Text Study for Mark 5:21-43 (Pt. 2); 5 Pentecost B 2021

The Woman in the Crowd

One of the fundamental marks of the oppressed is the loss of bodily control and integrity. In the ancient world, that loss of bodily possession marks slaves, prisoners, women (especially prostitutes), and thespians. Clearly, the woman with the flow of blood is not able to maintain bodily control and is therefore dishonored and (perhaps) ritually unclean as a result.

Candida Moss notes in her 2010 article that this is a characteristic she shares with Jesus! “I will argue that the bodies of the woman and Jesus parallel each other in the sense that both are porous and leak uncontrollably,” she writes. “When viewed in the context of Greco-Roman models of the body, both the woman and Jesus appear weak, sickly, feminine, and porous” (2010:508).

Gender in the ancient world was not so much identified biologically as it was “positionally.” To be female was to be susceptible to penetration. That was a loss of bodily integrity. Therefore, to be female was to be inherently dishonored. Moss has an informative discussion of the views of ancient Mediterranean medicine in this regard. “Weak, porous, feminine, and moist become interchangeable terms,” she writes, “for those at the lower end of the somatic scale” (2010:514). At the other end of the somatic scale is a body that is impermeable, dry, hot, hard, regulated, and masculine.

Photo by Luis Quintero on Pexels.com

A man having a “leaky” body was normally regarded as one who was dishonored – thus the purity concerns over male bodily discharges in the Hebrew Scriptures. Moss argues that Jesus’ interaction with the woman “reverses the traditional association of porosity and weakness, both because Jesus leaks a positive, healing power and because this leakage of power points toward his concealed identity” (Ibid).

Moss notes that, unlike the stories of other healers in the ancient world, the power does not come out of Jesus’ garments but rather out of his body. “This is not an act of simple magical transference from garment to woman,” she argues, “the woman’s touch pulls power out of Jesus himself” (2010:510). She notes that in the same way that the woman’s body leaks blood, so Jesus’ body leaks power.

Moss lists the specifics of the similarity. Jesus doesn’t control the flow of power out of his body. That flow is “something embodied and physical; just as the woman feels the flow of blood dry up, so Jesus feels—physically—the flow of power leave his body” (2010:516). Both Jesus and the woman “are porous, leaky creatures.” According to ancient cultural standards, Jesus is therefore weak, sickly, and dishonored.

In addition, Moss observes, there is something invasive and even penetrative about how the woman interacts with Jesus. She seems to have some control over his body. She initiates the contact and pulls power out of him without his awareness or consent. “To be sure, this ability is framed using the typical Markan language of faith,” Moss concedes, “but there is no escaping the power that she exerts over his body. This is something of a reversal of fortunes for the physician and patient,” she observes, “Here the disabled woman ably controls the body of the spiritual and physical physician” (2010:516).

If this imagery makes us uncomfortable, we are not alone. Matthew changes the account enough to remove this invasive action of the woman. Jesus preempts her action and takes control of the situation. Moss notes that Matthew’s caution may have been unwarranted. In fact, power leaking out may not, in the end, have been a sign of disability. Rather, it may have been a sign of the overflowing abundance of Deity which Jesus carried (carries) in his body.

I’m not quite so quick to remedy the imagery in that way (although it certainly makes sense). Instead, it seems to me that Mark communicates clearly the way in which Jesus exercises power in every instance. This is the one who came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. This is the one who, in terms of the Christ hymn of Philippians 2, does not see deity as something to be grasped and held as property. Rather, Jesus pours himself out for the life of the world.

Robin Gallaher Branch (2013), among others, calls her “the woman in the crowd.” Branch (2013) writes, “Although her illness debilitates her, she refuses to let it define her. This marks her as a woman of courage. The text develops this concept: she is more than her illness. Her illness, however, consumes her life, for it defines the way others treat her and think of her.”

The woman has a chronic condition which most commentators understand to be gynecological in nature. As a result, these commentators focus on the woman’s supposed ritual impurity, which they propose, cuts her off from Temple worship and from the more local worshipping community. Branch (2013), for example, makes that assumption. Some of Mark’s terminology may lead readers to this conclusion.

Mark’s text, however, does not specify the source of the hemorrhage. Nor, as Amy-Jill Levine and others note, does the text say anything about purity concerns. So, this conversation about purity and ostracism is at least to some degree imported into the text. “We have received this account as a story about women but have allowed her femininity to wash over her infirmity,” Moss writes. “Her condition is specifically gynecological, but the focus on the flow of blood causes us to overlook the broader perception of bodies in the ancient world” (2010:509).

Notwithstanding her vague diagnosis, the consequences of her illness are clearly described. She has suffered and endured for twelve years. Her condition and her search to find healing have cost her everything – her money and property, and perhaps her marriage, family, and friends. In spite of her heroic efforts, things have only gotten worse. She is desperate for a solution.

Branch (2013) notes that she appears to be alone in the world. She joins the Capernaum crowd somewhat incognito – perhaps out of a sense of shame, perhaps out of fear that she will be rejected or even punished. Her condition excludes her from worship and community life. Her entire existence seems to have been consumed by maintaining herself and seeking a cure.

“I imagine her life as one without hugs from friends, children and parents, as lacking normal human contact, as devoid of marital rights with its duties and privileges as full of toil because of the need to constantly wash everything, and as expensive because of the financial implications of a chronic illness,” Branch (2013) writes, “She is probably without income, because she is unemployable. In a culture dominated by the shame and/ or honor motif, the woman experiences embarrassment and exclusion.” In addition, Branch (2013) observes (assuming the flow of blood to be menstrual), she is probably chronically anemic and likely often accompanied by a disagreeable odor.

“All these factors lead to this reasonable conclusion,” Branch (2013) argues, “Mark introduces this woman as lonely, isolated, impoverished, quite likely anemic, and possibly dying. Her condition appears hopeless, and she is desperate. Most,” she concludes, “would think that she is better off dead.”

Jesus’ reputation as a healer precedes him as he returns to Capernaum from a foray to the other side of the lake. The woman has convinced herself that even a casual brush with Jesus’ clothing may be enough to heal her. The notion that the clothing of a holy person might be contain healing power was part of the popular piety of the time. She pushes her way through the crowd and accomplishes her goal. But that’s only the beginning of the encounter.

“Displaying determination and focus, this woman sets a courageous course,” Branch (2013) writes, “However, the woman displays selfishness by ignoring the fact that, legally, her touch makes anyone – including Jesus and those in the crowd bumping into her – unclean. Weighing the shame of being recognized by angry people, aware of the possibility of a public reprimand, knowing that people pick up stones to drive the unclean away and heedless of the harm and inconvenience she may cause crowd members and Jesus, she nonetheless approaches Jesus,” Branch (2013) observes. “In modern terminology, she stalks him in broad daylight. She decides her need trumps others’ rights.”

Rather than being condemned, however, the woman in the crowd is commended for her faith. What does that mean? “My opinion is that when the characteristics she exhibits – desperation, hope, selfishness, pushiness, courage, persistence, and self-interest – are directed at Jesus, they constitute faith,” Branch (2013) suggests. “Jesus both defines her action and attitude as faith and acknowledges her faith as directed at him.” It’s an interesting contrast to the disciples in the boat at the end of chapter four who are described as cowardly and unbelieving.

In addition, Branch (2013) notes, Jesus places the woman in a new family with him at the center. He calls her “Daughter.” Perhaps we should think back to the Beelzebul incident from a few weeks ago. Jesus “esteems her by showing all nearby that she is his true kin,” Branch (2013) writes. “She becomes the first example in Mark since his encounter with his family (Mk 3:31-35) of his power to re-order families.”

Jesus defines his family not as those who are biologically related to him (and who think he’s become mentally unstable. Rather, Jesus says, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35, NRSV). Resilient reliance on Jesus, even in the face of decades-long despair, seems to be part of doing the will of God. Soon after this text we will read that Jesus is rejected by the hometown folks in Nazareth, presumably including at least some of his biological family members. The juxtaposition of the texts is certainly significant.

Branch (2013) suggests that “The woman also is portrayed as a successful disciple, and one much more successful than the twelve male disciples at this point in the gospel of Mark.” She persists, takes risks, suffers, confesses, and overcomes her fear. She models the sort of faith that the disciples lacked during the Stilling of the Storm. And, as Branch (2013) notes, she is changed by her encounter with Jesus. She was (at least socially) dead and is now alive. That’s what happens to disciples!

Resources and References

Branch, Robin Gallaher. (2013). A study of the woman in the crowd and her desperate courage (Mark 5:21-43). In die Skriflig 47(1), 319-331. Retrieved June 16, 2021, from http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S2305-08532013000100032&lng=en&tlng=en.

Gaiser, Frederick J. “In Touch with Jesus: Healing in Mark 5:21–43.” Word & World, Volume 30, Number 1 (Winter 2010), pp. 5-15.

Moss, Candida R. “The Man with the Flow of Power: Porous Bodies in Mark 5:25-34.” Journal of Biblical Literature 129, no. 3 (2010): 507-519.

“Skin,” https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/skin-1.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

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