It’s a natural process. It’s a biological process. Every 28 days or so, a woman bleeds. It’s linked to our fertility. It’s linked to our physiology. It’s linked to our femininity. And it just happens.
But why? As Rachel Jones writes in her great book A Brief Theology of Periods, periods are “seemingly nonsensical from an evolutionary point of view. They’re resource heavy – all that endometrium takes a lot of nutrients to build up. Apart from humans, only a small and curious selection of other mammals shed it externally.“
Jones doesn’t delve too deep into the question as to why women have periods – largely because it’s an unknown. We can only speculate. The Bible only reveals so much of what God decided was important to communicate. This means that some questions we might have are just not questions that are answered in the Bible – which answers the ultimate questions on life and salvation and eternity. But even with the general revelation of scripture – and what our bodies communicate about God’s creation of us in his image, as Jones helpfully points out – there are some pointers that can be helpful. Because this is an profound question. For women experiencing monthly pain, mood swings, logistical wardrobe nightmares, social activity restrictions and emotional fragility, this can be important for us to try and understand.
Is it just random? But we know God does not operate in a random way. Is it God giving men preference? But we know that God loves us equally and created each of us in his image. Did God just not like women? But God is not capricious and bears no favorites. Thats what our brains tell us, but when experiencing the monthly rigmarole (which for some women can be debilitating) it can start to feel random, capricious and uncaring. When we read in the Old Testament about how a monthly natural biological process makes women unclean it can feel as though God is shaming us. Why would he do that? If we want to bring our whole selves to scripture and not try and ignore the bits that are hurtful or confusing to us, this is important for us to wrangle with.
The main section of the Old Testament that talks about menstruation is Leviticus 15, and specifically for women, Leviticus 15:19-30. Here:
- When a woman has a period, she is unclean for 7 days
- Anyone who touches her during her period will be unclean til evening
- Anything she touches will be unclean – and then anyone who touches those things will be unclean till evening
So, the first thing we need to deal with is why this section is here. The broader context of Leviticus 15 is discharges from both men and women that make them unclean. It starts with long term discharges affecting men (like gonorrhea) which has to be cleansed by sacrifice. Then short term discharges (from masturbation or wet dream), for which no sacrifice is required, just bathing and then counting of days till he is clean again.
This is followed by the mirror description of women’s discharge, starting this time with the short term monthly bleeding (which again requires bathing and counting of days) and then long term discharges (which again requires sacrifice for cleansing).
The way these points are set out is called a chiasm. A chiastic structure is used a lot in Hebrew literature and is a way to “bring out the unity of a doublesided event” (Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, p217.) So if you were worried that God seems to favour men over women, the way these words are communicated suggests an importance in magnifying the sameness of treatment of men and women.
In addition, a chiastic structure is used to emphasise the central point around which the mirror points pivot. The central point between the men and women’s sections is sex. While that central point is around what can make men and women unclean in sex, Wenham points out that this central point emphasises the unity and interdependence of the sexes.
But why should periods make women unclean? And why does Leviticus bang on about it so much? Purity, clean and unclean are linked to the ability to access God. This has already been demonstrated to the Israelites when Nadab and Abihu approached God in unsanctified ways and were immediately killed (Leviticus 10). Getting ones state of purity correct was literally a matter of life and death. Leviticus was prescriptive so that anyone and everyone knew when and how to be cleansed so that they could approach God.
But clearly, this is easier for a man than a woman. A man who has a wet dream needs only be unclean until evening, whereas a woman who has her monthly period has to wait 7 days. Granted, a wet dream doesn’t last days and so there is a clear temporal element. But still, it seems a lot easier for a man to be clean.
But even here we need to be careful about our modern assumptions. Wenham, suggests that regularly menstruating women were fewer – not because physiologically anything has changed, but because women married younger and had more babies (up to 10 kids would not be unusual) which were weaned longer (2-3 years). Pregnancy and breast feeding reduces the amount of time a woman might be menstruating. Today, we tend to have babies later so have clear menstruating years before pregnancy. We also tend to have fewer babies and wean a lot sooner. All that means that today we are physically available to menstruate for a lot more time than our ancient Israelite counterparts. Why is that important? Because we read into ancient situations from our modern perspective. We imagine that all women were barred from the ability to approach God for a full week every month, whereas the group of women that applied to may have been much less than we imagine.
Even so, a woman had no real certainty as to when her periods would come (either on a monthly basis or after childbirth and weaning) and so access to God (in Old Testament times) was always going to be fraught. And I think – I think – this is where a possible “why” comes in. It may not be a “why” that people like but bear with me while I work through it – especially because since the Bible does not specifically answer this question, I am speculating from what is there, but cannot know for sure.
When I was a kid, my mum’s generation used to call periods “the curse”. My atheist mother and her friends may not have known the biblical basis for that nickname but back in Genesis 3:16 God curses Eve:
“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
with painful labor you will give birth to children.”
This does not specifically say “on a monthly basis” but could include periods as well as childbirth itself, since menstruation is directly linked to having children. Further, when God curses Adam, he curses the ground Adam works who will then have painful toil all the days of his life. Adam’s curse is an ongoing difficulty in a key area he was tasked with, so it is possible this could apply to Eve’s as well.
The second part of Eve’s curse is that
“Your desire will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you.”
This can be a tricky area as this can be applied and understood so many different ways. It seems to me however, that a means by which a woman’s desire would be frustrated would be by her inability to “equal” men in her unfettered access to God in the tabernacle or temple.
Again, I emphasise that I am speculating. The Bible does not answer this question. But based on what is there, it would not be outside of the realms of possibility that a biological process that brings fertility linked pain to women as part of the first part of the curse, doubles as a socio-cultural frustration linked to the second part of the curse.
There is a positive ending though. If you are reading this and still feel beleaguered and downcast that the curse of Eve falls on all women, don’t forget that Jesus turned things around. In Mark 5:21-43, a woman who has been bleeding for years (and therefore isolated from community and locked out of God’s presence) approaches Jesus. His teaching changes the view of clean and unclean. His teaching focused on the heart that is right with God. His actions make the way clear for the woman to approach God. As Jesus did for all of us.
So, while the curse falls on all of humanity from Adam and Eve’s actions, we are now in that post-Old Testament but pre-end times. We have Jesus, even though things are not yet done and he has not yet returned.
Physically and socially humanity is broken and subject to frustration and decay, but we now have the ultimate mediator in Jesus. Through him, we can access God freely and without condition. While we still live with the effects of the fall, we have God-with-us – Jesus – who brings us with equal confidence to God’s presence.
I have been working through a series of blogs on passages of the Bible that can be confusing or disquieting for people. Other blogs in this grouping include passages in Genesis, Leviticus, Numbers and Judges which appear to denigrate women and which can be confusing to women as we seek to read and know the Bible and know God more. These blogs are grouped at my website at Troublesome Bible Passages Series. If there is a passage that has always troubled you, feel free to contact me and I’ll take a look!