In Matthew 9:20-22, Mark 5:25-34, and Luke 8:43-48, there is the story about the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment. The woman had an issue of blood for twelve years, and she had spent a lot on physicians, to no avail. When she touched the hem of Jesus’ garment, she was healed.
In Land of Silence, Tessa Afshar provides a back story about this figure in the Gospels. In Afshar’s story, the woman is named Elianna, and she runs her father’s textile business. Her sister is Joanna, who is mentioned in Luke 8:3 as a wife of Herod’s steward Chuza and as one who financially supported Jesus’ ministry.
When a bee fatally stings Elianna’s brother in Elianna’s presence, that disrupts Elianna’s relationship with her father, who accuses her of negligence. Elianna’s father withdraws from life in his grief, so Elianna runs his textile business, which prospers under her direction. In the course of the story, Elianna develops an issue of blood, which isolates her from the Jewish community, due to the requirements of Leviticus 15:25-26. She spends a lot of money on physicians, who try techniques that do not work, yet charge her anyway. She hears about a prophet with the gift of healing, and while she is initially hesitant to learn about this prophet, she becomes curious about who he is and what he is about. Not only does she receive physical healing, but she also receives spiritual healing: from her wounded feelings due to her alienation from her father, and from her unforgiveness.
Afshar’s portrayal of the woman with an issue of blood is plausible. She may very well have been prosperous, since she had money to spend on physicians. Jesus calls her “daughter,” and Afshar interprets that in light of the absence of a father in Elianna’s life. (Jesus may have been calling her "daughter" because she was a daughter of Israel, but Afshar's proposal is intriguing.) The book captures the powerlessness that many Jews (and even some Romans) felt under the Roman empire, as challenging injustice or standing up for oneself against the Romans could have dire consequences. As Afshar does in other books that she has written, Afshar in the appendix discusses the historical plausibility of her narrative and the judgment calls that she as an author made. One issue that she discusses in the appendix is the influence of Levitical ritual laws in first century Palestine.
Readers of other works by Afshar will encounter familiar themes and features in this book. A wounded person is in need of healing. Religious discussions enter the picture. In this book, Pharisees disagree with each other about why people suffer. Elianna also shares the Jewish faith with a Roman friend, who talks about Roman religion. That discussion was not as good or as in-depth as the comparative religion discussion about Judaism, Greek religion, and Zoroastrianism in Afshar’s Harvest of Gold, but it still added an intellectual component to the story.
The book was plodding in some places, but intense in others. In terms of the characters, Elianna was endearing on account of her vulnerability. Joanna was a sweet person. Ethan genuinely loved Elianna, yet he could be rather controlling, and that was a turn-off. Viriato is a Roman slave whom Ethan saves from the mining pits, and he is a cheerful, accepting person. He reaches out to Elianna, in her time of isolation.
Readers familiar with the Bible will recognize other characters in this book: the Pharisee Gamaliel (Acts 5:34), and Lydia the seller of purple (Acts 16). Mary Madgalene tells her story to Elianna.
Overall, this is an enjoyable book.
I received a complementary review copy of this book from the publisher through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.