Gendering a Child with Ritual
The childbirth rituals of Leviticus 12 divide into three stages, and differ based on the gender of the child:
|Male Child||Female Child|
(vv. 2, 5a)
|7 days of impurity for the mother, like the days of her menstrual flow (כִּימֵי נִדַּת דְּוֹתָהּ)||14 days of impurity for the mother, like she is during menstruation (כְּנִדָּתָהּ)|
|Circumcision of the baby on the eighth day||
(vv. 4, 5b)
|33 days of blood purification (דְמֵי טָהֳרָהּ) during which she may not be in contact with the holy.||66 days of blood purification (דְמֵי טָהֳרָהּ) during which she may not be in contact with the holy.|
|Mother brings a lamb for a burnt offering and a fowl for a sin offering||Mother brings a lamb for a burnt offering and a fowl for a sin offering|
The British Hebrew Bible scholar, Gordon Wenham, comments: “Though the ritual is straightforward, it is not easy to understand the thinking behind the laws. Why should a woman become unclean by bearing children?” Nevertheless, the basic premise of the law, that a woman is impure during the whole of her postpartum bleeding, is representative of the way many societies in the ancient Near East parsed the world: blood has power and needs to be controlled. Moreover, the use of ritual, such as offering a sacrifice, to help the person move from a state of impurity to a state of purity is also a common trope in Near Eastern rites and is a prominent feature of Priestly law in Leviticus.
What does stand out, is the difference in the length of impurity dependent on the child’s gender. Based on comparable laws (Lev 15) about women’s discharge, we would have expected that the period of impurity be determined by the duration of the postpartum discharge plus, perhaps, a set number of clean days (i.e., without discharge). As the gender of the baby has no connection to the length of discharge, it is difficult to understand why this was considered to be determinative.
Scholars have long struggled with the problem of the doubling of the impurity days after the birth of a female. Various solutions have been put forth, with the dominant approach being to focus on the mother’s ritual (im)purity and thus, what the birth of the child does to her and why.
In contrast, I would like to suggest that we change focus from an adult-centric reading to a child-centric reading, and ask about whether the ritual is more about the child than the mother.
The Importance of Gendering
From the perspective of social sciences, in order for a society to reproduce itself, the adults in the society must successfully enculturate their children, part of which is engendering the child. As Carol Meyers has explicated, ancient Israel was a society where men and women carried out separate tasks, each contributing to society in a very specific way. Meyers categorizes this social structure as a heterarchy.
To recreate this society, adults must make sure little Israelite girls and boys grow up to be Israelite women and men. To stray outside the specific gender roles would spell the undoing of the social structure. This process of engendering and enculturating a child into the heterarchical society thus began at birth, with a ritual announcement of the child’s gender. (For the question of intersex, see the appendix below.)
On a simple level, gendering is about dividing people based on their physical sex, and the Hebrew terms used for male and female in this chapter highlight this. The term used here for the male child, זכר (zakhar), means “phallus” in some Semitic languages—in context, shorthand for “the one with the phallus.”
The term used here for female, נקבה (neqavah), comes from the root נ.ק.ב, meaning “to pierce” or “to bore through.” It is likely a reference to the woman’s perceived passive role in sex; literally, she is the one who will be pierced. Note the parallel term in Akkadian, naqābu, which means “to deflower” or “to rape.” Alternatively, the word could be referencing the shape of female genitalia, that she is one who has been pierced.
While it may seem vulgar to present females in this way, it highlights the connection between sex and gender as understood by ancient Semitic peoples. But in most societies, and certainly for ancient Israelites, gender not only concerns a person’s physical sex, but their social role. This is clear from some biblical passages, not least of which is the prohibition in Deuteronomy against cross-dressing.
Here we find what appears to be a stark difference between male and female births. According to Leviticus 12:3, on the eighth day, all males were to be circumcised, a mark of Israelite identity that cannot be easily undone. Girls, however, do not undergo a comparable ritual, and thus, the birth of a girl would seem to be lacking a ritual marker. Nevertheless, I suggest that the double length period of impurity may serve as the girl’s missing ritual marker.
Announcing the Gender with Gifts
The possibility that an announcement serves as a ritual marker of a baby’s gender at birth has precedent in Hittite birth rituals. One Hittite text (KBo VII 62 + 63 lines 13-18), for instance, suggests that the Hittites conferred gender upon the newborn child through a ritual announcement.
“If a ma[le] child is then born, then the midwife th[us] speaks: “Loo[k]! Now I have brou[ght] the goods of a male child . . . If it is a fema[le] child, then she speaks thus: “Now-look!- the goods of a fema[le] [child] I have brought.”
The exact gifts are not specified in this text. However, other Hittite texts link items for textile-making (spindle and distaff) with females, and the bow and arrow with males (e.g. KBo VI 34). This gift giving ritual is designed to confer upon the child the proper gender role, so that the baby’s gender—a social construct—matches its biological sex.
Gendering gifts can also be found in the Sumerian myth about the bull of heaven who impregnated a woman. Upon giving birth the myth states:
If it is a male, let him take a weapon, an axe, the fore of his manliness.
If it is a female, let the spindle and the pin/distaff be in her hand.
Another version of the tale suggests metaphorically that the child is made to look at its genitalia.
[If it is a] male, make him look at his weapon.
[if it is a] female, make it look at her (… and) her crucible.
A boy would look at his “weapon” (i.e. his phallus) and the girl at her “crucible” (i.e. her vagina/womb). According to Mark Cohen’s interpretation, the mother “is instructed to show the child certain objects which not only appertain to the child’s role in life, but also represent the sex of the infant.” Males were associated with war, as seen in the bow and arrow symbolism of the Hittite texts.
This Old Babylonian version of the tale sidesteps reference to the bow and arrow and metaphorically links them to the male genitalia; the weapon protrudes from the body just as the phallus does. The crucible here is an item associated with the domestic sphere. It is an item that is hollow, and thus metaphorically represents the vagina. It appears that the metaphorical terms for the genitalia mirror the actual gifts that some societies gave children.
Each item in the myth is gendered and demonstrates the interconnectedness of gender and sex in the ancient world. Like the Bible, the Hittite texts also emphasize the need to highlight a child’s gender at birth.
Purification of Baby: At 3 Months or 4 Months
The desire to emphasize the child’s gender may also explain another Hittite birth ritual (KBo XVII 65) that describes the kunzigannaḫit purification ritual of the baby, which closely parallels the Priestly birth ritual in Leviticus 12:
[When the woman] gives birth, and while the seventh day is passing, then they perform the mala offering […] of the newborn on th[at] seventh day.
Further, i[f a male child is bor]n, whatever month [he is bo]rn, whether [one day or] three [d]ays […] remain—[then from tha]t month let them count off. And when [the third month arrives,] then the male [child] they purify with kunzigannaḫit (a purifying substance of some kind).
But [if] a female child is born, [then] from that month they count off. When the [fourth] month [arriv]es, then they pu[ri]fy the female child with kunzigannaḫit.
A number of parallels to the ritual in Leviticus are immediately evident, as are the differences.
- Mala/Milah—A ritual (offering) by the name of mala (Hittite)/milah (Hebrew) is performed on or after the seventh day. And yet, the Hittite mala ritual seems to be an offering and is done for both boys and girls; the biblical milah refers to circumcision and is done only on boys.
- Waiting period—Purification occurs only after a long waiting period, but the waiting time in the Hittite text is longer and calculated differently.
- Gender distinction—The ritual is performed later for girls than it is for boys, though the Hittite period for girls is not double as it is in the biblical text.
- Purification—The Hittite text has a purification ritual with some sort of cleansing substance (kunzigannaḫit); the Torah makes no mention of any substance, but has the purification accompanied by offerings.
- Baby or Mother—The purification in the Hittite ritual is of the baby, while in Leviticus it is of the mother.
Despite the differences between the Hittite and Leviticus rituals, both can be understood as creating a structure with which the new baby will be introduced properly into the world.Part of this introduction is distinguishing between whether the baby is male or female.
In the Hittite ritual, this distinction is announced based on when the baby is purified and thus introduced into society, whereas in the biblical ritual it is announced based on when the mother is purified. Because children in the ancient Near East were exclusively breastfed, infants were with their mothers all the time in the first few months; thus the question of which is being secluded, the child or the mother, may be moot.
Thus, I suggest that the ritual here, even though it is technically about the purity of the mother, is actually about ritually gendering the child.
Leviticus 12: The Twist
In this reading, the mother’s state of purity is determined by the gender of the infant. In other words, the mother must remain in quasi-seclusion for longer than merely the period of her postpartum flow. A boy infant allows the mother to re-enter society after forty days, while a girl infant keeps the mother in seclusion for eighty days.
Leviticus 12 thus uses the seclusion laws to highlight, and perhaps even reinforce, a child’s gender. By systematically linking the mother’s impurity to the sex of the child, the family publicly announces a child’s gender: “My house has a newborn boy” or “My house has a newborn a girl.” Thus, the re-entry of the Israelite woman into society on day forty or eighty also functioned as an introduction to the newborn boy or girl respectively.
Modern studies show that 1:200 babies are born with an anomaly that results in death and 1:100 babies born live with an abnormality. The ancient world was not immune to anomalous births; if anything, abnormal birth figures are estimated to have been higher for the ancient Near East given the increased number pregnancies, higher infant mortality rates, and lack of birth control.
Near Eastern divination texts, such as the Akkadian Šumma Izbu (also found in Hittite and Hurrian) discuss anomalous births, including intersex or DSD (disorders of sexual differentiation) births. Covering a wide range of possibilities, DSD births can include those born with both or no sexual organs, or sexual organs that are under- or over-developed.
Šumma Izbu Tablet III no. 68–74 covers a range of anomalous births including babies born with: no penis, no penis or testicles, a penis and vagina, no penis or vulva, no testicles, or no vulva. All of these anomalies are scientifically possible, and there is no reason to assume that they didn’t occur in Israelite births as well. Nevertheless, Leviticus 12 says nothing about what to do if such a child is born.
This lacuna was noticed by the rabbis, who discuss the status of intersex people, such as the androgynus (hermaphrodite) and the tumtum (ambiguous genitalia), in a variety of gender specific legal scenarios, including the mother’s impurity at birth (see, e.g., m. Niddah 3:5). The fact that the Levitical childbirth laws deal only with binaries, ignoring the possibility of a DSD child, is likely because such births were unusual, but still, it highlights the centrality of the gender binary in this culture—every child is either male or female.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
April 3, 2019
September 9, 2023
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Dr. Kristine Henrikson Garroway is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at the HUC-JIR. She received her doctorate in Hebrew Bible and Cognate Studies at HUC-JIR. Garroway is the author of Children in the Ancient Near Eastern Household.
Essays on Related Topics: