There were many witnesses to the incident, yet no one went to check on the battered woman that afternoon. She sat alone, tears sliding down her cheeks as she washed the blood from her skin. She winced with each movement of her arm, and she hoped it wasn’t broken. There are painful moments in the life of every mother, but few experienced torment such as this. One more violent encounter with her daughter. One more public humiliation. More scars – visible and invisible. Without a doubt, tomorrow there would be fewer friends for herself and fewer customers for her husband. Former friends and neighbors now turned their heads and went in the opposite direction. Many with whom they had once shared mutual respect now publicly called for their daughter to be put to death. They had forgotten the beautiful baby girl that played with their children. Her innocent eyes, free-flowing curls, and wide, happy smile were a distant memory. It mattered to no one that their daughter had made a friend of every person and animal she encountered. There was a time when she was beloved by young and old alike, but no longer.
After the last attack, even her husband had said perhaps they needed to recognize the fact that the daughter they knew and loved had already died. He had wept as he told her that he feared he might lose his wife while trying to hold onto his daughter. Each time he left home, he feared what he would return to find. His strained local relationships had driven him to spend more time down by the sea, trading with strangers who would judge him solely by the quality of his products. Through no fault of his own, he was often gone when she needed him most. She felt loneliness deeper than she had ever felt before.
No one knew how or why it happened. The changes were subtle in the beginning but progressed rapidly. Her sweet face became hardened, and she developed unusual strength. Her voice often became cold and unfamiliar, as she spoke of things no child would or should know. She grew increasingly violent, and most of the animals she once loved soon met unfortunate ends. After each episode, her daughter would collapse, the energy contained in her little body spent. Sometimes she would lie in a near deathlike state for days, while her mother wept over her only child to survive through infancy. Gently she would clean the little girl’s body, and scrape her own blood and skin from under the tiny fingernails. When she finished, she would often gather her precious girl into her arms and sing to her. When she closed her eyes, she almost felt like a normal mother again. She longed for the body to relax into her embrace, but it never did.
She prayed. She prayed to any god that would listen, but mostly she prayed to the God of Israel. The entire town had heard tales of the Jewish rabbi who healed people from all kinds of afflictions, even from a distance. Sometimes travelers would pass through town, telling stories of demons fleeing at his command. There were even rumors that he could bring the dead back to life. Most dismissed these stories as revivals of old Jewish legends, told only to spark fear and wonder into the hearts and minds of children. The opinions of others mattered little to her. The possibility that such a man existed provided her with enough hope to rise and face each day.
Although most of the Jews that lived in the region could not be called “religious”, she would ask the God of Israel to send the gifted rabbi to his people here. Didn’t the Jews speak of a Messiah that would come and bring freedom to the people? Didn’t the prophecy speak about a blessing to all nations? She had once heard it said that Jewish law required harvesters to leave the fallen grapes, as well as any remnants from the initial harvest of crops, in the field for the poor and the foreigner. She thought that was evidence of a kind God, unlike the gods of her own people. That simple thought had stuck in her mind. As her circumstances grew direr, the thought of a God who cared for the poor and the foreigner grew more appealing to her. She prayed for the rabbi to come and reap a great harvest for his people. Her only request was that she would be permitted to glean from the remnants enough to set her daughter free.
She finished tending her own injuries, and turned her attention to her daughter, now lying motionless on the bed. Her sister’s husband had picked up the child where she collapsed in town. He carried her in the house, laid her on the bed, and walked out without speaking a word. She knew he had his own way of coping with the “family shame”, and he would not be going home to her sister any time soon. He had long ago lost sympathy for her circumstances. His silence screamed at her the words he no longer needed to speak.
“Something has to be done.”
“This cannot continue.”
“We are all in danger.”
“This is your fault.”
He had never actually said that he thought it was her fault, but the accusation was common among most of the people in town. The powerful bond between the two sisters compelled him to be prudent in his choice of words. Perhaps that is the reason he practiced avoidance. He had forbidden his wife from going to the house to offer comfort, especially now that she was heavy with her first child. Otherwise, her younger sister would be at her side. She drew what comfort she could from the knowledge that her sister’s heart was with her. On days like this one, when her husband was away, trying to keep food on the table for their broken little family, her sister’s love was a source of strength. She reminded herself that her brother in law had also suffered from his “association” with them. Many people kept their distance from him, both personally and professionally. Community was important in this region, and her family was no longer a welcome member of this one. In addition, she was certain that he feared for his unborn child and sometimes worried that this affliction was a result of the “sins of the fathers”. He, like so many others, saw only one inevitable solution, but he at least had the grace not to speak it.
She took a fresh bowl of water and a clean towel, and with her good arm, she gently began to wash her daughter’s face. In days past, she sat at this bedside and admired the beauty and innocence of a child’s slumber. There was no longer softness to her expression, even in sleep, if that is what her current state could be called. The exhausted body remained tense, often in awkward positions, resembling more of a corpse than a sleeping child. At times, she would grind her teeth or growl as if defending herself in a nightmare. These moments actually brought a measure of comfort to the weary mother. Perhaps the child was still alive and fighting to retake control of her own body. She needed her mother to rise day after day and fight on her behalf. She could not fail her daughter!
As she rinsed the towel, the sounds of the water dripping back into the bowl complimented her voice as she began singing her daughter’s favorite song. Her imagination took them to their own promised land, where they splashed in cool waters, and played in lush, green grass. Of course, there were a multitude of friendly animals to share in the joy. She prayed she could project this beauty and tranquility into her daughter’s tormented mind.
She was catapulted from her fantasy by the sound of a door opening and her sister’s excited voice.
“Sister, he is here! We have to go to him! Hurry now!” The excited woman noticed the perplexed expression on her older sister’s face. “The Rabbi – THE RABBI! He has just entered town and is headed toward the house where the Jews meet. Your prayers have been answered!”
The two women looked down at the child. How could they get the girl to the Rabbi? Not even together could a one-armed woman and her very expectant sister transport the unyielding child. They were well aware that no one nearby would be willing to help.
“I will stay with her, Sister! You need to go. Now!”
“But…” she glanced at her sister’s girth, and then out the door.
“Do not worry! We both know she will not awaken today, and that man of mine is not likely to leave the inn any time soon. Today, that is a blessing for which we can both be grateful! I will be fine! Go!”
She needed no more convincing! She hurried across town, ignoring the pain. When she could see the Jews gathering, she began to yell as loudly as she could.
“Lord, Son of David! Please help me! My daughter needs your help!”
She thought perhaps she caught a glimpse of him through the crowd. Surely, he had heard her, but he did not acknowledge it. She tried to get closer, but several large men closed ranks, blocking her way.
“Lord! My daughter is demon–possessed!”
“Son of David! Have mercy on me!”
“My Lord… Please!”
She continued her pleas relentlessly. Still, he did not turn his face in her direction. Finally, she heard someone close to him say “Send her away! She keeps crying after us!” and his response sent her to her knees.
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
Could he not afford one ounce of compassion for her? Was there not a single grain left in the harvest field to provide for her daughter? She reminded herself that now was not the time for petty offense or self-pity. It was true she was not just a “gentile”, or a “Greek” as they might say if they were being gracious; she was a true “Canaanite.” There was a lot of bad history between these two nations. Her people were held widely responsible for the lack of “religiosity” in the whole region of Tyre and Sidon. She had no shame for her heritage, but she would renounce every drop of Canaanite blood in her veins if it would help her daughter. No one in the region needed this particular Jew more than she did. It would be wise for her to focus on things that she could control. She needed to appeal to their shared humanity. If this man really had been sent by God, perhaps it would be better to take her request to a higher power.
“God of Israel,” she pleaded, “Make him hear me. Make him see me. Make my cries reach his heart. Just one grain …”
“If I were a man, I would take a knife, and circumcise myself in front of everyone if it would help,” she bargained with the distant god. The realization that she had just spoken of such things to a god amused and energized her. She raised her eyes toward the heavens and shouted. “Such a mind I have, but it is true. I would do the same to my husband if he were here. I will do whatever it takes! I will exchange my life for hers. Do you hear me?”
A group of women who had ventured out to see the rabbi exchanged glances and rolled their eyes. She knew her mere presence evoked such a response, and she had learned to live with that fact. Usually, she kept a low profile, but today she would not be ignored. Today, dignity had no value to her. Her daughter needed her not only to be strong but also to be humble! Her cries had drawn the attention of a group of older boys, who began to jeer her. To make their point, they picked up stones and hurled them at her. Her attempts at protecting her injured arm were futile. She cried out as she fell backward, her arm catching the force of her weight.
“Look, it is the devil child’s mother!”
“Get out of here, dog. Go home to that pup of yours!”
“Throw it in the river! Do us all a favor!”
No one intervened. The stones were small, but those that found their mark would leave additional bruises. The words also hurt, even if she had heard them all before. She allowed herself no time to nurse the pain. If the God of Israel had heard her prayers, she needed to get to the Rabbi. She rose to her feet and followed the crowd, relentless in her pleas.
“Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
She could hear the boys mocking her, “Have mercy! Have mercy!”
Just then, the rabbi himself stepped through the human barriers. He stood before her, and she dropped to her knees in front of him.
“Lord, help me!” She bowed her face to the ground, and her tears fell on his feet.
He looked over at the boys who had been jeering her moments before, and then back to her. Her tormentors fell silent as she raised her eyes to meet his.
“First let the children eat all they want. It is not right to take the children’s bread, and toss it to the dogs.” His words were harsh, but his eyes were warm. The edges of his mouth seemed to turn up slightly. The boys laughed, but he ignored them, clearly waiting for a response from her. She could not back down now. This was her moment! She was a foreigner in his field, one “dog” seeking a crumb from the table. Just one crumb! The law of Israel demanded it!
Her eyes locked on his, and she found her voice.
“Yes, it is, Lord. Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” She prayed that she had read his expression correctly, that this was a challenge, and he wanted her to rise to the occasion. His face broke into a broad smile, and he shook his head slightly as he reached out for her hand and raised her to her feet.
“Woman, you have great faith.” He had traded his firm, distant tone for one of almost playful exuberance. He raised both her hands high into the air. “For such a reply, you may go. The demon has left your daughter.” He let out a shout of joy, released her hands, and let his gaze settle on her face. Now that she didn’t need to be strong, emotion overwhelmed her. He wiped away the tears from her cheeks. Leaning in close to her, he whispered words meant only for her. “No knife is needed when the heart is tender, only faith is required.” Her face reddened slightly as she grasped the implication of his words. But his smile only grew wider. He laughed heartily and placed both hands on her checks. His voice softened. “Blessed Mother, go home to your daughter.”
“Thank you, Lord. Thank you, and blessed be your mother also!” The only thing that could tear her away from him was her desperation to see her daughter. She had looked into the eyes of the Son of David! She had heard his voice, and she believed his word. He even knew her thoughts! She was oblivious to the crowd as she turned and headed home. Along the way, it occurred to her that he had raised both her arms into the air, and there was no pain! Even her arm was healed! He had not stopped with giving her a single crumb! She increased her speed as she covered the final distance.
Her sister met her in the doorway, and the joy on her face confirmed what she already knew to be true.
“Come look at her, Sister! She sleeps still, but just look at her face! Look at her body!”
There on the bed was her daughter, her eyes still closed, but a slight smile graced her lips. Her body was relaxed, and her face peaceful. The child she once knew had returned! She stood and wept. Her desire to sweep her baby into her arms surrendered to the power of a moment too sacred to interrupt. She could not disturb the first peaceful sleep the girl had experienced in a very long time. Instead, she sat on the bedside and caressed her daughter’s face and hair. She praised the God of Israel who heard her prayer and extended kindness to her.
The younger woman longed to share what she had observed while her sister was gone, but knew that this was not the moment for such stories. This was a time of awestruck wonder. Tomorrow would be a day for joyful celebration and testimony to the miracles of today. Tomorrow she would tell her in detail how the girl had suddenly sat upright in the bed, and let out a blood-curdling shriek. Her little body convulsed and went limp. The woman rushed to the bedside and watched in awe as the girl’s face relaxed. As if brushed away by an invisible hand and artistic flourish, the pained expression melted into a serene smile. There was no doubt, the rabbi had done this. He may have met his match in her sister today. She stood back and watched this fearless woman completely lost in gentleness, love, and gratitude. She also breathed a prayer of thankfulness to the God of Israel and for the rabbi who was surely sent by God himself.
She stood behind her sister, wrapping her arms around her, and resting her chin on the shoulder that had carried an unspeakable load for far too long. They shared the wonder of the moment in reverent silence. She looked forward to hearing all about the rabbi who restored hope to their family. Then a wonderful thought occurred to her. Maybe if she hurried, she would catch her own glimpse of their savior, for that was who he was. Perhaps she could hear the teaching for which he was becoming famous.
“You are a true warrior, sister! I love you always!” she whispered as she slipped through the doorway, leaving mother and daughter alone. Before she turned the corner, she heard singing. She could not be certain, but she seemed to hear the soft humming of a child blending with the voice of her mother.
“Blessed be the God of Israel, and blessed be his servant, the Son of David,” she shouted as she made her way across town.
(Scripture Reference: Matthew 15:21-28, Mark 7:24-30)
Featured Image by Pontus Wellgraf