On not stereotyping Judaism when reading the Gospels (Mark 5; Pentecost 5B)

The interlinked stories of the dying girl who had lived for 12 years (Mark 5:25–34) and the woman who has bled for 12 years (Mark 5:21–24, 35–43) are stories with a Jewish focus. They each contain the number 12, a very important number in Judaism. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/06/23/on-twelve-in-the-stories-of-the-bleeding-woman-and-the-dying-child-mark-5-pentecost-5b/

These two stories each tell of a way that Jesus offered hope to the woman and the girl. And they each deal with matters of protocol and behaviour within the Jewish holiness system.

Holiness was central to the people of Israel. Those who ministered to God within the Temple, as priests, were to be especially concerned about holiness in their daily life and their regular activities in the Temple (Exod 28-29; Lev 8-9). The priests oversaw the implementation of the Holiness Code, a large section of Leviticus (chapters 17–26), which explained the various applications of the word to Israel, that “you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev 19:2; also 20:7,26).

As well as overseeing the various offerings and sacrifices that were to be brought to the Temple, the priests provided guidance and interpretation in many matters of daily life, including sexual relationships and bodily illnesses, as well as the annual festivals and other ritual practices.

In the towns and villages of Israel, by contrast, the scribes and Pharisees provided guidance in the interpretation of Torah and in the application of Torah to ensure that holiness was observed in daily living. They undertook the highly significant task of showing how the Torah was relevant to the daily life of Jewish people. It was possible, they argued, to live as God’s holy people at every point of one’s life, quite apart from any pilgrimages made to the Temple in Jerusalem.

So the encounter of the bleeding woman with Jesus had implications in terms of how he interacted with someone suffering from a physical illness. This was a matter regulated by various laws, including, most prominently, a comprehensive catalogue of laws relating to skin diseases, or leprosy (Lev 13–14) and, more relevant to this story, bodily discharges (Lev 15).

These laws specify that, if blood was being discharged from the woman as menstrual blood (“her regular discharge from her body”) that required specific actions to deal with the uncleanness that this produced (Lev 15:19-24).

If it was for other reasons (“a discharge of blood … not at the time of her impurity”) another set of laws applies (Lev 15:25-30). The woman herself is not seen as unclean; but anything she touches, anything she sits or lies on, is regarded as unclean. The processes for maintaining a clean status in her household, avoiding these items of furniture, or even direct contact with the woman, would have been onerous.

Furthermore, the request of the synagogue leader to Jesus could possibly bring him into contact with a dead body—a matter that was regulated by laws (Lev 22:4; Num 5:1-2, 9:6-12, 19:11-13). Jairus says that the girl is “at the point of death” (5:23). The cries of the crowd (“your daughter is dead”, 5:35) and the weeping and wailing of the people outside the house (5:38) suggest that the rituals of mourning for a deceased person had already begun. Nevertheless, Jesus assures Jairus that the girl is not dead, but sleeping (5:35).

Another strongly Jewish element in the story of the bleeding woman in her belief that, if she touched the clothing of Jesus (most likely the fringes or tassels), she would be cured. Whilst the laws relating to bleeding indicate that the “direction” of things is that an unclean state touching a clean state renders the clean state unclean, the direction is reversed in this story. The power that resides in Jesus is able to overcome the uncleanness associated with the woman (5:29).

The way that Christians have often read the Levitical prescriptions has been to dismiss the so-called “cultic laws” and maintain adherence only to the moral imperatives embedded within the pages of details about ritual and worship. From this perspective, the stories included in the section of Mark’s Gospel that we are focussing on, it is said, reveal that Jesus ignored or dismissed the prescriptions of the Law. Jesus is seen to validate the attitude that the laws in the Old Testament are no longer valid.

But neither of these Gospel stories give any warrant for such a negative approach to the Holiness Code. In neither case does Jesus actually breach the provisions of the Law. Indeed, the way that the Law functions is misunderstood in so many Christian readings of this story, as well as other parts of the Gospels.

Rather than operating as a constraining imposition, the Law actually deals with real life situations and provides ways that these situations are to be dealt with or managed. The woman with a discharge “beyond the time of her impurity”, for instance, could remove her uncleanness by offering two turtle doves or two pigeons (Lev 15:29–30).

The Pharisees, it is often said, imposed numerous demands on the people. They “made a fence around the law”—a phrase derived from the opening words of Pirke Aboth (The Sayings of the Fathers), a tractate in the Mishnah. The tractate begins:

“Moses received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be patient in [the administration of] justice, raise many disciples and make a fence round the Torah.”

Making a fence around the Law is apparently derived from Deut 22:8, which in one translation instructs that when you are building a house, you must build a fence around the rook, roof in order to avoid guilt should someone fall off the roof.

The Pharisees were operating as ancient fence-makers (or gatekeepers, if you will), ensuring that people operated within the bounds of what was required by the Law. Of course, each time a particular law is invoked in a specific situation, it needs to be applied to that situation, interpreted as to how it might apply. That goes for laws in society today, as much as it does for laws in the ancient Jewish society.

The criticisms that Jesus makes of those who follow the Law and teach the Law need to be seen as debates taking place within Judaism, not as criticisms made from outside Judaism. Jesus was a Jew, living in Jewish lands, trained in understanding the Torah, engaged in applying it to situations in life. His words reflect his interpretation of the Law, not a rejection per se of the Law, as he participates in the culture, practices, and customs of his people.

Christians and Jews have had difficult relationships over the years. The difficulties have been based on misunderstandings, accusations, and the damaging intensification that comes through polemical debate, where careful listening and understanding have been absent. That has been the case, sadly, when matters associated with the application of the Law is concerned.

The Gospel passage for this Sunday reminds us of this lack of appreciation, and invites us to commit to a positive appreciation of Jewish traditions and practices, recognising that Judaism continues as a living faith today, and acknowledging that Jesus was engaged in interpretation, not rejection, of the Law. And in the midst of this, he offers hope to a woman who had suffered for 12 years, and a girl of 12 who was on the point of death.

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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