Monday, October 15, 2012

Mat 9:20 Touching the Fringe of Jesus' Garment...

Why does the lady in this story think that the edge of Jesus' cloak has the power to heal? Her malady was of course a source of shame in her culture, but it appears that societal secrecy may not have been her only motivation. By dissecting her thought process, (rare in Jewish literature) the text emphasizes that her touch was not random, but premeditated on some cultural idea. Later in Mat 14:36 (and also Mark 6:56) we see loads of people specifically seeking out the fringe of Jesus' garment. Jesus obliges, and of course it works, but why? The answer to this miracle, as it always does, runs deep into the pages of the Hebrew Bible.

When we trace the Greek word for the "edge"1 or hem of Jesus' garment back through scripture we find two Hebrew words, which must be treated as near synonyms: "tassel"2 and "wing".3 Are there any passages in the Hebrew Bible that predict anything in particular about the tassels or wings of messiah, by either of these words? This second Hebrew word takes on special significance in Malachi 4:2 where "a righteous sun will rise with healing in its wings...."4 Could this have been understood to predict that messiah would have healing power in his tassels?

It would be too easy for us to read Christian theology into Malachi with twenty-twenty hindsight. Was this passage legitimately understood as a messianic prediction by any Jews of the time? It seems there are at least three confirmations that some ancient Jews read it this way.

The first hint is in the Targums (the Jewish translation of the Hebrew Bible into Aramaic). These loose paraphrases of scripture into the street language of the day (starting around the time of the exile to Babylon), often contain clarifications, interpretations, and even applications embedded into its translation. In the Hebrew version of Malachi 4:2 for example,5 the word for sun is ambiguous in its definiteness. It could read "the sun" or "a sun". The Aramaic Targum of this verse, however, clarifies this ambiguity by adding the definite article, "the sun". This slight change hints that a fulfillment by a specific individual might be in view.

The second is in archaeology of the time. It is a very common engraving during the Persian period to have a winged sun-disk, where the sun's rays are portrayed as feathers shining in all directions. These kind of images are even found among Hebrew culture, where we have a coin with a winged scarab pushing a sun disk with the inscription, "Belonging to Hezekiah, (son of) Ahaz, king of Judah."6. In Babylon, this winged disk often appeared with the image of a ruler (or god) either on or in the sun disk. Since a winged sun is often culturally associated with a ruler, there is good reason to think that the winged sun of Malachi was intended as a cultural reference to the king of Judah, known to us by the word messiah.

The third and more explicit confirmation is in a 9th century Jewish commentary on the book of Exodus, Shemot Rabbah. This rabbinic author certainly saw the winged sun of Malachi as a messianic prediction:
“Moses asked: ‘Will they remain in pledge for ever?’ God replied: ‘No, only until the sun appears’, that is, till the coming of the Messiah; for it says, But unto you that fear My name will the sun of righteousness arise with healing in its wings.”7
From three different angles, rabbinic, archaeology, and the Aramaic Targum, Malachi's winged sun is seen as an individual ruler. Seeing this passage as such requires no later Christianized interpretation.

The suspicion that this healing is particularly messianic is further confirmed by the subsequent context in Matthew, where immediately after this two blind men call out for "the son of David" to heal them. The phrase "son of David" is a loaded political term for messiah. Both of these narratives, put back to back, show that the miracles the author is recounting are not random or merely amazing, but messianic miracles - signs specifically associated with Judaism's messianic hope.

There is the tendency to read the miracle stories of Jesus in a rather flat way. By "flat" I mean that we think of them all the same. We tend to treat them as benevolent acts of mercy that all generally confirm how amazing Jesus was. The problem is that we do not appreciated how nuanced and unique these miracles were for the original culture. In this case, the miracle is particularly messianic. The woman in the story would have only thought that she could be healed through this method if she was also convinced that he was messiah. Which begs the question, which aspect of faith is she commended for?

Jesus tassels having healing power would be the equivalent to a modern American rescuing a person from a burning house while "accidentally" wearing a large "S" on their shirt. No one today one would miss the irony of the situation that screamed "hero", "superhero", and even "Superman". No one in Jesus day reading the book of Matthew would miss the implied "M" on Jesus' healing tassels -- messiah.

This is why the woman is commended for her faith, faith that saves.8 Lots of people came to Jesus as a prophet and miracle healer, of which Jesus was one of several. What set this woman's faith apart was who she thought Jesus was, which also set Jesus apart from the average spiritual reformer. Jesus is more. This is why the woman is commended by Jesus and the gospel author. She is an example of someone who believed that Jesus was different, predicted, and rightful ruler.

Matthew uses her story to help us believe that there more to Jesus too. Today, it is almost too easy to call him messiah. What does that really mean in practical every day life? The question to us is whether we really treat him as messiah by allowing him to be in charge of our lives and choices. Then we may begin to feel the warmth of the healing rays of his reign inside the refugee of his wings.


1. κράσπεδον.

2. ציצת Numbers 15:38.

3. כנף Deut 22:12.

4. The Greek translation of כנף "wing" here in Malachi 3:20 is πτέρυξ rather than κράσπεδον. Conceptually the words are not far removed from each other, and Deut 22:12 shows that κράσπεδον is an acceptable Greek word to represent כנף.  

5. 3:20 by the Hebrew verse divisions.

6. Biblical Archaeology Review, 25:2 (March/April, 1999), 42-5.

7. Exodus Rabbah 31:10, Soncino Press Edition. Even though this rabbinic source was recorded much later than the New Testament, because it shares a common link with both the Targums and archaeology, it is safe to assume such a tradition reached back into New Testament times.

8. The word here is σῴζω, "save" as opposed to "heal". It is not uncommon for this word to be used of healing in a generic sense of being saved from disease or public disgrace, but its use here is conspicuous. The messianic context and background suggests that "save" might have broader implied meaning, in the sense of final or ultimate salvation (eschatological).

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