Two women in need

Many of the gospel stories have subtexts that will remain hidden to the reader without proper attention to Jewish symbolism. 

A good example is found in the threefold account of the two women in need from Mark 5:21-43. It begins with a father, Jarius, seeking help from Jesus for his dying daughter. Jesus sets out on the road. On the way Jesus encounters a woman who has been bleeding for twelve years and heals her. As Jesus arrives at the house of Jarius he is informed the daughter has passed away in the interim. Jesus raises her and at that point we are informed she was twelve years old. 

Now these acts can be legitimately interpreted as further demonstrations of God’s power acting through Jesus and be left at that. But there’s a deeper level of meaning for those with the eyes to see. The hint is in the highlighting of the number twelve twice within that short sequence. Repetitions in ancient narratives are rarely accidental. For ancient Jews the number twelve generally served as a symbol for the people of Israel. So the two women both represent the people of Israel collectively in some way. How? This is where some awareness of ancient Jewish purity culture becomes important. Within that culture menstruating women and dead bodies were both considered unclean, and touching them rendered whoever touched them unclean as well, and consequently barred from entering the temple and drawing close to God. And what did Jesus do? In both cases he touched them. And in that welcoming touch, instead of Jesus being contaminated and cut off from God the women experienced reintegration into the community and the awareness of being acceptable from God. That transgressing of ritual boundaries had the opposite effect to what purity culture told everyone to expect. But, as we’ve already noted, their story is supposed to also serve as a microcosm for the larger story of Israel. It hints at Israel’s corruption and need for cleansing, but also of God’s willingness to cleanse if they would only reach out like the woman at the centre of the story sequence.

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