The Others: why would they?

canaanitewoman.iconCommentary. At its core this narrative remains a miracle-story – And her daughter was healed from that hour. But as the encounter is placed immediately after a discussion of purity in both Matthew and Mark, Jesus’ encounter with this Gentile woman also brings out the implications that the Gentiles will no longer be separated from Israel (cf. Acts 10:15, 28; 11:9–18).

As in the case of the centurion’s servant (8:5–13), where also the dialogue takes precedence over the story, the main interest is in the question of Jesus’ response to the faith of a Gentile. Indeed the two accounts are closely parallel in many ways, not only in being the only Synoptic accounts of healing at a distance, but in the racial issues involved, with Jesus’ apparent reluctance to respond to a Gentile’s request met by the persistent faith which ensures his response in the end. The question raised by 15:1–20 of Jesus’ attitude to Jewish ideas of purity, with all its crucial implications for the Gentile mission, is here put to the practical test of a Gentile’s desire to share in the benefits brought by the Jews’ Messiah.

The Canaanite Woman. Verse 22 tells us that she is from the region of Tyre and Sidon. These were Phoenician cities just beyond the northern border of Israel. The people worshiped Phoenician gods and were not nor had they ever been Jewish. By stating that she is from the region general suggests that she was a rural peasant, rather than a city-dweller. In Jesus day she would have been considered “Syrophoenician” – the term that Mark uses. But to Matthew, she is a Canaanite. Matthew’s more Jewish audience may be more aware of the enmity between Jews and Canaanites that had existed since the time of Noah. Canaan was the son of Ham, who saw his father naked (a euphemism thought to mean sleeping with his father’s wife). Noah utters this curse in Gen 9:25-27:

Cursed be Canaan;
lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.
Blessed by the LORD my God be Shem
and let Canaan be his slave.
May God make space for Japheth,
and let him live in the tents of Shem;
and let Canaan be his slave.”

Even more significant than this ancient curse about being slaves to the Jews, is the promise given to Abraham: “And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God” (Gen 17:8). They were part of the people the Israelites were commanded by God to annihilate (Dt 20:17), which Joshua carried out partially as the people of Israel took over their land and cities. These historical events would not make Canaanites very friendly towards Jews nor towards the Jewish God.

Why would this woman approach Jesus? One suggestion is that she had nowhere else to turn. Perhaps she had heard reports about the healing miracles of Jesus. Her need was so great, her concern for her daughter so deep, that she dared cross that rift between Jews and Canaanites. Perhaps she was at the point where she had nothing to lose, and perhaps everything to gain.

In any case her call is striking, not only in its persistence and boldness, but also in its language. Lord, Son of David. While “Lord” may be nothing more that calculated politeness, “Son of David” might refer simply to being Jewish, but it raises the question of whether she had heard (and had nascent belief) in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah.

Notes

Matthew 15:21 withdrew to: The translation of the Greek anechoresen eis ta mere depends on the translation of eis. It can be understood as “withdrew in/into/toward the region” It is not clear whether Jesus entered non-Jewish territory or not.

Matthew 15:21 Tyre and Sidon: Sidon is an ancient Phoenician city that was never part of the ancient lands of Israel. In the postexilic prophets (Joel 3:4; Zech 9:2), and in the Apocrypha (2 Esdr 1:11) and NT (e.g., Matt 11:21; Acts 12:20), the merism “Tyre and Sidon” serves as a geographical designation of the southern Phoenician territory (cf. Judith 2:28: “Sidon and Tyre”).

Matthew 15:22 Canaanite: The woman whom Mark describes as a Syrophoenician (Mark 7:26) is in Matt. 15:22 identified as a Canaanite. No one in the first century used that term anymore; Matthew is deliberately conjuring up memories of the pagans from OT times. of that district: the Greek expression apo tōn horiōn ekeinōn exelthousa literally translates as “out from that boundary came out” – “that boundary” referring to v.21 “the region of Tyre and Sidon.” The way the verse is translated raises the question of location. Some hold that Jesus is in Gentile territory; others hold that the woman is from Gentile territory but has crossed over into Jewish lands specifically to seek out Jesus. called out: the verbal tense used indicated that the woman was continually calling.

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