Updated: Apr 23, 2020
“I'm coming to synagogue today,” Orpah said determinedly from her mat. Everyone else froze.
Her son, Joshua, caught his wife's eye and they shared a look.
Mariam finished wiping her son's dirty face and cleared her throat gently. “Are you sure that's wise? It's quite a walk.”
“And the service is so long . . .” Joshua added, his tone even but his eyes searching for a way out.
Orpah pressed her lips together. She knew her son and daughter-in-law meant well, though they didn't always show it in the kindest ways. They never said it aloud, but she knew they suspected that she had brought this illness on herself through some sin, and they resented her for it. Her needs wore on the family, and she knew they were trying to be patient. She swallowed hard. She, who had once carried this family, was now a burden.
She smoothed her dress over her bony frame and could hardly recognize the feel of herself. Once she had been vital and strong. Years ago, when Joshua had been a fussy baby, she had carried him in a sling on her back for hours while doing her chores. She had strode confidently with a full water jug balanced on her head.
Now . . . well, now she was relegated to simple tasks that she could do on her mat without straining her already aching body. Usually she did her best not to put the family out, but they seemed to forget that she required spiritual nurturing as well as physical. Today she needed this. She hadn't been to synagogue in years because of her crippling illness, but today she craved it like a deer panting for streams of water.
“I'm going,” Orpah said, and reached for her staff.
Joshua murmured under his breath, but hastened forward to help her rise. Orpah drew a sharp breath when she was finally on her feet but ignored her son's frown.
“Ruthie,” Orpah called her eight-year-old granddaughter. “Fetch my sandals and shawl.” Ruthie hastened to obey. Orpah lifted her foot so the little girl could slide the sandal into place. She winced as shooting pains shot down her back and into her seat. Orpah awkwardly draped her shawl around her silver hair and nodded at the staring family. “Well, let's go then.”
Doubt hit her the moment she stepped outside. The air was close and hot without a breath of wind to stir it, and the morning sun was already beating fiercely down. The children skipped happily ahead and Orpah's stomach tightened with longing at their agility. Leaning on her staff, she began to take little steps down what was once a familiar road. Things looked different to her now. Once she would have thrown back her hair and looked with ease at the collection of houses with their tidy garden plots. Now her view was comprised mostly of the dirt road. She tentatively tried to raise herself to look up at what she knew must be a cloudless blue sky, but her body wouldn't obey. She sighed.
Joshua heard her. “Are you tired?” he said, too solicitous for her liking. “Do you want to go back?”
“Are you trying to get rid of me?” she snapped.
Joshua fell silent and Orpah sighed again. She knew she looked odd walking as she did. For the past eighteen years she had been unable to stand up straight. She walked bending forward at the waist as if leaning over to pluck herbs from the garden. She could lie flat as a board on her mat, but as soon as she rose to her feet her back pushed itself forward. The physicians couldn't explain what caused it, but they said it could come on with age. She sniffed. Age! She wasn't even thirty-five when her strange sickness began. First tremors in her hand, then she found herself unable to keep up to her usual pace when working. Then her back had begun to bow. However, she'd rather people blame her age than something more . . . sinister.
She rolled her shoulders, shifting her damp tunic against her baking back. They weren't even halfway there, and already she was exhausted. She pushed away thoughts of her mat in the cool shade of the house. She was where she needed to be. She wasn't sure what made her decide to go to synagogue today, but the yearning had been undeniable.
She heard an angry noise and turned her head. Her neighbor was scowling, murmuring a rote prayer and spitting to ward off demons. Orpah flushed and looked away.
They made it to the synagogue at last, and Orpah was relieved to enter the dim, stone building. Ignoring the whispers, she took her seat beside her daughter-in-law and propped her staff to hold herself in a semblance of a seated position. Her forearms were already aching with fatigue, but she refused retreat now. She needed to be here today. She didn't know why, but she did. She glanced around at the familiar faces of old friends and neighbors. They stared her way with pity, but quickly averted their gaze when they saw her notice.
The official, Simeon, stepped forward with his Pharisee shawl draped around his neck. “Hear, O Isreal, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one!” he cried out. The rest of the people took up the Shema and they recited it together. Orpah felt the little hairs on her spindly arms rise as she heard the voices praising God together. She had missed this. Together the people recited the benedictions, and then Simeon summoned one of the men to read from the Torah. Orpah's back throbbed with pain, but she ignored it and listened to the teaching from one of the books of Moses. When the reading was complete, Simeon rose again.
“We have a traveling rabbi here to teach today, Jesus of Nazareth,” he said. Orpah heard a hint of uncertainty in his voice. “Perhaps you have heard him speak before.”
Orpah surely hadn't, and she watched with curiosity as a man more than twenty years her junior took the teacher's seat. He began to teach them—challenging them with questions, using parables to illustrate his point, and answering their challenges with skill. Orpah soaked in every minute of it. She hadn't heard such a confident, gifted teacher in all her years, not even as a much younger woman in the Temple Courts in Jerusalem. What was such a talented man doing in their little village? He could speak before kings! As her soul was watered like the parched ground of the desert, she now understood why the Lord had prompted her to come to synagogue today. Her eyes moistened with grateful tears at this gift from God.
Despite her fascination with Jesus' teaching, the exertion of the morning was taking its toil. Sweat beaded on her forehead and her breath became strained. Ruthie looked at her in concern and Orpah tried to soothe her with a feeble attempt at a smile. Trying to adjust her grip, her aching arms suddenly gave way, and her staff fell from her hands with a noisy clatter.
The teacher paused in his lesson and Joshua rushed forward to collect the staff as Orpah felt heat flush her face. Joshua shot her a frustrated look as he returned it to her, and she narrowed her eyes at him. She hadn't done it on purpose! She glanced to the young rabbi with a look of apology and saw concern for her in his face. She thought he would go back to his lesson, but instead, Jesus held out his hand.
“Come here,” he said.
Orpah felt her heart jerk forward as if trying to answer the summons. She felt Miriam stiffen beside her and Joshua began to protest, but she gripped her staff with both hands and rose shakily to her feet. Bowed at the waist, she began to walk forward, feeling the eyes of the entire synagogue on her. The younger students on the floor scooted backward to let her pass. In their cross-legged positions, they easily looked up into her face with surprise and pity.
At last Orpah was before Jesus and she set her trembling hand in his strong one. Though he was sitting, she still could barely see into his face.
“Woman,” he said. “You are freed from your sickness.” Jesus rose to his feet and set his hand on her shoulder, the other still holding her hand. She felt a tingle run down from the nape of her neck to the tips of her fingers and toes. She felt the stiffness leave her frame and the ache disappear from her lower back. Astonished at the sudden loss of pain, she straightened hastily upright to look the rabbi in the face, the movement fluid and natural. She gasped. She was cured! Completely cured! She hadn't felt this good in almost twenty years!
“Oh, thank you, Lord!” she cried out and burst into tears. Dropping her staff for the second time that morning, she gratefully hugged the young rabbi like a son.
The room erupted. People rose to their feet and cried out for Jesus to heal them and their loved ones as well.
Simeon strode with a scowl into the center of the room, his hands outstretched. The people quieted reluctantly. “There are six days in which work should be done; so come during them and get healed, and not on the Sabbath day.”
Orpah glanced around the room and saw several of the people were nodding in agreement. Her own family looked caught between joy and consternation.
Simeon shot the rabbi a stern look, but Jesus looked at him with disgust. “You hypocrites! Don't each of you untie your ox or donkey from its stall and lead it to water, even on the Sabbath?” There was an embarrassed shifting in the silent room. Jesus looked at Orpah and she smiled at the kindness that shone from his eyes. “This woman is a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound for eighteen long years. Shouldn't she also be released on the Sabbath day?”
The naysayers flushed crimson, and the rest jumped back to their feet with rejoicing as Orpah raised her hands to the heavens, her body straight and whole, and she sang out her praises to God.
Read this story for yourself in Luke 13:10-17
Why does Jesus call this woman a “daughter of Abraham?” This is the only place in the entire Bible that this phrase is used.
In Luke, Abraham appears in a few different places, so we can see Abraham's importance to the author of Luke, and to the Jewish people themselves. In Luke 16:19-31 (in the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus) we see the poor man dies and is “carried away by the angels to Abraham's bosom.” However literally we are supposed to take this, this is putting Abraham at a high place of honor.
Why is Abraham so honored among the people? He is more than simply an ancient ancestor, he is the origin of a covenant that shaped Jewish history and gave them their national hope and identity.
“Now the Lord said to Abram, go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father's house, to the land which I will show you; And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” - Genesis 12:1-3
This promise is reaffirmed after Abraham shows his faith in God in Genesis 22:15-18 with this added promise, “and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies.”
To call someone a child of Abraham is to put them not only in his family tree, but to list them as an heir to that promise. It is also a mark of commendation for someone who is faithful to God like Abraham was.
There is one other spot in Luke where someone is called a child of Abraham. Zaccheus repents of his ways and vows to repay four times over what he took.
“And Jesus said to him, 'Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.'” Luke 19:9-10
So we have a woman who was a cripple and a man who was a despised crook. Jesus calls both of these people children of Abraham. These people would have been considered outsiders to their people, yet Jesus folds them into the family and the promise.
Jesus' ministry of saving the lost and bringing them into the family continues today! Romans 4 shows us that the faithful uncircumcised (the non-Jews) are also children of Abraham because of their faith. All who believe are a part of this promise given to Abraham and are one of an uncountable number of stars that he was promised as descendants. Jesus came to fulfill this promise and bless the whole world with his life-giving sacrifice, and we, the family, are tasked with him to share that blessing.