A 5 minute theology of periods

 
Rachel Jones | February 20th 2018

We need to talk about periods.

After all, it seems like everyone else is—whether it’s the recent debate in the UK over tax on sanitary products or the trend for “free bleeding” (google it… or actually, don’t). There’s a growing movement on social media to ditch the shame and secrecy around “that time of the month”, and get everyone—women and men—to get comfortable and open about it.

But whereas you can find Christian blogs and even whole books on most other bodily experiences—eating, sleeping, sickness, sex—not so much on menstruation.

Maybe that’s because many of the people writing the blogs and the books (and editing them, and commissioning them...) are men. Maybe it’s because our culture teaches us from a young age to be discreet about “Aunt Flo”. Periods have always been a source of excruciating embarrassment for teenage girls, some grown women and the majority of men.

Yet the Bible does talk about periods, but often in confusing ways. For example:

“When a woman has her regular flow of blood, the impurity of her monthly period will last seven days, and anyone who touches her will be unclean till evening. Anything she lies on during her period will be unclean, and anything she sits on will be unclean.” (Leviticus 15 v 19-20)

Any woman who reads a passage like that will be left with questions. Mainly: “Really God?! What’s with that?!”

But more than that, periods are very much part of the way women experience the world as embodied creatures. God has made us with minds and souls and bodies… and for 50% of the population, for around 2280 days of her life, that body is bleeding.

That’s why I was thrilled that Kathleen Nielson talks about periods in her new book, Women and God: Hard Questions, Beautiful Truth. It’s part of one of my favourite chapters, chapter 7. Here’s a brief summary of her theology of women’s bodies—but it’s well worth getting the book to read the whole chapter.

Our bodies preach creation

Our reproductive systems seem messy and inconvenient—but they are also fundamentally good:

“The original goodness of God’s creation calls every woman to view her body, including its childbearing capacity, as good and as glorifying to our Creator. There’s more to be said than this, of course—but we need to start with God’s goodness, which shines through all he has made, broken and fallen as we are. God has embedded in women’s bodies the ability to conceive and nurture new life; this is an amazing window for us, if we choose to look through it, on the God who made and sustains all life and who made us in his image.”

Our bodies preach the fall

“Women’s bodies preach truth about God our Creator—and about God our Judge. [Remember] God’s declaration of the consequences of disobeying his word: to the woman would come first of all severe pains in childbearing: “painful labor” in giving birth to children, matched by the man’s “painful toil” in working the earth (Genesis 3 v 16-17). … Ever since, the whole childbearing-related process, with its various systems and stages, has been full of all kinds of pain.”

This pain includes not just the pain of labour, but the pain of wanting children and not having them, and of having children and losing them. And yes—the pain of periods too. All of it, from the heart-breaking grief to the mildly inconvenient, preaches us a message:

“[The Bible] actually affirms our sighs and our cries, telling us that things are truly not as they were originally created. Listening to the Scriptures, we understand that the discomfort and pain that come from being a woman preach the fallenness of our world.” 

In the western world today, many of us can avoid a lot of the pain by taking medication, or using the pill to regulate our cycles—but will we continue to listen to the profound message contained within these experiences? 

God has embedded in women’s bodies the ability to conceive and nurture new life; this is an amazing window for us on the God who made and sustains all life 

Our bodies preach hope

The Old Testament is full of stories of unlikely births—which all point forward to the birth of the Lord Jesus. Kathleen makes this point:

“That Jesus Christ should enter [the world] affirms the goodness of this creation. Entering through the body of a woman, in the process of childbirth, he also participated in the painful judgment of this fallen creation: Jesus entered through blood and pain. All the judgment of sin Jesus embraced, took on himself, finally, at the cross. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5 v 21). And so was fulfilled the promise of Genesis 3 v 15: that by the offspring of woman the serpent would be finally crushed. …

“Women’s bodies preach this story—from creation, to the fall, to the redemption that stretches out into eternity. Listening to this preaching, you can look at your body—all that you have been given and all that you have not been given—and offer your body in service to your Creator and Redeemer, knowing that his good hand is shaping every molecule and moment of your existence. You too can say, as Mary did, “I am the Lord’s servant … May your word to me be fulfilled” (Luke 1 v 38).” 

But wait… what about that bit in Leviticus?

Kathleen offers a helpful answer to that question in a chapter on women in the Old Testament entitled “The Darkest Places”.

“Why would God call a woman “unclean” when she has her monthly period?

“Two things help us here: first, if we read all of Leviticus 15, we find equal attention given to men’s reproductive discharges, with equal contamination and equal requirements for purification. God’s not out to get women; he’s seeking to communicate something about cleanness and uncleanness among all people. And that something doesn’t just have to do with protection of his people from diseases easily communicated through blood and semen, though that was one good effect of these laws.

“The second, larger, point is this: through these ceremonial laws God was communicating his holiness and his mercy. We have to read through Leviticus to grasp the detailed requirements for purification and blood sacrifice, all of which point to the way our sin disqualifies us from approaching a holy God. For us to come before such a God in worship, sin must be dealt with—and God mercifully provided a way. 

“Discharges of blood and semen in themselves are not evil. These discharges were symbols of uncleanness. Blood in itself represents life: “The life of every creature is its blood” (Leviticus 17 v 14). So the loss of blood, as in a woman’s bleeding, was directly associated with death—death that came on the human race as God’s judgment for sin. These Old Testament purification rituals point backward to the fall and point forward to the Lord Jesus, who shed his blood to cleanse us from our sin and give us eternal life. In [Luke 8 v 43-48 we see] Jesus welcoming a desperate woman with a chronic discharge of blood who had, in faith, touched him and been healed by him. These Old Testament laws help us grasp the beauty of that scene.” 

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Kathleen Nielson’s book Women and God peels back the layers of what scripture says about women and reveals the beautiful truth of God’s goodness to them. You can buy it here.

Rachel Jones

Rachel Jones is the author of Is This It? and the award-winning Five Things to Pray series, and an editor at The Good Book Company. She leads Bible studies for young adults and helps teach kids at her church, Chessington Evangelical Church, in Surrey, UK. Rachel studied History at Manchester University before joining TGBC.

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