HSOJ: Calling a Canaanite Woman a Dog (Mark 7:24-30)

There are behaviorally hard sayings of Jesus (HSOJ) to me in the sense that I constantly fail in following his examples and teachings. Then there are intellectually hard sayings of Jesus, just things that make you go hmm. Things that border on questioning the doctrine of his sinlessness which seems plainly heretical to even consider.

I think this narrative in Mark is one of those incidents for me. It is something I would rather Jesus have not said or something I hope Mark has failed to perfectly relay to us. Maybe the point to this story is to struggle through this and find deeper meanings though. The main problem is found in this verse. Its Jesus’ response to a Gentile woman who asks him to heal her daughter:

27 “First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” [NIV]

I think a lot of us today have difficulties with such “us and them” Jewish nationalism but it is certainly in God’s divine right to establish a covenant with whomever and whatever nation he pleases. Yet viewing outsiders as “dogs” is still very problematic.

Even though I agree with scholars who think there is quite a bit of anti-Semitism in the new Testament, here we have an instance of Jesus actually referring to Gentiles as dogs. Quite the opposite of what I expect. Given the trend to increasingly blame the Jews in the gospels and the fact that Mark appears to write for Gentiles (he has to explain Jewish customs to them in Mark 7:3-4–you don’t need to explain Jewish customs to Jews), it seems improbable that he would make up such a harsh saying But given its surrounding in the Gospel, it is possible a Jewish nationalist (Mark?) now open to the Gentile mission could say something like this. Maybe he thought the language acceptable. We also know there was the circumcision group and “men from James” who Paul encounters in Antioch in Galatians 2. This controversy caused Paul to oppose Cephas (Peter) to his face. The end result was Peter and the Jewish Christians there siding with the men from James. Even Barnabas consented to the men from James. So we know that the inclusion of Gentiles brought with them conflicts and everyone was not happy about it. Thus, even though difficult, but hardly impossible, to imagine Mark making this statement up (c.a 60-75) when he wrote, it is conceivable it could have come from the early church and not Jesus himself. I have to personally consider the issue unproven either way. But still the account is in my Holy Book so what to make of it? Under the impression Jesus actually said this, what do we make of it? Some have likened the leftovers the women references to the food left over after Jesus feeds the multitude. Jesus has already fed the Jews, now it is time to feed the Gentiles. That very well seems to be the point of this story but still, the harshness of it has not been eliminated. The extreme ethnocentrism and insult is the problem.

I know many Christians like to imagine this account as Jesus saying it with a twinkle in his eye, testing the woman’s faith and response. That seems to be the typical apologetical answer I encounter followed by the statement that Jesus did in fact exorcise her daughter, at a distance. Its probably the only answer I’ve heard that seems reasonable unless Jesus actually was a Jewish Nationalist and felt at the time called only to Israel? Did she change his mind? Did he really insult this woman? The twinkle in the eye or wink theory hs only arisen because its Jesus and we ultimately don’t want to accept the harshness of it. The truth is Jesus did come first to Israel. He called 12 disciples which symbolically calls to mind the 12 tribes of Israel. I mean, first to the Jew then to the Gentile right? (Paul in Romans 1:16).

The woman had to ultimately beg, “even a dog deserves scraps” and issue a clever retort to be healed. Is that really a test of Faith? Joel Marcus says for Luther this example is an exhortation “to Christians to persist in trusting God even when he seems to turn his back on them; they must learn to see the “yes” hidden in the “no,”” (pg 469 Marcus, Mark v 1)

As a theological meaning of a story Luther’s view makes a lot of sense to me. We still have the historical difficulty of its actual setting, however. Klausner, who Marcus calls “arguably bitter”, writes, “If any other Jewish teacher of the time had said such a thing Christians never would have forgiven Judaism for it” (Jesus ,294).

Theissen writes that its as offensive as a doctor refusing to treat a foreign patient and the account incongruously couches Jesus’s “refusal to help a child in a parable about the necessity of helping children” (Marcus pg 468 – Theissen Gospels, 61,65)

What are your thoughts on this incident?

I think that based off of her response to him it was something she was not offended by and that’s as far as I think about it. I’ve never seen any scholar really give a good answer on it.

Repeatedly Jesus mentioned that it was first to the jew, and then to the gentile.

I don’t see any good evidence on either direction to say if dogs were viewed as good or bad by jews. It seems different ones viewed them differently.

It also makes it clear that the dog, although not the kids, were part of the family and they also were taken care of by their master.

So I guess ultimately I think it was a positive encounter.

All the scholars I read suggest this was a Jewish insult to outsiders, as much as we consider it to be one today. I kind of go with that assumption.

Also, was she not offended or did she just understand Jewish nationalism and wanted Jesus to really heal her daughter? I don’t think the text makes it clear.

This account is also very significant in that I do believe it is the ONLY argument we ever see Jesus essentially losing. He is always a few steps ahead of the game everywhere else when debating.

I don’t believe he lost the argument anymore than God lost his argument to Moses. I think he’s doing what many do, guide a conversation towards a logical conclusion using metaphors.

I think knowing the character of Christ, and knowing that he was very aware that the gospel was coming for all, he did it for the sake of his disciples.

When she first spoke up, he remained silent. I think this silence led the 12 there to assume he was ignoring her because he did not like her, it ignored them and they said send her away.

Jesus did not. He could have said go.

Instead he used a metaphor about a pet. People don’t typically have disdain for their pet. Many have dogs and they love them and they do in fact feed them scraps, even if they never cook a whole meal for them.

Jesus in my opinion was most likely allowing the disciples to voice their hearts out loud, to highlight just how much faith this woman had, and he did it instead of sending her away.

https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.biblegateway.com/passage/%3Fsearch=Matthew%2B15:21-28,Mark%2B7:24-30&version=NIV&interface=amp

I find it hard to take some of the attitudes towards women from tv shows only 60 years ago. Applying today’s attitudes to something said 2000 years ago is just wrong. The functionality of human language in which our attitudes of the times are buried doesn’t even allow this logically.

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Yes, it’s a hard saying, but I’m glad it’s there.

I don’t think Jesus used “puppy” as a term of affection like a pet. Dogs may have been domesticated by Romans, but to Jews dogs were unclean scavengers, especially vile because they tended to lick up blood (see 1 Kings 22:38; Psalm 68:23). While households back then might have livestock roaming in and out, dogs were generally kept out. Dogs were fine for looking after sheep, but like shepherds, their place was outside, out of sight. Dogs were a biblical cliché for outsiders (Psalm 59:5–15), evildoers (Psalm 22:16) and the worthless (1 Samuel 24:14). Not only was this negative view of dogs common, so was a negative view of foreigners.

So what is Jesus doing? I see two options. Maybe Jesus sees in this foreign woman an opportunity for a bit of live theatre – an acted-out parable – so he insults her with the knowledge that she will rise to the occasion, delivering a comeback that shows she understands his purpose better than his dull dozen insiders. Or, maybe Jesus is acting as any Jewish man of his day would, showing how truly God became human, and through her response – correcting him without insulting him – God the Father provides another opportunity for Jesus to grow in wisdom.

In Mark, this encounter comes right after Jesus redefines what it means to be clean (7:1–23) and right before he replicates many of his Galilean miracles, including feeding thousands, on foreign soil (7:31–8:10). So, how does the Syrophoenician woman fit into this change? Is she to Jesus as Cornelius was to Peter in Acts 10: the foreigner placed by God to help a man move from a nice vision of inclusion to actual inclusion? Or is she a willing object lesson through which Jesus shows his disciples the change of scenery that is approaching? Again, I can read it either way, depending on whether I’m focused on Jesus’ humanity or transcendence.

Either way, even though the woman bears an insult, she is not demeaned. Mark and Matthew both give her the honour of being the only person to best Jesus in conversation. Both show a clear contrast between the dull disciples and the perceptive woman. The disciples had just helped with Jesus’ first feeding of the 5000, gathering up baskets of leftovers, yet after the woman’s visit they still only see scarcity when faced with a hungry crowd of 4000. The woman, meanwhile, perceived abundance in crumbs. Matthew goes even further, underlining how Jesus praised the woman’s faith (Matthew 15:28). So, I don’t think the passage demeans women. If anything, it’s troubling since it shows Jesus in a light that modern eyes find demeaning.

There’s one more reason I’m glad this story made it into the Gospels. Matthew changes the woman to a Canaanite, and she functions as one more piece in his sustained argument against the way of Joshua. In Matthew, Jesus is part Canaanite (1:5); instead of Joshua’s call to be bold and courageous and take the land, Jesus promises the meek they will inherit the land (5:5); instead of the instruction to “show [Canaanites] no mercy”, Jesus declares “blessed are the merciful” (5:7); instead of God’s order to wipe out the Canaanites, Jesus calls us to love our enemies because that’s what God does (5:43–45); instead of Moses and Joshua’s speeches before their deaths that urge Israel to remove the foreigners in their land, Jesus’ farewell speech promises his continued presence as his Jewish followers go into all the nations making disciples (28:16–20).

Added to all that, Matthew invites us to view this Syrophoenician woman as a Canaanite. We’re supposed to know how Israel was commanded to kill these people, men, women and children. Yet Jesus doesn’t kill – he heals her child. As someone who’s spent a lot of time on the conquest accounts in Scripture, I’m very happy this text is in the Bible, not because it makes that problem go away, but because it shows one Gospel author quarantining the conquest in an unrepeatable history that does not reflect God’s true nature, if not repudiating the conquest entirely.

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But who let stray dogs inside their house to eat scraps? A pet makes way more sense.

Also, even though he was Jewish, she was not and people definitely had dogs as pets back then.

I think it’s like snakes. Lots of people have pet snakes, even though most are afraid of them.

I always took it as being effectively in scare quotes, that Jesus was quoting a customary saying of the time and of course not meaning it. And the scraps would be thrown outside to the dogs.

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It definitely is very tempting to see Jesus playfully quoting an ethnocentric Jewish trope that he transcends to avoid the harshness of this saying. That is my first instinct.

I am not sure I agree there are good exegetical reasons. Proper exegesis, interpreting a text in light of its historical context and ancient Jewish ideology would probably say the opposite. Jesus was certainly not a puppet of his time period, he transcended it in many ways but the text says nothing of this and we strictly interpret it this way because our modern sensibilities are unwilling to accept the harshness of Jesus’ response.

In Matthew 10:5 Jesus commissioned his disciples and told them this:
These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6 but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

Jesus more or less tells this to the woman, I was sent to the lost house of Israel. In Paul we see the same thing, first for the Jew then for the Gentile. Jesus conducted a programmatic mission mainly to the Jews. He seems to bump into a few Gentiles along the way depending on where his travels take him.

The first part of Jesus’ saying is clearly not a lie or a play on words. It seems to be true…“I’m here for Israel.” That was just a historical reality. I am certainly not saying your interpretation is wrong because, well we just don’t know but also, if this did happen, we have no idea of the tone of his voice, the manner in which he said it, etc. He was a charismatic figure and drawer of crowds. I just don’t see the interpretation as exegetically sound as nothing in the text suggests it, it is more of “no way Jesus meant that.” This interpretation might actually be a textbook example of eisegesis.

As one who believes in the full humanity of Jesus, and that he learned, would have made intellectual mistakes, banged his thumb with his hammer, etc., maybe he initially understood himself solely as coming for the lost house of Israel. It may even be possible this woman bested him (this is the only potential case where Jesus may have been bested in the Gospels) and caused a change in his heart about the end-goal and purpose of his own mission and vocation. I don’t buy into the Jesus who knew all the plans and details from the beginning. Belief in the incarnation compels me to treat Jesus as fully human on earth, otherwise what he did, suffered and accomplished loses all of its meaning to me if he was just some sort of demi-God. Anxiety or uncertainty and a lack of knowledge are both are integral parts of what it means to be fully human.

Is it possible that a Jesus who grew up in Galilee or with Jewish nationalist ideology his whole life learned something about God in this exchange? I’d say it is about as probable as assuming Jesus was testing the woman’s faith with an ethnocentric Jewish trope, as if he knew ahead of time she would given him such a clever rebuttal and that he would heal her.

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I like it Vinnie. He was God in the flesh. Prince trumps toad. He read her right. He read her better than anyone could. All is true about His enculturation, and His transcendence of it. He was always above it. Always. From a pre-verbal infant. Yearning to, for, in, as the good more than only a human could do. Just been talkin’ Heidegger, Dasein with the wife. He was as authentic as it gets. That He gave a third class citizen the counter-cultural time of day is an astounding action that sets the scene.

Thank you for your response. You brought forth some excellent insights and many things to consider. I believe you are correct on the “dogs” thing. It was not a playful term and even today, for people who absolutely love dogs, it is still an insult to be called one nonetheless.

I am no longer swayed by your first option (which is common) as it comes with theological assumptions I am not willing to grant. It assumes Jesus knew she would rise to the occasion (or just felt compelled by God to say this?). As part of the incarnation I believe in the FULL humanity of Jesus and that precludes me from assuming he would know exactly what the woman would respond with if he intentionally was harsh to her. Any miraculous deeds or instances of knowledge by the earthly Jesus come from the Father and his relationship to him in my view (Jesus was constantly off in prayer). So there is no problem with Jesus in engaging in this sort of playful banner but to me the woman is presented as distraught at the demon possession of her daughter, she falls at his feet immediately and is literally begging him to save her daughter. This doesn’t seem like a time for theater. I am mainly commenting on Mark’s account as I subscribe to Marcan priority so I am not sure how much of Matthew’s account is redaction of Mark. But even there Jesus gives her the silent treatment and she keeps following them crying out. Still renders a but of theater troubling. [Was this conversation in Greek or Aramaic is an interesting question to consider from a historical perspective]. In Matthew 10:5 Jesus tells his apostles to strictly avoid the Gentiles when commissioning him. Jesus was serious when he was talking about coming for the lost children of Israel to this woman. I honestly think the woman convinced Jesus to heal her daughter. Paul echoes similar thoughts about his mission (first for the Jew).
So from an exegetical standpoint, your first option may strip Jesus of his Judaism (he can certainly transcend parts of it!) and interprets him in light of modern sensibilities (the text book definition of eisegesis). Basically, no way could Jesus have said something so harsh to this woman because it offends my modern sensibilities.

I find your second interpretation to be much more plausible. God provided Jesus with an opportunity to grow in Wisdom and better understand his ultimate purpose and mission. This woman’s response is as you point out, the only potential case where Jesus is bested, and its done by a Gentile woman whom Jesus’ dimwitted (in Mark) apostles ask him to send away! I think the notion that Jesus, who was fully human per Christian doctrine, learned. Growing up in a Jewish culture his whole life, it would take him time and experience to strip away lots of that baggage. This may have been one such instance.

I think this exegesis is very good. Definitely need to think about the feeding miracle when viewing this. The Jews are fed and this woman bests Jesus over a few crumbs. Despite the derogatory “dog” term, everything in this account seems to portray Gentiles, in a favorable light.

This was the biggest eye opener for me in your post. In regards to Jesus’ 6 moral exhortations in the sermon on the mount in Matthew I recently wrote the following as part of a project I am working on:

Others scholars have called them antitheses because they see Jesus, with God-like authority, going beyond the Old Testament and at least implicitly critiquing it. Also, all of the “you have heard it said” have direct Old Testament parallels but the last one, about hating your enemy. It is clear that there is no mandate demanding Jews should hate their enemy but many Israelites would claim it is acceptable to hate God’s enemies (who are their enemies). We saw in an earlier chapter how a Psalmist rejoiced at the thoughts of dashing the infants of one’s enemy on the rocks (137:9) and a host of other passages with violent prayers. We also saw wars and passages about slaughtering, men, women and children --even verses where everyone was to die but virgins were to be kept captive as war booty (no pun intended). There is a large supply of exegetical ammunition in the Old Testament in support of “hate your enemies” despite no Law or passage directly teaching this. Jesus doesn’t consider such an attitude acceptable. It will become apparent that Jesus did more than just transcend the law, he added Himself to it, set the Old Testament against itself and simply disregarded certain parts at times.

It’s plain to me Jesus corrects two (oath and divorce) and critiques a few others with other scriptural passages. I never made the connection to one specific account though (Joshua) and your parallels are very intriguing. Thank you.

Vinnie

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I’ve made these observations around here before … but I once heard a pastor comment that Mark was his favorite gospel because Mark is like the youngest child who will say the most revealing, unfiltered, and embarrassing things while sitting around the family table (with guests present). With Matthew and the others, a bit more polish and interpretive overlay is applied. Which isn’t a bad thing - don’t get me wrong; all that is needed and used too. But never lose that ‘youngest’ (or in this case - oldest) gem!

First of it is necessary to point out that this event marks the reversal of the OT curse of the Canaanites found in Gen. 9:18-27. Noah cursed Canaan, the son of Ham, because he saw him naked after he got drunk. This curse, even it does not make much sense, was the basis for discrimination of the Jews against the Canaanites and their descendants, the Syrophoenicians.

However when Jesus blessed the Canaanite woman it reversed or counteracted the original curse making all person equal before God. This is true even though not long ago
and probably even today segregationists use the Curse of Canaan to justify slavery and White supremacy. Be very careful how you use the Bible to justify your biases.

Speaking of misusing the Bible to justify one’s biases, I have learnedt hat a prominent Evangelical theologian, Wayne Grudem, has reintroduced an old heresy called New Subordination today’s world. He claims that Jesus was subordinate to the Father while He lived on earth. I do not agree with this, but it might be acceptable.

The problem is that Grudem says that even after the Resurrection Jesus (and the Spirit) remained subordinate to the Father. He justifies this by saying Jesus was not subordinate by nature, but by His own Will.

Critics of this heresy point out the The Trinity is one God because it has one Will shared by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If the wills of the Son and the Spirit are subordinate to the Father then they must be different, they are not One.

Here is what happened. Jesus was in pagan territory, but not to preach and teach. His mission was to be the Promised Messiah of the Jews, which had to be done a certain way. The Jews had to accept or reject Him before He went to the Gentiles.

Somehow this pagan Canaanite woman knew Who He was and addressed Him, “Lord, Son of David,” (Mt 15:22) which really put Jesus in a dilemma, because she addressed Him as the Messiah, so she was more than a Canaanite. She was a Christian.

So He gave her a test of faith, which was His usual practice. Matthew 15:26-27 But He said, “It is not right to take the children’s food, and to give it to dogs.”
And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet the pets eat the crumbs which fall under the masters’ table.”

I think that Jesus was not really calling her a dog, but using a common saying to illustrate a point and she did the same thing. She “won” the curse of Canaan was more myth than truth. She “won” because Jesus really did respect women who were not “submissive” stood up to Him for their families or like the woman with the issue of blood for their health, or Mary for their right to be taught like a male disciple or Mary for the right of freedom of worship when she worshipped Jesus by washing His feet with expensive perfume.

Jesus rewrote the OT more by what He did than what He said.

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@Vinnie
I saw this thread today and thought of you. It’s a good explanation of the story in its literary context.

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Thanks for sharing.The exact thrust of Jesus’ statement is contrary to a lot of his actions and deeds elsewhere to me. I grants that and her argument seems to be: Mark is so obviously positive towards Gentiles this can’t be a mean statement by Jesus towards Gentiles. He is inviting her to explain what he was trying to tell his disciples. She seems to be arguing from a narrative perspective in Mark. I can see that. I am asking if this incident actually occurred, what are we to make of Jesus’ specific saying? Why does Jesus refer to Gentiles, pejoratively, as dogs in an encounter with one? That he healed the woman’s daughter, other Gentiles and fed some doesn’t negate the difficulty here. She never really addresses the issue but only skirts around it. The issues is Jesus didn’t say, I was called first to the Jews then to the Gentiles to the woman. He said I can’t give to dogs what is reserved for children. Thats the question for me.

She has not remotely demonstrated Jesus did not learn from this experience either. She is bringing her assumptions about Jesus to the text as we all do.

Vinnie

Her contention was that it was to make a point about Jewish purity laws and what was and wasn’t unclean. That is, he was intentionally breaking down divisions that kept the Jews and Gentiles apart because Gentiles were viewed as unclean, but his actions were asserting inclusion in the kingdom.

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I agree completely about his actions. The saying seems against the grain of all of that to me, unless it was tongue in cheek.

How though?This isnt possible.Canaanites werent aware of the prophesies of the Jews and she couldnt possibly know who he was.Even hes own disciples didnt at the time.Also i have to take a reaserch as to whether Canaanites existed at this period of time.As much as i want an answer to this the context of this is questionable

The Canaanites did not exist at the time. But they were the enemies of the Jews, so to identify her with them is to make a point that in Christ, in the new Kingdom, the old divisions and the old enemies no longer apply. It’s part of the great reversal of the gospel.

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That explains it better!Thanks Christy ,Take care!!

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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