A few years ago I took part in an Ignatian meditation exercise and the passage used was Mark 5:25-34, which is the story of the hemorrhaging woman. There was a part toward the end, where Jesus stops to ask and look for who it was that touched him that caught my breath.
As my eyes were closed and I placed myself within the story, I felt Jesus' eyes on me as he asked, "Who touched me." It was then that I realized that the point of the story was not so much to ask the question of whether Jesus knew or didn't know whom he healed. The point was that He gave the woman the choice, waited for her to come forward, listened to her tell the whole truth so that those around in the crowd could hear her story, commended her for her faith, telling her it was her faith that healed her, and finally, He gave her a new identity and restored her.
And this all happened after her physical healing!
For my class this semester, I was to research and write a Christology paper on a passage from the gospels and because of how meaningful this story has been to me, I decided to research and write about the hemorrhaging woman. Bellow is my detailed analysis and reflection. I hope you are encouraged by this lovely story.
Exegesis of Mark 5:25-34 (NRSV)
“Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped, and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’ ” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
What is the significance of the story of the hemorrhaging woman? Why was it placed within the story of the healing of Jairus' daughter in both the gospels of Mark and Luke? This paper will explore the historical, cultural, and religious context of Mark 5:25-34 and argue that the purpose of its inclusion is to exemplify Jesus' purpose in re-defining the restrictive codes enforced upon women because of their physiological makeup by elevating the act of faith over the law. It will also contend that Jesus was revealing that the Kingdom of God is not limited to anyone based on their sex, social status, or physical condition.
To understand the context of what was going on in the story of the hemorrhaging woman, one must consider two things: the laws regarding menstruation and impurity and the social class contexts regarding men and women of the Judaic first century.
The social culture of first-century Judaism elevated men over women based on the belief that a man’s bodily functions and the name remained the same throughout his life. A stable identity was very important because it was already determined and expected. Within this system, men were seen as defenders of their place and privilege in society. As a result of this fixed identity, it was believed that he "could control himself, his wife/wives, society, and nature."
On the other hand, women were viewed as being unpredictable and having an unstable identity. Unlike a man, when a woman was given over in marriage to a husband by her father, she would take on the name of her new husband's family. The purity laws regarding menstruation in Torah were another way that shaped the way a woman’s identity was constantly changing because of the belief that their bodies went from pure to impure as a result of their monthly cycle.
This perception of women having an unstable identity restricted all aspects of her life including how and when she could worship at the temple, what public actions were appropriate for her in society, and when she was allowed to have sexual relations with her husband. A woman’s role was to preserve the way group boundaries were kept, often resulting in shame and blame when those group boundaries were crossed. For example, if a woman were to approach a man in public, she would be crossing the group boundary and shamed for it.
According to Leviticus 12 and Leviticus 15:19-33, when a woman menstruated, she was considered unclean for seven days. This meant she was not allowed to have any physical contact with anyone or they too would be considered unclean. Those with whom she had had physical contact would have to purify themselves by bathing and washing their clothes and they would remain unclean until evening. During those seven days, women on their periods were not allowed to partake in religious feasts and festivals, nor were they allowed to worship at the temple. As a result of all the restrictions surrounding menstruation, many viewed menstruation as a disease, which elevated the belief that women were inferior to men.
The story of the hemorrhaging woman takes place directly after Jesus sails back across the Sea of Galilee after the healing of the Gerasene demoniac (5:21a). As he lands in a seaside village, a crowd surrounds him (5:21b) and he is approached by a man named Jairus, whom we are told is a synagogue leader (5:22). Synagogue leaders were prominent members of their communities and their roles would vary from honorary figureheads to chief officials at the synagogue.
In this story, Jairus falls at the feet of Jesus and begs and pleads for Jesus to come to his house and heal his 12-year-old daughter, who is very sick. So sick we are told, "she is at the point of death (5:23)". Jesus begins to follow Jairus to his house, surrounded by a large crowd, and then we are introduced to the hemorrhaging woman (5:25). This is where the attention goes from the important synagogue leader, Jairus, to a nameless, lonely, unclean social outcast of a woman who has been bleeding for the same amount of time the 12-year-old girl has been alive.
The first story is interrupted until both the woman's body and social status are fully restored. We are then drawn back into the story of Jairus when people from his home come and tell him that his daughter is dead and Jesus says to him, "Do not fear, only believe (5:36)," reminding him of the role the hemorrhaging woman's faith played in her healing (5:34).
These two stories are sometimes called a "Markan Sandwich," where the story of the girl adds deeper meaning to the story of the hemorrhaging woman and vice versa. It is crucial to compare the two stories and see the differences between them. First, You have a father who is named Jairus (22) and a nameless woman who is identified only by her suffering (25). Then you have a father who begs Jesus repeatedly to come and heal his daughter (23), and a woman who sneaks up through the crowd and secretly takes her healing (27). You have the woman who has been suffering through 12 years of hemorrhaging (25) and the daughter who is dying at 12 years of age (42). A great crowd witnessed the woman's healing testimony (33) and Jesus only allowed the child's mom, dad, Peter, James, and John to witness the girl's healing (5:40). You have Jesus telling the woman that her faith has healed her and made her well (34a) and Jesus "strictly ordering" those present in the healing of the child not to tell anyone what has happened (43a) . Lastly, you have Jesus giving the woman a new identity by calling her "Daughter" (34b) and Jairus’ daughter’s identity remains the same (43b).
25 Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. 26 She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.
Mark introduces us to a Jewish woman, who presumably, is mature in age and of child-bearing years, but is infertile. Mark tells us this woman has been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years, which could mean she was either suffering from a "chronic menstrual disorder or a uterine hemorrhage." She appears to be alone in the world, isolated, impoverished, most likely anemic and quite possibly dying. She is desperate and, because of her condition, most would think she is better off dead. Only the wealthy would be able to afford the care of physicians, and oftentimes, physicians would treat patients knowing their treatments would not help. Including this information into the text implies she at one point had money and wealth but lost it all in trying to get well, making her a victim of medical exploitation.
27 She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.”
It was a common belief in the Greco-Roman world that power could reside in the clothing of someone powerful. This superstitious belief led her to make her way through the crowd, most likely distinguishing herself with layers of clothing and covering her face so she is not recognized as she makes her way toward Jesus, the Healer. She knows very well what her close-quarter actions mean for those around her. She knows that if she is to be found out, she will likely be met with animosity from those in the crowd. She knows that if it is revealed who she is, those around her will know that she has made them unclean in her quest for healing.
Despite the shame she will encounter if she is to be found out, she continues to move forward in the crowd, bumping and sliding past those crowding around Jesus with a mixture of desperation and hope, fear and expectation moving her to action and physical healing. After twelve years, her identity as an unclean outcast has left her desperate for healing, unable to imagine she could ever don a new identity, thus she preferred to remain anonymous.
29 Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30 Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?”
Notice the two times Mark chooses to say the word "immediately". The first is in the case of her physical healing after she touches the cloak of Jesus and the second is when we hear that Jesus could feel the power go forth from him in the healing. "She touches, knows, discovers, and then acts," making this the only instance in the gospels where Jesus did not instigate the physical healing.
Somehow, Jesus can feel the power go out of him and Mark tells us that because of this "feeling", Jesus turns around in the crowd and asks whom it is that touched his clothes. We have no way of knowing whether he knew who it was who touched him, how he felt the power go out of him, or what his intentions were as he turned around and asked: "who touched my clothes?" What we can learn from this is that Jesus was willing to put Jairus' daughter's healing on hold for the sake of the one who had secretly stolen their healing.
Jesus seems to have known what this secret desperation implied about the one who took the healing for him or herself. He knew that "shame leads us to cloak ourselves with invisibility to prevent further intensification of the emotion" and he also knew that the only way to cure shame is to seek it out, because shame is committed to keeping its victims sick. In knowing what was at stake, he turned around and provided a safe space for shame to come forward.
31 And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, “Who touched me?” 32 He looked all around to see who had done it.
One can almost feel the sarcasm and laughter coming from the disciples as they respond to Jesus' question while being crushed among the crowd surrounding them. Their questioning drew attention to Jesus' ability to sense the difference between the crowd pressing in on him and someone reaching out to touch him in faith for healing. They may have rolled their eyes as they watched him stop in his tracks, thus creating a stagnated domino effect with everyone around him bumping into those in front of them stopping as well. His pause to look for her among the crowd would have created whispering, shuffling, and looking around for someone who appeared as though they had just been healed.
One of the most significant moments in this whole story is Jesus waiting for the one who was healed to come forward. It was as though he was giving her the choice to come forward in front of the whole crowd. He waited, knowing a desperate father was waiting for him to come to heal his dying little girl. "The woman has no name, she belongs to the crowds, she is statusless, with no one to defend her. She is doubly poor and doubly outcast," until Jesus stops what he is doing and looks for her. The story moves from a superstitious belief and magical healing to a Jesus who desires personal contact with the healed woman. A revelation that Jesus was in no rush and didn't just want to heal people, he wanted to know those to whom he had healed.
33 But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.
Jesus knew that healing the shame of the woman required action, and that was her coming forward and telling him (and those in the crowd) the whole truth. The woman needed to tell her story to make sense of her life. Those in the crowd needed to hear her story to hear how her life had been affected by the heavy burden shame creates. The crowd also needed to know that she had not made them unclean by touching them as she made her way toward Jesus, rather, she had become clean by touching Jesus.
While Jesus speaks with the woman, the attention is first drawn to her strength and then to her healing. It was her strength of perseverance that spurred her to action for her physical healing and it was her strength of faith that moved her toward responding to Jesus' calling her out of her shame. Her action in telling the truth led to a change in her circumstances, which led to her re-accepted into the temple community, relational restoration, and a new family-centered on Jesus, her healer.
34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
Jesus does not reprimand her for walking through the crowd or for touching him, instead, she becomes the central figure in the story. Even if he has to cross the boundaries of uncleanliness, Jesus shows that he is compassionate and willing to restore the woman to complete wholeness. By addressing her and calling her forward, Jesus does away with all the cultural rules and regulations regarding religious and ceremonial restrictions. The emphasis is placed on her faith, not on the power of Jesus, showing how faith "transfers divine power to those who are utterly powerless." The once nameless, unclean outcast is given a new name, identity, and vision for life. It is within this social, physical, and religious boundary-crossing encounter with Jesus himself that results in her complete restoration.
After exploring the historical, cultural, and religious context of Mark 5:25-34, it is reasonable to conclude that this story was included in the gospel of Mark to exemplify Jesus' purpose in re-defining the restrictive codes enforced upon women because of their physiological makeup by elevating the act of faith over the law to show that the invitation to the Kingdom of God is not limited to anyone based on their sex, social status, or physical condition. "Mark's Jesus was subverting the status quo to create new possibilities of human community."
By asking who touched him (5:30), then looking for the woman (5:32), allowing her to tell her whole story (5:33), and then bestowing upon her the name "Daughter" and commending her faith (5:34), he ignored the constrictive Levitical laws regarding women and their physiological makeup that had subverted them, he revealed faith to be above the law.
In this story, "he freely crosses the restrictive boundaries of religious scruples and ceremonial restrictions," revealing the effects of the underbelly of a culture of oppression and shame, showing how faith is the path toward full and restorative healing.
As I reflect on this passage, I am drawn to the woman's condition. I can only imagine her journey of desperation, loss, and hopelessness in a culture that saw her as someone not worthy of living, yet Jesus looked for her and saw her and told her that because of her faith, she was worthy. What her culture deemed unworthy, Christ deemed glorious and worthy of name, life, and purpose! It may have been her desperation that healed her physically, but it was her acts of faith in hearing Jesus' voice, approaching the Healer, and entrusting Him with her whole truth that enabled Him to fully restore her to her rightful place in her community, relationships, and to herself.
Arnold, C. E. (2002). Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Grand Rapids,
Branch, R. G. (2013). A study of the woman in the crowd and her desperate courage (Mark
5:21-43). In die Skriflig.
Geddert, T. J. (2001). Believers Church Bible Commentary: Mark. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press.
Keener, C. S. (2014). The IVP Bible Background Commentary : New Testament (Second Edition.
ed.). Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press.
Mays, J. L., Blenkinsopp, J., & Society of Biblical Literature. (2000). The Harper Collins Bible
Commentary (Rev. ed.). San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco.
Myers, Ched (2008). Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus.
Maryknoll, New york: Obis Books.
Park, Mi Young Sydney. (2019). Inerrancy and blood: women and Christology in Leviticus 12
and 15, and Mark 5:21-43. Presbyterion, vol. 45, no. 1, pp. 83–95.
Remus, Harold E., (1992). “Miracle: New Testament,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor
Yale Bible Dictionary New York: Doubleday.
Roudkovski, Viktor. (2016). “Mark, Gospel Of, Critical Issues,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The
Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
Selvidge, M. J. S. (1984). Mark 5:25-34 and Leviticus 15:19-20: a reaction to restrictive purity
regulations. Journal of Biblical Literature. 103,4.
Thompson, C. (2010). Anatomy of the Soul : Surprising Connections Between Neuroscience
and Spiritual Practices that Can Transform Your Life and Relationships. Carol Stream,
Thompson, C. (2015). The Soul of Shame : Retelling the Stories We believe About Ourselves.
Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press.
Williamson, L. (2009). Mark. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press.
Wright, N. T. (2004). Mark for everyone (2nd ed.). London. Louisville, KY: Westminster John
Yisreʼeli, ʻAnat. (2015). Jewish women and positive time-bound commandments : reconsidering
the Rabbinic texts. Women in Judaism, 12.
Zimmerman, I. (1999). Woman un-bent. Winona, MN: Saint Mary's Press.