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The story of the woman with the issue of blood is a story of empowerment for women. It’s a story that says, despite the patriarchal mandate for women to obey, submit, and behave, that women can and should take ownership of their lives and advocate for their needs—taking what they need, if necessary—and that this initiative is blessed by Jesus. The hemorrhaging woman, who lives in a society that won’t even give her the dignity of a name, nevertheless takes her life, her health, and her faith into her own hands. Through a feminist analysis of the narrative of Mark 5:21-48, this essay examines some of the patriarchal challenges faced by the woman and her defiant answers to those challenges. Ultimately, this text empowers women to lay claim to and take charge of their bodies and their lives.


Context

The pericope of the hemorrhaging woman is sandwiched between two parts of a larger story involving the healing of another woman. In the larger story, a synagogue leader, Jairus, entreats Jesus to heal his daughter. Jesus agrees to go with Jairus, and it is on his way to Jairus’s house that he is encountered by the bleeding woman. After the hemorrhaging woman is healed, someone reports that Jairus’s daughter has died, but Jesus insists on seeing her anyway, and commanding her to get up, which she does. This larger narrative, though hinging on a female character, is still taking place in a man’s world. The patriarchal environment is evidenced by the girl’s complete passivity—indeed, she is dead—and lack of agency or action. The narrative purpose of her existence seems to be solely so that Jesus can display his healing powers. She says no words, she has no name (and neither does her mother, though we know her father is named Jairus), and the only action she takes herself—to stand up and walk about—she does at the behest of the man Jesus. This story paints a plain picture of the patriarchal setting in which the story of the hemorrhaging woman takes place. The fact that the larger story shares similarities with the smaller one—that it is also a healing narrative and that it also involves a woman—makes the smaller story of the hemorrhaging woman stand out even more as unique for the ways the woman defies gender challenges and expectations.


Impure

Leviticus 19 discusses purity laws regarding bodily discharge.[1] For women experiencing the discharge of blood, whether in normal menstruation or otherwise, they are considered unclean for as long as it occurs. Verses 21 and 26, talking about menstruation and other discharge respectively, say that everything the woman sits or lies on becomes unclean, and verses 22 and 27 say that anyone who touches these things becomes unclean. For the woman experiencing a discharge of blood at a time other than normal menstruation, she would have to wait an additional seven days after it had ceased to be considered clean.


By this law, even a normal healthy woman would be considered unclean upwards of 25% of her life. The woman in Mark 5 had been suffering from hemorrhages, or a discharge of blood, for twelve years. Further, since she was certainly not experiencing the discharge of typical menstruation, she was perpetually seven days away from being “clean” again. In addition to the discomfort and inconvenience of her ongoing malady, her hope of returning to normalcy was continually deferred even beyond the hemorrhage’s ceasing. Not only was she enduring physical pain and discomfort, but also the psychic stress of knowing she was in danger of ritually contaminating other things and people she came into contact with. She couldn’t share a bed with a lover or a family member; she couldn’t participate in worship. The patriarchal tie of women’s blood to ritual and legal “uncleanness” is fascinating because elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible blood is highly sacralized. Life is in the blood, and blood is a key element in atonement, healing, and reconciliation for God’s people. And yet when it comes from a woman, blood is an agent of uncleanness.


The bleeding woman’s defiant answer to the patriarchal challenge of her uncleanness is to reach out and touch Jesus anyway. Whereas, presumably, the expectation would be for her to keep her unclean hands to herself and not jeopardize the cleanness of a man, she nevertheless touches Jesus’s cloak, certain that it will be the key to her healing. Indeed, it seems that rather than the woman’s uncleanness transferring to Jesus, Jesus’s power, his holiness, his wholeness, perhaps, actually transfers to the woman. Verse 30 says that Jesus was “aware that power had gone forth from him.” There is no mention of his being tainted or receiving any curse, but rather his own power flows outward. The woman sneakily takes this power from him for her own ends, perhaps embracing the patriarchal caricature of the wily woman thief, but Jesus is not angry with her. He affirms the faith that empowered her to do it.


Incurable

A second patriarchal challenge we see in this passage is that the woman “had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.”[2] It is somewhat suspicious, if not surprising, that many (most likely male) physicians could not help the bleeding woman. A 2001 study in the Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics concluded that women are “more likely to have their pain reports discounted as ‘emotional’ or ‘psychogenic’ and, therefore ‘not real,’” and that men “generally receive a more aggressive response by health-care providers.”[3] It is, of course, an anachronism to apply work regarding the modern health care system to that of the Ancient Near East. However, given that we still live in a patriarchal society in which women have difficulty receiving the healing they need, the similarities may be worth noting.


The bleeding woman has been forced to seek second, and third (and perhaps fourth and fifth) opinions about her issue, for years and years, but has not been made better. The text does not say whether the physicians were unable or unwilling to heal her. Just that they didn’t. Despite this lack of healing, the woman still “endured much,” and the type and extent of this possible abuse is left to the imagination of the reader. A 2015 piece in the Atlantic chronicles a man’s experience accompanying his wife to the emergency room when she was experiencing intense pain that turned out to be ovarian torsion—“a true surgical emergency” that, if not treated in a timely manner can result in “ovarian loss, intra-abdominal infection, sepsis, and even death.”[4] By the time the woman went into surgery, she had been in the E.R. for 14 hours, because no one had taken her pain seriously.[5] Just as the doctors and nurses were dismissive and condescending to the author’s wife, one can imagine the physicians responding to the hemorrhaging woman with a shrug: “Sorry about the blood. It’s a woman thing. You’ll just have to deal with it.”