew word chatta’ath (חַטָּאָת), sometimes shortened to chatat. According to Tracy Rich, the chatat is “A sin offering is an offering to atone for and purge a sin. It is an expression of sorrow for the error and a desire to be reconciled with G-d.”

Pretty much what it says, then. And that bothers me. For ceremonial and religious purposes, I can understand perhaps requiring an olah, the burnt offering, because of it representing submission to God’s will and a desire to be in communion with him. But a sin offering? For menstruating? I’m not the only person to notice this, either. Tirzah Meacham pointed out that a lot of the laws regarding emissions “result, however, [in privileging] normal males and disadvantag[ing] all females.”

But then . . . Jesus came.

And, as always, I’m blown away by what he did.

We know her as “The Woman with Issue of Blood.” The early church called her Veronica. We don’t know much about her, only that she had been hemorrhaging for twelve years and no doctor could help her. Given the culture at the time, it was likely that if she had been married her husband could have used her medical condition as legal grounds for divorce. We do know that she couldn’t participate in any religious ceremonies, and that she was denied any comforting touch. That, and she was struggling with a horrible, probably debilitating, illness.

But she touches Jesus.

And he calls her “Daughter.”

It’s moments like that when I hug my Bible and weep, because Jesus . . . Jesus makes everything alright again. Jesus would have been within his rights as a Jewish male to condemn this woman for daring to touch him, for daring to make him tumah. He could have. But he didn’t. He gave her comfort, commended her for her faith, and told her to go in peace. He didn’t care about the letter of the law; he cared about people. There were so many times during his life when he could have insisted on being right, insisted on what “God has clearly said is sin,” but he didn’t.

He loved.

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  • This is just beautiful.

  • awesome piece of writing…loved it.

  • Tony

    Where does this leave you on the issue of the sin offering for no apparent reason other than God spiting you for the unfortunate plight of being female (your fault, not His, right)? I like your redemptive ending with Jesus, but the beginning problem still fuels my ongoing frustration with the seemingly impossible to understand God of the Old Testament. The Law and the actions of God in the OT have ruined christianity for me. It’s like Jesus came to save us all from his own demented father.

    • For me, because I don’t believe in the divine inspiration of the Bible anymore, this isn’t actually a problem. I can read a Bronze Age text for exactly what it is– a product of its culture. That it is sexist and xenophobic doesn’t really bother me, because I’d expect sexism and xenophobia from other Bronze Age texts.

      I believe that the people who eventually wrote down their oral history were doing their best to accurately reflect their understanding of God– and I believe that’s why Jesus coming to earth in the Incarnation was so important. All of his “you have heard it said, but I now tell you” statements undo a lot of the damage caused by a literal understanding of the OT, and I think that was at least part of the reason why he came. This is also why I weigh the Gospels a little heavier than other books in the New Testament, as well.

      • Tony

        That seems like a much more reasonable and healthy viewpoint. Thanks for sharing. Probably a stance that would start a small thermonuclear war within my family and a few friends on all sides should I proclaim it, but a good one nonetheless. 🙂

        • Part of the way the Law functions in Scripture as a whole is symbolic. In giving the Law to Israel, God was commanding his people essentially to live out an elaborate metaphor, one that would be fulfilled with the coming of Christ. Commands regarding mensuration (as well as others like the prohibition on eating animal blood) deal, at least partially, with the deep symbolic value of blood for Israel and ultimately for all of Christendom. Laws about bodily emissions (both male and female) underscore the significance of procreation for a nation whose entire hope was founded on the promise of an Anointed One who would be the “seed” of Eve.

          Obviously there are no easy answers about the Law and yes, I still have difficulty affirming with Paul that “the Law is good” when there are so many commandments in it that seem horrible to me, but it is easier to understand the Law when it is viewed as not merely a legal code but also a deeply symbolic element of a larger story.

      • Have you written, or will you write a post sometime about no longer believing in the divine inspiration of the Bible? I’ve been struggling with this myself and would be interested in reading your perspective.

    • My understanding, from reading David deSilva’s book Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity is that ancient peoples like the Israelites didn’t really distinguish between what we would call “moral purity” and what we would call “ceremonial purity.” Thus, just because something is called a “sin offering” doesn’t mean it was actually a moral sin. Understanding the ancient culture through books like these has done a lot for me in making sense of the Bible.

  • Elmo

    I have never been comfortable with the food-safety explanation for dietary taboos. If Brazilian natives can figure out how to process manioc to remove the prussic acid (a.k.a. hydrocyanic acid) and Pacific islanders can figure out how to process Sago palm to make it edible (both processes are fairly complex and time consuming), surely people in biblical times could figure out how to cook pork. Especially since there were other humans nearby who had no problem with it. Marvin Harris covered a lot of the food taboos in the book “Good to Eat: Riddles of Food and Culture” and went a bit deeper in to the pig prohibition in “Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture”. Harris was an avowed materialist inasmuch as he sought explanations that were based on what people had to work with (materials) rather than ideas that sprung like Athena from the head of Zeus.

  • mike.reed@inumc.org

    I believe you meant to use the word “bowls,” not “bowels,” though that would be funnier.

    Sent from Windows Mail

  • This is lovely.

  • All I know is that Jesus chose to touch and associate for the unclean…people like me. And, I love him for it.

  • em

    Jesus rewards Veronica’s defiance of the rules for her gender. I like.

  • Crazylikeafox

    I was always too distracted by how horrible a disease that is, especially in the Iron Age, to notice it would be taboo for her to touch him because of the period rules. Though that does explain why she suddenly became hesitant to come forward when Jesus asked who touched him.

  • That is actually one of my favorite passages in the whole bible. Jesus was a pretty okay guy. 🙂 I think that anecdote is one of the most powerful stories of what Jesus was all about, even though to us now it may seem less than monumental at first glance. Thank you for explaining WHY it is so significant.

  • stephanie

    I just want to weep for the Young Me, who stoically endured decades of extreme pain and copious monthly bleeding to the point that I became anemic and too sick to go anywhere during my period because I was a descendant of Eve, who was the one who brought evil to mankind and who was cursed to have pain in childbirth, which to my elders, also meant any kind of uterine/vaginal/abdominal pain, because even those women who aren’t pregnant deserved pain, too. I finally sought treatment four or five years ago. I probably would have been able to have become pregnant when I so dearly wanted to if I had been properly educated and taught to respect myself and take good care of myself.
    But in all fairness, my mother was so traumatized by her rape at the age of fifteen or sixteen by a friend of her father’s which, had she told anyone about, especially her abusive, likely mentally ill, fundamentalist mother, would have caused her further pain and anguish for she likely would have been shamed and punished instead of lived and supported, so she kept the assault and her pain and suffering to herself until the age of eighty four.
    Yes, even being open and honest about your period is helpful and healing.
    I have to go hug myself and cry now. But it’s all good, it’s all a part of healing from the past, the crazy indoctrination.

  • stephanie

    P. s. Forgot to say, the trauma my mother suffered caused her to have nothing but fear and twisted beliefs about female sexuality. She didn’t have the ability to teach anything else but secrecy and shame.
    Slut shaming and archane patriarchal values pretty much crushed the life out of her, and nearly did the same to me.

  • Gary Eddy

    Samantha, I have attached a photo you might enjoy. Hope you get it. When I saw this I thought of you right away Thanks for your blog, Gary Eddy