Last week, I visited the Samaritan community on Mt. Gerizim, above the city of Nablus (where Jesus met the Samaritan woman). The Samaritan guide did his best to convince me (and the other visitors) that the Samaritans are the oldest, best, most pure religious community in the world, certainly far superior to the Jews. There was a lengthy lecture on the language—the Samaritans still use ancient Hebrew for their sacred texts, not that Aramaic-based ‘square’ Hebrew script developed in the third century B.C.E. We also heard about the maintenance of traditional celebrations of feasts (including the sacrifice of the lamb at Passover), the ancestral lineage of the Samaritans, and of course the size of the community (around 700 people living in two communities, one on Mt. Gerizim and one near Tel Aviv) and the political status of Samaritans (they are citizens of Palestine, Israel, and Jordan).
The guide did not have much to say about the status of women in the Samaritan community. His comments were limited to religious regulations concerning purity. Samaritan women are required to keep separate from society for a full seven days each month during menstruation. Following childbirth, they are isolated as well—forty days for a son, ninety days for a daughter. They can continue to live in their homes, but they cannot touch their family members (husband or children). They cannot eat from the same dishes that the rest of the family uses (their food is put in a special bowl, which is set on the floor so that the family table will not become unclean). This also means they cannot prepare food for the family, or clean the home—the guide thus presented this regulation as a gift to women, since the husband has to do the housework while the woman is “impure” (though I’ve also read that it’s customary for another female relative, a sister or cousin perhaps, to come into the home to do the wife’s work during the time of impurity). Finally, the women cannot worship with the community, even if it’s a major festival like Passover.
These regulations come from biblical law:
When a woman has a discharge of blood that is her regular discharge from her body [that is, when a woman has her period], she shall be in her impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening. Everything upon which she lies during her impurity shall be unclean; everything also upon which she sits shall be unclean. Whoever touches her bed shall wash his clothes, and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening. Whoever touches anything upon which she sits shall wash his clothes, and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening; whether it is the bed or anything upon which she sits, when he touches it he shall be unclean until the evening. If any man lies with her, and her impurity falls on him, he shall be unclean seven days; and every bed on which he lies shall be unclean (Leviticus 15:19-24 NRSV).
If a woman conceives and bears a male child, she shall be ceremonially unclean seven days; as at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Her time of blood purification shall be thirty-three days; she shall not touch any holy thing, or come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification are completed. If she bears a female child, she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her menstruation; her time of blood purification shall be sixty-six days (Leviticus 12:2-5 NRSV).
The purity regulations for women, called ‘niddah,’ are also kept in Orthodox Judaism. In fact, in Orthodox Judaism, women are impure from their periods for at least twelve days, from the first day until the seventh ‘clean’ day, without blood. As in Samaritan practice, husbands and wives should not touch each other during the woman’s impurity. Orthodox Judaism emphasizes the prohibition of sex during this time, especially (cf. Leviticus 15:24, 18:19, 20:18). Some families might have a separate bed for the woman to sleep in. Husbands and wives are not supposed to hold onto the same object (e.g., a husband could not put a plate into his wife’s hands, or play ping pong with her [seriously!]), or sit on a moving object together (like a swing). Women also have a separate section in the synagogue so that they can attend services without making the men impure. In part as a result of such regulations, Orthodox men will not sit next to a woman on the bus, and in general they avoid deliberately touching women who are not part of their family. It’s just so hard these days to tell when someone is “unclean”…
I was surprised this year to find that similar practices exist among Christians in Palestine. An older friend told me that her mother taught her that she could not attend church during her period. My friend thought that was excessive, but she taught her own daughters that they could not participate in the Eucharist during their periods (I’ve since found out that this is a customary teaching in Eastern Orthodox churches). In my friend’s family, the women would carry a special cushion to sit on during menstruation as well, because a woman is not clean during that time.
There’s so much to consider here – the identification of menstruation, which is a rather common, natural occurrence for women, as something unclean that makes others (particularly those poor, helpless, ‘pure’ men) unclean; the implications of such regulations for family life; the consequences of the “impurity” of menstruation for a woman’s understanding of her own body and identity. And then there are the more emotional effects of separation. Say, for instance, that a woman has a miscarriage. She’s “impure” after, unable to touch her husband, in a time of serious trauma. Say there’s a family tragedy—no hugs, no comfort. Say a woman experiences a flow of menstrual blood for twelve years. What would that do to her emotional and psychological health?
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… (Mark 5:25-26)
If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, not at the time of her impurity, or if she has a discharge beyond the time of her impurity, all the days of the discharge she shall continue in uncleanness; as in the days of her impurity [see Leviticus 15:19-24 above!], she shall be unclean. Every bed on which she lies during all the days of her discharge shall be treated as the bed of her impurity; and everything on which she sits shall be unclean, as in the uncleanness of her impurity. Whoever touches these things shall be unclean, and shall wash his clothes, and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening (Leviticus 15:25-27).
The purity regulations in this woman’s day, the early first century C.E. while the temple was still standing, were not limited to family life, as in modern Orthodox Judaism. The Samaritan community’s practices might get us closer to the separation this woman may have experienced, though we don’t have a lot of evidence for the time period. Certainly, as in Samaritan and Greek Orthodox practice, the woman would have been limited from participation in worship; whether people would have avoided touching the woman, or whether her family would have separated from her, are more difficult questions to answer.
The story in Mark 5 provides a few clues. The woman appears alone. In stark contrast to the story that ‘sandwiches’ her story, she has no father to speak for her (cf. Mark 5:22-23).* She has spent all her money in search of medical help—she does not seem to have the support of family. She also does not seem to have a husband. Quite apart from physical pain, her condition has prevented her from participating in or fulfilling the traditional expectations for women in a first century Jewish community: She’s not a wife, and she’s unable to be a mother. And this has been her life for twelve years—not just twelve weeks a year, as in Samaritan custom, or twelve days or so a month, as in Orthodox Judaism, but twelve years.
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 saved you; go in peace, and be wholly well from your disease” (Mark 5:27-34 NRSV, slightly modified).
Perhaps my favorite feature in this story is that the woman acts for herself. She comes up behind Jesus in the crowd; she reaches out and touches his clothes. She doesn’t ask for healing, or ask permission to touch him—she just does it, despite her twelve years’ experience of the consequences of impurity. And then she has the courage to admit it, despite her apparent fear. In response, Jesus completes her healing. Her physical condition has already been healed (the involuntary flow of her blood is stopped by the involuntary flow of Jesus’ power); Jesus restores her emotionally and psychologically and socially, calling her daughter (she who has no father to speak for her), attributing her salvation to her own faith (which is active here in her approach to Jesus, and her touch), and sending her home in peace and wholeness.
The story of Mark 5:25-34 does not attempt to change purity regulations or practices for menstrual women. But it does, surprisingly and shockingly, show a woman’s agency in spite of any religious, cultural, or traditional practices that might limit or isolate her. It provides a clear example of a woman’s faith in action. And within the story, the male audience is confronted with the praise, healing, and restoration of the woman—made even more upsetting for customary expectations by the fact that the woman’s action interrupts Jesus’ progress towards the home of the synagogue leader, the man of high status who’s seeking healing for his sick daughter. Jesus, the synagogue leader, the disciples, the people crowding around—this woman, who should be off on her own keeping her impurity to herself, brings them all to a halt. They are forced to recognize her as a person, a member of the community, a model of great faith.
On behalf of Samaritan women, Orthodox Jewish women, Greek Orthodox women, and other women everywhere who have been taught by religious and social tradition to see themselves as unclean pollutants, thank God for this woman.
* ‘Sandwiching’ is a highly technical term for Mark’s habit of sticking one story inside another story (you may also know it as ‘intercalation’). The bread and cheese, or pita and falafel if you prefer, interpret each other. There are remarkable connections between the two stories in Mark 5:21-43, and also remarkable differences. Jairus is a man of high status in the community, in contrast to the woman who by gender and physical condition would be of low status in the community. Jairus speaks for his daughter, who remains in the home; the woman goes out into the streets on her own behalf, and she does not ask for healing. The daughter is twelve years old (the age of eligibility for marriage, and the beginning of puberty and thus fertility); the woman has been bleeding (and thus ineligible for marriage, and infertile) for twelve years. Jesus chooses to touch Jairus’s daughter; the woman touches Jesus. Jairus falls at Jesus’ feet when he asks Jesus to heal his daughter; the woman falls at Jesus’ feet when she admits that she has been healed by Jesus’ power. These connections and contrasts emphasize the woman’s agency in the story. One of the most powerful effects of the interweaving of the stories comes in verse 34, when Jesus calls the woman ‘daughter,’ giving her the place in the community that the ‘bread’ of Jairus’s daughter’s story so clearly shows she lacks.