Biblical dogs seem to get a fairly rough deal. Nobody wanted to be a dog in Bible times. Paul warned the Philippians to beware of them (Phil. 3:2). Jesus insisted that they should not be given anything holy (Matt. 7:6). Dogs, spiritualists, fornicators, murderers, and other such elements will all be excluded from heaven (Rev. 22:15). Clearly, being a dog can be bad enough. Though, thanks to Solomon, there is still hope for dogs, living dogs, at any rate, which, in Solomon’s storied judgment, are better than dead lions (Eccl. 9:4).
Not for Dogs
Jesus’ disciples could tell who belonged to dog status. The woman from Syrian Phoenicia did. Everybody from that part of the world did. They were all dogs. That was the only reason, the disciples could all see, why Jesus would say what He did to the woman, regardless of her desperation. There may have been something to be noticed, cared about perhaps, or even deeply pitied about her plea. But healing was not for her.
Yes, they were men, and fishermen at that, toughened by long nights of lonely, patient vigil, and fierce fights against mad waves. But surely someone among them could feel a tug on his heart as this desperate mother pleaded for her “little daughter” (Mark 7:25), who was “cruelly demon-possessed” (Matt. 15:22, NASB).1 Peter, at the very least, knew what it was like to long for a loved one’s healing. Even if he had no daughter, he had had an ailing mother-in-law. Jesus had intervened, in his own home, to relieve his soul’s distress by healing afflictions of body for someone he loved (Mark 1:30, 31). Moreover, Peter’s brother loved him too, enough to bring him to Jesus (John 1:35-42). Then there was John, who had brother James for close, constant company.2 Beyond their brotherhood, they had Simon Peter for their partner and workmate before they ever came together to set up Israel’s new kingdom (Luke 5:10). They knew about the ties of human affection. Their triumvirate didn’t begin with Jesus. They were tight before any of them ever met the Messiah. His transformation of their lives and destiny couldn’t break up their closeness. And though we know little about the rest, surely they all knew something about family.
What then would be so difficult, so wrong about this poor woman’s cry, that these men should behave as they did? “His disciples came to him and urged him, ‘Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us’ ” (Matt. 15:23). Why should she be singled out for expulsion from Jesus’ presence? Why couldn’t she have demons cast out of her daughter? Hadn’t Jesus given them power to do just that the year before (Matt. 10:8)?
The answer was yes and no. Yes, He had given them such power. But not for dogs. They had read their marching orders: They were specifically forbidden to go to the Gentiles or Samaritans. Their field was the lost of Israel (verses 5, 6).
Syrian Phoenicia was no part of lost Israel. It was worse than merely Gentile territory. It was Canaan. Jesus repeated their assignment in what they must have heard as unmistakable context. He followed His extended silence before her cries with a single, stern line: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (Matt. 15:24).
History of the Dogs
Canaan was the dream of generations of Israelites, the land of rest after Egyptian tyranny and wilderness wandering. And though Israelites dreamed of getting to Canaan, no Israelite ever dreamed of becoming Canaanite. Hence Matthew’s ethnic marker: though Mark knows her to be Greek (Mark 7:26), this woman of Syrian Phoenicia is still, for Matthew, Canaanite (Matt. 15:22), belonging to the people whose extermination God had ordered. Israel’s occupation of the Promised Land meant cutting off the Canaanites (Ex. 23:23). God would drive them out (Ex. 33:2); He would send hornets before the Israelites to do it (Ex. 23:28). All this because of the Canaanites’ wickedness. Israel was holy, and would preserve that holy status only by wiping out the unholy Canaanites (Deut. 7:1-6).
To judge by Matthew’s label, the tumult of changes, military, migratory, or otherwise, through 1,500 years of time, had changed nothing. Canaanites were still around. And Jesus had come north along the seacoast to the region of Tyre (Mark 7:24), to teach them another lesson. What Mark calls Tyre, Matthew speaks of as the region of Tyre and Sidon (Matt. 15:21), reflecting the intertwining identities of these two cities in ethnic and cultural affairs, for two millennia before him. Tyre (Arabic Sour) is in modern Lebanon, 12 miles north of the border with Israel. Sidon (Saida) is another 20 miles farther north.
Except for the Israelites, Matthew’s ethnic label, Canaanite, is a highly positive term. Its meaning points up the fact that the region’s historical inhabitants had been excellent traders. They certainly had great material to trade. Their artisanship was consistently superior. And their prowess in multiple areas, whether as business people, sailors, or boat builders, is amply celebrated: Their wares and skills became known far abroad not only by export, but because they themselves actually set up colonies overseas, for example, at Carthage in North Africa. The breadth of their fame, illustrated by the list of countries they engaged in Africa, Europe, and elsewhere, embraces a total of 35 cities, nation states, or ethnic groupings listed as trading partners in a single Bible chapter (Eze. 27).
Phoenician material and aesthetic giftedness were a continual fascination to Israel, and its constant seduction. God’s blight of drought on Israel, in protest against Jezebel and Baal’s takeover, is among Scripture’s most dramatic testimonies to the power of Canaan over Israel (1 Kings 17:1; James 5:17). Sidon was the hometown of Ahab’s queen, who brought her father-priest’s religion and culture with her to Samaria (1 Kings 16:31-33). And if God decreed their elimination 1,500 years before, and if He would have His prophet Elijah slaughter the prophets of Canaanite religion 900 years ago, why should He now grant their descendants blessings? The disciples agreed completely with Jesus’ categorization. “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs” (Matt. 15:26).
No doubt the disciples could not expect the woman to agree, though they knew for sure that Jesus was right. After all, mutual agreement is not the goal of insult, and agreement would mean accepting the canine characterization. But then, the wretched soul did agree. Not only did she agree, she justified Jesus’ perspective—on two counts: “First let the children eat all they want,” Jesus had retorted, because “it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27). She was fine with that. Dogs, she agreed, could eat last. That was appropriate. But that very concession acknowledged the greater point: Dogs eat too. There would always be enough left over. Crumbs of grace would suffice for her. Because grace is not by just deserts. It is based on need. And grace is inexhaustible. There is always more.
Whether those first in line appreciated their privilege or not, the woman understood her place. She could live with leftovers scattered under the table. Because any portion of grace, by loaf or by crumb, and any access to grace, by privileged priority or by ultimate desperation, would always be enough.
Jesus made His point. And one Canaanite woman got it. He explained Himself by repeating Himself in context of miraculous intervention, and a desperate Gentile woman understood. “Woman, you have great faith!” He answered. “Your request is granted” (Matt. 15:28). That very moment the demons away in her house and in her daughter’s mind had to leave. Like Rahab, and Ruth before her, she too, and her daughter, became partakers of the bread of healing and Israelite inclusion, recipients of miraculous restoration and life.
1 Scripture quotations marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
2 I found 13 occurrences of “James and John” in the KJV, as well as two more to “the mother of Zebedee’s children”; also six references to the “sons of Zebedee” in the NRSV.
Lael Caesar is thrilled about lapping up the crumbs of grace. He is an associate editor of the Adventist Review. This article was published March 14, 2012.