Today I learned how menstruation, ironically, became a blessing rather than a banishment to the red tent.
In the article linked below, I stumbled upon an interesting scenario where a woman’s monthly flow could literally save her from death. Before we go there, let me share a few thoughts.
Yes, I’m writing about menstruation, a topic few like to discuss openly. I considered starting this post with: For Women Only!
We women are rather adept at keeping others (particularly males) in the dark! We’ve become pros at keeping this natural, biological function secret, and there are nearly 5000 euphemisms to prove it!
You might enjoy reading the popular book, The Red Tent, in which Anita Diamond detailed the ancient practice of women fellowshipping together in a quiet location for the duration of their monthly cycles. Many who read it relished the idea of a week away from domestic responsibilities and a week off work with pay!
The ancient world differs significantly from us when it comes to thinking about the woman’s body. Her time of the month was discussed by religious leaders who regulated its meaning and purpose. This also shaped a woman’s meaning and purpose.
It is puzzling for us today — in what is described as a post-modern, progressive world of freedom and equality — that we still experience embarrassment related to this natural function.
Male church leaders give this little attention, which is a relief! Yet I can’t help but wonder if more thinking about this taboo topic could give insight into some of the difficult Biblical topics — such as the theology regarding male and female bodies, the roles culture gives them, and the spaces churches restrict them from.
Today’s women have mixed feelings about their periods. It is an inconvenience. Many suffer excruciating pain. We curse Eve. We regulate it with hormones. We use methods to halt it altogether. For the woman who does not want a child, a period is a time for rejoicing. But for the one longing for a family, that red flow breaks her heart.
Most ancient women could not avoid pregnancy. Once menstruation began a young girl was ready for marriage. Many accepted their destiny and desired to birth a child — especially a son. For most, the first sign of menstrual flow would disappoint, letting a deep sense of barrenness creep in. Women were born to give birth. Birthing and blood went hand in hand.
The book of Leviticus records the complex system that legislates — the who, the when, and the how — of folks approaching God. Much of the legislation concerned the blood of sacrificed animals. It was messy and bloody business — day after day after day.
Leviticus 15:19-30 describes the regulations regarding the bloody discharges of the women. There we learn a woman’s menstrual flow marked her unclean — for a period of time. She was unable to participate in religious rituals until she had purified her body.
An entire chapter in Leviticus is devoted to the purification rituals for women who gave birth (Lev 12:1-8). No doubt there is significance to this matter of birthing. It would be wise to explore this more to gain insight into matters concerning men and women in today’s church.
Women were not the only ones to be declared unclean at one time or another. Following chapters in the book discuss skin diseases — leprosy, boils, and bodily discharges — and how they render both men and women temporarily unclean (Lev 13-15:1-18).
And here I admit how I used to think of Leviticus as one of the more boring books of the Bible. Not so!!
Okay, now for the interesting bit of information promised earlier. While studying about the Bhakti movement in India, I stumbled across a reference to the ancient practice of Sati. I failed to guess what Sati was, so I turned to google to help define the term. Once in google I became lost reading about Sati.
You can read more about the history of the practice of Sati in the article found here. The video that should have taken me 45 minutes of study turned into an excursion of great interest. I’ve yet to finish the video.
Sati is the ancient practice in some cultures — Russia, Fiji, Vietnam, Nepal, and India — in which a widow, regardless of age, or length of marriage, is required to sacrifice herself by leaping onto her dead husband’s burning pyre. It is a gruesome practice that has been frequently criminalized.
Some widows — understandably desiring not to experience the scorching flames — slit their wrists prior to jumping into the fire. Others took poison to render themselves unconscious.
BUT here’s what I found most interesting, and quite ironic — the widow was not permitted to die with her husband — even if she wanted to — WHEN she was MENSTRUATING!
Menstruation actually spared some women from immolation!!
Did the menstruating widow, the Sati, (see the article above) secretly rejoice, that for once, her bodily flow visited at precisely the right time?
I like to imagine that she did! I like to think she yelled out, “It’s my time of the month” with a smirk of relief on her face. That reveals how far removed we are from understanding cultural views vastly dissimilar to ours.
Most of us today are concerned about life and death. We grapple with how God does or does not work — here and out there — in eternity. These are important matters, yet they are difficult to sort out. Christians committed to the sacred Biblical text even have a difficult time agreeing on the issues.
But there is one thing we all can agree upon: Life is literally in the blood!
Yes, life is in the blood.
And, this dear reader may offer clues to why women at certain times of the month — as well as all others in the ancient past — were unable to step into God’s presence before they were purified.
No doubt, the religious understanding of the Sati’s culture taught a woman’s uncleanness not only tainted the body of her burning, and very dead, husband, but that her bloody stain followed them both into the afterlife.
This would have grave ramifications beyond the grave! It would impede his chance at eternal perfection and hers as well.
So, women rejoice! For at least once, in the long line of stories that shame women, we find in the Sati story — how this red stain served as a blessing that could literally save a woman rather than shaming her!
The above image is of Christ Healing a bleeding woman, as depicted in the Catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter.