Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Twelve-Year Illustration

The first two gospels tell the story of an unnamed woman who suffered from a discharge of blood for twelve years.

Believing even the briefest, most ephemeral contact with Jesus would heal her of her condition, she crept up behind the Lord to touch the fringe of his robe. And we all know the rest of the story, including the “your faith has made you well” part.

Mark records that the woman had “suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse”. Having spent some time in the care of doctors, I can relate. I can more or less imagine what that might have meant for her medically.

The part of the story I never really thought about before is what it meant for a Jewish woman socially and religiously to be declared ritually “unclean”.

Levitical Defilement

The Hebrew word translated “defiled”, “unclean” or “polluted” doesn’t come up until the law is given to Israel in the book of Leviticus (other than three times in association with the rape in Genesis 34, where I believe the word really describes how Dinah was viewed by her community rather than any change of her status in the eyes of God).

Under the law given to Moses at Sinai, certain animals were considered “unclean”, meaning they were not to be eaten. Death made an animal or person (and also anyone who touched it or them) unclean, as did childbirth, certain kinds of skin eruptions translated as “leprous diseases”, household mould, menstruation, sex, and various bodily discharges, including ongoing discharges of blood such as the one from which the woman in the gospels suffered.

Everyday, Ordinary Uncleanness

These were the normal sorts of everyday uncleanness such as might occur to any Israelite in the process of living. The New Testament actually refers to them as “common”. They were matters primarily of hygiene rather than of the spirit. The law does not state that becoming contaminated was wicked in itself, but simply that it was ceremonially inappropriate to approach God (or in some cases others) in such a condition.

Uncleanness of this sort could be passed along like disease. Those who touched an unclean person themselves became ritually unclean. Even a priest who had become unclean was forbidden from eating of the holy things that were ordinarily his right until such time as he became clean again.

The remedies for defilement under Israel’s law primarily involved time apart (hours, days or weeks unable to touch others or engage in the communal and religious life of Israel) and water. The spiritual aspect, probably little understood by most Israelites at the time, was dealt with by offering an appropriate sacrifice.

Such remedies would have been little more than a temporary inconvenience for the average Israelite. They were not so incidental for someone with a perpetual discharge of blood.

The Implications of Common Defilement

Now bear in mind that these were Israelite laws. They were for God’s chosen people at a particular time in human history. They do NOT apply to Christians today; in fact, they didn’t even apply to other nations of the time in which the law was given. All these regulations were only necessary because of the physical proximity of Jehovah to the people of Israel. He tabernacled with them and these rules were among the consequences that flowed directly from that relationship. As it was put to Moses:
“Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst.”
These laws were a safety measure designed for Israel’s protection. For most Israelites this meant the occasional (usually brief) period of exclusion from contact with others or from approaching the tabernacle. Water and time would take care of most problems of defilement.

But a reading of Leviticus 15 will immediately make clear what a drastic impact such regulations would have had on a devout woman with an ongoing discharge of blood. She would literally NEVER be clean. She lived in an ongoing state of defilement. Everything she touched, sat on or slept on became defiled. Everyone who lived with her and cleaned up after her became defiled. If she had a husband, he would have been more or less permanently defiled too, which leads me to suspect that she probably did not.

Thus her healing by the Lord Jesus has more to it than we might imagine. She was a walking, breathing, twelve-year illustration of the human condition apart from God.

The Significance of the “Uncleanness” Laws

Now of course we know today that good hygiene prevents the spreading of germs from person to person, and God may well have had this in mind in legislating how Israelites were to behave. But Isaiah and other godly Israelites of their day rightly understood there was something even more urgent about these defilement regulations. God was trying to show his people their own spiritual reality, if they were willing to see it. Physical defilement from various sources provides a disturbing picture of man’s moral condition in the eyes of God. Isaiah could say:
“Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips,”
and again:
“We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.”
Isaiah grasped the fact that he was defiled inside and out, not because he was an unusually horrible person who had performed unthinkable acts, but because in comparison to a holy God even the ordinary devout Israelite found himself in a state of perpetual defilement.

Isaiah never knew the woman with a discharge of blood. They lived centuries apart. But he would have acknowledged that while he might have been able to technically keep the laws about common defilement and uncleanness, his ongoing internal defilement made him as perpetually unfit for fellowship with God as the poor woman with the discharge.

This is true of all mankind at all times, whether we recognize it or not. And the woman, afflicted with a problem that was not merely medical but social, religious and legal as well, found in the object of her faith the only possible, lasting solution.

More about this tomorrow

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