Saturday, November 17, 2012

Even the Dogs Eat the Crumbs: Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician Woman

Matthew 15:21-28 tells this story:

Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel."  The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.  He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”  “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

For years I didn't know what to think of this story.  It looked like Jesus was first ignoring, and then insulting, a poor, desperate woman-- for no other reason than that she was a Gentile.  It looked like she obtained healing for her daughter only after submitting to humiliation by agreeing that she and her people were little more than "dogs."  If Jesus is really the compassionate Savior of all mankind, how could He be so racist and cruel?  

But one of my general principles of Bible interpretation is to read passages like this in light of passages that are easy to understand.  Jesus is consistently portrayed elsewhere in the Gospels as ready to help any sufferer who came to Him, including Roman soldiers, tax collectors, and lepers.  When something doesn't seem to fit, the key is to look deeper.

As I discussed in my earlier post Assumptions Make You-Know-Whats Out of You and Me, the reason some Bible passages seem jarring and out of place, is that we come from a different cultural context.  Things the original writers and readers took for granted and felt no need to explain are mysteries to us, which can make us completely misunderstand what is actually going on.

So, in looking deeper, I found three aspects of Ancient Near East (ANE) culture that shed significant light on what Jesus and the woman He encountered were actually doing.

1.  Community.

Kenneth Bailey's book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes examines this story in Chapter 16.   He says:

"A critical component in both the parables of Jesus and the dramatic stories about him is the ever-present community.  In much current reflection on many of these texts, the community is ignored.  Contemporary Western society is highly individualistic.   Most of the societies in the majority world still function as tightly knit communities. . . That community gives identity and profoundly influences both attitude and lifestyle. In the stories about Jesus, the surrounding community (on- or offstage) is a critical component in all that takes place and its presence must be factored into any interpretive effort."

Bailey points out that this story is not simply about an interaction between Jesus and a foreign woman.  The disciples are the audience, and Jesus' words and actions must also be interpreted in light of whatever lesson He intended to impart to them.   (The listeners/readers of this story both as it was told and written down were also part of the tellers'/writers' intended audience.)   Bailey points out that both to the disciples and to the original hearers of the story, Jesus' interaction with this woman (who came out to him herself and was therefore probably a poor widow with no one to send in her place) would raise parallels with the story of Elijah and the starving widow of Sidon (1 Kings 7:7-16).  Jesus had spoken of this Elijah story in the synagogue when He announced Himself at the beginning of his ministry, in Luke 4:25-27: "And I can assure you that there were many widows in Israel during Elijah’s time, when it did not rain for three and a half years and there was a great food shortage in the land.Yet Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to a widow in the city of Zarephath in the region of Sidon."  Jesus intended that His ministry be compared with that of Elijah, and that is just what the disciples would have done.

The initial response of Jesus to this foreign woman-- not answering her a word-- was entirely in accordance with the norms of the day, and the disciples knew it, which was why they asked Jesus to do the expected thing and send her away.  But Bailey points out that in the presence of this woman's suffering, and with their understanding of Jesus as a prophet, "such ethnocentric views were inevitably uncomfortable."  By interacting with this woman first within the social norms, and then by stepping outside them, Jesus was teaching His followers a new way to respond to foreigners-- and to women.

2.  Socio-Economics. 

Jane E. Hick's online article in the Lutheran magazine Word and World, entitled Moral Agency at the Borders: Rereading the Story of the Syrophoenician Woman, points out:

"Tyre was a well-known commercial center with significant trade relations along the Mediterranean. . . Tyre would have owned surrounding territories and could have claimed agricultural proceeds from these, but it would also have used its considerable clout and wealth to acquire surplus from Jewish villages, sometimes leaving less than enough for those who actually worked the land. One can imagine that the exploitative situation was exacerbated during times of drought and famine; urban centers likely took their allotment of food first, leaving shortages of food in the countryside."

Even if she was poor, the Syro-Phoenician woman was a still a member of a Hellenized (Greek-cultured) group which was known for exploiting the nearby Jewish community.  Hicks goes on to say, "Given these underlying power dynamics, Jesus’ household metaphor in which the bread goes first to the children of Israel would be understood by early listeners as a reversal of the reigning order."

Hellenized cultures such as this woman's would be well-versed in the teachings of Aristotle, to whom all others were barbarians, socially on a par with slaves.  Though the Gospel of Matthew reflects Jewish contempt of the woman as a "Canaanite," a descendant of the peoples originally displaced by the Jews, the fact remains that the contempt between these two people-groups would have been mutual.  The Syro-Phoenicians would have viewed the Jews as "dogs," and here in Syro-Phoenician territory, Jesus might very well have been ironically turning the prevailing attitude on its head for the woman to see and acknowledge.  His lesson in racism would thus not have been just for the disciples, but for her.

3.  Honor and Shame.

David A. deSilva's book Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture states in Chapter 1, Honor & Shame:

"The culture of the first-century world was built on the foundational social values of honor and dishonor. . . Those living or reared in Asiatic, Latin American, Mediterranean or Islamic countries have considerable advantage in their reading of the New Testament in this regard, since many of those cultures place a prominent emphasis on honor and shame. Readers living in the United States or Western Europe may recognize immediately that we live at some distance from the honor culture of the first-century Greco-Roman world (including the Semitic peoples in the East). In our culture the bottom line for decision-making is not always (indeed, perhaps rarely) identifying the honorable thing to do. In the corporate world, for example, the “profitable” frequently acts as the central value. Considerations of right and wrong are also prominent, but these are based on internalized values or norms rather than values enforced by overt approval or disapproval by the larger society. Typically we do not talk about honor and shame much. . . ." pp. 23, 25-26.

In the cultures of both the Jews and the Syro-Phoenicians, males and females gained honor in different ways.  Males gained honor by deeds of courage or generosity in the community, while women gained honor by maintaining the integrity of their privacy within the home and family.  DeSilva states:

In the ancient world, as in many traditional cultures today, women and men have different arenas for the preservation and acquisition of honor, and different standards for honorable activity. Men occupy the public spaces, while women are generally directed toward the private spaces of home and hearth. When they leave the home, they are careful to avoid conversation with other men. The places they go are frequented mainly by women (the village well, the market for food) and so become something of an extension of “private” space. In the fifth century B.C., Thucydides wrote that the most honorable woman is the one least talked about by men (Hist. 2.45.2). Six hundred years later Plutarch will say much the same thing: a woman should be seen when she is with her husband, but stay hidden at home when he is away (“Advice on Marriage” 9). Both her body and her words should not be “public property” but instead guarded from strangers." p. 33

Kenneth Bailey points out in Jesus Through Middle-Eastern Eyes that, just as no self-respecting woman would speak to a strange man in public, no self-respecting rabbi would speak to a woman in public (p. 221).  Jesus quite frequently ignored this prohibition: discussing theology with the woman at the well in John 4:1-42; assuring the woman who washed His feet with her tears that her sins were forgiven in Luke 7:36-50.  Here He seems at first to obey the social barrier, and then breaks it.  Why?

Bailey reminds us that in calling out to Jesus using the title "Lord, Son of David," this woman is using a Messianic title for Jesus-- very unexpected in a Gentile.  In spite of being a Syro-Phoenician, then, this woman believes that Jesus is more than an itinerant Jewish preacher.  She also opens with the beggar's standard cry, "Have mercy on me!"  This woman is so desperate for help that she deliberately lets go of  her honor by following and calling out to a man in public, and by using a beggar's words.  Socially, she has no reason to expect this Jewish rabbi to answer her-- but she believes He is more than a rabbi.   So she perseveres in the face of His silence-- but she does not (as we tend to do) read His silence as insult or cruelty.  Like the woman who touched the hem of His garment (Luke 8:40-48), she knows there are barriers to overcome and sets herself boldly to overcome them.

When the disciples, upset that Jesus has not already sent this shameful woman away, ask Him to go ahead and do it, Jesus instead gives a response clearly intended for the woman to hear: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel."  This is not an answer to the disciples' request.  Instead it is a rhetorical statement of something the disciples and the woman both know,* but it functions as a challenge to the woman:  "Tell me why I should help you."  Instead of sending her away, Jesus engages Himself in the interaction.  She then is encouraged enough to come right up to him and kneel, switching from the beggar's standard plea to the simple words, "Lord, help me."

And here is what is truly astonishing.  DeSilva tells us that a challenge of the sort Jesus offers was a common social interaction in ANE honor-shame cultures-- but only for men.  He explains:

"[H]onor can be won and lost in what has been called the social game of challenge and riposte. It is this “game,” still observable in the modern Mediterranean, that has caused cultural anthropologists to label the culture as “agonistic,” from the Greek word for “contest”.  The challenge-riposte is essentially an attempt to gain honor at someone else’s expense by publicly posing a challenge that cannot be answered. When a challenge has been posed, the challenged must make some sort of response (and no response is also considered a response). It falls to the bystanders to decide whether or not the challenged person successfully defended his (and, indeed, usually “his”) own honor. The Gospels are full of these exchanges, mainly posed by Pharisees, Sadducees or other religious officials at Jesus, whom they regarded as an upstart threatening to steal their place in the esteem of the people." p. 29, emphasis added. 

The rest of the exchange between Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman is just this sort of challenge-riposte.  Jesus says, "It is not fair to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs."  He uses a diminutive word for "dogs," (Bailey, p. 224), which slightly softens the challenge.  But he flings up to her the attitude of her people towards the Jews, as well as their attitude towards her people.  She (perhaps wryly acknowledging that the tables are turned between them, a Hellenized woman in her own territory and a lowly Jew) answers with a pithy response-- which Jesus then acknowledges as having bested Him in the challenge!  

The challenge-riposte, if offered to a man, would be an attempt to gain honor at his expense.  But Jesus offers it to a woman who, according to every social convention of both their cultures, has already forfeited her honor in this situation.  In doing so He raises her to the status of an equal.  And in acknowledging her win, he restores her honor in the sight of the audience.

By understanding this story in terms of community, socio-economics, and honor/shame, we see that what is really going on is that Jesus has:

Echoed the mercy and miracle-working of Elijah;
Showed a foreign woman and His disciples their mutual prejudice;
Restored a woman's lost honor (at His own expense!);
Taught His followers what "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" really looks like; 
Answered a desperate mother's prayer for the healing of her child. 

And for us, of course, it illustrates again how we need to learn what things the original writers and readers took for granted and felt no need to explain, in order to keep from totally misunderstanding a Bible text. 

If Jesus had simply done as we in the modern West expect, and healed the woman's child, all the underlying dynamics would have gone unaddressed.   Instead, He used silence, followed by challenge-riposte, to deal with the full situation.  Seeing this, I have gone from embarrassment at this text and a wish to avoid it, to an even greater love and admiration for my Savior and a desire to tell this story on my blog as it it deserves to be told.

Jesus acted in concern for the whole person and the whole situation with which He was confronted.  He didn't apply bandaids, but spoke right to the heart of the matter.  And He healed more than just the child He was asked to heal.

So how do we apply this story to our own lives?

I think that for us today, this story is about how social and religious conventions can perpetuate racial and gender oppression.  Oppression hurts more than just those on the receiving end.  It hurts the perpetrators too-- and we as human beings often find ourselves in both positions.  If Jesus went against religious and social convention to set people free from attitudes that restrict and bind themselves and others, shouldn't His followers do the same?


*Note:  Jesus' initial mission was to the house of Israel; it was to His followers, after the Resurrection, that the mission to the Gentiles would fall-- which renders a lesson to them like this one especially important.


Donald Johnson said...


I am very impressed with these insights, that was great!

believer333 said...

Yes, as am I. I always figured it was something of a challenge toward her, urging her to step up or to see if she was really serious. But this adds so much more to the picture.

Thank you very much for these insights. Now I want to read that book. And it makes me feel it is right to challenge leaders to respect women as women, though in an indirect manner. :)

kbonikowsky said...

Ray VanderLaan exclaimes this woman had chutzpah!, and it was this courageous-audacious faith that Jesus praised. I love your insight into the teaching technique of the challenge-riposte. From what I understand, it is still a common device used with rabbis and students.

Anonymous said...

I burst out with "JESUS IS SO COOL!" It startled my husband. :) Thank you for this.

Kristen said...

LOL- you made my day!

Pastor Matt said...

Very intriguing.

Carolyn Caffrey said...

I'm afraid that social justice rabblerousing of late has kept me from reading your posts for awhile. And now I recall why I signed up to receive them! Thank you for the care, and scholarship and layered analysis you give to the topics and passages (quite often the ones that cause a great many of us problems)that you choose to discuss.

I looked for this passage in particular as it was one of the Scriptures covered recently by the Associate Rector of our church. He covered some of the history of animosity you discussed here and, as to Jesus' response, he focused on the place of the challenge/riposte in the culture of the time and, particularly, on the aspect of Jesus lifting her to the status of equal by engaging her in that exchange!

I so appreciate your willingness to dig deeply into some of the more troubling or seemingly inconsistent passages of Scripture. I also thank you for your rigorous and scholarly analysis, and challenge, to some of the interpretation of the "times" and tenets of the faith being emphasized by fundamentalist preachers/teachers today. (I find "Dominionism" particularly dangerous right now.)

I look forward to "catching up" on my reading of your posts and, if you find yourself back in Texas, hope that might include Austin. I'll extend an open invitation right now to come worship with us at St. James Episcopal Church. It is the MOST diverse congregaton I've ever attended, and one quite comfortable with dealing with "tough" questions.

Thank you again for sharing your journey with us!

Kristen said...

Carolyn, thank you so much for your words of encouragement, and I'm very gratified to hear that your Rector preached along these lines. This idea that Jesus was using the challenge-riposte in this instance was a conclusion I reached on my own, after researching the subject, but I don't have a seminary degree, and it's good to know that someone with such an education can agree.

Sarah Joiner said...

Hi Kristen,

I edit the Christadelphian Isolation League Newsletter - a not for profit magazine. Most copies are free. It's published three times per annum and about 2500 copies go out worldwide to those who don't live near a church.

I really like this article. Please can I use it in the newsletter? If so - how would you like it acknowledged?

Kristen said...

Hi Sarah, I'm honored! You can just put my name and blogsite address on it, ok? My last name is Rosser.

Gwen said...

This has been SO helpful to me -- I have never understood this story, and it's always made me vaguely uncomfortable and bewildered. I'm so glad I stumbled across your blog -- thanks for taking the time to share your insights!

Tina said...

Wow! Thought provoking words. Thank you for expanding upon this passage in a way that brings culture and context into light. I found myself becoming emotional as I understood the love of my savior a little more today. Thank you for this!

Unknown said...

The spirit moved and made me weep preparing my heart for truth to free me. Then I was shown how this played out in a relationship and God's goal is for us to be vessels which restore humanity and remove blocks to it!! I was in a position of 'higher' with another and subtly he showed up with misogyny to counteract what he felt was my power over him. If I had shown up 'man to man' so to speak, the false identity he was operating under would have been diminished-- allowing his true sonship to shine forth.