A Brief Theology of Periods. Yes, Really. [Book Review]

Periods are part of life. And good theology results in good practice, even in the everyday, ordinary things like how women approach that *particular* time of the month.

Every month like clockwork (give or take a day or two) we get the consequential reminder that, thanks to our mother Eve, we carry the curse of pain in child-birth. But are the crippling cramps and embarrassing blood soaked stains all that there is to It? Is that what periods are really all about?

What God Has to Say

God has a lot to say about this area of our life. Not just in a figurative sense. The Bible literally talks about periods. In Genesis, Leviticus, Lamentations, and Ezekiel… but sometimes we’ve misunderstood what He has to say. In fact, some of the most harmful religious attitudes about periods have come from a misunderstanding of the Levitical law, which calls women “unclean” when menstruating. Misreading these biblical texts has caused much confusion and shame amongst women in the church who question: are periods all bad? 

Far from it.

The pain we experience and the bloody mess we endure reveals something deeper, something redemptive about womanhood. Jones helps us see periods as a symbolic reminder of our Savior who entered into our pain, understands our weakness, and bestows the hope of restoration. Could it be that God has a message of hope and liberation in the midst of the monthly pain we bear? The author convinced me it could be so!

What Science Has to Say

After a brief science lesson about the hormones that rise and fall during a typical month’s cycle, Jones steps back to marvel at the female body’s incredible design. And, let me tell you what, she makes you feel good about being a woman! Our bodies tell us something about God because they were designed with intelligence, with purpose, and with excellence. The female body was made to be good. And everything inside, including the womb, has a unique function. “Women’s bodies have been built with the God-given ability to bring new life into the world – to take part in his creation as we “create” new humans in his image. It’s almost as though the cosmic ‘stage’ on which God choreographed the marvel of Genesis 1 has been shrunk down into our wombs, where the miracle happens in the micro” (pg 31). 

In today’s culture, saying that a woman’s calling is to carry babies in her womb is akin to telling her to get back in the kitchen and make a sandwich. It’s offensive. Archaic. And not well received. But the reality is that the creation of life is a noble, beautiful calling. And it’s the shared calling of men and women, together. In Genesis 2, men and woman are called to “fill the earth”, and neither sex has all the reproductive parts necessary to fulfill that mandate without the other. We need each other. It was part of God’s intentional design for both sexes to work together to fill the earth and participate in the promise of the Messiah (Genesis 3:15).

In Genesis 2, men and woman are called to “fill the earth”, and neither sex has all the reproductive parts necessary to fulfill that mandate without the other.

Ashley Giovannucci, Across My Heart

But for many women, a monthly period is an all-too-painful reminder of a barren womb. In the Old Testament, this pain was particularly poignant, not only emotionally but spiritually. “Since God’s ultimate defeat of evil was going to be brought about by the offspring of a woman (Genesis 3:15) – a child from her womb – then every period marked another month in which you were waiting for the Messiah’s arrival; and the menopause would have drawn a line of sorts under your part in God’s purposes.” This brings a new perspective to Naomi’s pain after losing her husband and her two sons, for Elizabeth who was “not able to conceive”, and for every Old Testament woman who mourned her barren womb. They mourned not only for personal and emotional reasons but also for the spiritual promise and national sorrow.

As New Covenant Christians, the Creation Mandate to be “fruitful and multiply” still stands, but our fruitfulness comes primarily through the discipleship of the Kingdom. Our identity as image-bearers and life-givers informs the way we “fill the earth” by “making disciples” under our New Testament commission (Matthew 28). What if a period wasn’t just a reminder of our womb’s fruitfulness but our spiritual fruitfulness as well? What if our periods served as sobering reminders of the “spiritual life” we are nurturing in the world?

What if a period wasn’t just a reminder of our womb’s fruitfulness but our spiritual fruitfulness as well?

Ashley Giovannucci, Across My Heart

“Perhaps we need to learn something from the women of Old Testament Israel – and the many women today – who longed for children and who therefore knew what it was to grieve every period. That challenges me: am I that emotionally invested in the call to make disciples? Do I long for it that keenly? Am I that desperate for God’s kingdom to grow? I should be. But often I am not. I need to learn to mourn my spiritual fruitlessness. Maybe you do too.” (98).

Jones sees her monthly period as an opportunity to ask herself, “What disciple-making have I done this month? Where have I nurtured spiritual life? Have I played a part in bringing new spiritual life into the world?” (97)

But what about the pain?

“To the woman God said, ‘I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children.” It’s important to acknowledge that the word for “pain” in verse 16 can also be translated as “sorrow”, recognizing the physical, mental, and emotional turmoil that our menstrual cycle can produce. Endometriosis, amenorrhea, dysmenorrhea, polycystic ovarian syndrome, fibroids, and even cancer can be among the crippling physical realities women face. Endometriosis alone affects nearly 10% of women. Not to mention the mental anguish that depression and anxiety can cause during PMS. 

So where should we place our frustration? Should we blame Eve? Should we blame ourselves? How about God? 

Throughout Scripture, God is clear that our pain is not a direct consequence of our individual sin but the corporate reality of the fallen human race. (Just read the book of Job for that refresher). We are all responsible because we are all culpable. The effects of sin are a reality we must all endure, regardless of our own personal failings. We may be frustrated with doctors who do not know the solution for our particular pain. Or Eve for bringing this all upon us. We long for an explanation because “an explanation is better than nothing, even if it is bad news. And better yet if there’s hope of a cure.” (43)

And that’s exactly what the gospel provides. Rather than suck it up and deal with it, the Scriptures offer hope to the woman who is suffering. Just as Jesus tenderly addressed the hemorrhaging woman as “daughter”, he turns to us, not in disgust, but in sympathy (Mark 5:34). He hears our cries and offers true hope. From the very beginning, God promised Eve that through the pain of childbearing, one woman would bring forth the deliverer, the one who would crush the head of the snake (Genesis 3:15). Christ himself entered into our pain-ridden world through the body of a woman. He won his victory, not by a valiant act of the sword, but through the humble sacrifice of the cross. He became a Man of Sorrow to overcome our sorrows (Isaiah 53). “That’s what we see with childbirth in Genesis 3 – the blessing became weighed with sorrow, but would ultimately be used to bring about redemption. That’s what we see at the cross- by his wounds we are healed.” (47).

Uncleanness in Leviticus

If God’s Word is so hopeful and inspiring, what about those troublesome Bible passages in Leviticus? The ones that have caused shame as women endured their pain in silence? A closer examination shows that our uncleanness isn’t just about menstrual blood. A variety of bodily discharges make both men and women unclean. Verses 1-15 cover “unusual bodily discharges”, 16-18 “an emission of semen” and verse 25 “hemorrhaging”. Clearly, this isn’t just a woman’s issue. This is a holiness issue. We are unclean because we are, at our most basic level, unholy.

Clearly, this isn’t just a woman’s issue. This is a holiness issue.

Ashley Giovannucci, Across My Heart

The Levitical law isn’t something we should despise, it is something we should revere as a reminder that God sees us for what we are and loves us despite it. He is holy. We are not. “The uncleanness of our hearts comes from deep inside of us and flows into our actions seeping into even our best endeavors and relationships and staining everything we touch (Mark 7:14-23, Isaiah 64:6)”

Just as an Israelite could die from entering the most Holy of Holies without the proper ritual, we would surely die an eternal death if it wasn’t for the Blood of Christ washing us clean. Rather than be offended that our periods are called “unclean” in Scriptures, we should be humbled by this powerful and bloody reminder of the gospel truth: Jesus is the only One who can cleanse us by His blood. And, as daughters of God, we get to participate in that reality. But sometimes that gospel truth can seem so unreal, so far off.

“And that’s why I’m kind of grateful for my period. From puberty to menopause, we women come into contact with blood pretty regularly. We see it and smell it and feel it; it gets into our sheets and under our fingernails. It’s real. So maybe it can serve as a real reminder of a real day that is coming… A day when pain and fear will be banished. A day when Christ’s blood will have the final word.” (72)

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