At the level of need: “Having said this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes” (v. 6). We know why a first-century physician would do such a strange thing. Ancients like Pliny, the Roman scientist, believed that spit would cure snakes’ poison, epilepsy, lichens and leprosy, and neck pains (Barclay 42). Saliva was highly esteemed as an ancient cure for illness (Rienecker 240).
But we wouldn’t expect a Jewish rabbi to attempt this cure. The rabbis warned against using spittle for medicine because of its frequent connection with medical practices (Beasley-Murray 155). Also, making mud with the spit and then applying that mud to the eyes were both acts forbidden on the Sabbath (Rienecker 240, Robertson 162, Morris 480, Barclay 44-5). Later the authorities would raise this very objection: “Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath'” (v. 16).
So two questions arise. Why would Jesus accommodate himself to a belief he knew to be more superstition than medicine? He healed other blind eyes without using spit and mud, showing that the miracle was not in the dirt but the One who first created it (cf. Mark 10.46-52; Matthew 9.27-31; 12.22; 15.30; 21.14). And why would he be willing to flaunt rabbinic conventions to use spit-made mud here?
Our text does not say, but I can think of no reason except that the blind man needed this accommodation. He knew Jesus’ action to be accepted medical practice. To our knowledge, he had no previous information regarding Jesus’ healing powers. Had the Divine Physician not acted as a human doctor, it is likely that his patient would not have accepted his cure.
The application to us is simple: meet need on its level. It’s hard to talk to a hungry man about his soul before we feed his body. There is little point in explaining fully Augustine’s free-will theodicy to a man dying of cancer. Win the trust of the person you are called to help. Develop relationship—establish common ground—earn confidence. Is someone in your class hurting today? Meet them where they hurt. Learn their pain. Join their grief. Connect with their suffering, before you try to bring it to the Savior.
Jewish theology taught that touching a “sinner” like this man implicated the person in his sin. But Jesus touched the man’s eyes, all the same. So must we.
Call to faith: “‘Go,’ he told him, ‘wash in the Pool of Siloam’ (this word means Sent). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing” (v. 7). Now Jesus asked the man to trust him. Washing in the pool of Siloam was not part of any accepted medical practice. And it required sacrifice on the part of a blind man.
The pool of Siloam was one of the great landmarks in ancient Jerusalem. The reservoir is 53 feet long, 18 feet across, and 19 feet deep, with columns built into the side walls (Hovey 204). It is a pool with a marvelous history.
When King Hezekiah was at war with Assyria, seven centuries before Christ, he became concerned about the city’s water supply. The spring of Gihon, situated in the Kidron Valley below Jerusalem, was and is a constant source of water. But the spring was completely exposed, and could only be reached by climbing down the 33 steps carved into the side of the mountain on which Jerusalem had been built. During war, this water source could easily be compromised (Barclay 42-3).
Hezekiah had the spring of Gihon channeled into the city, by building the tunnel which created the pool of Siloam. This “tunnel of Hezekiah” was chiseled for 1748 feet through solid rock. It was rediscovered in 1880, with Hezekiah’s inscription recounting its completion: “The boring through is completed. Now is the story of the boring through. While the workmen were still lifting pick to pick, each towards his neighbor, and while three cubits remained to be cut through, each heard the voice of the other who called his neighbor, since there was a crevice in the rock on the right side. And on the day of the boring through the stonecutters struck, each to meet his fellow, pick to pick; and there flowed the waters to the pool for a thousand and two hundred cubits, and a hundred cubits was the height of the rock above the heads of the stonecutters” (Barclay 43).
The pool took its name from this historic event: it was called the Hebrew word for “sent,” since waters were “sent” into it through the tunnel Hezekiah had constructed. My last time in Jerusalem, I walked, stooped over, the length of the tunnel to the pool, to find children swimming in it.
Jesus sent the blind man to one of the most famous pools in Jewish history. But we’re not sure the distance this trip required. If Jesus’ encounter with the man took place outside the Temple (which was likely, as beggars usually congregated there), then the man had to walk to the southern end of the city, a considerable distance and hardship for a blind person. But since the waters of the pool were used during the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles which had just ended, it is possible that Jesus and the blind man were both in its vicinity (cf. NIB 653).
Whatever the distance, Jesus’ patient walked it: “The man went and washed, and came home seeing” (v. 7). Here we see the divine-human partnership at work again. Jesus would heal the man’s eyes, but he would have to wash them first. He did what he could, and Jesus did what he could not.
Similar faith was required of Naaman the leper. Remember his reluctance to obey the prophet Elisha’s prescription to wash in the Jordan river. Finally he did, “and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy” (2 Kings 5.14). And so the man “washed” his eyes—the word means that he bathed his eyes, not merely splashing or washing them (Robertson 163).