Some observations on Mark 5:21-43, inspired in part by a sermon delivered this morning at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church by the Rev. Dr. Brooks Graebner.
This pericope is one of the famous “Markan sandwiches,” in which one narrative interrupts another (cf. also Mk 2:1-12, 3:1-6, 3:20-35, 6:6-31, 11:12-25, i.a.). It’s helpful in these cases to consider how the two stories — here, that of the raising of Jairus’s daughter and the healing of the hemorrhaging woman — illuminate or reinforce one another. What do we learn by comparing the two?
The obvious tie binding the two is the number twelve: the woman has been bleeding for twelve years, exactly the age of Jairus’s daughter (5:25, 42). An allusion to the twelve tribes of Israel, perhaps? What if we read these two as a figure for Israel?
Next, consider the differences between them: the woman, afflicted with a discharge of blood, has been rendered ritually unclean for a dozen years, contaminating every piece of clothing or furniture, and indeed every person, she touched (Lev 15:19-27). She is, in short, marginalized, excluded, an exile in her own country. Jairus is an elite, a ruler of the synagogue (Mk 5:22); on the face of it, he and his family seem to belong to a different world from the bleeding woman, and yet tragedy has struck them as well — his young daughter is desperately ill, and indeed has died before Jesus can reach her (Mk 5:35). We have then, all of Israel, from the bottom to the top of the social ladder, summed up in these two figures, one of which is unclean and outcast, and the other of which has died.
It seems very likely to me that this juxtaposition of calamities is meant to invoke Ezekiel 36-37. Consider that in Ezekiel 36:17, 19, the LORD tells Ezekiel: “Son of man, when the house of Israel dwelt in their own land, they defiled it by their own way and by their doings: their way was before me as the uncleanness of a removed woman…[Wherefore] I scattered them among the heathen, and they were dispersed through the countries: according to their way and according to their doings I judged them.” And then, in the famous passage from Ezekiel 37, Ezekiel is given a vision of a valley full of “dry bones,” and told: “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel: behold, they say, Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost: we are cut off for our parts.” Israel’s tragic fate is, first, ritual uncleanness, like that of a woman with a discharge, and second, death.
What does the LORD do about this? “I will take you from among the heathen, and gather you out of all countries, and will bring you into your own land. Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you” (Ezek 34:24-25). “Behold, O my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel” (Ezek 37:12). Faced with Israel’s uncleanness and death, the LORD promises cleansing and resurrection; and that, of course, is precisely what Jesus brings, the former to the woman with the discharge (Mk 5:29), and the latter to Jairus’s daughter (5:42). When the LORD comes in person, all Israel will be purified, all Israel will be raised up; and this, Mark tells us, is exactly what happened in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, if we would only have eyes to see, and ears to hear (Mk 8:18).