Isaiah 64 says what? Oh, you are using the CEB translation…
We have all become like the unclean;
all our righteous deeds are like a menstrual rag.
All of us wither like a leaf;
our sins, like the wind, carry us away.Isaiah 64:6 CEB
So, I got an email asking about preaching on Isaiah 64 and what in the world to do with the use of menstrual rag. I had no idea it was in that passage. I almost always use NRSV, so sometimes looking at other translations (or better, the original languages, but I didn’t do that well in those classes) a new perspective can be gleaned. Anyway, when asked on the fly, I fired off a snarky email. The following two paragraphs are part of that email.
Unclean does not mean unloved or unwanted or out forever. Remember men are unclean after an emission of seamen too. There are purification rituals to do before entering the temple and resuming other activities (take a bath). So in relation to our righteous deeds that are not what they should be there is hope that they will be redeemable or made clean again. There might be some interesting ways to talk about reusable and washable menstrual pads in that the stains can be washed off and we are fit for purpose again. Being a reusable/washable menstrual rag doesn’t have to be insulting… maybe it’s even empowering (although I’m sure in the original context it wasn’t meant to be empowering). I think it’s fair to say that a used menstrual pad needs to be clean before it can be used again and there are implications about our sin needing forgiveness before we can be righteous.
One of my earlier period sermons addressed the issue of clean or unclean but after a while I worried that I was making the new testament more important or a corrective for the Old testament texts and reading “upon which she sits” is a tongue twister you don’t want to get wrong in the pulpit https://periodpastor.com/2019/05/22/period-sermon-liturgy/ and https://periodpastor.com/2018/08/28/the-period-sermon/. The main point I was trying to make in these sermons was about restoration to cleanliness. Jesus doesn’t just heal a bleeding disorder but he restores her to community and to worship. He gives her back the connections she has lost. Again with the restoration is possible stuff and the importance of community, and maybe a little of how we can reach out to the marginalized to restore them to community by taking down some of the barriers to community.
Not the finest email I’ve ever written, but I mean it about that redemption stuff, so I guess I’ll do a little research and try to come up with something better. Like Another Period Sermon.
Have you ever had one of those weird moments when you opened to exactly the right page in a book? So, in looking for Isaiah 64, I opened to the section on Isaiah 8:1-4 in the women’s bible commentary. It mentions that Isiah’s wife’s name is the feminine form of the word for prophet (navi’). And while we don’t have any prophecy’s attributed to her, we do know of five other women who carry the title of prophet. “…Miriam (Exod. 15:20), Deborah (Judg. 4:4), Huldah (2 Kgs. 22:14), and Noadiah (Neh. 6:14). Not one eyebrow is raised as these women’s vacation are mentioned, and the words of three of them are recorded (Exod. 15:21; Judg. 4:6-9; 5:2-31; and 2 Kgs. 22:15-20). The presence of female prophets in ancient Israel suggests that it is quite likely that at least some of the contributors to prophetic books were women.” (p. 259) And wouldn’t stand to reason that if there were women prophets that they might use imagery specific to womanhood? Menstrual rag? Well, after turning enough pages I found that the women’s bible commentary did not specifically mention Isaiah 64’s menstrual rag, nor did any of the other commentaries on my shelf (but my collection is far from extensive). So, if you have something insightful leave it in the comments. Is there an old testament understanding of menstrual rags? Is this metaphor used elsewhere?
In verse 6 there is also the image of a leaf that withers and is carried away, so maybe the idea is that the mensural rag is trash; it’s used and then discarded, forgotten. Or, the leaf, though now faded and decomposing, blowing away in the wind, was once part of a tree. More than that, it was the green, growing, sun absorbing, life giving, part of the tree. Menstrual blood on a rag is blood that was once the lining of a uterus, the stuff that accumulates as we prepare for new life, but is discarded when new life does not take hold. Our “righteousness” isn’t really righteous if it isn’t life giving. But even a rotten leaf dies and provides compost for new plants. And a used menstrual rag can be cleaned and used again. Maybe when things are dead and discarded we can still hold onto hope for new life. Maybe we unrighteous ones can still hold onto the hope that God will tear open the heavens and come down to restore us to righteousness. Maybe we can have hope.