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Encounters with Jesus: The Syrophoenician Mom
Why this mom had no problem with her kids feeding the dogs at the dinner table!
How does Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman compare and contrast with other encounters with Jesus recorded in the Bible? Why did Jesus treat her differently? How does this woman remind us of Jacob, whose name was changed by God Himself to Israel, and the man for whom the nation Israel is named?
This article compares her Jesus encounter with that of the Samaritan woman at the well, with that of the Roman centurion, and lastly with Jacob's encounter with God in the Old Testament.
If we were to meet this mom during the present day, perhaps at a shopping mall or grocery store, we might not see her as being in any way extraordinary. But her circumstances in that day gave her the opportunity to demonstrate that she was.
Great Faith and Great Answers
How many people in the gospel accounts were acknowledged by Jesus to have great faith? Only two, the Roman centurion and the Syrophoenician woman.
How many people in the gospel accounts could be considered to have answered or conversed with Jesus well? Not many. Peter did a couple of times, but he was the man Jesus picked to be the leader of His church. The Roman centurion did. But consider that he has a professional soldier. His courageous disposition undoubtedly served him well in enabling him to approach Jesus to ask Him to heal his servant.
Others, such as Nicodemus and the rich young ruler did not do nearly so well. And Nicodemus fared a lot better than the other pharisees.
But the Syrophoenician woman answered Jesus very well. She was no soldier, but she also showed great courage.
Reading between the lines, inferring a little background to the story
Imagine what must have gone through this mother's mind beforehand. Her daughter was being cruelly tormented by a demon. Think about the ways that demons tormented people in other gospel accounts. The victims would have seizures, throw themselves often into fire or water, cut themselves with stones, be out of their right minds, grind their teeth, and foam at the mouth. How would you feel if your little girl were being tormented by a demon? This mother's feelings motivated her to do everything she could to stop it.
Somehow she heard about a Jewish teacher who was known for casting out demons. Somehow she also heard that this teacher was in her neighborhood. She knew she had to ask this teacher to cast out her daughter's demon. She also knew that she could be rejected, either because she was seeking help uninvited, because she was a gentile, and/or because she was a woman. But she didn't care. She was willing to subject herself to humiliating rejection any number of times in order to get help for her daughter.
How her encounter differed from others
Unlike the Samaritan woman at the well, she sought Jesus out. Unlike the Roman Centurion who also sought Him out, she found Jesus to be non-receptive and stand-offish. At first, she was ignored. But she kept on. Then she heard an answer that most would have accepted as a flat-out rejection. But she kept on asking for help. Then Jesus answered again, this time implying that gentiles were like dogs who should not be fed bread intended for the children. Again she kept on, this time answering in a way that convinced Jesus to help her, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table!"
Many Phoenician families in ancient times had house dogs that were welcome inside their homes
Why so difficult?
But why did Jesus make this so difficult for her? Jesus actively engaged the Samaritan woman, and responded immediately to the Roman centurion, even choosing to make a statement about how gentiles would join Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven. So we know Jesus didn't hold being a gentile or a woman against anyone before. Nor was He in the habit of refusing to help people who asked for it uninvited.
Scripture Passages of the Encounters
The Syrophoenician woman's encounter is found in Matthew 15:21-28 and in Mark 7:24-30.
The Samaritan woman's encounter is found in John 4:3-42.
The Roman centurion's encounter is found in Matthew 8:5-13.
Jacob's encounter with God is found in Genesis 32:24-30.
Other Syrophoenician Women in the Bible
Centuries before, two other women from the same region had played significant roles in the life of Elijah, the widow of Zarephath and Jezebel. One gave him bread, and the other sought his life, but ended up being eaten by scavenging dogs! Perhaps Jesus wanted to test this Syrophoenician to see what manner of woman she was before giving her some of his bread.
Greek words for "dog" used in the New Testament
The Greek word used for dog in the passages about the Syrophoenician woman is κυνάριον (kunarion): a little dog. Strong's Greek 2952.
The Greek word used elsewhere in the New Testament for dog is κύων (kuón): a dog. Strong's Greek 2965. It is often used in reference to wild, scavenging dogs, or symbolically to represent people who are the spiritual equivalent, living to satisfy their flesh in rebellion against God. It was also used in this symbolic sense to represent apostate and worldly Jewish Christians (and by a logical extension to all apostate and worldly Christians) in Philippians Chapter 3 and 2 Peter Chapter 2.
A diminutive can indicate affection or small size
Jesus used a diminutive form of the word dog. Some versions have translated the word as little dogs. It could also have been used as a term of affection, like when we use the word “doggie”.
But using a diminutive form of a word doesn’t automatically mean it is being used as a term of affection or a physically smaller instance of something. Sometimes, usage changes over the years to where the grammatically diminutive term is used interchangeably with the regular term. From what I have found reading those who have studied the issue, many, if not most, scholars believe that the words were used interchangeably at the time of the account.
But this is where the cultural context becomes important.
Little dogs and little children in the same house implies pets, whether in olden times or new
Cultural Context of the People in the Account
Greek and Syrophoenician cultures were dog-friendly. They often had their dogs buried close to their own graves, or in doggie cemeteries. Even the Jews used dogs for shepherding and hunting. They might not have had little pet house dogs like the Greeks and Syrophoenicians, but there is evidence they did not think of dogs as universally disgusting either.
Jesus knew that this woman's culture included pet house dogs, and His use of the diminutive for dog reflected that. Jesus was using something from the woman's common, everyday experience to illustrate a spiritual principle, just as He usually did. Her answer shows that she understood Jesus' words as an illustration, and framed her answer within the context of that illustration.
Cultural Context of the People Reading the Account
Those in this woman's time and place would not have been so quick to take offense as many in our contemporary, "politically correct" culture. At least one person has interpreted Jesus' words to include a racial slur. But is this even reasonable in our own culture?
We today are so inconsistent in our attitude toward dogs. Consider that one can refer to another person pejoratively as being a dog, or being a descendant of a dog, but no sooner does he walk through his own front door than he may greet and be greeted enthusiastically by one or more dogs.
Remember in the movie The Three Amigos when El Guapo told the Three Amigos that they would die like dogs? But other movies have dogs as protagonists and heroes, or at least sidekicks. Examples include Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, and Beethoven. Remember Copernicus and Einstein from the Back to the Future trilogy?
I have a friend who thinks of himself as a bulldog. He is by no means offended by the term, but takes it as a complement.
But in spite of the inconsistency, in our culture it can be conceded that most of the time we can read negative connotations into dog references. But should we project these connotations back though history to other cultures?
It is a form of intolerance (cultural-temporal bigotry) when we project our cultural values onto people from another time and place and assume they should react or respond just the way we do. Let's avoid that by trying, as much as we can, to separate our cultural biases from our understanding of ancient accounts.
She answered humbly in order to answer well
But however the Syrophoenician woman understood Jesus' words, we know that she answered well. She boldly entered into Jesus’ presence and bandied words with the Word! But notice she did not confront him face-to-face, but knelt before Him, humbly accepting His words as truth.
This is consistent with Proverbs 3:34: "The Lord resists the proud; but he gives grace to the humble." This is from an English translation of the Septuagint by Sir Lancelot C. L. Brenton. The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Old Testament by Jewish scholars between about one and two centuries before Christ, and it is often cited word for word by the writers of the New Testament. This same proverb is cited in James 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:5.
Jacob's Wrestling Encounter with God
Centuries before Elijah, Jacob had a personal encounter with God. Jacob sought God’s blessing and didn’t just bandy words, but physically wrestled with God! Some believe that Jacob wrestled with the Angel of the Lord, Whom they also believe is actually God the Son before the Incarnation. Regardless, what the Syrophoenician woman did is similar to what Jacob did, except that it was only verbal wrestling, not physical. By verbally testing her, Jesus was actually extending to her a very great honor, similar to that extended to Jacob when He wrestled with him.
The Syrophoenician woman showed the same kind of tenacity as Jacob. Both received the blessing they had sought from God, and Jacob got a new name, Israel. Jacob sought the blessing for himself. But this woman sought the blessing for her daughter, and because of her love for her daughter, indirectly for herself. Her story was considered by the Holy Spirit to be important enough to include in the New Testament. She had the faith, love, humility, and tenacity to wrestle that blessing from Jesus. Extraordinary.
And from the day her little girl was healed, this mom would have had a hard time scolding her child for dropping their little dog an extra crumb or two from the dinner table.
- Attitudes toward Dogs in Ancient Israel: A Reassessment
By Geoff Miller in Biblical Studies and Dogs.
- A Link to a good article on this topic