Posted by: mattcolvin | June 2, 2018

Akkadian light on “Grasping the Hem”


Above: alabaster panel from the palace of Tiglath-Pileser III.

We are told by Matthew (14:36) and Mark (6:56) that at Gennesaret,

“They besought him that they might only touch the hem (τὸ κρασπέδον) of his garment; and as many as touched (it) were healed.”

The gesture is also seen  in the episode of the woman with the bleeding whose healing is bookended by the story of Jairus’ daughter (Mt. 9:20, Mk. 5:27-28, Lk. 8:43-44). I have noted before that

“she touches his outer garment – not even him himself, but clothing in contact with him! It is a telling reversal: normally, if the woman with a bleeding touched a garment, and then Jesus touched the garment, he would become unclean with a second-order uncleanness. Instead, Jesus’ own garment is able to make her clean.”

But this does not adequately account for all the information given in the gospels. All three synoptists are careful to note that the woman touches, not just his garment, but more specifically the hem of his garment. Why this detail?

Scholars give elaborate answers revolving around the fringes (tsitsit) on Jewish garments. But here, the Jewish background proves ultimately unfruitful. For instance, one author remarks that

Why the woman decided to touch this specific part of Jesus’ garments is unknown. Was it simply because it was easily accessible to her touch, being low on his robe, or was it because she possibly knew that there is power in remembrance, power in the commandments, and power in obeying them. Perhaps she thought that of all places to touch on his clothing, these tassels, with their priestly blue threads, would be the closest thing to touching heaven.

It seems best to admit that tsitsit have nothing much to do with the woman’s gesture. Instead, it is a gesture with a meaning found in other ancient Near Eastern literature, including the Old Testament:

“Thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘In those days ten men from every language of the nations shall grasp (ḫazaq) the hem (kanaph) of a Jewish man, saying, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.”’” (Zech. 8:23)

The gesture is evidently similar. But what does either of them mean? Is it an act of supplication? Of submission? Or what? In an article for a festschrift for Nahum Sarna, Shalom Paul gives parallels from Akkadian and Ugaritic literature that shed some light on this gesture:

[asḫur]ki aš’ēki sissiktaki aṣbat kīma sissikti ilija u ištarija – “I [turned to] you and sought you. I grasped your hem (i.e. was loyal to you) as if it were the hem of my own god and goddess.”

sissikti ilūtišu rabīti aṣbat ašte’â ašrātešu – “(When Marduk entrusted the rule of Assyria to me), I grasped the hem of his divine majesty (i.e. pledged allegiance). I sought his shrine.”

sissikti Sin šar ilāni aṣbatma – “I grasped the hem of Sin, king of the gods (night and day).”

aššum sissikti Marduk bēlija ṣabtākuma Marduk bēlī jâti irammannima – “Because I grasped the hem of Marduk, Marduk, my lord, loves me.”

S. Paul adds that the meaning of the gesture can be further confirmed from the parallel Akkadian expressions qannam ṣabātu, “to grasp the hem” and qaran ṣubāti ṣabātu,  “to grasp the hem of a garment”:

ištu ūmim ša qaran ṣubātija iṣbatu matima ina mātišu kaspam…mimma ul alqut – “Ever since he grasped the hem of my garment [i.e. gave me his allegiance], I have never exacted any silver … from his country.”
ana qabê mātija qaran ṣubāt bēlija aṣbat bēlī qātī la inappas – “At the request of my land, I grasped the hem of my lord’s garment; may my lord not reject me.”

šumma qaran ṣubāt [royal name] uwaššaruma qaran ṣubāt šarrim šanîm iṣabbatu ina ālāni u eperī it[taṣṣ]i – “If he lets go of the hem of Abban’s garment and takes hold of the hem of another king’s (i.e. exchanges his allegiance), he for[feits] his cities and territories.”

ṣabtākuma kî tīri ina qannīka – “I am attached to your hem like a courtier” (i.e. loyal as a dog)

Finally, Paul adduces an Old Aramaic inscription with a similar expression, in which the loyalty of Panammuwa II to the Assyrian king Tilgath-Pileser III:

פי אדון בכנף מרוה מלך אשׁור רב – “He grasped the hem of his lord, the great  king of Assyria.”

Thus we see that in both Aramaic and Akkadian, sister languages of Biblical Hebrew, the act of grasping the hem of the garment of a deity or king is a way of expressing one’s submission and loyalty to that person’s authority.

I submit that this clarifies several things about the woman with the bleeding in the synoptic gospels. It explains why the hem (kraspedon) is mentioned specifically, even though contact with any part of Jesus’ garment might otherwise have sufficed for a “contact” for healing power to flow from him to the woman. Very likely many in the crowd were doing the same thing.

It also explains why Jesus replies to the woman, “Daughter,your faith has made you well.Go in peace, and be healed of your affliction.” The question is sometimes asked, “Does this woman show the requisite sort of faith? Is she not merely trying to filch some power in order to be healed?The answer is that her gesture of touching the hem of his garment is itself a pledge of loyalty, an acknowledgment of Jesus as messiah.

(Akkadian and Aramaic quotations from S. Paul, “Gleanings from the Biblical and Talmudic Lexica in Light of Akkadian” in M. Brettler and M. Fishbane, ed. JSOT Supplement 154, Minḥah le Naḥum: Biblical and Other Studies Presented to Nahum M. Sarna in Honour of His 70th Birthday. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993.)

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Responses

  1. This is very interesting. Thanks for posting! A friend and I were discussing this yesterday and he mentioned another possible implication of this: 1 Samuel 24 where David cuts off the “edge of Saul’s robe”. I always wondered why it bothered his conscience so much.. but maybe it’s the same symbolism (though inverted) going on here? Thoughts?

    • Yes, I think you are right about that. It would be interesting to see if there are direct parallels in Akkadian to confirm.

      Prior to reading this article, I had always just related that episode to the very prominent theme of robes in 1 Samuel.

  2. Thanks very much for this post. I am always delighted to find out about insight from the historical/cultural environment of the Biblical writers that explains and enlightens their writings. I find that Kenneth E Bailey’s book: Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes : Cultural Studies in the Gospels (SPCK, 2008) does this for much in the gospels.

  3. Good stuff. But I think the tassels are still relevant. They were on the corners (or “wings”) of the garment. Jesus did have healing in his wings — for those who showed Him allegiance, of course.


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