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Women in the Gospels: A Dead Girl and an Unclean Woman

August 6, 2012
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All three synoptic gospels contain the intertwined stories of a dead girl and a sick woman (Matthew 9:18-26, Mark 5:21-43, Luke 8:40-56). In all three synoptics the story of the dead girl frames that of the sick woman – the father of the then-dying girl speaks to Jesus who agrees to go heal his daughter but as he leaves to go to her Jesus is touched by the sick woman who is healed. That story is wrapped up and Jesus continues on to raise the now-dead girl. In Luke the two women are tied together even more closely as Luke takes the time to mention that the girl is about twelve years old and the woman has been bleeding for twelve years.

Before we get further into these stories, it’s worth examining their larger context. In both Mark and Luke these stories are the end of a string of “power miracles” – calming the storm, expelling demons from the Gerasene demoniac, and, finally, healing a woman of her twelve-year illness and raising a dead girl to life. Power over nature, power over demons, and power over death itself are demonstrated in what is probably a sequence of increasing unexpectedness. The sick woman is both unclean (it seems clear that her bleeding is menstrual in nature) and the manner of her healing is incredible – she touches Jesus and is healed without him even paying attention to her first. This is probably how she fits into that sequence.

In Mark this ascending train of power miracles culminates in Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth, made all the more ironic because of the material that precedes it. In Luke it culminates in Jesus sending out the Twelve, made fitting because Jesus has such power to give his disciples. In Matthew, though, these stories stand between a question about fasting (to which it is tightly tied – the girl’s father arrives as Jesus is finishing his remarks on fasting) and the healing of some blind men and then a mute man. Here I believe that the miracles serve to emphasize the point Jesus makes when answering the question about fasting: that he is something new (the famous new wine in old wineskins passage). Jesus follows up this claim with three extraordinary miracles – healing without paying attention, raising the dead, healing the blind, and driving a demon out of a mute man, healing him (to which the crowds respond “Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel”). Moreover, in one case (the sick woman) he is touched by an unclean woman who, rather than transmitting uncleanliness to him, is made clean, further emphasizing that Jesus is doing something that hasn’t been seen before. However, the Pharisees see all of this and say, “It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons.” This itself is a nice little story – Jesus makes a claim, backs it up with incredible signs, and the Pharisees refuse to believe, even coming up with this awful explanation of how Jesus brings new life to so many. However, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke the stories of the dead girl and the sick woman are always emphasized as incredible miracles.

One critical thing I have not mentioned that links these two women is their status in society. Women’s social status would be largely determined by their usefulness to men. One of these women is an adult and, therefore, a potential wife to someone, except that she is ritually unclean and so a good Jewish man would not have sex with her making her a poor choice in a society interested in having heirs. The other woman is a child in a society where children are not regarded nearly as well as they are in our today’s society. Imagine for a minute coming up to a father who is talking to a doctor about treatment options for his daughter and saying, “She’s dead, stop bothering the doctor.” This would not go over well and its presence in this story strongly suggests that the life of this little girl is not seen as particularly important.

What this means is that part of this story is about how Jesus does miracles even for those who aren’t important. This general inclusiveness of Jesus is well-known and is a major theme in Luke (perhaps one reason he focuses more on women than the other gospels). However, it is certainly worth noting that women are included in Jesus’ general inclusiveness. Within this story Jesus stops what he is doing (talking to an important man) to find a woman who has touched him to praise her for her faith and to tell her to go in peace. He then does one of his most powerful miracles to restore a young girl to life. We generally do not find this shocking. Jesus is a nice guy, right? However, imagine that this story happened slightly differently. Jesus is in the American south in 1850 and is walking with a wealthy land-owner back to his house to heal his child. A crowd is gathered around them and suddenly Jesus stops his conversation and his trip to locate and bless a poor black person who has just been healed by touching him. That wouldn’t be merely nice, it would be making a point. Jesus’ actions in this story are also not just nice (although perhaps healing a child for an important man makes sense in that society) but pointed. He is rejecting a system of value in which an unclean woman is not worth much of anything while Jairus (the synagogue leader and father of the dead girl) is worth quite a lot.

Jesus also shows direct concern for the women involved. He refers to the sick woman as “daughter”, a kindly form of address, and both Matthew and Luke record that when Jesus healed Jairus’ daughter his next action was to tell her parents to feed her. It is clear that these women are not just convenient miracle props for Jesus but people that he really cares about.

Moreover, all three synoptic evangelists have told these stories in a tied-together form despite a willingness of these authors to untangle stories for clarity (see Matthew 21 and Mark 11, the cursing of the fig tree and the cleansing of the Temple). This suggests that the commonalities of these stories, which certainly include the fact that both beneficiaries of the miracles are female, are important. Whatever Jesus is doing it does not involve leaving the status quo in place in regards to women although these stories do not tell us how far he might overturn it.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 6, 2012 10:21 am

    I don’t know exactly how welcome a Jewish man would have been in the 1850’s south, but your point stands.

    (This was the exact sermon topic at a church I visited recently. Conspicuous.) The only other thing I see is that both these women are considered unclean (the little girl, in that she’s dead when Jesus gets to her). Jesus is rejecting both the societal laws/norms as well as the religious “right” thing to do. It really is important (at least for me) to remember that the good of Jesus spreads out instead of the uncleanliness of others infecting him. There really is a lot going on in this story, and its interesting to just sit and ponder for a second. Nice post!

    • Eric permalink
      August 6, 2012 11:36 am

      Thanks!

      I agree that the attitude towards ceremonial cleanliness is is important here. A similar attitude appears in the stories where Jesus heals a leper by touching him, commanding him to “Be clean!” (Matthew 8). Of course, my treatment of these stories is rather limited in that my focus is primarily on the roles of the women within these stories.

  2. August 6, 2012 4:17 pm

    Jesus is definitely a game-changer on so many fronts. I love the way he validates and praises the great faith of supposedly ignorant, “unfavored” non-Jews like the Roman centurion and the Caananite woman whose daughter had a demon. He certainly turned conventional widsom and norms on its ear.

    Enjoyed the piece.

    • Eric permalink
      August 6, 2012 4:52 pm

      Thanks. The Canaanite woman is the subject of the next article in this series (if I remember my numbering correctly).

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