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Women in the Gospels: The Gentile Woman

August 13, 2012
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The story of the Gentile woman is found in Matthew 15:21-28 and Mark 7:24-30.  In Matthew the woman is described as a Canaanite and in Mark the woman is described as a Greek Syrophoenician (a person from Syrian Phoenicia).  I see no particular reason to believe that these cannot both be true1 given the geography of the region and the vagueness of both terms (“Greek” could mean either from Greece or from a Greek culture which would be present in Tyre).  Both terms do mark the woman as an outsider to Israel, “Canaanite” perhaps more strongly so.  Indeed, the story focuses around the issue of Gentile inclusion.

In both gospels the story is fairly straightforward: Jesus leaves the territory of Israel and goes to Tyre, a city-state that was never part of Israel but had occasionally been allied to it.  There he is approached by a Gentile woman who begs him to heal her daughter who is oppressed by a demon.  In Matthew’s telling the woman explicitly identifies Jesus as Israel’s rightful ruler, the Son of David (Matthew includes more dialog at the beginning of the story).  Jesus does not respond as we might expect.  Instead, he denies her right to have her daughter healed.  “It is not right,” he says, “to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”  (Mark clarifies, “First let the children eat their fill”.)  Especially given Matthew’s additional comments it is clear that the children are the Israelites and this woman is one of the dogs, the Gentiles.  This is, quite frankly, one of the harshest things Jesus says to anyone who is not directly opposing him.  However, the woman is not deterred.  “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” she replies.  Jesus then praises her response (“Because of this answer…” in Mark and “You have great faith!” in Matthew) and assures her that her child is healed.

It would be really nice to avoid having to discuss this passage.  It’s a tricky one, and it’s quite possible that Luke’s Gentile-oriented gospel leaves this story out precisely because it is so easy to read in a manner that insults Gentiles.  First, we need some context.  The context is pretty simple as both Matthew and Mark record the same incident before this story (something that is not always true).  In this incident Jesus is teaching on the Law (specifically why he breaks the tradition of the elders that one should wash one’s hands before eating2) and accuses the Pharisees of breaking the Law through their traditions.  He goes on to say that what goes into someone is not what defiles them but what comes out, that food is not the issue but one’s words and actions.  Mark notes that this means that all foods are clean.  Now, both Matthew and Mark also record a powerful miracle after the story of the Gentile woman but it’s not the same miracle and in Matthew it’s the feeding of the four thousand, picking up on a previous narrative thread.  For this reason I think that the most important context is this earlier story – the dispute with the Pharisees and the faith of the Gentile woman are bound together.

The story of the Gentile woman can be summarized like this: first, the woman comes to Jesus to ask for her daughter to be healed.  Jesus refuses, citing the fact that he is the Jewish Messiah here for the children of Israel (of which she is not a part).  The woman responds in an odd manner citing the behavior of dogs eating crumbs under the table.  My best guess is that this accomplishes several things: first, it positions her under Israel and its Messiah.  She is not saying, “Random traveling miracle-worker, heal my daughter,” but, “Holy One of Israel, I acknowledge your lordship, heal my daughter.”  In doing so she signals that the healing, should it come, would confirm that Israel’s God and Israel’s purpose are right for her.  Second, she points out that she is not taking anything from Israel that they haven’t metaphorically discarded.  Israel suffers no harm if its Messiah does good for a Gentile who openly admits that Israel’s Messiah is lord.  Thirdly, she presses the issue.  There’s a contrast between the Pharisees who are supposed to be preparing Israel for the Messiah and this woman who is supposed to be on the sidelines entirely.  The Pharisees are finding reasons to disagree with Jesus and this woman is saying that she finds the crumbs that Israel drops while at the Messiah’s table are worth obtaining even at the cost of real effort.  Jesus responds to all of this by saying that she is right and healing her daughter from a distance – a powerful miracle.

So, what does this explanation tells us about women in the Gospels?  Well, it’s an interesting story because while Jesus often gets into verbal sparring matches he almost always has the last word.  Here he doesn’t.  In fact, at first read-through it looks like Jesus loses the debate: he represents team Israel, she makes him change his mind.  This doesn’t need to be true to be worth noting.  Jesus could be setting up a verbal challenge that she passes and the point remains: Jesus does not feel a need to get the last word in here.  He is content to agree with her and let her go even when this might appear to some that she won a debate with him.  This is perhaps especially important when one considers that most rabbis of his day would have considered a woman to be unworthy of even learning from them, let alone arguing with them and appearing to win.

This story is part of what I think is a larger inclusion theme.  The Pharisees are wrong about hand-washing and they are wrong about the Gentiles.  Even the Gentiles (represented by this woman) understand Jesus and Israel better than the Pharisees.  Again, this story deals little with the themes of leadership in the church or the home but Jesus’ response to this woman ends up being quite positive.  He is willing to let her argue him down from his position (indeed, I believe he intended for her to do so) and praises her faith.  She comes out of this as a good character and one of the few who pass Jesus’ verbal challenges, something even the disciples failed to do a few lines earlier.


[1] And even scholars who have no reason to believe that this story ever actually occurred would generally believe that Matthew drew on Mark’s story and knew how Mark had identified the woman.

[2] My wife and I occasionally reenact this great rabbinical dispute.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. August 15, 2012 2:54 pm

    I’d ask which of you usually wins the rabbinical dispute, but I’m pretty sure I know that answer already. :)

  2. August 16, 2012 1:42 pm

    I think that your analysis of the passage is spot on. It’s powerful too – the idea that a Greek woman would see things more clearly than the Pharisees or (at least on occasion) the disciples is striking.

    On a slightly different note, I have often wondered about Jesus’s first words to the woman. I have heard some pastors say that the word “dog” was commonly used as an insult for gentiles by first-century Palestinian Jews. I haven’t read up on this myself, and I have no idea whether it is true, but Jesus certainly seems to speak unkindly toward the woman at the beginning of their encounter. Is this right? Does Jesus speak unkindly toward the woman? And, if so, was Jesus wrong to do so? At present, I’m inclined to think that Jesus did speak unkindly to the woman, but that he was not wrong to do so, and that his words were rightly critical of gentile life and culture. (Note, I’m not suggesting that Jesus used the word “dog” as a stock insult, even if the word was commonly used in such a way by his fellow Jews, but I am suggesting that his words were unkind.) Anyway, what do you think?

    • Eric permalink
      August 16, 2012 4:31 pm

      I tend to agree that Jesus’ initial reply is pretty hostile. I think that’s part of the contrast of the story – this woman (unlike the Pharisees) pursues Jesus’ blessing so strongly that even his rudeness does not turn her aside. I think Jesus’ purpose in speaking in an unkind manner is more important than merely whether he did and I think this purpose is ultimately a good one.

  3. August 16, 2012 11:58 pm

    I think several of your points are outstanding. 1.) the context of Jesus’ constant contrast between Pharisee “expertise” and supposedly ignorant Gentile faith; 2.) the fact that this non-Jew addressed Jesus (if memory serves me) as “Son of David!” clearly demonstrating full recognition of who he was; 3.) that Jesus set up a verbal challenge and expected her to “win.” Other than myself, I’ve never heard anyone notice or mention this third point.

    In fact, I see the whole story as a challenge intended not for HER, but for the still-learning disciples who were with him. I think it was a total set-up to challenge their conventional wisdom of Jewish exclusivity.

    I imagine the disciples at first exchanging awkward glances when their Messiah and Rabbi didn’t immediately handle her “properly.” To them, Jesus was oddly silent. So, after a polite interval, they finally urge and remind him to send her away, summarily dismissed and, effectively, forsaken.

    When Jesus replied that he was sent “only” to the lost sheep of Israel, I believe this was a slightly sarcastic remark aimed at them, playing along and verbalizing the very mind-set he intended to change—as if to say, “Oh, right! I was sent only for Israel.” After his second remark about it not being right to give children’s bread to dogs, I picture the disciples shooting her a smug look that says, “See?”

    They must have been flabbergasted over her quick-witted reply about dogs eating crumbs, and I’ll bet their jaws dropped when Jesus praised her for it!

    Jesus didn’t lose a debate here because I don’t think he was ever in one. Neither was he hostile or snobbish, or change his mind. He was cleverly teaching, as usual. I believe he knew full well that she would respond as she did and intended all along to heal her daughter. He simply had to let the scene play out so the disciples could watch a live demonstration rather than hear a lecture. So much more effective! (And I picture him giving her a little wink, too.)

    Great post.

    • Eric permalink
      August 17, 2012 7:58 pm

      I have some worries about downplaying the unpleasantness of Jesus’ response or of adding context that was not originally there but which dramatically changes the story. (If, indeed, this is a lesson for the disciples why isn’t their dialog or response mentioned in either gospel?) On the other hand, there’s a consistent theme in which Jesus is harassed by people who seem to regard him as nothing but a traveling miracle man and who don’t really get what he is doing. A more hostile response within that context isn’t any more pleasant to be on the receiving end of but it is more understandable.

      • August 18, 2012 2:44 am

        I can’t say why the disciples’ response isn’t mentioned, but details are often omitted that, to me, would make more sense if they were included. I do know that Jesus’ teaching style was to use situations and people normally considered worthless to turn spiritual A-listers on their ears. The first are last, the last are first; Pharisees are whitewashed tombs all clean on the outside, but full of death on the inside… and so on.

        In all aspects, he was a game-changer for the oppressed, the outsiders, the sick, the needy, etc. His harsher words were always aimed at religious know-it-alls and snobs, not the objects of their contempt (like this woman).

        We also know from other Scriptures that Jesus WASN’T sent only for the lost sheep of Israel, but for the entire world. So either he was mistaken when he said that phrase (highly unlikely), or he outright lied (highly unlikely), or he said it specifically to set up the point he was about to make.
        His point was that this mind-set is wrong, and that a supposed outsider and (gasp!) a woman to boot, had more faith and wisdom than self-proclaimed experts. He said the same of the Roman centurion, clearly an “unfavored” outsider. He also made a similar remark about the widow who put two tiny coins in the temple offering. And the parable of the Good Samaritan made precisely the same point. These and others are all lessons.

        The disciples were, at first, as ignorant as anyone else. They had to un-learn all this religious and cultural BS, which Jesus called the yeast of the Pharisees, that had warped God’s ways over the centuries.

        And, given Jesus’ own stated purpose for coming—to proclaim the kingdom of heaven and offer new life to anyone (good news for Jews and Gentiles alike)—most of his time was spent teaching and preparing his disciples to think, love, and do as he did, not as their previous teachers did.
        His miracles, including this one of healing the daughter of demon possession, underscored his message of spiritual goodness and well-being by making it physical reality. Unfortunately, as you aptly noted, many people saw this as little more than parlor tricks by a miracle man.

        Given all this, I’m of the opinion that any time we see Jesus in action, this is the context into which we should immediately place his encounters, including this one: Unlearning the old and learning the new (or, more accurately, the re-newed).

        I don’t believe this adds non-existent context at all. It might change how we perceive this story, but that’s what’s exciting to me. New light and clearer vision make sense of an otherwise inconsistent Jesus who seems harsh or mean, but other times loving and kind.

  4. Eric permalink
    August 18, 2012 9:56 am

    My primary point of disagreement with you is about Israel. Yes, Jesus’ mission is universal, but there’s also a sense in which it grows into that universality. This is a major theme of the book of Acts. In Matthew the universalization of Jesus’ mission becomes most clear, and strongest in form (aimed at actual conversion of the Gentiles not merely responses to faithful Gentiles who come asking), at the end in the Great Commission where Jesus begins by saying, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.” I think that for Matthew’s presumably very Jewish audience this is actually the first real explanation of why there are Gentiles in the church, because Jesus has been crowned not just as the true King of Israel but (surprise!) King of the Universe and so all people now rightly belong within the scope of his mission.

    When the Canaanite woman asks Jesus for a miracle chapters before this she recognizes him as the king of Israel and places herself under Israel’s story exactly as we see unfold at the end of Matthew and in Acts (where Jesus acts through Israel to the world, not merely to the world). I think Jesus’ challenge is a real one: explain why, at this point in my ministry, this is what I should be doing. I think her answer makes sense: because I anticipate the end of the story and already place myself under your authority as Israel’s rightful king. But I think Jesus’ challenge does make sense. Moreover, even though I think Jesus knows the woman will answer the challenge correctly, making someone pass a test before healing their child isn’t a friendly thing to do on the face of it.

    Now, ultimately, Jesus’ dialog with this woman provides justification for not only healing her but for the inclusion of many more people within Jesus’ work and so the ultimate result of all of this could be called friendly. However, when Jesus first poses his question to the woman I think she would feel that a barrier had been placed in front of her and that she would be unsure whether she could vault it. Indeed, that’s one of the contrasts between her and the Pharisees – she has a barrier placed in her way and doesn’t let it stop her but the Pharisees, finding no barriers in their way, make some.

    • August 18, 2012 11:18 am

      I agree that there’s an element of a test here for the woman, but she doesn’t strike me as being the least bit unsure. In fact, she was rather nervy, given the possible social/religious repercussions.

      1. She confidently addressed Jesus right off the bat as Son of David. 2. She remained undaunted throughout, despite the disciples’ out-loud desire to dismiss her. 3. She never skipped a beat when she gave her final reply about crumbs.

      Surely, she was fully aware of the barrier placed before her by the society and culture around her, especially after the disciples themselves verbalized it. But I don’t think she perceived any barrier placed by Jesus; indeed, she shamelessly appeals to him for this very reason. Here was a King she had access to, who would actually help her.

      I completely agree that she stands in stark contrast to the Pharisees. She just doesn’t strike me, anyway, as the one who needed to learn something here. And her confidence is the very thing Jesus praised right in front of the guys who would have shunned her if they’d had their way. It must have been quite the eyebrow-raising and eye-opening demonstration for them…one of many such experiences.

      An interesting discussion. :)

  5. Eric permalink
    August 18, 2012 9:09 pm

    Ah, well, I think I’m in general agreement here. I do think this is a test. I don’t think it’s one where the woman is supposed to learn something – instead, she’s supposed to demonstrate that she’s actually interested in what Jesus is doing and thereby teach everyone who sees or hears about the event.

    I do agree that the woman does what is right and that she is very confident. What I don’t want to do is then minimize the question as if she couldn’t have failed it. It’s a real question and I don’t think that if she’d totally flubbed the question (“Well, yeah…but…um…I’d like you to?”) that Jesus would have necessarily done what she asked anyway.

    I think one can claim that the woman passed a real test that Jesus had set up to teach those listening with flying colors. Moreover, I think this is something we could both agree on.

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