Some of the key ways Biblical writers draw attention to important details in their stories are by the use of key words, repetition, and structural devices like chiasms and parallel constructions. The Bible sounds different, even odd, to us sometimes because of the use of these and similar literary conventions. Moreover, when we do not grasp the literary devices employed, it may result in our largely missing the point of a story.
Luke 13:10-17 is a relatively short account with a remarkable abundance of repetition in an overall parallel structure. Noting and understanding the significance of the key words in this story are vital to understanding its message.
It may help, to begin with, just to list the details that stand out.
A glance through the list above suggests that there is an interesting structure to the passage. I set this out below (verse references are in parentheses), though I have not included every detail.
18 years (11)
glorified God (13)
ruler indignant (14)
heal & Sabbath (14)
heal & Sabbath (14)
this one (female) - daughter of Abraham (16)
18 years (16)
The story is carefully composed to directly point, with repeated emphasis, to the 4th Commandment. In Exodus, the 4th Commandment is grounded in the story of seven-day creation, but in Deuteronomy it is based upon the redemption from Egypt — in which the children of Israel were loosed from bondage to the Satanic oppression of the Pharaoh. Luke, thus, is certainly reminding us that Sabbath commemorates release — twice he says Jesus set her free — indicating that the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day were the real Sabbath breakers, since they consistently opposed Sabbath healing/release (compare: Luke 6:6-11; 14:1-6; also John 5:1-16; 7:22-23; 9:1-16). It is worthy to note that Luke has 3 stories of Sabbath healing, whereas Matthew and Mark each have only one.
In this context, the unique language “daughter of Abraham” suggests that we are to consider this woman’s case and condition as a type of Israel’s situation. The daughter of Abraham — Jews of Jesus’ day — are suffering Satanic oppression. Only Jesus can set them free. What He did for the “daughter of Abraham” is what He seeks to do for the whole nation.
Also, the unusual and repeated expression “18 years” enforces the idea that this woman is to be viewed in symbolic terms — not, of course, denying anything about the historicity of the event. In the entire New Testament, the number “18” appears only in this Lukan context (Luke 13:4, 11, 16). The first of these references is to the number of men on whom a tower fell.
The repeated “18 years,” however, clearly links with Old Testament stories, for there are only 5 or 6 uses of the expression “18 years” in the entire Bible — depending on what one decides to do with 2 Chronicles 36:9. But both that verse and the parallel in 2 Kings 24:8 are not really relevant because they tell us that “Jehoiachin was eighteen years old when he became king.” Thus, 1 or 2 of the 5 or 6 uses may be ignored for this study, leaving two very important verses in the book of Judges which speak of periods of 18 years and which suggest multiple similarities with the passage in Luke.
The first is in Judges 3:14: “And the people of Israel served Eglon the king of Moabeighteen years.” The larger context reveals the significance of the statement here. The first five verses of Judges 3 pick up the theme introduced in Judges 2:10-19: a cycle of disobedience, resulting in Yahweh abandoning Israel to her enemies, Israel’s misery and repentance, deliverance by a judge, but eventual return to disobedience. We read that the generations that came after Joshua and the men who served Yahweh with him turned away from their God and served the Baals and the gods of the Canaanites. Therefore, Yahweh sold them into the hands of their enemies and they were in terrible distress. Then, Yahweh would send judges to deliver them because He took pity on them, but they would not be faithful for long (Judges 2:16-18).
This pathetic pattern provoked Yahweh’s wrath, so that instead of driving the nations out, He left some among them to test Israel (Judges 2:20-23). After listing the nations that were left behind to test Israel, the book of Judges records concrete examples of the pattern introduced in chapter two. The first story tells of the king of Mesopotamia oppressing the apostate Israelites for 8 years, after which they cried out to Yahweh and He sent them Othniel, the son of Caleb’s brother to be their deliverer (Judges 3:7-11).
After 40 years of rest, the Israelites again turned away from Yahweh so He strengthened Eglon, the king of Moab and the Israelites became his slaves for 18 years. The “18 years” seems to be a heightened level of discipline compared to the 8 years of suffering under the king of Mesopotamia. More important, both examples, along with the others in the book of Judges, are small-scale repetitions of Egyptian bondage.
The second significant use of the expression “18 years” in the book of Judges is in chapter 10, when Yahweh sold His people into the hand of the Philistines and the Ammonites for “eighteen years” (Judges 10:7-8). This instance was especially significant because when Israel cried out to Yahweh for help, He responded: “And the LORD said to the people of Israel, ‘Did I not save you from the Egyptians and from the Amorites, from the Ammonites and from the Philistines? The Sidonians also, and the Amalekites and the Maonites oppressed you, and you cried out to me, and I saved you out of their hand. Yet you have forsaken me and served other gods; therefore I will save you no more.Go and cry out to the gods whom you have chosen; let them save you in the time of your distress.’” (Judges 10:11-14).
In this second reference to the book of Judges, the children of Israel have sinned against God so severely that He will no longer hear their prayers — similar to Jesus’ warning in a passage following soon after the story of “the daughter of Abraham” (Luke 13:24-30).
We must remember that just as every case of God’s people being put into subjugation echoes Egyptian bondage, so also, every deliverance duplicates the Exodus and conquest. All of this fits the paradigm established in Genesis 3:15 of spiritual warfare between the seed of the serpent and seed of the woman. Pharaoh, Abimelech, and the kings of Canaan were all the seed of the serpent which the serpent used to oppress the woman and her seed.
Luke’s allusions to the story of Judges place the healing of the “daughter of Abraham” into the larger paradigm of the warfare between the seed of the woman and the seed of the Serpent and the related Exodus theme that reappears from Genesis to Revelation. Ironically, the oppressors in Luke’s story are not so much the Romans as the Jewish leaders who oppose giving release to the “daughter of Abraham” on the day commemorating release.
The pericopes that follow this story in Luke offer both hope and warning. Luke 13:18 begins with “therefore,” connecting the Sabbath-day healing to the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven — both of which are promises of the worldwide increase of the kingdom. However, these are followed by Jesus’ warning to strive to enter the narrow gate, for many will seek to enter, but not be able to (Luke 13:24).
Ralph Smith is pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church.
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