Samuel Terrien has a chapter in Till the Heart Sings called “the circumcised male and the pollutant female”. To be up front about it, I disagree with his conclusions here. However, my purpose is to put his views out. Later I will post about an alternative way of seeing the ritual purity regulations in Leviticus. But for now I will tell you what he says.
His approach depends on seeing Leviticus as coming after Ezekiel. Ezekiel reacted against the fundraising method of pagan and copycat Yahweh temples who pimped out women and men in exchange for donations. (Most religious groups obsess about meeting budget. I can imagine the temple board meeting where someone said, “You know what would really bring in the bucks. . .” ) This was usually associated with worship of the mother-goddess and with fertility rites.
Ezekiel found this repugnant. He understood that God had abandoned the Temple and caused the exile in response to the abominable mixing of Judaism with this form of worship (and fundraising).
Ezekiel became a little unhinged about this and in some of his oracles he used language that sounds absolutely woman-hating as he bashed the sexual manifestations of fertility religion.
The priestly writings, particularly Leviticus, came after Ezekiel. He influenced the priests to write laws of sexual purity that go counter to the very positive view of sexuality and women found in the wisdom literature and the original use of the Garden of Eden story. This reaction gave rise to the laws about cleansing from genital secretions for both males and females (Leviticus 15). The laws against incest, bestiality, homosexuality, and cross-dressing also targeted Canaanite cult practices.
These laws partly stem from age old human disgust with nakedness and bodily functions, particularly “a prehistoric dread of female blood”.
In the spiritual chaos of the Babylonian exile, the Jerusalem priests sought to prepare a new age and to prevent the recurrence of Canaanite syncretism. But several of the archaic practices that they codified in the name of the God of Moses placed women in a state of religious inferiority to men and may have even insidiously penetrated the feminine consciousness with a sense of guilt that had nothing to do with moral behavior (p. 78).
Terrien believes there was an earlier time when these laws did not apply. For instance, he doesn’t see anything in Genesis 32:35 that shows that Rachel being on her period somehow polluted Jacob.
More interestingly, he thinks Exodus 38:8 slipped through the filter of the later priests to reveal a time when women served in Israelite places of worship:
“He made the basin of brass, and its base of brass, out of the mirrors of the ministering women who ministered at the door of the Tent of Meeting” (WEB Bible).
Since this role seemed to disregard any problem with the women’s ritual purity, Terrien thinks it reflects a time before that rule existed.
This former time also gives us the memory of Miriam, who in Numbers 12:2 expressed the idea that God spoke to her the same way he spoke to Moses. It also may give us the memory of the early heroine, Deborah, who sat under a sacred palm as a judge, or oracle, or wise woman (Judges 4:4). Even up to Josiah’s day, there could be a prophet, like Huldah, whose word was as good as that of any male prophet (2 Kings 22:13-15). To Terrien, this all speaks of an era before the Babylonian exile when women were much more respected in Israel than later.
Also, Terrien points out something I had forgotten. Even after the exile there was a woman prophet, Noadiah (Nehemiah 6:14), who apparently opposed and intimidated Nehemiah.
So Terrien adopts the notion that there was an earlier and better version of Judaism that celebrated human sexuality and equal roles for women, which reactionary priests downplayed after the exile.