Passages in the Bible regarding women and their natural functions have frequently been interpreted as indicating the intrinsic unholiness or sinfulness of women. The editors of Wholly Woman, Holy Blood attempt to correct these misinterpretations by viewing several of these passages in a new light through ten articles written by both men and women.
In “The Semantics of Taboo: Menstrual Prohibitions in the Hebrew Bible,” Kathleen O’Grady studies the etymology of the English word taboo (and its Polynesian roots), as well as the Hebrew terms נדה and נדר. She discovers that while these terms do refer to someone or something that is set apart, they do not intrinsically indicate either holiness or unholiness. Then examining the laws regarding women’s menstruation, she finds that a prescribed separation does not necessarily indicate a sinful condition, as many have construed over the years. In fact, she finds little difference (in terminology and ritual offerings) between the conditions of a menstruating woman and a nazirite. Careful to point out that this does not mean there is no difference between holiness and unholiness, she does suggest that some cultures treat them basically the same—as taboo, untouchable, or set apart for whatever reason.
Deborah Ellens takes a look at the overall structure of Leviticus 15 in “Menstrual Impurity and Innovation in Leviticus 15.” Acknowledging that the word used to describe a menstruating woman has a negative connotation, based on other usages throughout the Old Testament, she concludes that the chiastic structure of the chapter indicates a woman’s discharge is viewed no differently from that of a man. Both cause a similar nature of impurity. What she finds striking is that while the wording of the original laws may have intended to attribute greater impurity to women and place them in a subordinate, objectified position to men, the final redactor has structured the presentation of the laws to mollify this effect.
Why were women prohibited from Levitical priesthood, and why do they continue to be prohibited from Roman Catholic priesthood? Kristin De Troyer investigates this question in “Blood: A Threat to Holiness or Toward (Another) Holiness?” From an analysis of Leviticus 12 she concludes that attributing uncleanness to menstruating women, those who have just given birth, and an extended period of uncleanness for giving birth to a daughter, do not reflect an intrinsic uncleanness attributable to women but rather were a reaction against Canaanite pagan religious practices where women’s fertility was deified and personified in the form of temple priestesses who served as prostitutes. While her discussion of the nature of the uncleanness of women during menstruation and after childbirth is extensive, including comparison of the Masoretic, LXX, and Vulgate texts as well as related Qumran texts, she only provides brief references to other works related to Canaanite practices.
In “Purity and Impurity in Halakic Sources and Qumran Law,” Mayer I. Gruber examines commentary on Leviticus 12 and Exodus 19 to determine if these passages should be understand as indicating that women intrinsically convey impurity. Based on a careful examination of commentary from Rashi and Qumran, he concludes that female menstrual discharge as well as male seminal discharge equally convey uncleanness, but that women alone do not.
Kathleen P. Rushton takes a fresh look at John 16:21 in “The Woman in Childbirth of John 16:21.” She sees a clear parallel with the suffering Daughter of Zion from Isaiah, in that both metaphors involve five aspects ofchildbirth: an embodied woman, pain, birth, offspring, and subsequent joy. She takes an excursus into the Barren Woman traditions that, while interesting, seems to have little bearing on her prime focus. She also examines how the Johannine community, early Judaism, and Christianity up to the twentieth century have viewed women, pregnancy, and childbirth, though again with little apparent bearing on the main topic. In the end, she concludes that the audience would have understood this reference as a parallel to Isaiah, and as viewing Jesus’ death as some sort of new life, and encourages feminist interpretation of other childbirth metaphors throughout the Bible.
Jennifer Shultz explores the roots of the marginalization of women in the Christian church in “Doctors, Philosophers, and Christian Fathers on Menstrual Blood.” Beginning with the writings of Hippolytus of Rome and Dionysius of Alexandria, she traces the roots of their prejudice back to Greek antiquity in the writings of physicians and philosophers, and confirms that those views were widely held as they are also expressed and assumed in literature. She then traces the prejudices forward to the Penitential of Theodore (7th century ce) and the writings of Theodore Balsamon (12th century ce). Her analysis is succinct yet thorough.
In “The Old Rite of the Churching of Women after Childbirth,” Susan K. Roll examines that practice in antiquity and looks for vestiges of it in modern rites. She traces the roots back to Leviticus 12 and finds varied discussion of it among the writings of early church fathers, including Origen. Well into the Middle Ages throughout Europe there persisted a general view that women were stained after childbirth and in need of ritual purification. Unable to expunge the traditional practice entirely, Luther attempted to shift the emphasis from purification to thanksgiving. A Roman Catholic rite existed until 1964 that, to Roll’s reckoning, had shifted towards thanksgiving but still retained elements of purification. She sees remnants of the purification motif in modern rites, though here I believe she is seeing hobgoblins where none exist, as this rite places no greater emphasis on the need for redemption than any other.
Grietje Dresen further explores the practice of churching women after childbirth in “The Better Blood.” Like Roll, she finds ambivalence towards the practice through the Middle Ages, yet it continued to be expected by society and pastors well into the twentieth century, at least in Europe. And also like Roll, she finds that it fell heavily out of favor in the mid-twentieth century as more and more women objected. She explores new territory in wondering, though, to what extent the view of women, either menstruating or bearing children, as unclean continues to preclude them from the priesthood. She draws a sharp contrast between women’s involuntary shedding of blood and the voluntary shedding of blood by men throughout history either in ritual sacrifice, warfare, or in the celebration of the mass. She concludes that the most likely explanation has its roots not in Leviticus 12, but much earlier than that, in a sort of reproductive envy among men. Unable to ascertain paternity with certainty, and unable to shed blood in the giving of life, they co-opted those functions with their own creations in which they deliberately shed blood. Although she certainly provides some food for thought for modern theologians pondering the male, celibate clerical hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, her argument could have carried far more weight had she considered the church’s stated reasons for restricting ordination to men.
In “Female Blood Rituals: Cultural-Anthropological Findings and Feminist-Theological Reflections,” Anne-Marie Korte examines the rites and emphases of a dozen contemporary female-centered religions from around the globe, and finds in them a conspicuous absence of emphasis on blood or female physiology. The few exceptions could be attributed to creeping androcentrism. Rather, they emphasize relationships among women. Shifting gears, she then examines the treatment of women in Judaism and Christianity, culminating in modern times with several feminists attempting to either totally redefine old rituals which demean women’s physiology, or create new rites that celebrate the most significant physiological moments in women’s lives. This creates a tension, as on the one hand they wish to be treated as persons, not just as women (different, distinct, outside), but on the other hand monthly menstruation serves as a constant reminder that they are distinct, and must either be ashamed of it or celebrate it.
Judith Ann Johnson pulls it all together in “Shedding Blood: The Sanctifying Rite of Heroes.” She picks up on Dresen’s reproduction-envy theme to explain how men have usurped power. Male lineages of priesthood, kingship, or military leadership are handed down by anointing, not matrilineage. Unable to create life, men have developed power to destroy it. She concludes by examining the modern hero/priest/king roles in the form of military generals, military elite corps, and geneticists who now seek to take away even the role of creating life from women. Her modern antitypes are worth consideration, and her presentation of military elite corps (naval aviators is one example) and generals excluding women from their ranks does bear a striking parallel to male priesthoods, but the professions of geneticist and astronaut are just as open to women today as men, with no discernable discrimination or harassment “rituals” designed to exclude them.
While many of the arguments in the various chapters are weakly supported and sometimes stray rather far into left field, overall these essays give the modern reader a good overview of how the shedding of blood, and women’s bloodshed in menstruation and childbirth, have been viewed and dealt with throughout history. They present a compelling argument that men have experienced a sort of reproduction envy and have devised methods, including blood sacrifice and warrior heroes, abortion and euthanasia, to take control of the other end of the life course by controlling death. They present women, and bloodshed, as something numinous, ominous, and too close to the thin red line between life and death for comfort.