The many layers of the story of the women bent double in Luke 13

The lectionary gospel reading for Trinity 10 Year C is Luke 13.10–17, a remarkable short account, unique to Luke, of Jesus healing a crippled woman on the Sabbath. There are multiple layers to the meaning of this story, and an interesting and important challenge is how we might, in our own local context, enable exploration of all these layers. A particularly striking feature of this passage is the way that several aspects of it have one kind of significance in the original context of Jesus’ ministry, but added significance in the Graeco-Roman context of Luke’s readers.

The context of this passage is the continuing mix of Jesus’ miracles and his teaching ‘on the way’ from Luke 9.51 until Jesus reaches Jerusalem in chapter 19. Because we don’t have in the narrative some of the obvious structural markers, like Matthew’s division of Jesus’ teaching into five sections, or the key turning point in Mark of the confession at Caesarea Philippi in Mark 8, it is easy to see the material here as a slightly amorphous mixture, and our only markers are the well-known episodes such as the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 and the parables of the lost, including the so-called prodigal son in Luke 15.

Given this, and the fact (as we have previously noted) that Luke’s geographical markers are very general, we need to sit up and take notice when Luke introduces this incident as taking place ‘in one of the synagogues’. This is the first mention of Jesus teaching in the synagogue since Luke 6.6, when he also heals someone there on the Sabbath, and he never does so again in Luke—in fact, synagogues are mentioned less in Luke than they are in Acts, when Paul consistently proclaims the good news about Jesus in synagogues first, making it clear that the Jesus movement is primarily a Jewish renewal movement before it is a Gentile movement.

The most prominent mention of Jesus teaching in this context is back in the synagogue in Nazareth in Luke 4.16, and we are therefore reminded of this programmatic incident. The connection is reinforced with the language that Jesus uses both to the woman in Luke 13.12 and about her in Luke 13.16 of ‘release’, echoing the language of ‘release of captives’ in Luke 4.18 (though using slightly different vocabulary). Within Luke’s overall narrative, this synagogue incident is once more enacting and demonstrating the kingdom ministry that Jesus proclaimed in the first synagogue incident.

The story itself has remarkably coherent literary structure to it, which some have likened to a diptych, composed of two panels, in art.

First panelSecond panel
Bent woman gets Jesus attention (13.11)Synagogue ruler’s words get Jesus’ attention (13.14)
Jesus calls the woman and cures her (13.12–13a)Jesus reacts to the ruler’s words (13.15–16)
Twofold results of Jesus’ action (13.13b)Twofold results of Jesus’ words (13.17)
a. Immediately she is made straighta. Jesus’ adversaries are put to shame
b. and she praises Godb. and all the people rejoice

This structure has two main effects. First, it puts Jesus himself centre-stage in the narrative, emphasised by Jesus calling the woman to her rather than Jesus going to the woman. The story is all about the action of Jesus and reaction to Jesus. The second effect is that the enacting of the kingdom rule of God is put in stark parallel with the opposition that the coming of the kingdom will provoke. This correlates with the other way that the ‘synagogue’ has featured so far in Luke’s gospel; other than being a locus of Jesus’ teaching, its most frequent mention has been as the context in which Jesus’ followers will face opposition (see Luke 12.11 and 21.11), since it is the place where the Pharisees and teachers of the law love to elevate themselves (Luke 11.43 and 20.46). Given that this ‘journeying’ section of Luke appears to be all about discipleship, it is quite odd that the disciples feature so little in this middle part—but the Pharisees are quite prominent, and Luke’s main point here appears to be that to follow Jesus means to face opposition.

Within the Jewish context of the original setting, two issues come to the fore.

The first is the question of the woman’s illness and its relation to the work of Satan. Various discussions of her medical condition consistently conclude that she suffered from ankylosing spondylitis, an arthritic inflammation of the vertebrae which leads to curvature of the spine and progressive inability to flex the joints. There is still no cure for the condition. But Luke uses some striking language in relation to he illness and its cure: she has a ‘spirit of weakness’ (NIV: ‘has been crippled by a spirit’, v 11) and Jesus’ healing released her whom ‘Satan has kept bound’. However, there is no sense in which Luke records this (or that Jesus or others in the narrative perceive this) as exorcism from demon possession; the language of ‘demon’ or ‘unclean spirit’, and the actions of ‘possession’ and ‘expelling’, found in other gospel accounts of exorcism, and are all absent here. Rather, Jesus (with Luke) sees the physical and the spiritual as inextricably interlinked; it is striking that when she is physically able to stand and look up, she immediately breaks into praise to God. Joel Green comments (in his NICNT commentary, pp 521, 525):

From this ethnomedical perspective, then, this woman’s illness has a physiological expression but is rooted in a cosmological disorder… [Jesus] regards his act of healing as an act of liberation from satanic bondage, as direct engagement in cosmic conflict, through which God’s eschatological purpose comes to fruition (see Luke 11.20).

The second question is the interpretation of the Fourth Commandment, to ‘keep the Sabbath’, and in the background are the verses from the Torah:

Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the LORD your God has commanded you.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work,  but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work..(Deut 5.12–14; compare Exod 20.9).

The language of the synagogue leader is slightly obscured in freer English translations; his comment that ‘there are six days on which it is necessary (dei) to work’ alludes to the command of God to work then and rest on the Sabbath. The question then becomes: who is the one with authority to interpret the Torah, the ‘law’? Luke is clear in his answer to this by describing Jesus here as ‘the Lord’, not just the Lord of the Sabbath (as Luke 6.5) but also the Lord of the meaning of the Torah, the authoritative interpreter. Luke here communicates something implicitly that is more explicit in, for example, Matt 5–7, in which a very Jewish Jesus brings out the full meaning of the scriptures, and emphasises that he is not in any sense nullifying them or setting them aside. Here, Jesus’ interpretative strategy is to read on, and more fully, to understand the theological principle of Sabbath observance rather than offering a mere surface reading. His response simply continues reading Deut 5 into its immediate context:

On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do.  Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day. (Deut 5.14–15)

Sabbath means rest and liberation, not only for God’s people but also for the ‘ox and the donkey’ that Jesus mentions. He argues here from the lesser to the greater; if you are prepared to offer Sabbath rest to your animals, surely you cannot withhold this from a person? The Sabbath itself is a reminder of the release from captivity that God has effected—and so Jesus’ release of this woman is a sign of the new Sabbath as a result of the new Exodus that Jesus will accomplish (Luke 9.31).

In the Graeco-Roman context of Luke and his readers, two rather different issues arise.

The first is the issue of physiognomics, by which ancient writers, physicians and philosophers believed that different parts of the body, and their condition, indicated something about a person’s inner life and identity—so, for example, ankles were supposed to indicate something important about character, with strong ankles indicative of a strong and reliable character (think Achilles and his arrow). Despite claims to the contrary, it seems that our visual culture, shaped by the internet, also values people in relation to their appearance.

The connection between the inner and the outer in Luke’s language of the ‘spirit of weakness’ being the apparent cause of the woman’s condition might at first look as though it plays into this perception of the world. Mikeal Parsons, in his Paideia commentary (p 217) notes the comment of pseudo-Aristotle’s Physiognomics:

Those whose back is very large and strong are of strong character; witness the male. Those which have a narrow, weak back are feeble; witness the female.

Physiognomy would also extend to the mention of the ‘ox and the ass’; pseudo-Aristotle comments:

Those that have thick extremities to the nostrils are lazy; witness cattle…and those with think faces are careful, with fleshiness are cowardly, witness donkeys and deer. (cited in Parsons, p 218)

And yet Jesus defies this kind of stereotyping in two ways. First, the affliction of the woman comes from without, from a spirit and the bondage of Satan, and not from within, the result of her own character flaw. Secondly, in response to the criticism, Jesus describes the woman as a ‘daughter of Abraham’, a unique designation used of no-one else, but connected with a consistent theme of the question of true Jewish identity introduced in the language of ‘Abraham and his offspring’ in Luke 1.55 and in the teaching of John the Baptist in Luke 3.8–9.

The second is the issue of honour and shame in the Roman world. Where the crippled woman would have been an object of shame, and those in the places of power would be people of honour, Jesus’ action and teaching effect a reversal in these two states. The woman now is honoured in the way Jesus describes here, and it is very striking that the crowd rejoice in the fact that, through Jesus’ words, ‘all his opponents were shamed’ (Luke 13.17). This is not about mere petty vengeance; it is about Luke communicating who is truly honoured and shamed in a social context where this values were of defining importance. Despite the dominant cultural view, it is actually (before God) those who follow Jesus who have the place of true honour, in contrast to all appearances to the contrary.

Two final issues are worth noting.

The first is another fascinating example of numerology. The number 18 occurs only in this chapter in the whole New Testament, and Luke emphasises it not only by mentioning it twice here (in verses 11 and 16; it also occurs in the previous episode in Luke 13.4) but by using two different phrase on the two occasions, δεκαοκτὼ and δέκα καὶ ὀκτὼ (ten-eight and ‘ten and eight’). Why might this be significant? Because, as Mikeal Parsons shows in a fascinating study in numerology, 18 is the value of the first two letters of Jesus’ name, iota and eta, and in one manuscript tradition, the number eighteen is actually written iota-eta, with a line over it, which corresponds to a nomen sacrum, an abbreviation commonly used in manuscripts for the holy name of Jesus and of God. In emphasising this number, Luke is claiming that Jesus is the appointed cure of her ailment.

This interpretation is reinforced by one of the earliest papyrus witnesses to Luke, Chester Beatty Papyrus I, better known as P45…At both 13:11 and 13:16, the number “eighteen” is written as ιη, with an over stroke to indicate the letters are serving as a number. Likewise, in 13:14, the name of “Jesus” is written in the same way, ιη, also with an over stroke, here though to indicate the nominum [sic] sacrum. The result is a purely visual phenomenon in which the reader of P45 would encounter the same abbreviation, ιη, for both “eighteen” and “Jesus,” reinforcing our Christological interpretation of the number eighteen in Jesus’ response in 13:16…

Given the presumed propensity to equate the number eighteen (or better “ten and eight”) with Jesus, at least in some circles, this form drew attention to the number and was the aural equivalent to the visual phenomenon. Thus, an audience hearing Luke 13 could have the experience in identifying the eighteen years of Luke 13:16 with Jesus, an experience not altogether unlike the one enjoyed by the actual reader of the symbols on the page. In this reading, not only is the woman’s true character made manifest in the healing, so is the identity of Jesus revealed in the very number associated with the length of her illness.

Secondly, although the kingdom and eschatological hope are not mentioned within this passage, it is implied from the context of the surrounding passages which emphasise the division that will come with God’s judgement—and the verses that immediately follow. Again, English translations, and the divisions in the lectionary, might throw us off the scent—but Luke is quite clear, when he introduces Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom as a mustard seed and as yeast in the flour with a strong ‘Therefore…’ in Luke 13.18. This teaching needs to be read as an exposition by Jesus of what has just happened in his kingdom-demonstrating ministry.

Set in relation to the healing episode of vv 10–17, this parable [of the kingdom and the yeast in flour] declares that satanic domination is being repealed and the kingdom of God is made present even in such seemingly inconsequential acts as the restoration of an ill woman who lived on the margins of society. (Joel Green, NICNT, p 527).

How might we enable our congregations to explore all these fascinating issues? Again, Mikeal Parsons anticipates this problem in his study of numerology and the use of the nomen sacra as the number eighteen:

The reception of early Christian texts was primarily in an oral and communal context, that is, the texts were read aloud by a lector to a community probably gathered together for a meal and some kind of edifying activity (e.g.,worship, etc.). Thus, Luke surely assumed that his text would have been read aloud and then discussed, as was the custom of the day. This process would have allowed for the subsequent examination and explication of the text. This context would have provided the occasion for the interpreter to communicate orally this visual phenomenon. The manuscript evidence supports this position.

Perhaps we should be doing the same?

Additional note:

In online discussion, I have been asked how we might preach on some of these ideas, especially the observation about numerology. I offer here several brief observations.

The links in the passage to the earlier teaching of Jesus in the Nazareth synagogue makes a connection between Jesus’ words and his actions. The breaking in of the kingdom of God does involve proclamation, but it also involves things happening, and the two need to match each other. As Paul says in 1 Cor 4.20, ‘The kingdom of God is not about talk but about power’. We live in an age where talk is easy, especially online; whether actions match our words is another matter. And a key frustration of outsiders with Christians and the church is when they are all talk and no action. Does Christian faith actually make a difference in our life?

The symmetry between Jesus’ response to the woman and Jesus’ response to his critics is part of Luke’s consistent emphasis that the kingdom will bring opposition so Jesus’ followers, faithful in kingdom living and proclamation, will face hostility. Of course, it is always possible that this will arise because we are being crass and insensitive! But if we are seeking to live faithfully to Jesus, we should not be surprised when difficulties comes.

The fact that the woman’s healing is for Jesus a sign of the presence of the kingdom of God demonstrates once again (and in line with the ‘Nazareth Manifesto’) how broad the concerns of the kingdom are. ‘The kingdom of God is creation healed’, so we need to be open to God’s working by his Spirit in all sorts of aspects of life.

Jesus is presented as the authoritative interpreter of the Old Testament law. Jesus neither sets aside Torah nor simply follows it slavishly in the way his contemporaries do, but reads it holistically and theologically, drawing out its full meaning. We need to avoid separating Jesus and the call to follow him from the teaching of the Old Testament which he comes to ‘fulfil’.

It is worth noting the way that Luke tells the story in a way that makes sense in his cultural context, and brings out implications for his readers—for we are in a similar situation of being in a context removed from the original setting. But we too live in a world that is shaped by physiognomy: tall people are more likely to be promoted to positions of leadership; people with deep voices seem more trustworthy to us; ugly people are more likely to be convicted in court; and we might notice how differently we respond to attractive people that we meet. Those who exercise influence in media, sports, business and politics do so in large part because of their appearance, and this has been accentuated in our highly visual media and internet age. ‘The LORD does not look at the things human beings look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart’ (1 Sam 16.7).

The numerology might be the most challenging to make use of in preaching. But finding a way of explaining it does help us to be aware that the Bible is written in another culture from us, and in some important senses is a ‘strange’ text to us. But the implications are anything but strange; in making this connection between the woman’s condition and the name of Jesus, he is saying to us that Jesus was always going to be the only answer to this incurable condition. I think Paul would say the same about our sin and alienation from God.

The illustration at the head of this article is a section from a painting by James Tissot, a nineteenth-century French painter and illustrator who moved to London in 1871. He was close to the Impressionists, and was invited to be part of the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, but he declined and (in contrast to other French painters), moved to a more realistic, rather than impressionistic, style of painting. After moving to London, in 1885 he experienced a renewal of his Roman Catholic faith, and devoted himself to painting scenes from the Bible, aided by travelling to the Middle East. He created a series of 365 painting of the life and ministry of Jesus, of which this is one, and was working on a series on the Old Testament when he died. I love the dynamic and light of the picture, and the way the two scenes either side of the pillar match the ‘diptych’ narrative structure of the passage. Jesus would, of course, have been sitting to teach, but perhaps he stands to heal the woman.

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30 thoughts on “The many layers of the story of the women bent double in Luke 13”

  1. This is a fascinating little story. Its one that helped me realise that Jesus isn’t “nice”. He socially destroys people. Living in south Asia for 17 years, near the beginning of the time I accidentally shamed someone in public. I never got that relationship back on to an even keel. And here, deliberately, Jesus is saying to the leader “you’re supposed to be the shepherd, but you’ve done nothing for her. You’re a shit shepherd”. The synagogue leader loses face (an awful thing to happen).

    In the challenge/riposte game of avoiding shame, Jesus played hardball, and ruined people. It took me a long time to come to terms with the idea that Jesus could deliberately savage people. But why? Because he wanted their salvation too. They needed to learn that they needed salvation, and needed to enter the kingdom with the status of a little child. If I’ve been socially destroyed, the only way up is reconciliation by changing and being acccpted.

    Jesus, meek and mild .. … .. as if.

    But the end result is not shame, but Glory to God, and those that share in his Kingdom.

    • Interesting about shaming leaders. Of course an accidental one is dreadful, and I’ve lived amongst North African people and seen it’s effects too, but I think in Western cultures we’re so worried about shaming leaders that things don’t get dealt with. A leader’s saving of face becomes more important than the well being of the sheep. Preferable to brush stuff under the carpet and lose a church member or two.

      It was a great revelation to me when I finally confronted my distaste for the ‘wrath’ prophecies in the OT and did a study on what actually makes God that cross. Poor, needy, widows, fatherless, foreigners, false weights and measures and rigged courts feature highly. So this despised woman suffering from what ever inflamatory illness/emotional oppression, plus pastoral neglect is just the sort of Jesus priority that’s consistent with God’s priorities.

  2. A few extra thoughts…

    There is a Jewish tradition that state that the Messiah will come if edvery Jew properly observes two successive Sabbaths. If that dates back to the first century, it gives a reason for the desire that the Sabbath rules not be broken. The irony in this case is that the Messiah has already come.

    According to Wikipedia, the Sabbath, in addition to being a celebration of creation and also the exodus, it is a taste of Olam Haba ( the Messianic age). Again, there is irony there in that the Messianic age is breaking in with the healing of the woman.

    It is interesting how the surrounding texts link with the fragments chosen for the lectionary. I wonder if there is a link between the parable of the barren fig tree and this event in the synagogue. Is Jesus the one taking care of the tree, fertilising it for one more year? Is Jesus giving one more chance for, in particular, the leaders of the people to bear the fruit of repentance?

    A not entirely unconnected event is that the Sunday Trading Act came into force 25 years ago on 26th August 1994.

    I am more than familiar with Ankylosing Spondilitis, having been diagnosed myself over 30 years ago (and some years after reporting symptoms to the doctor). I am very grateful that I do not have it severly, but I cannot sit on the ground as my lower back does not bend enough. When diagnosed, I recall reading something which said something like “choose your posture carefully, you might well get stuck in it.”

    • Thanks for this. You made me think about the applying the diagnosis of Ank’ Spond’ to this lady. I have a medical background, and whilst never looking after people with it, seem to recall that it tends to fix people in upright, stiff postures. Its not common to have someone bent over.

      I’ve always assumed she had TB spine. This is something I saw when I worked in South Asia. In this alumbar verterbra tends to collapse and leave the person with a permanent bend. We don’t see it in the west (TB is relatively rare), and so people tend not to think of it, whereas it would have been around in Jesus’ time, like it is in South Asia now.

  3. I have a question about this passage. It’s an obvious one of course and great scholars have not got to the bottom of it so I donkt expect a definive answer bit some guidelines would be interesting or direction to a reading source.

    It’s the Satan question of course.

    I can see the logic that it’s not a “demon” situation. And clearly from elsewhere Satan and devil aren’t synonymous. I’ve understood Satan to mean ‘accuser’ as in The Crown Prosecution Service. Designed to prove guilt, otherwise why would the case have been brought to court… it’s up to the defendent to bring any more favourable evidence. Devil being something much more subtle and destructive, whispering, calomny, etc Is that correct?

    Do you think of either of these as personalised? Or as more pervasive like ‘spirit of antichrist’ being any who set themselves up? Or entirely spiritual? Or even emotional like the delusional thoughts common to neurological/psychiatric conditions?

    I have a problem with numerology in that it feels like a distraction from the real issues and a game for an incrowd of people who ‘get it’. Probably as I’m from a different day and age that doesn’t get it, as you say it’s a mille feuille. But that’s by the by lol

    Another layer that interested me was noting that there were people who were pleased to see the leadership called to task on this issue. Even with a defective or dysfuctional leadership ‘The Church’ may well have plenty genuine caring people who can’t assert themselves due to the internal power balance but with external back up can reassert balance and care in a congregation. I discuss in a group about Radio 4 on fb and some people looking in from the outside see ‘church’ as lost because of the behaviour of some within it. I’m glad that there’s hope.

    • I think Luke shares with Paul a belief in Satan as the ‘prince of power of the air’ (Eph 2.2), that is (along with Jesus, ‘the ruler of this world’ John 12.31), he sees Satan and sin as ruling over this age, which is passing away. Thus the coming of the kingdom of God dethrones Satan—supremely on the cross (Rev 12.10), but therefore also in the ministry of Jesus and his followers.

      There are times when Satan or demons appear to have specific control of people which needs undoing, but as I point out there is none of the language of exorcism here. The ‘releasing’ of the woman is expressed in quite general terms.

      I understand the difficulty with the numerology—but it is clearly there in the text, and the early manuscript evidence confirms its importance. As I say in my additional comment, added this morning, it is a reminder that the gospel writers and their first audiences lived in a world that is, in many ways, strange to us, and we must avoid domesticating the text.

      But I also think that is carries significant theology: Jesus was always the only solution to the woman’s untreatable condition. The same is true for all of us.

      • Might not the point about Satan as ‘accuser’ be partly related to the view of affliction being the consequence of sin? The woman finds herself afflicted, and so Satan has the opportunity to whisper in her ear every day for 18 years, “this is because you are a sinner”.

        She is given the title “daughter of Abraham”. Is there any possible connection here with Paul’s reference to Abraham and how the promise precedes the Law?

  4. I have got interested in numerology too – and I agree that there is probably some significance to the number 18. But – pace your comment above – this is not the only occasion when Luke mentions the number 18 – he also does so earlier in the chapter 13.4 in relation to the people killed in the fall of the tower of Siloam.

      • It does beg the question as to what connection Luke wants to draw, or wants us to draw, between the two episodes or passages. I don’t know an immediate answer to that but I am fairly sure there must be an intended connection.

        • I looked at the previous passage back in March, when we read it in the lectionary.

          I notice that I did not comment on 18 there, and in fact I have checked Parsons and Green and neither of their commentaries do either. It could be that there just happened to be 18 people—but it is striking that the number occurs three times in this chapter and nowhere else.

          Another possible explanation is that Luke put these things in close proximity precisely because they have the number in common.

          I have sent a message to Mikeal Parsons asking if he has a view on this…

          • Ian, are you implying with all this numerology that the figures do not describe the literal truth, i.e. that the woman was not really bent double for 18 years (it could have been 15 or 20 and Luke changed the number for the sake of his numerological message), and so on with the other cases – or are you saying that the numbers did reflect the literal truth, and their numerological significance was the result of God providentially arranging for the literal and arcane to coincide?

          • Thanks Steven, that’s a good question.

            I think in the first instance I am doing something quite simple: noticing that these numbers do have these correlations (i.e. 18 with the value of the nomen sacra of Jesus’ name) and also noting that there is manuscript evidence that this was important to at least the first generation of Luke’s readers, and likely to Luke as well. (See my post on numerical composition in Luke’s gospel )

            I am then making some observations about the theological significance of this, and how it contributes to Luke’s theological portrait of Jesus. (Btw, this all is within the category of ‘literal truth’; if a text is symbolic or poetic, then its poetic meaning is its ‘literal truth’.)

            So, your question then is, is that symbolism built on the facticity of the narrative, or does has it been contrived? I think I would want to ask the same of all other symbolic and theological meanings. When Judas leaves the meal in John 13.30, and John notes ‘And it was night’, was it actually dark? Yes. Is that what John is trying to tell us? Clearly not. This is the deepest, darkest night in human history, when the light of the world is betrayed by a friend.

            When Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the twilight, is this actually in the evening, or in the twilight of his understanding? When in the next chapter the woman by the well sees Jesus in the broad daylight, is this ‘literal’ or ‘symbolic’? When Jesus send the man born blind in John 9 to the Pool called Sent, did it actually happen?

            I don’t think, in any of these examples, we need to set the factual over against the symbolic. Conservatives have done so in the past, and missed the symbolism. Liberals have also done so, and dismissed the factual. I don’t think we need do either.

            Does that make sense?

          • Thank you, Ian.

            The first question is whether the purportedly significant numbers are real. At the end of your linked page about symmetry in number of syllables around a key verb Thomas Renz said that he tried to replicate your calculations but couldn’t. The failure was left hanging in the air. Surely enough information needs to be given to enable a second party to verify the patterns, if only to obviate the suspicion that they might be more in the mind of the interpreter than objectively there in the text.

            As regards explicit numbers in a text, the second question is whether the numbers themselves are factual – my original question. I take your answer to be yes, citing corroborative instances that, however, strike me as a little dubious. Nicodemus came to Jesus by night (not necessarily twilight) because he was afraid to be seen speaking with Jesus privately. John makes nothing of the fact that Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman during the day (‘broad daylight’ is an extrinsic emphasis). That was normal, albeit not in the heat of the day.

            If one believes that the numbers are factual (and I agree that the gospel writers were not given to making specific facts up), then the third question is whether they were also purposely symbolic (I granted that they could be). The purpose would then be God’s. In his providence he had so arranged matters that the numbers would be recognised as non-coincidental and symbolically meaningful, once Luke came to write up the story. Not only was Luke intended to pick up the significance, but so were his readers. (Apparently they were also expected to count number of syllables.)

            Here I must express some difference. Does Luke ‘emphasise’ the number 18 in his narrative? It seems to me more natural to read him as pointing out that the woman had suffered the condition for a horribly long time. That is why Jesus feels compassion for her, and why (I imagine) Luke does too. If she had suffered for 17 years, he would have narrated the story in just the same way. Moreover, the number is mentioned just twice, once by Luke himself when introducing us to the woman, and once by Jesus, when he emphasises (mot juste) that she was deserving of compassion, sabbath regulations notwithstanding. You draw attention to the number not occurring anywhere else in the NT. Others might take this as evidence that neither God nor the reading public generally saw any great significance in the number.

            Finally, the perceived significance is that 18 is the value of the first two letters of Jesus’ name. There might be potential (though minor) significance in that, if we read the numerals as two separate numbers. But here your argument is that the woman’s illness (which, it is conceded, is not the ‘real her’) of 18 years’ duration thereby mystically connects her with her healer. Again, I can’t persuade myself that that is the case.

            As for 666, interpretation depends very much on whether you think the beast is someone in the past (as you do) or yet in the future (as I do). That question comes first. If one starts from your position, one still has to make choices. Nero was a Roman, not a Greek, and in Latin his name was ‘Nero’, so why use his Greek name? If using his Greek name, why then convert it into Hebrew? And why add ‘Caesar’ to the name? Caesar was a title. If adding his title is not questionable, then why not his fuller title, ‘Nero Caesar Augustus’, as on the coins? Why disguise his name at all, given that John was writing almost 30 years after Nero’s death? …

        • My tentative suggestion follows this:

          Luke 13:1-5 emphasises the need for repentance.
          Luke 13:6-9 The parable of the barren fig tree is about giving the tree one more year to see if it produces fruit. What is that fruit? Perhaps repentance.
          Luke 13:10-17 Jesus heals in a synagogue for the third time (in Luke) showing the breaking-in of the Kingdom. What is the appropriate response to the nearness of the Kingdom? Repentance.

  5. The two passages are separated by the Lukan version of the fig tree parable… which means that I think we are supposed to use this as a hermeneutical clue… as an interpretive tool for both passages. Its got me interested …. just read this
    “The Hebrew word for “life” is חי (chai), which has a numerical value of 18. Consequently, the custom has arisen in Jewish circles to give donations and monetary gifts in multiples of 18 as an expression of blessing for long life.” The link with chai would be fascinating and make sense in the context. The question would of course arise as to whether Luke would or would not play around with the numerical value of HEBREW letters as well as GREEK.

    • That is really interesting; thanks. We are developing quite a symposium here on numerology!

      Even if Luke is writing in Greek (which he is), this would not disqualify awareness of the numerology of the Old Testament, mostly written in Hebrew.

      Worth also noting that some of the numerology in Revelation (which has a number of surprising links with Luke) relies on transliteration from Greek to Hebrew for the gematria value of BEAST as 666 which is also CAESAR NERON.

      • Then of course it is interesting to reflect that if Jesus’ name adds up to 18 in Greek and 18 and chai are linked in Hebrew you have a numerical reinforcement of the idea of Jesus as life-giver. Much though I would like to continue this trail… I am afraid that I must now get back to some boring admin from which this has been a delightful diversion.

      • Ian I have come back to this post and the discussion – partly because of course this week the lectionary Gospel Luke 13.1-9 has the only other obvious example of 18 in the Gospel of Luke (the 18 killed when the tower of Siloam fell). And I have thought of something about 18 that we did not raise previously. There are only two ‘personal’ time dates that relate directly to Jesus himself given in the Gospel of Luke (or indeed, I think, in any of the Gospels). Jesus is 12 when he goes to the Temple in Jerusalem for Passover (2.42) and he is about 30 when he begins his public ministry 3.23). And of course the difference between the two figures is 18. And you could even say that the bent woman had been suffering during the period between the time Jesus went to the Temple and when his public ministry was inaugurated. Of course it is speculative – but once one goes down the numerology path – it becomes interesting to ponder as a possibility.

  6. Hi Ian,

    As usual, you’ve provided excellent exegesis here. My interest was particularly piqued, when you wrote: “But Luke uses some striking language in relation to he illness and its cure: she has a ‘spirit of weakness’ (NIV: ‘has been crippled by a spirit’, v 11) and Jesus’ healing released her whom ‘Satan has kept bound’. However, there is no sense in which Luke records this (or that Jesus or others in the narrative perceive this) as exorcism from demon possession; the language of ‘demon’ or ‘unclean spirit’, and the actions of ‘possession’ and ‘expelling’, found in other gospel accounts of exorcism, and are all absent here. Rather, Jesus (with Luke) sees the physical and the spiritual as inextricably interlinked;

    The question remains, if this chronic ailment has nothing to do with demon possession, then in what way was the physical condition inextricably linked to the spiritual?

    My own reflection is that there’s significance in Jesus citing the involvement of Satan (as the “accuser of the brethren” Rev. 12:10) in this suffering.

    Satan’s archetypical accusation is the rhetorical question that he posed to God in requesting permission to subject Job to suffering: “Does Job fear God for nothing?” ( Job 1:9)

    The tacit slur is that, far from any relationship with God, Job’s obedience is purely transactional. In fact, the tacit slur extends blasphemously to the Lord, i.e. “Does God bless Job for nothing?”

    So, contrary to the Pharisees’ false inferences from the Law, i.e. that suffering is invariably a consequence of sin, Jesus was harking back to an understanding of human suffering that pre-dates the giving of the Law, as revealed in the book of Job (which some claim to be the oldest book of the Bible).

    As the Song of Songs explains, an authentic loving relationship is strengthened (rather than being weakened) by suffering: “Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy a unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame. Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot sweep it away. If one were to give all the wealth of one’s house for love, it would be utterly scorned.” (Song of Solomon 8:6,7)

    Conversely, the absence of authentic love has always been the nub of Satan’s charge. He accuses the brethren by implying that man’s obedience is only given in exchange for perpetual providence and protection. Thereby, he accuses the Lord by implying that God’s providence and protection is only bestowed in exchange for obedience (almost a celestial protection racket).

    Jesus’ faithfulness in His passion, comprehensively and conclusively destroys this slur against the brethren (as represented by the Son of Man) and against God. It’s this triumph of nullifying Satan’s damning accusation that Paul heralds in Col. 2:15:
    “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”

    And for the woman bent double, despite 18 years of incessant discomfort and suffering, she was faithfully attending the synagogue, where Jesus was teaching. Her devotion to God had persevered through illness in the same way that Job’s devotion persevered through personal adversity.

    That devotion is echoed in Abraham’s undiminished reliance on God’s promised provision, such that his refusal of worldly enrichment, prompted God to declare: “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward”.

    So, in emulating Abraham’s undiminished reliance on God’s promised provision, the cured woman was indeed as Christ described her: “a daughter of Abraham”.

    • Thank you for this, David.
      I would suggest one more point in that the promise to Abram (as he was then) came before the giving of the law or even the giving of the covenant sign of circumcision.

        • I make no claim to originality! Indeed, I pinched the point from Paul. My interest is partly is to wonder if Jesus may have chosen the phrase ‘daughter of Abraham’ in the context of Sabbath observance partly to make the point that the promise of blessing preceded the Law. If that is the case, then it is an example of how Jesus and Paul are not at odds.


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