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Magdala By the Sea

By Historic Novelist, GK Johnson

A hiking trip through Israel was one of the inspirations for my debut novel, The Zealots, appearing on shelves in January of 2021.

I first saw this incredible painting when my husband and I visited the ancient town of Magdala located on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. The painting, named ‘The Encounter’, by Daniel Cariola, takes up an entire wall in the Duc in Altum spiritual center.

As I sat on the rough-hewn stone bench across from the larger-than-life depiction of a woman’s hand snaked through a maze of dusty, sandaled feet, (view link to The Encounter) I was transported to a time over two thousand years ago.

***

When the bleeding first began she didn’t worry. Like all women, her menses arrived regularly. As required by law she gathered up her mat, some clothes, water, and food and bade farewell to her husband and children.

Wedding Scene from The Zealots by G.K. Johnson

She walked outside the gates of Capernaum and joined the other women gathered in tents on the outskirts of the city. They shared this in common: they were all considered unclean so long as their menses continued. Once the bleeding stopped they would complete the ritual purification rites and rejoin their families in town. The women were far from bemoaning their temporary exile, however. In fact, they thanked Adonai for the respite from their daily responsibilities, enjoying the time of community, and the rest with the other women.

She anticipated returning to town after seven days, the normal duration of her cycle, the required time by law. When the bleeding did not cease after seven days she refused to worry. A woman’s body was an unpredictable thing. She would enjoy the extra day of rest and return home soon. After ten days she began to worry. Her young daughter brought more food and asked when she would return home. She tried to reassure her, “soon.” Surely the bleeding would stop tomorrow.

Another week passed and then another.

It became a singular torture to see the other women come and go back to their husbands, their children, their bodies dependable and self-healing. Her body, broken.

She cried out to Adonai to stop the flow of blood. Her husband and sons sent messages to her asking. They often stood at a distance from the tents, their conversation disjointed and awkward. She tried not to cry when her daughter visited. Was this curse to pass down to the little one? Each time her daughter visited, she seemed a little older for carrying the duties belonging to her mother at home, a little more resigned to the fact that her mother now lived outside the gates. Magdala not only experienced the physical cramping, but also the cramp of guilt, resignation, loss, humiliation.

Many nights the woman cried herself to sleep, craving her husband’s arms around her, longing to touch her sons’ faces.

Months passed, then years.

The woman’s daughter soon joined the women who came to the tent every few weeks, but empty years had untangled their ties as mother and daughter. The girl seemed guarded and withdrawn. Other women treated her like a leper. They worried the issue was a contagion. Shamed and confused, Magdala grieved her years. The bleeding was a thief! Every morning and evening she removed and replaced the bloody cloths that evidenced her required isolation.

Watching her numbness to the physical pain and a growing bitterness to the emotional pain that tore at his wife’s heart, her husband had commissioned many doctors to try to find a cure over the years. None had been successful.

Where was Adonai?

What had she done that she was being punished–as people insinuated?

One day a friend arrived in the tent bearing news of a traveling rabbi. The man spoke like no other teacher and healed the sick and lame. The woman begged those who came to the tent for news of the great rabbi. She sat enraptured, listening to the accounts. At night she dreamed that the rabbi came to the tent and healed her, but when she awoke she knew it was impossible. Those in the tent were unclean. No man would ever enter the tent.

It had been twelve years since the bleeding began.

Magdala had missed the marriages of her children.

She hadn’t been home to share in daily intimate conversations with her husband, or touch the softened wrinkles that time had worn in his face. She was in the tent when her daughter gave birth to her first child, and had listened, tears streaming down her face, as her daughters-in-law described her grandchildren. She had missed so much.

In that moment she wished the bleeding would consume her.

When she heard that the rabbi was in Capernaum that day, the woman made a decision.

It was unlawful for her, an unclean woman, to leave the tent. If she were discovered she would be publicly humiliated, punished, forced outside the city, and her actions would bring dishonor on her family. But she was desperate. Hadn’t all of these things already happened to her and to them? From what she had been told, large crowds followed the rabbi everywhere he went. If she could simply touch the hem of his garment, perhaps then her prayers would be noticed as the physical reality they were.

She crept from the tent and covered her head with her cloak. She kept her face to the ground and joined those entering the city, glancing up furtively every so often. Maybe she would be seen as a foreigner. No-one had seen her up close in years. She hurried to the hope of a savior.

It wasn’t difficult to find the rabbi as the streams of people surrounding her carried her to where he stood, surrounded by his disciples. She listened. He spoke with authority just as they said. But how was she to get close enough to touch him?

Years of pain and desperation had worn away her pride. She began pressing through the crowd, one hand grasping her shawl over her face, so that only her eyes were visible. If anyone discovered who she was she would be removed from the crowd, this she knew.

Perfumed people stood with sweaty. Thickly, their robes overwhelmed her. They complained and elbowed her as she pressed past them, hunched over against the pain. Soon she stood just the space of another person from the rabbi, but here the people jostled one another, each wanting to be as close to the man as possible.

She sank to her knees and crawled around the leather-thonged feet. A curse rang out above her. She was kicked and stepped on, but still, she reached forward, her eyes fixed on the white linen tunic only a couple of steps from her. Finally, she was close enough. She stretched desperately to touch the hem of his tunic.

A jolt of pain wrenched through her then left entirely.

She sank back on her heels and was knocked over by someone. She didn’t care about that. Delighted in the complete absence of cramps, she also realized that the helpless river was stopped. She was healed. She could feel it.

Tentatively she stood to her feet. Drops of sweat and dust rolled down her forehead and neck.

Her back hunched, a body instinctively trained from years of pain. Yet now she felt nothing, no spasms or pangs. She drew her shoulders back, forcing herself to stand tall. Still no pain. A sigh of relief slipped from behind lips still covered by her cloak. She had forgotten how it felt to be well.

As the wonder enveloped Magdala, the Rabbi in white tunic turned and looked straight at her.

“Who touched me?” He questioned, looking into her eyes.

One of his disciples gestured to the masses surrounding them, “Master, this whole crowd is pressing up against you.”

“Someone deliberately touched me, for I felt healing power go out of me.” The Rabbi replied. His eyes continued to hold hers, and the woman began to tremble. She fell to her knees. Those surrounding her drew back, hundreds of eyes now looking at her and the Rabbi. Voices quieted.

“I…I’m sorry, Rabbi.” The woman pulled back the shawl covering her head and face and heard some around her voice their recognition.

“I have been bleeding…for years now. None were able to heal me. I have been separated from my family…” Salty tears ran down her cheeks; she could taste them. She glanced up and saw her husband’s astounded face in the crowd.

“I heard about you…about the miracles you do. I had to see if you could heal me. I touched your garment and immediately I felt the bleeding stop.”

Tears flowed down her husband’s face. The woman wanted to stand and throw herself into his arms, but she restrained herself. What was the Rabbi going to do now that he had singled her out of the healthy crowd?

She hadn’t sent him messages about healing her before touching his robe. She, an unclean woman, had touched a holy man against the law, and had she made him unclean? Would he withdraw the healing and demand punishment? Would he make her pay for her disobedience to the law?

Trembling, she waited. She looked up into the Rabbi’s face.

Rather than condemnation, she saw his kindness.

“Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace.”

The crowds around her surged back to life, surrounding her. She shakily made her stance and wiped the hair from her eyes. Though people studied her, curiously, no one laid hands on her. She was free to go.

She flinched when a hand landed firmly on her shoulder and turned. Her husband stood before her. Without waiting a moment longer she fell into his arms. The tears they shared were tears of wonder, victory in love, and peace.

The town recognized that this rabbi had singled her out and pronounced her healed. Yet surely he was more than an ordinary rabbi making pronouncements.

“Where is he? Please thank him!” She turned to locate the Rabbi again among the people, but he was already blocked from her view. Still no pain.

Ref: Luke 8:43-48 NLT

G.K. Johnson is the debut author of The Zealots, a story of Barabbas and Peter, a story for boys and men. Johnson is a regular contributor to the Books For Bonding Hearts blog.

 

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The Zealots, coming soon. For men and boys. Illustration and cover design by James Dawson.

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What’s a Whitewashed Tomb?

By Historic Novelist, GK Johnson

There’s a tree outside my office window that is currently blooming, tufts of life springing from the branches, evidence of spring approaching. Last summer a friend of ours, a landscaper, was at our house and pointed to this same tree.
“That tree’s dying,” he said matter-of-factly.

I was so bummed out! I love trees, especially living in the climate in which we do, where their shade shields us from the hot summer sun. Looking at the tree right now it seems healthy, but on a deeper level, it’s dying from the inside out. It took a warning from our friend, a professional, to know what’s coming.

It is recorded in Matthew 23, that Jesus talks about behavior that looks great from the outside but is filthy inside.

STRONG LANGUAGE

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look immaculate on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything decaying and unclean. In the same way, on the outside, you appear to people as good and helpful but on the inside, you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.

Pretty strong language! The Pharisees were well-respected by the Jewish people and were considered to be examples of righteousness. Jesus himself was a Pharisee, but he was far different from them. While most Pharisees enforced and created additional laws for the people to follow, Jesus demonstrated grace toward the people and removed the crushing burden of the law from their backs. The people loved him for this, while the other Pharisees hated him for shining a light on their hypocrisy. So it’s easy to see why the verses above would anger them even more.

If you’re like me, you may wonder at the significance of whitewashed tombs.

We’ve recently experienced mandatory times of quarantine because of a deadly virus, so we understand what it would mean for one person to have to sequester himself or herself away from the normal goings-on around town and home. No fun! What a shame to miss out, right? And, what a bigger shame to know that because you were involved with friends and family after being contaminated, you may be the cause of their illness or death, right?

Arena-death-scene Sketch by James Dawson

Because it is natural that people do not want to be left out of parties and normal gatherings, the law is required to step in and make demands on individual behaviors.

According to Jewish law, any person who came in contact with a dead body, whether it be actually touching the deceased person or simply the grave with a dead body sealed inside, this brush with death and contagion made the person involved “unclean” for a time and required him or her to undergo a period of separation and cleansing for seven days. This was the law commanded by God thousands of years prior for the Hebrew’s protection from disease.

In order to mitigate this risk, the Pharisees had come up with a plan.

Prior to Jewish festivals that drew thousands of Jews to Jerusalem, the Pharisees commissioned the whitewashing of all tombs. This way no one would accidentally touch a tomb and miss out on the festival due to the cleansing period of seven days. Jesus was saying that the Pharisees looked great on the outside, but inside they were unclean and those who followed them were touching death without even knowing it.

Yeshua heals the Leper in GK Johnson’s The Zealots,
by James Dawson, artist

Jesus’ intense words challenge me to look at the condition of my heart. Jesus has the power of life over death. He arose from His own tomb and offers this same life-transforming power to our own grave actions and attitudes. No-one else has that power, not even doctors, researchers, or nurses. Their skills too, rely on the Creator-Savior for a cure.

How do my outer actions compare to my inner motives?

I am helpless without the mercy and power of Jesus to forgive me for the times I focus my attention on looking good on the outside, rather than bringing my broken and sinful heart into His presence in honesty so that He can heal me.

GK Johnson’s debut historic novel featuring the lives of Barabbas and Simon the Zealot is scheduled to appear on or about January 1, 2021. Watch for it.

The Zealots cover sketch by James Dawson

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Unclean?

By G.K. Johnson

Unclean. The opposite of being clean. In our current times, people are doing everything they can to avoid this descriptor. We wash our hands. When we leave our homes, we wear gloves and masks and try to keep at least six feet between ourselves and others.

There are those for whom the word is an unavoidable description of their current condition. They are sequestered in their homes or other isolated places to wait out the virus, their bodies fighting their invisible attackers as best they can. The sickness has spread through their body, out of their control…they are unclean.

Mankind is no stranger to disease and sickness.

Thousands of years ago those with life-altering illnesses and disease had even less hope for healing. Medical knowledge was extremely limited in comparison to what it is now. Those who found themselves with incurable diseases were often sequestered in isolated places with others suffering the same fate. One of these terrible diseases was leprosy. Not only were there terrible physical ramifications from the disease, but it was also believed that those infected with leprosy earned the condition through their sin.

Imagine the heaviness of this diagnosis: the shame, fear, and loneliness that the inflicted person would feel.

“Unclean!”

“Get away!”

“Don’t infect us, scum!”

Shim’on pushed into the crowd trying to see the subject of the disruption.

People backed up and parted to reveal a man swathed head to toe in dirty white linens. The only uncovered parts of his body were his fingertips and a gap in the head covering where his eyes peered out.

Looking at his hands, Shim’on flinched. Instead of healthy pink skin, he saw white deformed stubs. The man had leprosy. Instinctively, Shim’on, Andreas, and the other two disciples stepped back.

Instead of moving away from the leper, however, Shim’on watched the rabbi walk toward him! What was the man doing? Leprosy was extremely contagious. Lepers were not permitted in populated towns; but only in leper colonies outside the village.

The disease attacked the nerve functioning of those it infected and caused sores to develop all over the body. If ever a leper were to come in proximity to a ‘clean’ person, one not tainted by the disease, he was required to shout “unclean!” to warn others of his condition. The life of a leper was lonely and filled with shame.

This rabbi was taking a gamble by approaching the leper, and Shim’on couldn’t decide if he were completely crazy or extremely brave.

Jesus continued walking toward the man until he stood directly in front of him, only a foot or so away. The crowd, which had grown increasingly large, quieted, holding their breath to see what the rabbi was going to do.

Suddenly Jesus reached out his hand and set it on the man’s shoulder. Gasps and whispers crossed over the crowd.

“Be healed,” Jesus spoke quietly, looking into the man’s eyes.

The man began to cry, tears wetting the dirty cloths wrapped around his face. He reached up a hand, and it was then that Shim’on saw that what had been decaying tissue was now healthy skin. The man continued staring at his fingers and then began unwrapping the cloth, revealing a hand, then an arm. The flesh was perfectly healthy; the leprosy completely gone!

Murmurs spread, growing in volume, through the crowd. Everyone was amazed.

“Who is this man?”

“He healed the leper with a word!”

Jesus spoke to the man quietly.

Tears poured down the man’s face and he knelt before Jesus. “Thank you, Rabbi!”

He stood in amazement and Jesus clapped him on the shoulder, grinning. The man laughed in gulps of wonder and then, he departed.*

The Zealots, author G.K. Johnson. publishing September 2020, by Capture Books.

Our Lord touches even those whom the authorities in this world say are untouchable, unclean.

Our God enters into the dirtiest, most shame-filled places of our lives and speaks life!

And it brings Him joy to do it.

The book of Mark, chapter 2, records a dinner where Jesus attends to a tax collector’s needs at the tax collector’s home. The Hebrews despised tax collectors.

These tax collectors were Hebrews who had turned on their people and accepted Roman jobs because of the financial benefits. They extorted their own people and helped to support the Roman occupation at the same time. So when Jesus invites a tax collector to follow him, imagine the outrage many of the Hebrews would feel. Can’t Jesus identify the scum in our community? Is Jesus intentionally circumventing our social bias and the rules we use to keep this kind of traitor down? The disciple, Mark, reflects that some religious Pharisees grumbled to the disciples, “Why does he eat with such scum?”

Jesus replies, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.”

Isn’t this beautiful? It’s the very core of the gospel. I am unclean. You are unclean. We are all physically, socially, and spiritually sick with sin. And it’s only when we can acknowledge that truth to Jesus, the Great Physician, in a seed of faith for His help, that He can administer His miracles of life and spiritual birth. Sometimes it’s physical. Other times it’s a healing of our hearts.

Let’s be careful and wash our hands and follow other medical wisdom to not spread sickness. Yes, let’s also be mindful of the unclean around us…the obviously sick and those who may not show physical symptoms.

But, let’s also ask, How can we be the hands and feet of Jesus? Perhaps it’s letting His word soak into our own hearts while resting so that we have some good news to spread in a fresh way. Perhaps, it is sending a card or letter, singing hope to our neighbors from our backyard, offering to help with shopping or giving out medical gloves for commercial transactions, or maybe simply making a phone call.

Most of all, remember, dear unclean one…Jesus came to help you.

References: Matthew 8 (New Living Translation of the Bible)

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