“Who touched my garments?” Jesus’ voice rises over the chatter. A great hush falls over the crowd. Heads turn left and right, looking for the person in question.
One of the disciples pipes up: “You see the crowd pressing against you, and yet you say, ‘Who touched me?’ ”
Slowly, one woman emerges from the multitude. Trembling, she comes forward and falls at Jesus’ feet. She begins to tell her story—that she has been bleeding for 12 years, suffering despite the efforts of many physicians. In vain, she had spent all she had, but the condition had only worsened.
“I heard the reports about you,” she says—her knees sunk into the dirt, the crowd on their feet around her. “I remember saying, ‘If I touch even his garments, I will be made well,’ and that is what happened.” Many of us know this story from the Gospels. We see this picture of Christ’s grace, mercy and restorative power in Mark 5:25–34. But while inspiring and thought-provoking on its own, the account is missing something for the average reader: the historical and literary context found in the book of Leviticus.
Leviticus is a book full of laws, standards and rituals that, for the most part, we no longer follow. The laws defined Israel as a holy people, set apart for God. They also established ritual practices that narrowed the gap between God’s holiness and their uncleanliness. Today, we don’t consider issues of ceremonial cleanliness and ritual purity. But in Jesus’ time, these matters held great importance.
The woman who touches Jesus’ garments in Mark 5:25 had been ceremonially unclean for more than 4,000 days. In Leviticus 15:25–27, we get a glimpse into the type of life she led:
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, 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.
For 12 years, people had avoided touching this woman so they could stay clean and maintain ritual purity. Inanimate objects she touched were deemed unclean. Even more tragic, according to the laws in Leviticus, she was ceremonially unfit to be in God’s presence. She would not be allowed to worship in the temple, and anyone who came in contact with her was banished until evening (Lev 15:19–27). Her physical condition prevented her from being part of God’s holy people. For this woman, the law was insufficient to bridge the gap between her and God; ritual purity was impossible.
According to Leviticus, the act of touching someone else’s garments spreads uncleanliness to the wearer. Yet the woman’s faith in Jesus changes everything. Instead of her making Jesus unclean, He makes her clean—not on the basis of ritual purity, but on the basis of her faith in Him: “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your affliction” (Mark 5:34).
In this moment, the Gospel of Mark shows us that Jesus is ushering in a new era. If we have faith in Him, no ailment, condition or stigma can keep us from communion with God. The context of Leviticus is a great reminder of who Jesus is and what He has done for us.
Biblical references are from the New King James Version (NKJV).