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A Mishnaic Commentary on Matthew 9.23-24

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Matthew 9.23-24 reads, Καὶ ἐλθὼν ὁ  ᾿Ιησοῦς εἰς τὴν οἰκίαν τοῦ ἄρχοντος καὶ ἰδὼν τοὺς αὐλητὰς καὶ τὸν ὄχλον θορυβούμενον ἔλεγεν· ἀναχωρεῖτε, οὐ γὰρ ἀπέθανεν τὸ κοράσιον ἀλλὰ καθεύδει. καὶ κατεγέλων αὐτοῦ. The Mishnah offers some valuable insights with reference to who these mourners might have been, how they were mourning, and possibly even why their mourning turned to scornful laughter.

Kethuboth 4.4 is the most often cited Mishnah by commentators in reference to Matt 9.23: “Rabbi Judah says, ‘Even the poorest [man] in Israel must not furnish less than two flutes [i.e., flute players] and one woman wailer [at the funeral of his wife].” The context is about the responsibilities and privileges of a husband toward his wife. The previous sentence in this Mishnah concludes with, “… he is responsible… for her burial.” This is what Rabbi Judah apparently interprets as meaning that such a responsibility includes the hire of at least two flute players and one female wailer. However, neither this Mishnah nor any other of which I am aware speaks of explicit burial responsibilities that one has for his children (as would be the case in Matt 9.23-24). On the other hand, such responsibility does seem implicit here. Along this line it is interesting to note that Kethuboth 4.4 initially deals with the transference of authority from the father of a betrothed girl to her husband. Girls could become betrothed at age twelve (cf. Gittin 6.2 and Jastrow, 2.922, on נערה). In Mark 5.42 (a parallel account to Matt 9.23-24) the evangelist points out that the girl who died was twelve years old. Had she been married, this Mishnah would certainly have applied. As the situation was, however, there were at least two flute players (αὐλητάς—plural) and apparently plenty of wailers and weepers (cf. τὸν ὄχλον θορυβούμενον in Matt 9.23 with κλαίοντας καὶ ἀλαλάζοντας in Mark 5.38).

How were these people mourning? Moed Katan 3.8 is illuminating here:

They [i.e., the mourners] may not set down the bier [i.e., the platform on which the coffin is placed] in the street [during חול המועד, i.e., “the weekdays intervening between the first and the last days of Passover and of Succoth” (Jastrow, 2.745)] so as not to give lamentation; and of women never, out of respect. During the Intermediate Days women may lament, but they may not beat their hands. Rabbi Ishmael says, “The women nearest the bier may beat their hands.”

Moed Katan 3.9 adds to this some pertinent definitions: “What is lamentation [עינוי]? When all [the women] lament together. [What is] wailing [קינה]? When one [woman] speaks out and all [the other women] respond [or wail] after her.” There is a good possibility that Mark was attempting to describe these distinctions when he penned κλαίοντας καὶ ἀλαλάζοντας (5.38).

Kelim 16.7 may add a further note as to how the mourning was carried on. The Mishnah is describing items as either susceptive or unsusceptive to uncleanness. As it goes through the list, the “sistrum of the wailing woman” is mentioned. Jastrow merely defines this as a musical instrument (2.1443), but Blackman describes it as “a musical instrument of Egyptian origin consisting of a pear-shaped frame with four transverse metal rods, and jingled and rattled at funerals” (n. 14 on Kelim 16.7). It is possible that such was used at the little girl’s death.

If flute players, professional wailers, and lamenters were present at the death of the little girl, one might ask who hired them. Jairus the synagogue president was with Jesus when his daughter died. Although he would be responsible for hiring these people, he did not do so. In fact, his desire to see Jesus that he might heal the girl suggests that Jairus would not even be prepared to have hired the mourners via one of his servants. His position in the community suggests wealth (as president of the synagogue, he was an elected official). It seems, too, that the crowd of mourners was aware of Jairus’ wealth (they would be members of his congregation) and wanted to take advantage of it by hovering around his daughter, waiting for her to die, that they might get paid for their services. Such hypocritical mourning would certainly turn to sconrful laughter (κατεγέλων in Matt 9.24) at Jesus’ announcement that the little girl was only sleeping.

When Jairus and Jesus arrived at the ruler’s house, the Lord drove out the mourners, asking Jairus to trust in him concerning the girl. This was a crucial point for Jairus. By allowing Jesus to drive out the crowd, he would be denying payment to the mourners on the basis that the girl was not dead. But if Jesus could not raise her, the mourners could come back and receive their wages. It is possible that they might have charged a higher rate the second time because Jairus had identified with Jesus rather than with the crowd. Baba Metzia 6.1 suggests that if the mourners themselves did not fulfill their obligations, the one who hired them was not liable to pay. Although such is not the issue at hand, Blackman points out on this Mishnah that “when, if the cancelation comes from the employer, the workers can get no other employment, they are entitled to a day’s wages.”

The primary relation of the Mishnah to this passage is that the mourners were not genuine, but simply a milling crowd, ready for hire. They cared less about the girl than their own pocketbooks. And their professional hypocrisy becomes transparent when their less-than-sincere lament turns to laughter at the suggestion by our Lord that the girl was only sleeping.

Remarkably, we see how much Jairus risked when he sided with Jesus at the crucial juncture: Not only would he have to pay extra to these mourners if Jesus failed, but he would lose face before his congregation. His livelihood may well have been on the line, as well as the life of his precious daughter.