Text Study for Matthew 9:18-35 (Part Three)

Pushbacks and Ponderings

9:21-22            Malina and Rohrbaugh argue that the woman would be regarded as ritually unclean and constantly so. “Matthew avoids any mention of the woman touching Jesus,” they observe. “Jesus seems to know what she is thinking and therefore avoids touching which might raise questions of impropriety arising from violating the boundaries of the body” (Social Science Commentary on the Synoptics, page 84).

Point taken on the absence of any direct mention of Jesus touching the woman. However, anything beyond that seems to be an argument from silence where the theory drives the data rather than the other way around. There is no indication that Jesus knows what the woman is thinking. When that is the case, the Matthean author is quite capable of pointing that out.

Amy-Jill Levine has noted in several places that the source of the woman’s bleeding is not specified. As she notes, it could be coming from her head or her feet. Warren Carter notes that the word used here “is not limited to menstruation or vaginal discharge; it includes any bleeding” (Matthew and the Margins, page 225).

We don’t know the source of the bleeding, and we shouldn’t assume that we do. To do so, Levine argues, is to engage in bad exegesis, bad history, bad theology, and bad faith. I will share some of Levine’s arguments here.

The topic of uncleanness does come up in the text. Carter affirms this observation in his comments. The Matthean author has no trouble mentioning or implying uncleanness when the topic is germane. The real focus, according to Carter, is the length of her suffering. This time reflects the intractability of her condition.

 In addition, it is not at all clear from the historical record that Jewish communities of the time prohibited a menstruating woman from social contact. Levine quotes Shaye Cohen in this regard: the “Gospel story about the women with a twelve-year discharge…does not give any indication that the woman was impure or suffered from any degree of isolation as a result of her affliction” (page 108).

Levine notes that Jesus does not touch the woman. Rather, she touches him. I’m not sure if that’s a distinction that makes a difference, but Levine does. Her theological point is that throughout Matthew 8 and 9, Jesus is portrayed as fulfilling the ritual law rather than abrogating it. Jesus heals the sick and fulfills Torah.

Cohen supports Levine’s contention that traditional interpretations of the bleeding woman are bad history. He surveys the legal background of the purity rules regarding such bleeding in the Tanakh and issues this conclusion. “In sum, the belief that a menstruant poses a danger to those around her appears in Jewish sources for the first in the sixth or seventh century C.E. Its emergence and acceptance then,” Cohen continues, “may be the result either of outside influence (whether Christian or Islamic) or of new perceptions of women within Jewish society” (page 281).

As I study the text, I am rethinking where this section actually ends. For two reasons I now believe the section ends with Matthew 9:35 rather than with the preceding verse. My critical Greek text shows verse 35 as the beginning of a section entitled “The Compassion of Jesus,” which runs through verse 38. The NRSV labels the same section with the title, “The Harvest is Great, the Laborers Few.”

It’s easy to be swayed by these divisions in such authoritative texts. However, I find that they are as much hindrance many times as they are help. It seems clear to me for two reasons that Matthew 9:35 serves as a conclusion to the preceding verses rather than an introduction to the succeeding verses.

First, it now seems obvious to me that this verse is a sort of inclusio with Matthew 8:17. That verse contains the quotation from Isaiah 53 (LXX). The first round of healings in Matthew 8 (and the stilling of the storm are said to “fulfill” the word of the prophet Isaiah: “This one has taken our infirmities and born our diseases.” In Matthew 9:35, at the end of this cycle of ten healing stories, we hear that Jesus was healing all their diseases and all ailments. That latter word has the same sense of “weakness” as does the word in 8:17.

Therefore, it seems clear that this is a conclusion to the “action” section in chapters eight and nine. With that, we can move on to the Discipleship Discourse in chapter 10. Matthew 9:36-38 provides the perfect preface to that discourse. The Lord of the harvest will go about the business of training up and providing the workers.

Secondly, I see a rhetorical signal that distinguishes these verses. Matthew 9:35 begins with “and” (kai). Verse 36 begins with a “de.” The additive conjunction makes more sense being connected to the preceding. The adversative in verse 36 is often a oral marker that there is a change in rhetorical direction or something being said that is unexpected.

When we read the context closely, I would argue that this division makes good rhetorical sense. First, we read that Jesus was responding to all with good news and healing. The result of that should be well-being and hopefulness. Then we hear about the crowds that are still harried and helpless. That doesn’t fit with the previous rosy summary. It’s a change of course.

In addition, the separation makes narrative sense. The summary in verse thirty-five is enough to leave one exhausted simply from reading it. Jesus goes around to all the cities and villages in the region. He teaches in (all) their synagogues. He preaches the good news of the kingdom. He heals all the diseases and infirmities. After such a ministry marathon Jesus determined that he needed more help!

Separating the two verses helps to make better sense of each of them. So, I’m adding verse thirty-five to my reading from Matthew this week.

In addition, as Robert Smith notes, this summary is nearly identical to the words we find Matthew 4:23. Just as that paragraph serves as a conclusion to the Matthean prologue, so Matthew 9:35 serves as a conclusion to the broad sweep from the Sermon on the Mount to the turn toward Jerusalem. While the Matthean account doesn’t have the Lukan “Journey to Jerusalem,” I think we can see the same decisive turn happening here between Matthew 9:35 and 36.

As I noted in a previous post, I’ve wondered about the “Take heart!” exclamations by Jesus in this section of Matthew. He addresses the paralytic as his (male) child. He addresses the bleeding woman as his daughter. It strikes me that the Matthean author wants us to see Jesus as caring for these two as human parents care for their children. We don’t have to look far for examples.

We have the ruler whose daughter has died. Even though he tells Jesus she has come to her end, he will not give up on her without one last-ditch effort at restoration. This is an illustration of what it means to love a daughter. Robert Smith writes that Jesus “viewed the woman the way the ruler viewed his child” (Matthew – ACNT, page 141). And thus Jesus, when he calls the woman “daughter,” claims that sort of love for himself.

In like manner, the centurion shows us what it looks like to love a male child/servant to the utmost. Jesus does the same. Addressing each of these characters with the same phrase tips us off to this rhetorical strategy on the part of the Matthean author. Through this wording, we are invited to look for and meditate on the similarities of these stories and Jesus’ involvement in them.

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