A Story of a Mother-in-law, Stopping the Sun, and Rebuilding the Temple Wall

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by Neil Godfrey

I don’t know. If you thought Maurice Mergui’s ideas set out in my previous posts were over the top then you are going to totally freak out over this one. It comes from his book Un Étranger Sur Le Toit: Les Sources Misdrashiques Des Evangiles.

I was looking for a new interpretation of that little healing episode where Jesus goes to Peter’s house to heal his wife’s mother who has a fever. In Mark and Matthew Jesus touches her hand and the fever leaves her; she then gets up and serves everybody. (A woman’s work, etc …) In Luke we read that Jesus rebuked the fever before it left her.

Now I’ve always had a problem with this passage as it’s told in the Gospel of Mark. In just about every other healing event there is a clear symbolic factor at work. Symbolic names and actions abound. In that context there seems to be no point to the story of healing Peter’s mother-in-law. No name, no evident symbolism, no further detail or background appears in the narrative. It appears to lack the sorts of points we find in other healings.

So I had to find out if Maurice Mergui’s midrashic interpretations had anything to offer. And oh yes, his discussion goes way, way beyond anything I had expected. But that leaves me a bit wary. Has he gone way too far and in a perverse sort of way argued his point out of the realm of plausibility? I really don’t know. Which is where I came in.

So here goes.

The usual caveats apply: I was never a top-grade student in my French classes; I have not been able to track down all of his sources, in particular, an English translation of Exodus Rabbah 50; I have not read his complete chapter, let alone the entire book, so may well be missing some key details that would shift some of my understanding; and I am not even going to cover every detail within the section I have attempted to grasp (because some points still elude me); and I sometimes have suspicions that the Kindle version of the book fails to capture correctly the transliterations of the Hebrew that I would expect to see in the original. Anyone with a better grasp of French is very welcome to add to /correct whatever follows.

Here is the passage being addressed:

Matthew 8 (Mergui sees major significance in Matthew’s placing this healing immediately after the healing of the centurion’s son. I have not explored his discussion on that link, so forgive me for missing something he considers important here — at least for now.) . . .

14 When Jesus came into Peter’s house, he saw Peter’s mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. 15 He touched her hand and the fever left her, and she got up and began to wait on him.

16 When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick

Mark 1

29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew. 30 Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they immediately told Jesus about her. 31 So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them.

32 That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed.

Luke 4

38 Jesus left the synagogue and went to the home of Simon. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever, and they asked Jesus to help her. 39 So he bent over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her. She got up at once and began to wait on them.

40 At sunset, the people brought to Jesus all who had various kinds of sickness, and laying his hands on each one, he healed them. 

Mergui begins by pointing out that our little story is all very simple, straightforward, and poses no mysteries, etc. (Except that that’s what I think is so out of character for it for several reasons.) But let’s imagine a Hebrew original, Mergui proposes, and see what happens.

Key words in Hebrew all look and sound alike. Recall those posts on Charbonnel’s introductory chapters to her book on Jesus being a “midrashic” creation and especially her discussion of the importance of the sounds of Hebrew roots, usually three consonants, and the word-games that could be played with them. (Please allow me to use “midrashic” — in inverted commas — and set aside for now the questions of definition. Some prefer to add the term haggidah to it in this context but that is getting too much of a mouthful/keyboard exercise.)

So here are the key words addressed by Mergui:

mother in law: Hamot = חמות

fever: Hama (also means “sun”; though another word, shemesh, also means “sun”; and cf. Homa = “wall”): = חמה

rebuke: Heima = חמה

gets up/rises: …amod (also means “stand still”) = עמד

Okay. Now for the next bit. Some OT passages where some of those words are key:

Joshua 10

12 Then Joshua spoke to the Lord in the day when the Lord delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel:

Sun, stand still over Gibeon;
And Moon, in the Valley of Aijalon.”
13 So the sun stood still,
And the moon stopped,
Till the people had revenge
Upon their enemies.

Malachi 4

But to you who fear My name
The Sun of Righteousness shall arise
With healing in His wings;

There are other passages, too. But we start with those.

What Mergui appears to be proposing is that the Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law was inspired by the “revelation” of sounds of the words suggesting that

  • the messiah, represented by the sun in the Malachi passage, would heal at a time when the sun is risen (notice that the healing miracle of Jesus is set prior to sunset; notice also that “wings” can mean the fringe of a garment and that we know of another story where a woman was healed by touching the fringe of Jesus’ garment . . . but we wander)
  • Joshua, = Jesus, commanded the sun (and note that a synonym forms a word-play with mother-in-law)
  • to “stand still” (a word that can also mean “rise up”)
  • and the healed mother-in-law set to serving them all; the word for serve, in the Hebrew, apparently is similar to the other word for “sun”, shemesh, and besides, the sun, symbolic of the messiah in Malachi, and in other passages, serves.

But what about the word fever and its sound-alike meaning wall? And not forgetting the word-play that equates the same with mother-in-law.

That brings us to that other famous miracle of Joshua, the way he got the walls of Jericho to come tumbling down. Now in the Bible we need to keep in mind that walls can be sick. Recall the laws on leprosy — “leprosy” can infect a wall (if you know your bible, since I won’t look it up just now.) Further, we read in Ezekiel 13:15 that it is quite reasonable to be angry at a wall. At this point Mergui turns to later rabbinical midrash but I am not clear on the details, not being able to find reasonably quickly an English translation of Exodus Rabbah 50. The interpretation has something to do with the need to return a cloak taken as surety for a loan to its poor owner by sunset. The rabbinic view is that this passage suggests the messiah will come “by/before sunset”. A garment is also a metonymy for the Temple: note the High Priest’s special garment. A rabbinic discussion raises the idea that the Temple walls were destroyed because of the sin of people not returning the garments held as pledges to their poor owners by sunset. So let’s come back to the wall. The rabbis, as I understand Mergui through a glass darkly, argue that repentance will lead God to restore/rebuild/get (back) up the wall that he had once rebuked. Joshua’s miracle reversed, unless you are overly picky about which walls are in question.

The punishment of the exile, it appears, will end with repentance and then the wall will be rebuilt, or “get up” again, by the command of the messiah, presumably.

So you can see why I am frustrated not having a perfectly clear understanding of Mergui’s discussion and not having access to the sources he is addressing. There is much that looks fascinating, perhaps too much so, but certainly enough to make one want to be clear about what is being argued and all its details. And to see what controls there are so we can remove questions over whether one might be able to find any interpretation we want behind a gospel passage.

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14 thoughts on “A Story of a Mother-in-law, Stopping the Sun, and Rebuilding the Temple Wall”

  1. Did the writer expect his readers to appreciate this wordplay? If they were Greek-speakers, only those who were also educated in Scripture (in Hebrew) would appreciate it. It seems unlikely to me that the gospels were subjected to this level of scrutiny at this time, especially among Greek speakers. They were just a few among many texts of the Jesus movement and were not seen as divine texts. We have to see the texts as their contemporaries saw them, not as precious artifacts encrusted with millennia of attention that demanded the same level of scrutiny in their own time.

    But possibly someone had written the anecdote in Hebrew, with midrashic meanings, for some sectarian purpose, and it was preserved and transferred into Greek. Unlikely but possible.

    It seems to me more likely that the scene was inserted in one gospel to legitimize married apostles (in contrast to Marcionite celibacy), then subsequently copied to the other synoptic gospels.

    1. “the scene was inserted in one gospel to legitimize married apostles (in contrast to Marcionite celibacy)”

      I agree with that. Makes sense. More so, since it shows the advantage of having an extended family around to do the dirty work.

      “and she got up and began to wait on him…”

      Only hesitations…

      Should be based on an oral story, since it’s in all three Gospels.

      And why “mother-in-law”? As oppose to wife. I thought that tradition had the wife living with the husband’s family, not the other way around. If the mother-in-law was living with her daughter’s husband, you can assume her husband is dead. So why isn’t she living with her sons, instead of in her daughter’s husband’s house. Maybe I’m over-analyzing it. Or maybe it’s a joke, by Anti-Peter people, showing Peter is rather weak, having his mother-in-law actually living with him. Now that sounds like a likely oral story 🙂
      But at least she does some work around the old homestead.

  2. A short synthesis of the book of Mergui in English is given here:

    By careful analysis, Dubourg and Mergui show that all the wordplays in the NT allude to passages of the AT or the Midrashs or the Talmud.
    According to Dubourg and Mergui this characterizes the NT as midrashs itself.
    A midrash is a kind of ancient Biblical exegesis that creates parables, allegories, metaphors, wordplays by twisting the meaning, or by metathesis or by guematria.
    A midrash connects between them verses of the Bible and other narratives such as other midrashs to elaborate a new exegesis narrative.

    According to M. Mergui, the meaning of the NT is the following.
    In judaism, today or in the old, it is intended that it serves as light and guidance for the non-Jews, the pagans, so that they can enter too in the Alliance with God.
    However this entry in the Alliance can only happen when the Messiah will come.

    But this coming of the Messiah can only happen at the End of the Times and when the grieves on the Jews are at their height.

    However in the first century, Israel is occupied by the Romans. For some Jews at this time, the situation is mature enough so that the Messiah can come, and some groups started (Flavius Josephe was among the leaders of one of them, btw) rebelled against the Romans and strove for freedom and independance.

    But here there is a internal problem of the old judaism: if the Messia comes and the pagans enter into the Alliance, what the Jews will become ? What would be their identity ?
    This is because Jews viewed their Jewish identity as strongly tied to the Alliance.

    That’s why one of the biggest party, the Pharisees, wanted to delay as long as possible in an undefined future the coming of the Messiah and denied the signs of his coming.
    For another party, that who wrote the NT, the end of the times was now !

    And since the Messiah was late to come, they would create it by midrash.

    Why having chosen “Jesus” as the name for the Messiah ? Because it was necessary to choose a name that by guematria had messianic values (52 and 386), and because Yehoshua (same name as Jesus in the Septuagint) was the first to let the Hebrews enter the Promised Land, and because another Joshua, the Great Priest, led the return of the Jews from the Babylonian Exil.

    As shown by M. Mergui, the NT deals with another problem of judaism, the alleviation of the Law, another priviledge of the Messiah.
    Indeed the pagans are assumed not to be able to follow all the law of Moses and are therefore restricted to the noachides laws.

    Here are some reading keys of the Gospels.
    When Jesus heals someone, it is a metaphor to mean healing from idolatry.
    Metaphorically, idolatry is also rendered by death (hence the resurrection of Lazarus) and adultery (hence the pericope of the adultery woman).

    When the Pharisees blame Jesus for healing the day of the Shabbat, it has nothing to do with whatever transgression of Shabbat.
    The problem here is that he didn’t wait for the eighth day, i.e. he didn’t wait for the end of times.

    A paralytic is someone who is not able to walk, that is, he is not able to follow the Halakha, which means the walk and indicates the Jewish law. Therefore it indicates a pagan.

    Bread, wine, water in the Gospels are metaphor of the Law, as in the Jewish midrashs. Unleavened bread means alleviated law. It is more digest than leaven bread of the Pharisees, i.e. the full law, that is heavy on the stomach.

    More generally, the meaning of the pericopes that deal with miraculous healings in the Gospels is the following: the pagans are willing to enter into the Alliance, they are mature enough for that. But the Pharisees put obstacles to this entry.
    And by putting obstacles they simply risk being left out of the Alliance when the end of the times will come. But the end of times is now..


    Curiously, I see that the same reason to euhemerize Jesus is given by another French mythicist.


  3. I’d say its possible, but I find it unlikely. As Danila says, given that this is all in Greek, the use of Hebrew is such a way seems a stretch. Still I wouldn’t say its impossible. I haven’t looked into this passage much, but I’d want to fully explore other possible explanations first.

    1. As mentioned above in response to Danila, Mergui is not addressing the author of the Greek versions of the gospels or their audiences. He is raising questions about the origins of the stories that we find in the canonical gospels. The Greek gospels do not perserve the puns at all, of course. The puns are entirely at the level of “midrash” on the Hebrew text. They do not survive in our canonical gospels at all.

      1. See there is this other text, which I am pulling out of my bum… :-). Q, Logoi, Aramaic Gospels, now this. I think you might want to get your bullshit detector serviced, you are becoming as indescriminate as Bob Price. Why are you giving this any credence? When I’ve found any of these folk in English, they’ve clearly been believers of the most naive kind; albeit akin to the weird, heterodox, variety you would find in the 17th century. Gullible Kabbahlists. There is a hierarchy to hypotheses: Likely>Probable>Plausible>Implausible>Improbable>Das ist nicht einmal falsch; I’m inclined to the latter but this stuff is certainly to the right of the line. Extaordinary claims for which I am not seeing even ordinary evidence.

  4. About “A Story of a Mother-in-law”

    Maurice Mergui also suggests a simplier explanation based on relationship between this sequence and the Book of Ruth.
    chapter “La belle-mère de Pierre”

    In the Book of Ruth, Naomi plans to return to her native Bethlehem and urges her daughters-in-law (Ruth and Orpah) to return to their families.

    So, may be we can see the mother-in-law sequence like this:

    The disease
    Ruth: Naomi is exhausted as she has lost her two sons and is too old.
    Mark: Simon’s mother-in-law is exhausted due to fever, she represents the old Israel
    disappearing into the Greco-Roman world.
    The healing
    Ruth: Naomi will get new descendants through her daughter-in-law
    Mark: Simon’s mother-in-law will get new descendants by including both jews/Simon and pagans/Andrew so as to be strong enough to maintain a part of jewish identity into the Greco-Roman world.

  5. So, looking into this a little bit, we need to consider that parts of Mark 1 are based on allusions to Jeremiah 16.

    I lay out in DtG the parallel between the calling of Peter, James, and John and Jeremiah 16:16

    I also highlight this in in The Gospel of Mark as Reaction and Allegory: http://www.rationalrevolution.net/articles/gospel_mark.htm

    We have a parallel between Mark 1:17 and Jeremiah 16:16 and also a parallel between Mark 1:36 and Jeremiah 16:16 with the reference to hunting.

    As for the mother-in-law scene:
    Mark 1:
    29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

    32 That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33 And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

    Jeremiah 16:
    1 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 You shall not take a wife, nor shall you have sons or daughters in this place. 3 For thus says the Lord concerning the sons and daughters who are born in this place, and concerning the mothers who bear them and the fathers who beget them in this land: 4 They shall die of deadly diseases. They shall not be lamented, nor shall they be buried; they shall become like dung on the surface of the ground. They shall perish by the sword and by famine, and their dead bodies shall become food for the birds of the air and for the wild animals of the earth.

    It’s certainly not concrete, but fever may have been seen as a deadly disease at that time. That the woman was Simon’s mother-in-law indicates that Simon is married, which Jeremiah 16 is forbidding.

    It’s not definitive, but given the proximity to the clearer reference of Mark 1:17 to Jeremiah 16:16 I’d say it fits patterns we find in many places throughout Mark. Looking at the specific word choices between the Greek in Mark and the Septuagint would likely help clarify matters.

    1. Obviously this is a bizarre connection for us. But I will be posting soon more about pre-scientific thinking in the worlds of ancient Judea and Mesopotamia. For us there is a fundamental distinction between the natural world and phenomena that we classify as supernatural or cultural. But there was a time when cultures did not distinguish between what we call natural phenomena and divine signs and meanings of sounds and a whole lot more. Everything was one: planets and storms, kings and droughts, sounds of words and shapes of letters, — all could be meaningfully connected as a whole. The universe was made up of signs that meant things, and there was no distinction in this regard between a wind, a word, a flight of birds, the shape of one’s body, the symbols of speech, a siege army outside the city. . . .

      Nanine Charbonnel’s early chapters that I have discussed here address this more specifically in relation to the particular interpretation suggested by Mergui here. I have had doubts in those posts about the extent to which such an interpretation was known to have been exant in BCE times, but have since seen studies that support the likelihood of the practice.

      Anyway, as for Mergui’s interpretation here, I do not present it as a fact but as an idea, an interpretation, that relates to what we have posted about up till now, and I have also expressed some reservations in the post itself. I trust people can read it for interest’s sake as what some people consider a possibility. Whether it can survive serious academic testing is a question I raised in the post and I expect readers to maintain their own reservations and questions pending further studies and evidence.

  6. Reading Mark as a midrash, part 1: the mother-in-law
    Tags: Midrash, Maurice Mergui, Nanine Charbonnel

    ** In the book of Ruth
    – Naomi, the Ruth’s mother-in-law, represents Israel
    – Ruth symbolises the pagans ready to accept the law of Moses so as to enter into the convenant with God
    – Boaz is the kinsman redeemer

    ** The new and the old convenant
    – Mark 1:29 As soon as they (the followers of Jesus, the disciples) left the synagogue (the house where people study Torah) ,
    they went with James and John (James and John are the witnesses) to the home (the Jesus’ house for spreading the word) of Simon (the Hebrews) and Andrew (the Greeks).
    Ruth 3:6 NIV So she (Ruth, the pagans ready to accept the law of Moses) went down to the threshing floor (the place where people are looking for the word and also the bridal room)
    Comment: The threshing floor is the place to thrash the ears of corn, it represents the first step needed for making the bread.
    But as the bread is both the terrestrial food and the spiritual food of the word, so the threshing floor is the place where people are looking for the word.
    This idea where the ears are the raw material from which the bread/the word is made also exists in these verses.
    Mark 2:23 One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain.
    Ruth 2:2 DBT And Ruth the Moabitess said to Naomi, Let me, I pray, go to the field and glean among the ears of corn

    Mark 1:30 Simon’s mother-in-law (Israel as a bride) was in bed with a fever , and they immediately told Jesus about her.
    Comment: I can say that Israel is a bride due to this following verse
    Mark 2:19 Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them.
    Mark 1:31 So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to serve them.
    In this verse, all the components come from the book of Ruth:
    — The partner moving towards the other
    Mark 1:31 So he went to her
    Ruth 3.7 DBT Then she went softly, and uncovered his feet, and laid herself down.
    — The physical contact
    Mark 1:31 he took her hand
    Ruth 3:9 DBT she said “spread thy skirt over thy handmaid”
    Ruth 3:9 NIV she answered: “Spread the corner of your garment over me”
    Ruth 3:9 ESV And she answered, “Spread your wings over your servant”
    — The mutual recognition
    Mark 1:31 he helped her up and she began to serve them
    Ruth 3:9 DBT And he said, Who art thou? And she answered, I am Ruth, thy handmaid: spread thy skirt over thy handmaid; for thou hast the right of redemption.
    Ruth 3:10 DBT And he said, Blessed be thou of Jehovah, my daughter!
    — The moment of recognition
    Mc 1:32 That evening
    Ruth 3:8 DBT And it came to pass at midnight, that the man was startled, and turned himself; and behold, a woman lay at his feet.

    At this stage, I notice a first inversion
    – Ruth: she went softly
    – Mark:Jesus went to her
    Then I notice a second inversion and a substitution
    – Ruth: Ruth serves Boaz
    – Mark: she (the bride, but I replace bride by bridegroom) serve them
    By this way I understand: Jésus serves his followers and this is compliant with the following verse
    Mark 10:45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

    ** Why is there a healing in Mark ?
    30 Simon’s mother-in-law (Israel as a bride) was in bed with a fever
    31 The fever left her
    The disease is both the physical disease (fever, leprosy, paralysis, ..) and the disease of the soul (the disobedience to God).
    And the healing may also mean coming back to God
    Deuteronomy 28:15 However, if you do not obey the LORD your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come on you and overtake you:
    Deuteronomy 28:22 The LORD will strike you with wasting disease, with fever and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, with blight and mildew, which will plague you until you perish.

    Jesus performs this healing so as to demonstrate his power to forgive sins.
    Jesus says it later by these words:
    Mark 2:10 NKJ But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins”.
    That allows this mutual recognition: The mother-in-law can recognise Jesus as one of those who have the right of redemption and Jesus can recognise her by lifting her up.

    In the book of Ruth, Naomi and Ruth knowns that Boaz has right of their redemption.
    Ruth 2:20 … And Naomi said to her, The man is near of kin to us, one of those who have the right of our redemption.

    At this stage Jesus and Boaz are only one of those who have the right of redemption but this right does not belong to them.
    Ruth 3:12 And now, truly I am one that has the right of redemption, yet there is one that has the right of redemption who is nearer than I.

    Jesus and Boaz will say later their willing to take the right of redemption
    Mark 9:31 .. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him …”
    Mark 10:45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
    Ruth 3:13 .. if he will redeem thee, well — let him redeem; but if he like not to redeem thee, then will I redeem thee …

    They will finally take the right of redemption and will become the redeemer
    Mark 15:24 And they crucified him.
    Ruth 4:8 And he that had the right of redemption said to Boaz, Buy for thyself; and he drew off his sandal.
    Ruth 4:9 And Boaz said to the elders and all the people, Ye are witnesses this day, that I have bought all that was Elimelech’s, and all that was Chilion’s and Mahlon’s, of the hand of Naomi;
    Ruth 4:10 moreover Ruth the Moabitess, the wife of Mahlon, have I purchased to be my wife, to raise up the name of the dead upon his inheritance

    — At this stage, I notice the word “sandal” —
    Mark 1:7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.
    Ruth 4:8 DBT And he that had the right of redemption said to Boaz, Buy for thyself; and he drew off his sandal.
    Comment: By saying “I am not sufficient to untie the strap of His sandals”, John recognises Jesus as the redeemer.
    I also notice he word “witnesses” in Ruth 4:9 given that James and John are the witnesses in Mark

    ** The second healing
    Mark 1
    32 That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed.
    33 And the whole city was gathered around the door.
    34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him

    Jesus has already demonstrated his power to forgive sins in a private house. He now demonstrates his power in front of the crowd.
    Mark 1:33 And the whole city was gathered around the door.

    In the same way, Boaz declares a second time his intention of taking his right of redemption and performs it in front of the crowd
    Ruth 3:15 DBY .. and he went into the city.
    Ruth 4:1 DBY And Boaz went up to the gate, and sat down there. And behold, he that had the right of redemption, of whom Boaz had spoken, came by

    ** The sun
    Mark 1:32 That evening after sunset
    comment: we are at the beginning of the story, it will be a long way to catch and widespread the word of God
    Marc 16:2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb.
    comment: we are at the end of the story, the resurrection

    ** My conclusion
    – The mother-in-law story describes the new convenant: those who will recognise Jesus as the redeemer will be saved
    – All the components come from the book of Ruth and there is a lot of similarities between the book of Ruth and Deuteronomy 25:5-10
    – Mark is a web of connections

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