By Sister Marion Moeser, OSF
There are two stories about little girls in Mark’s gospel — the daughter of Jairus (5:21-24, 35-43) and the daughter of Herod (6:17-28). In both stories, they are described as korasion, Greek word derived from the word for a young maiden; these daughters are “little maidens.” (Mark indicates that Jairus’ daughter was 12 years old.) These are the only stories in the gospels where korasion is used and the stories present a striking contrast in how parents treated young girls.
Jairus the synagogue leader seeks Jesus to obtain health and life for his sick child. Her cure depicts two of Jesus’ most tender actions. Jesus consoles both her mother and father, takes the girl by her hand and addresses her as talitha, the Aramaic word for little girl. He also uses the word qum, “Arise.” (I like to use talitha as the girl’s name.) The girl gets up and walks about. Jesus instructs her excited parents to give her something to eat. The adults in this story all exhibit loving care for the little girl.
Not so in the story of the gospel’s other korasion. Herod’s daughter, while unnamed in the gospels, is identified by the early Jewish historian Josephus as Salome, the “dancing daughter” at Herod’s birthday party. Little Salome pleases Herod who promises her whatever she wants. Salome’s mother Herodias, the only female villain in Mark’s gospel, corrupted the girl and tells Salome to ask Herod for the head of John the Baptist. Herod consents and Salome receives John’s head on a platter and gives it to her mother. Neither mother nor father treats Salome with genuine care or concern.
The elements in her story that portray Salome as engaging in a sexy dance at a raucous banquet and a drunken Herod as desiring her are all interpretations. The Greek words used for dancing and for Herod’s pleasure do not have sexual connotations. A lack of attention to korasion and preconceptions give the little girl’s dance its flirtatious interpretation. Among the preconceptions are that women tempt men, who are weak and susceptible to female charms; that little girls dancing is flirting; that wealthy royals were depraved, and their banquets were drunken events. Another troublesome preconception may be the idea “like mother, like daughter.” Herod divorced his first wife to marry Herodias, his half-brother’s wife. For this John accused Herod of sexual immorality, also implicating Herodias. Naturally, Salome also would have been immoral.
When we understand the meaning of korasion, we see more clearly the contrasts in the circumstances of Talitha and Salome. We can question the “sexual” circumstances in Salome’s story. Seeing her as a delightful little girl “rescues” her from full participation in evil and presents, in stark relief, the immorality and clear responsibility of her parents. She is surrounded by revenge and pride; her story is one of death. On the other hand, a loving father and mother care for Talitha, who is the beneficiary of Jesus’ love and concern. She rises, walks, and eats amidst joy and excitement. Hers is a story of life. She is a foreshadow of all of us — regardless of our childhood circumstances, we are baptized into the life and household of the Risen Christ.