In the Bible there is a story about a woman had suffered from bleeding for 12 years. She had suffered a great deal and seen many doctors, yet instead of getting better she had grown worse.
What caused her frequent/continual bleeding for 12 years?
It is unclear what medical diagnosis this woman would be given if she was alive today. Perhaps she would be diagnosed with menometrorrhagia, which Wikipedia defines as “prolonged or excessive uterine bleeding occurs irregularly and more frequently than normal.” Alternatively, she could have been diagnosed Anovulation (when no egg is released insufficient progesterone can cause heavy menstrual bleeding).
The woman was considered permanently “unclean” because of her bleeding:
Under the Jewish law at that time this woman was considered unclean. Anything or anyone that she touched was also considered unclean. Because of her uncleanness she was expected to lead a very isolated existence, avoiding any physical contact with anyone including her own family. As a result, she could not mingle with people in public, go to the temple, or get married (if she had been married her husband would have probably divorced her). Her condition left her on the fringes of society.
Healed by Jesus:
According to the Gospels, when the woman heard that Jesus was coming she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering. At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?” “You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’ ” But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”
Significance of this story for Christians:
- It shows Jesus’ compassion for marginalised people: In this story, the woman touched Jesus’ cloak even though she knew that doing so would make Jesus ceremonially unclean. When Jesus noticed that someone had touched his cloak the woman fell at his feet “trembling with fear”. However, in response Jesus healed the woman and showed her kindness and compassion. Throughout the ministry of Jesus, his actions were consistently aimed at including the people that religion had left out. Jesus included women, children, foreigners, sinners, the “unclean”, outcasts, the sick and even outlaws and murderers (thief on the cross) at a time when the basic thrust of religion was to divide people into “insiders” and “outsiders”, the clean and the unclean.
The woman bled for 12 years – the number 12 symbolizes God’s power and authority: It is interesting to note that Jesus was on his way to heal a sick 12 year old girl when he was stopped by the bleeding woman. After he had healed the bleeding woman, he received news that he was too late to save the sick girl, she had died. Undeterred, Jesus then went to the sick girl’s house and raised her from the dead. It is interesting that the number 12 appears in both miracles (the woman had been bleeding for 12 years, and the sick girl was about 12 years old). Whether this is just a random coincidence or something symbolic I don’t know. However in the bible the number 12 is very significant. Jacob had 12 sons, each of which became a tribe of Israel; and Jesus called 12 disciples. Apparently the number 12 is considered a perfect number in the bible, “it symbolizes God’s power and authority, as well as serving as a perfect governmental foundation. It can also symbolize completeness for the nation of Israel as a whole.”
Menstruation elsewhere in the Bible
Apart from the story about the woman who bled for 12 years, there is one other story in the bible about menstruation: In Genesis, Rachel (Jacob’s wife) stole her father’s household gods and hid them under a camel’s saddle, which she sat on. Her father searched her tent and didn’t find them. She told him, “Don’t be angry, my lord, that I cannot stand up in your presence; I’m having my period.” So he searched but did not find the statues.
The menstrual cloth (‘beged idim’) is mentioned in Isaiah 64.6 (however no archeaological evidence has been found to indicate whether or not Jewish women used a menstrual cloth back then). Menstruation is used as an image of impurity elsewhere in Isaiah (30.22) and in Lamentations, where a woman with unclean (bloody) skirts (Lam. 1.9) serves as a metaphor for Jerusalem after its destruction. Religiously, menstruation had an ambivalent character. It was a sign of fertility and hence a blessing, but at the same time people regarded it as a source of impurity.
According to the Women in the Bible website, “During her menstrual period, a Jewish woman was relieved of many of her normal duties. She was not required to draw and carry water from the well. She did not have to serve food to members of the family. She did not have to go to the marketplace. She did not have sexual intercourse. The days of her menstrual period were regarded as a time out, a time for herself. On these days, relieved of a number of her duties, she had time to think and rest.”