Before Christ called her daughter . . .
Before she stole healing by touching the hem of his garment . . .
Elianna is a young girl crushed by guilt. After her only brother is killed while in her care, Elianna tries to earn forgiveness by working for her father’s textile trade and caring for her family. When another tragedy places Elianna in sole charge of the business, her talent for design brings enormous success, but never the absolution she longs for. As her world unravels, she breaks off her betrothal to the only man she will ever love. Then illness strikes, isolating Elianna from everyone, stripping everything she has left.
No physician can cure her. No end is in sight. Until she hears whispers of a man whose mere touch can heal. After so many years of suffering and disappointment, is it possible that one man could redeem the wounds of body . . . and soul?
It was a while after getting this book that I got around to reading it, and as soon as I opened it I thought “Oh what have I done?”. Having recently railed about reading Christian Fiction, to open a book that was clearly going to be about Jews growing up during the time of Christ, etc., I was worried about what I was going to confront if I took it further. I then did a small amount of digging on the tinterwebs, which lead me to suspect that I had chosen this book as a possible source of stories around women in the Bible, showing that women can be strong, even if they have bit parts etc……so I pushed on.
Anyway, I moved forward and found this was centered on a 16-year-old girl, with her family in the linen weaving business. Elianna is out babysitting her younger brother Joseph as the rest of the family are doing business. Unfortunately, it seems that Joeseph is allergic to bees, and it is too late that Elianna realises he’s been stung….Her father never really forgives her for the death of his only son, but in withdrawing into grief, passes control of the business to the very person that he seems to blame.
Elianna is already betrothed to Ethan and supposed to marry at 18, but with the family still in mourning, it is postponed. Joanna, who is the younger sister by a number of years, reaches 16 but is not betrothed, and turns 18 with no possible wedding in sight. Ethan’s family help out, and with the skill of the dyers, weavers, and seamstresses, the business grows.
Since the Romans are the occupying force in the area, there are plenty of Romans about, some are nice (and become Elianna’s friends and patrons), some less so. It is when the soldier Calvus, who has a mercurial temper but a smooth tongue, takes a shine to Elianna, that trouble is heaped on trouble. Ethan catches Calvus kissing Eliana, and to prevent Ethan from making a mistake he would later regret (hitting a Roman, which could get him jailed – or worse), Elianna covers for the Roman. A week later, Ethan “divorces” Elianna (breaks off the betrothal), and within months is married to someone else.
Joanna is married off to Chuza, the son on Herod’s steward, who she met at a party thrown by one of Elianna’s Roman customers. At the same party, Elianna’s father is injured by the horse of Calvus, and for the next few years lies in a vegetative state. Elianna runs the business, with everyone pretending that her father is in a much better state than he really is, but when he dies, Elianna knows it is impossible as a woman to continue run the business without the protection of a man, so she has to sell everything, including the house she grew up in. Within months her mother is dead, so she has essentially lost everyone close to her.
Elianna moves close to Joanna, who is now married and therefore expected to produce offspring. Elianna starts her “flux” around the same time as Joanna becomes pregnant, and Joanna’s subsequent 3 miscarriages are blamed on Elianna and her uncleanliness, no matter the precautions both women put in place – to the point that Elianna can’t even write her sister a letter for several years, as the paper will be classed as “unclean”.
(not part of this book, but in looking up references, here is the related verse from Leviticus 15:
“If a woman has a flow of blood for many days that is unrelated to her menstrual period, or if the blood continues beyond the normal period, she is ceremonially unclean. As during her menstrual period, the woman will be unclean as long as the discharge continues.)
It’s been a long time since Elianna talked to her Jewish God, and the practices that have been put in place regarding the purification of people etc, to her, offer little hope and comfort when presented with her current situation. An example of this is when it is necessary for her to get water from the well: The Jewish lady treats her like unclean muck, preventing her from getting the much-needed water. A gentile woman (who Elianna had been brought up to think of as inferior), not only got her water from the well but didn’t wait for thanks or payment, acting simply one human to another.
12 years on from when her flux started and Elianna is still bleeding, both blood and money. Joanna has seen this new prophet walking around Judea, and whilst Elianna is suspicious, she spots that a weight has been lifted off her sister, and a peace has descended in it’s place. Joanna announces she is pregnant again, and that she believes it will go to term.
Elianna starts following this prophet from a distance, still believing what she has been taught and that she is ritually unclean, so does her best to avoid physical contact with other Jews. One day, though, as Jesus is going to the house of a young girl, Elianna reaches breaking point, and (literally on her hands and knees) touches the hem of Jesus’s cloak in the hope it’ll help.
One version of the text (Matthew 9) goes as follows:
18While he was saying these things to them, behold, a ruler came in and knelt before him, saying, “My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” 19And Jesus rose and followed him, with his disciples.20And behold, a woman who had suffered from a discharge of blood for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment, 21for she said to herself, “If I only touch his garment, I will be made well.” 22Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well.
Not only does she seemed to be cured, but some of the words he has said previously (namely: Love thine enemy) have struck a chord with her, and Elianna moves forward in releasing much of the (self-)hatred she has contained over the previous decades. She then receives the peace she saw in Joanna.
Finally, Ethan (with his daughter from the interim marriage) and Elianna reunite, and the Roman Calvus is vanquished, being unable to have any hold over any of them.
I didn’t come out of this feeling as if I’d been hit over the head with a gold bar wrapped in lemon [with the corresponding feeling that I’m not a good Christian if I don’t adore this book] which is instantly a tick in my book. This is the reason I generally hate Christian Fiction specifically (and religious fiction as a whole): The overall feeling that you are NOT GOOD ENOUGH if this doesn’t work for you.
It was a decent attempt to recognise the upheaval of a very specific time in history, the restrictions (political and religious) put upon women and that actually, if things didn’t work for enough people, then those people could change things…. .
About this author
Tessa Afshar was born in a nominally Muslim family in Iran and lived there for the first fourteen years of her life. She survived English boarding school for girls before moving to the United States permanently. Her conversion to Christianity in her mid-twenties changed the course of her life forever. Tessa holds an MDIV from Yale University where she served as co-Chair of the Evangelical Fellowship at the Divinity School. She has spent the last seventeen years in full-time Christian work in New England and the last fourteen years on the ministry staff of one of the oldest churches in America.