Today's podcast is a meditation on and retelling of the Woman with the Issue of Blood, from Luke 8:43-48, Mark 5:24-34, and Matt 9:20-22
It’s interesting that this woman is not named, even though three different gospel writers tell her story. This could have been for her protection: at the time that Matthew, Mark, and Luke wrote their gospels, the woman was likely still alive, and she had clearly violated the Jewish law. A woman with an issue of blood was considered ceremonially unclean, and thus should not have been in public. Anyone she touched would likewise have become unclean.
Think about what this meant for this poor woman. If she was married, she could not have sex with her husband (Leviticus 15:19-30, Ezekiel 18:6). The extrabiblical Talmud laws are far more stringent: if she did have sex with her husband deliberately, her husband could be arrested and potentially killed. If it was accidental (perhaps if a woman did not realize she was starting her period), they would need to offer a sacrifice to atone for their sin. Chances were, therefore, that this woman was unmarried—either she had never married because of her condition, or her husband had left her. This would not have been difficult, as divorce could be had for the asking, regardless of the cause (Deut 24:1).
Even if she had a husband who stuck by her, she still would have been terribly lonely. She could not touch anyone or anything without consequence. She would have been barren at least for those twelve years, as well, which was especially hard for a woman in those days. We don’t know her age, but she was young enough to still have a period, yet old enough to have had it for at least twelve years. This puts her in her early 20s at the youngest. For the purposes of my story, I assumed she was unmarried and in her late 20s.
Throughout those twelve years, she had done all she knew to do. She had seen many doctors, which had cost her all she had—yet still she grew worse. No doubt she was heartsick (Proverbs 13:12: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but when the desire comes, it is a tree of life”) as well as physically exhausted from severe iron deficiency. It’s a wonder she could even crawl through that crowd!
Despite all this, the woman had incredible faith. We can see this by what she says to herself about Jesus: “If I may but touch his garment, I shall be whole.” Not might be; shall be. That is incredible for someone who had suffered for so long! How did she find such confidence?
The woman must have known that Jesus was the Messiah. She had likely heard the stories of his miraculous healing power, since she lived in Capernaum (Matthew 9:1, Mark 2:1) which was Jesus’ home base. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God (Romans 10:17)—so as she heard that Jesus had healed others, faith must have been born in her heart. Maybe she also knew what was written in Malachi 4:2: “But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings and you shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall.” The word wings here in Hebrew is the word kanaph, which means wing, skirt, or corner of a garment. Another use of the same word appears in Numbers 15:38: “Speak unto the children of Israel and bid them that they make them fringes in the borders (kanaph) of their garments throughout their generations and that they put upon the fringe of the borders (kanaph) a ribband of blue.” So when Malachi uses the same word, speaking of the Messiah, he was prophesying that healing would be in the fringes of his prayer shawl.
Even so, especially in Capernaum, Jesus was always surrounded by a crowd. About 1500 people lived in Capernaum in Jesus’ day, and he usually drew crowds from the surrounding areas as well. This meant she, a ceremonially unclean woman, could not help but defile large numbers of people on her way to the Messiah, and potentially Jesus himself! Not only that, but if she lived in Capernaum, many of those people would likely recognize her. So she must have planned this in advance. She had been meditating beforehand on how she might touch Jesus’ garment without being seen—we know this by what she says to herself in her heart. Perhaps she heard when Jesus would next be in town. Perhaps she disguised herself so she would not be recognized. She had to really want her healing, and go to great trouble and risk to get it. Hebrews 11:6 says, “But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that comes to God must believe that he is and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” She gets exactly what she believes for! This is the only example in scripture of someone who receives their healing from Jesus without his awareness or involvement.
Jesus knows what happened, though—he can somehow feel the difference between a mere press of the crowd, and an intentional supernatural healing. Probably he’s impressed, and wants to see and commend the one who had such faith as to take their healing by force (Matthew 11:12).
But the woman is afraid to admit it was her. Is she afraid of the punishment of the Jewish law, or is she afraid of Jesus himself? She obviously knew that healing flowed even from his garments, but she might not have understood his heart—just as the Israelites knew God’s acts, but not His ways (Psalm 103:7).
If she was afraid of Jesus, though, she isn’t anymore after he speaks to her. He calls her “daughter,” the only woman addressed this way in scripture. Then he tells her that her faith has made her whole: the word for whole in Greek in sozo, which means not just healed physically, but safe and sound, rescued from danger, healed, restored, and saved in the spiritual sense. The word made in Greek is perfect tense (meaning an action in the past that affects the future), active voice (her faith made it happen), and indicative mood (it’s progressive: she may not have 100% sozo right that second in her body and her life, but it’s promised, and it’s therefore as good as done). Then he tells her to go in peace. The verb go is in imperative mood, indicating a command—it is up to her to continue in peace. The word for peace here is eirene, which means prosperity, harmony, joy, and peace. She was potentially in danger for violation of laws, and yet Jesus is declaring her safety.
After twelve years of being an unclean, lonely outcast, Jesus says that she is a daughter who walks in peace and wholeness! But it’s up to her to walk in that knowledge, to maintain that new identity. It’s up to us to remember and walk in the knowledge of who we are in Christ, too.
How did I get here? I wondered despairingly as I lay in my bed, day after day, year after year.
My life had become a living nightmare. All my girlhood dreams of marriage and motherhood and laughter and purpose and come to this: at twenty-eight, I was already considered an old maid. No man would ever touch me; indeed, none could without risking severe punishment. I was unclean, and had been for the last twelve years, since I was sixteen years old.
I should have been married that year. I should have made a happy bride. I should have a brood of children by now.
Instead, I was a severe burden to my aging parents. My father had constructed a separate dwelling for me so that my uncleanness would not contaminate the rest of the household, and my mother brought me my meals, careful never to touch me nor to sit down on or handle anything I might have touched. They spent all they had to send me to the best doctors, some of whom I had to travel far to see. The worst of their useless treatments involved blood letting. I was already bleeding continuously, but these doctors thought that opening my veins and letting out yet more of my blood might cure me.
I was so weak by this point, I could hardly bathe or to feed myself. The majority of my energy was wasted upon my tears. Often I longed for death. I had no hope of anything in this life anymore.
But one day, when my mother brought me my tray for the midday meal and I looked up at her wearily, I saw a new sparkle in her eye. I could muster no curiosity about its cause, but she was determined to tell me anyway.
“Aila,” she said to me, breathless. “There is a prophet in Capernaum, a prophet who is said to possess the power to heal! There are those who say he must be the Messiah!” And she began to tell me about this man named Jesus. I wondered at all she told me: she had never mentioned him before, so I had the impression she had just heard the stories of his miracles that day, and had spent the morning gossiping to learn as much about the man as she could. She told me rumors of a wedding in Cana, in which the host ran out of wine and Jesus provided it by telling the servants to fill vessels with water, which became the finest wine when brought to the host to taste. She told of how he had all but announced himself as the Messiah in the Temple when he read from the scroll of Isaiah 61, and then declared to all those listening that “today this is fulfilled in your hearing.” She told me a story of a paralytic so eager to meet Jesus that his friends took the tiles off of a roof where Jesus was preaching to a great multitude, and lowered him down before Jesus’ feet. Jesus healed him, and the man took up his mat and walked out, to the amazement of all.
As my mother spoke, I saw the tears sparkling in her eyes. Answering tears stung my own, always so near the surface. I swallowed down the lump in my throat. Something intangible began to bubble and swell in my chest, something that I had not felt in many a year: hope.
“He lives in Capernaum? This man Jesus?” I pressed, and my mother nodded.
“He does, but he travels to all the surrounding regions of Israel, apparently drawing crowds everywhere he goes.” Her expression faltered. “That… is the problem. The crowds.”
My face fell too, and the bubble in my chest nearly burst. But before it could extinguish altogether, a scripture came to mind out of nowhere, one I had not even known I knew.
“But unto you that fear My name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings…” I whispered, and my eyes met my mother’s. Understanding spread across her face too, mingled with doubt. “If he is who you say he is,” I told her, “I do not need his attention. I just need to get close enough to touch the hem of his garment.”
My mother let out a puff of breath, looking troubled as she shook her head. “Aila, you can barely stand, let alone walk. And there will be a crowd pressing all around! Will you make all of them unclean? Do you know what they will do to you if you are discovered? They could stone you!”
Suddenly my eyes flashed. “I don’t care!” I cried. “Death is better than the life I live now! If this man Jesus is my only hope, there is nothing I will not risk to get to him, nothing!” I looked away so I could not see my mother’s horrified expression, and set my jaw. Then I mused aloud, “I just need to know when he is expected back in Capernaum.”
She said in almost a whisper, “I already asked. The rumors are that he is on his way back today, and is expected by this time tomorrow.”
“Good,” I said, “less time to wait. I also need a disguise.” I had not been out in the city for quite some time, but surely there would still be those who remembered me and might recognize me. My mother was a talker; they would all know of my uncleanness if they knew who I was.
My mother hesitated, but said, “You may borrow my gray cloak. It will cover your face.”
I nodded, and gave her a glance of gratitude, knowing this was a gift and not a loan. Once I had touched it, and possibly bled on it, she could not take it back. It also occurred to me that I might not need to cover my face—if I managed to stand and walk, it would not be for long. When I envisioned the scene, I saw myself crawling on all fours toward Jesus, stretching all the time for the tassels of his prayer shawl. That was all I needed. I pictured my hand clasping the tassels, stealing my healing, and then standing up and quietly slipping away with no one the wiser. My heart, always a weak and pitiful flutter in my chest, beat faster for the first time in ages as I thought of it.
By this time tomorrow, I would be healed, or I would die trying. Either way, it would be better than this.
Normally I spent most of the day drowsing, but never truly sleeping deeply. I picked at my food all day long, and never ate a full meal. But for the rest of that day and into the next morning when my mother brought my breakfast, I felt a surge of strength born of my hope, even though I still trembled from weakness. With my breakfast, my mother brought me her promised gray cloak.
“He is here,” she whispered. “A great multitude has already abandoned their work for the day and has flocked to him. He is by the docks!”
“The docks!” I breathed with momentary despair.
“It is not far,” my mother murmured, correctly understanding my exclamation. “Perhaps a ten minute walk from here.”
“For you!” I shot back, but then got hold of myself, as resolve steeled my bones. “No. No. I can do this. I must do this.”
For the first time in years, I finished my entire breakfast, and donned my mother’s cloak. I gave her a brave smile, and she burst into tears, covering her face. I could not even touch her to comfort her. An ache bloomed in my chest at this thought. But then I said aloud, my words catching in my throat, “When I return, I will be clean! When I return, I can hug you again.”
This only made her cry harder. I left her standing in the middle of the room, opened the door, and made my way out into the streets—also for the first time in years. Today was a day of firsts.
I was surprised that my legs carried me at all, though I was winded within minutes. I had to slow down. I kept my head down so that the cloak covered my features, but could tell from my periphery that the crowds grew thicker and denser as I approached the docks. I managed to touch no one for most of the journey, but I could tell when I had arrived at my destination. The crowds were so densely oriented around one central figure that even though I could not see him, I knew Jesus must be at the center. I took a deep breath, and plunged into the crowd.
It went against every instinct I had to deliberately elbow my way through the men and women all eager to meet Jesus. I tried not to think about how many I contaminated along the way, or what they would do to me if they knew.
At last I saw the man dressed as a rabbi at the center. I did not get a good look at his face, but knew that he must be Jesus. I was almost there!
Suddenly a hush fell over the crowd, and one voice rose above the others.
“My little daughter lies at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, that she may be healed, and she will live!”
The rabbi nodded. “Take me to her,” he said.
The first speaker leapt to his feet and began to lead the way, and the crowd surged forward, following Jesus. Despair threatened to crush me as the people jostled me this way and that, and I even lost sight of Jesus for a moment. As I was momentarily off balance, the crowd shoved me from behind, and I fell to my hands and knees, exactly as I had seen in my vision.
Somehow, oddly enough, it was this that galvanized me. This was what I had pictured. It was easier to make my way through the crowd on all fours than it was standing upright. I was entirely focused on one thing: the edge of that prayer shawl. I did not see it yet, but I scanned the clothing of the people around me as I crawled, ignoring all else. People stepped on my hands and made me cry out in pain. People kneed me and kicked me on accident. I did not care. I kept going, until at last I saw what I was looking for: the fringes of that shawl.
If only I may touch his clothes, I shall be made well, I repeated in my mind over and over, like a mantra. If only I may touch his clothes, I shall be made well. If only…
I reached out, just as he moved away. I crawled faster, kicked and jostled but determined. I reached out again, grabbed on to the tassels, and—
Power at once surged through my body, a sensation I had never felt before. The trembling weakness was instantly gone, and the constant feeling of the flow of blood between my legs suddenly dried up! I released Jesus’ garment and sat gasping, as the crowd began to push on past me. But Jesus stopped walking, and turned around.
“Who touched my clothes?” he demanded.
A new terror seized me. I did not know what to do. I shrank back, hoping that the rest of the crowd would shield me from him. What would he do? Would he command the crowd to stone me anyway, for breaking the law?
One of the men beside him said, “You see the multitude thronging you, and yet you say, ‘Who touched me?’”
Jesus shook his head and insisted, “Somebody touched me. I felt power go out from me.”
It was clear he did not plan to move on until I revealed myself, and the people beside me looked around to find the culprit as well. Several noticed me at last, and one shouted, “Hey! I think I found her!”
Jesus now looked at me. He was surprisingly young, not much older than I was. I was trembling now not from weakness, but from fear, bowing lower still to his feet. What could I do but tell the whole truth?
“Lord,” I choked out, “I have suffered a continuous flow of blood these twelve years.” What a shameful thing to confess in a crowd of mixed company, a crowd whom I had contaminated! “I have spent all I had on physicians and have only grown worse. But I heard about you, and I thought, I need not trouble you! If I could only touch your clothes, I would be made well. So I did, and so I have: the fountain of my blood dried up and I was healed at once. I know I have broken the law and I have no excuse for myself except my very great desperation. I can do nothing but beg for your mercy!”
When Jesus did not immediately reply to this, at last my curiosity overcame my fear, and I looked up into his face. The look of compassion and tenderness in his wide brown eyes took my breath away. Despite the similarity in our ages, his expression reminded me of the way a father might gaze at his newborn child. His next words confirmed this.
“Daughter,” he said, in a voice so low it felt only meant for me, “your faith has made you well. Go in peace and be healed of your affliction.”
As he was saying this, the man who had begged for his help at the beginning tore his attention away from me. I sat there dazed, as Jesus moved on, and the crowd surged after him, passing around me like water around a stone in a stream.
He called me daughter, I thought in amazement. He didn’t rebuke me. He didn’t condemn me!
He is the Messiah, I realized as I continued to sit there, long after the crowd had moved on. I had known this before, or I would never have done what I did. But if he was the Messiah, he was the Lord’s anointed, and he called me daughter… he had compassion on me… then who was this angry God the Pharisees preached?
I closed my eyes and remembered the tender expression in Jesus’ wide brown ones, treasuring the words he had said to me almost as much as my healing. Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace and be healed of your affliction.
And so I would. I stood up, brushed myself off, and walked home with my head held high. I did not care who saw me now.
I had my whole life ahead of me.