On ‘twelve’ in the stories of the bleeding woman and the dying child (Mark 5; Pentecost 5B)

The Gospel reading that is offered by the revised common lectionary this coming Sunday is a two-for-one deal. The story of Jesus’ encounter with a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years (Mark 5:25–34) is surrounded by the story of his encounter with one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus and his dying daughter (5:21–24, 35–43).

Jesus heals the woman who reached out to touch his clothing, telling her, “daughter, your faith has made you well” (5:34a) and commanding her to be healed (5:34b). Jesus reassures the synagogue leader with the exhortation, “do not fear, only believe” (5:36), informs him that his daughter “is not dead, but sleeping” (5:40), and raises her with the Aramaic phrase, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” (5:41).

Why are these stories connected? Perhaps it is simply a favourite technique employed by the writer of this Gospel. There are a number of stories that are connected in this way (often called “intercalation”, or “sandwiching”). The scene at the family home wraps Jesus’ engagement with his family around an interaction with the scribes (3:22–30). The sending out of the disciples and their return bookends the account of the death of John the baptiser (6:7–30).

The words and actions of Jesus in relation to the fig tree by the road are placed around his actions in the Temple forecourt (11:12–25). The plot to arrest and kill Jesus encompasses the account of the woman in Bethany who anoints the head of Jesus (14:1–11). Other examples are found in the apocalyptic discourse (13:5-27), the scene of the final meal (14:18-25), and the scene of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, with Peter’s denial immediately before and after this scene (14:53-72). It appears to be a favourite technique in this Gospel.

Why are these stories connected? Perhaps it is the significant number 12 that links these stories? The woman had been bleeding for 12 years; the girl was 12 years of age. The woman had been bleeding since the child had been born. Was there a connection?

I’ve recently read an explanation that draws on the preserve of 12 in both stories as the linking point. James F. McGrath, in his recently-published book, What Jesus Learned from Women (cascade, 2021), notes that the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years was in danger of being considered ritually impure, and thus of being ostracised from community life. Jairus, as ruler of the synagogue, was responsible for ensuring that the requirements for ritual purity were maintained.

The number 12, McGrath suggests, provides a reminder that “these very women whose stories highlight the danger of ritual impurity associated with women in that ancient society are nevertheless part of the people of Israel, and thus worthy of healing and restoration into that community” (p.115). Indeed, as he notes, “women were the ones who made them ongoing existence of the tribes of Israel possible generation to generation thought their reproductive role and power”.

Certainly, 12 was an important number for the Jewish people who were the main characters in the stories told in Mark 5. The prominence of 12 makes the stories seem especially Jewish.

There were 12 sons of Jacob (Gen 49:1–28), then 12 tribes of Israel (Deut 27:12–13). On the table in the Tabernacle were placed 12 silver plates, 12 silver dishes, and 12 golden plates (Num 7:84–89), and the breastplate of the priest contained 12 precious stones (Exod 28:21) as emblems of the 12 tribes as they camped round about the Sanctuary.

Moses built an altar at the foot of Mount Sinai with 12 pillars (Exod 24:4) and Joshua had the people take 12 stones from the River Jordan to be placed as a memorial to their entry into the land (Josh 4:1–10).

As the story continues in the Gospels, Jesus chose 12 apostles as his inner circle (Mark 3:13–19 and parallels in Matt 10 and Luke 6; and John 6:67–71). Jesus indicates that this signified the link between his movement and the traditions of Israel (Matt 19:28; Luke 22:30; and see James 1:1). When Jesus feeds the great crowd of 4,000 people beside the Sea of Galilee (Mark 8:1–9), there are twelve baskets of bread left over (Mark 8:19). In another account, with 5,000 men beside the Sea of Galilee (John 6:1–14), the leftovers are again collected in twelve baskets (John 6:13).

And in the final dramatic visions written about the promised future by the aged seer John, the number 12 figures prominently. We see this first in the vision of a woman wearing a crown with 12 stars (Rev 12:1). The number then appears in the architecture of “the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev 21:10), with its 12 gates with 12 angels and the names of the 12 tribes (Rev 21:12), and its 12 foundations with the names of the 12 apostles (Rev 21:14). Finally, there are 12 pearls on these 12 gates (Rev 21:21) and 12 fruits on the tree of life (Rev 22:2).

Is the emphasis on 12 in these conjoined stories in Mark 5 underlining the Jewish setting, and pointing to the centrality of Jewish matters in the story? It’s a fascinating hypothesis.

My wife, Elizabeth Raine, suggests that the significance of the 12 relates to being able to be married. The adult woman in the story is able to marry once her bleeding of 12 years has ended. She is healed (5:29), saved (5:34, often translated as “made well”), and made clean (5:34b). The girl, brought back from the brink of death at 12 years of age, is approaching the time when women were able to be married.

Whether you think this is a legitimate explanation, or not, it is certain that the two stories offer hope for both women. Their encounters with Jesus have each been life-changing.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/06/24/on-not-stereotyping-judaism-when-reading-the-gospels-mark-5-pentecost-5b/

Author: John T Squires

My name is John Squires. I live in the Australian Capital Territory. I have been an active participant in the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) since it was formed in 1977, and was ordained as a Minister of the Word in this church in 1980. I have served in rural, regional, and urban congregations and as a Presbytery Resource Minister and Intentional Interim Minister. For two decades I taught Biblical Studies at a theological college and most recently I was Director of Education and Formation and Principal of the Perth Theological Hall. I've studied the scriptures in depth; I hold a number of degrees, including a PhD in early Christian literature. I am committed to providing the best opportunities for education within the church, so that people can hold to an informed faith, which is how the UCA Basis of Union describes it. This blog is one contribution to that ongoing task.

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