On Gagnon’s ‘The Bible and Homosexual Practice’ and the Canaanite woman’s daughter

Those with a high view of the authority of the inerrant, infallible scriptures can’t be wishy-washy about the status of Canaanites. Those people are unclean, unwanted, excluded.

The Bible is very clear on this point. Jesus knew that. He knew what the scriptures said about Canaanites. But that didn’t matter to him as much as the person in front of him:

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

In his final post reviewing Robert A.J. Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice, Scot Miller writes:

The question for believers is not finished by asking, “What did the Bible say?” This is at best a trivial question about a historical document. (And it is a naive question, for it disregards the fact that we cannot escape the historically conditioned prejudices we bring to the text. The historical question hides within it prejudices that can obscure the meaning of the text.) The more significant question for a believer is, “How am I to understand what the Bible says?”

The story above from Matthew’s Gospel shows Jesus engaging both of those questions. “What did the Bible say” about Canaanites? It said they were undeserving — “dogs.”

But how did Jesus decide to understand what the Bible said? By welcoming and embracing this Syrophoenician woman, this unclean, unchosen, Canaanite. “As you wish,” Jesus said to her, and anybody who’s seen The Princess Bride can tell you what that means.

(For a beautiful retelling of this story from the Gospels, see the Real Live Preacher’s “The Smallest Person in All the World.”)


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  • Wow, what a fantastic example of Jesus embracing but transforming the tradition. This is great!

  • Jesus’ first two responses were awfully rude.

  • Michael Cohn

    So, how do you understand the story? Was Jesus testing the woman, or testing his disciples? Was he agreeing that yes, the Canaanites were unworthy, lowly people but he could afford to throw them some crumbs? Was he announcing that he planned to expand the scope of his mission beyond the house of Israel, or saying that anyone who showed faith was included in that group? Was he affirming or refuting the implied scarcity model of healing? These are meaningfully different hypotheses but it looks to me like they are all consistent with what he did.

  • The Bible is very clear on this point. Jesus knew that. He knew what the scriptures said about Canaanites. But that didn’t matter to him as much as the person in front of him:

    The thing that always bugged me when I’d see that occasionally was that he didn’t talk to her at first, and only ended up deigning to respond when she kept pressing her case.

    If he’d really wanted to break the tradition of never talking to Canaanites he would have, from the very first, talked to her.

    I wonder how many Canaanites gave up on Jesus before that one woman had the pluck to keep going. I have no idea what the legal or social penalties were in that era for interacting with Canaanites as equals, but if it’s anything like the post-Reconstruction South, I’m suspecting at the very least, ostracism of the non-Canaanite, and I don’t want to imagine what happened to the Canaanite.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, I know – the story about the Canaanite woman has always bothered me.  Trying to make it into something positive seems more like spin -“Wow, Jesus was so taken with her plucky response that he decided to actually cure her daughter, isn’t he wonderful?  Yay Jesus!”.  But for someone who is supposed to be the living incarnation of God to respond to a person’s sincere request for help first by ignoring them and hoping they’ll go away, and then by reminding them of their outcast status (my helping you would be like taking food from children and throwing to the dogs), is appalling.  If I had ever asked someone for help and they responded to me that way, I’d have been crushed.  Fortunately for her, the Canaanite woman had a thick skin and a quick tongue

  • KitaC

    I heard a wonderful sermon once that interpreted this story as Jesus not being inerrant, but in fact getting it wrong, making a mistake, being blinded by his own prejudice… and then modeling how a person on the side of power might change their mind and open their heart.

    Trying to tell this story as the Perfect Jesus *testing* the woman always makes me feel really, really icky. However, I do know people for whom any notion of Jesus as less than perfect at all times (even when getting physically angry with moneylenders or calling an oppressed lady a dog!) is so terrifying they just can’t engage with it. For me, the idea of him as sometimes less than perfect makes him a better role model, not a worse one.

  • Anonymous-Sam

    Heh. First, in Genesis, God promises Canaan to whoever’ll listen to him. Then when people realize that Canaan is a desolate land of famine and bitterly contested wells… they move elsewhere and declare that anyone still living in Canaan is a filthy, unworthy mongrel. I see how it is.

  • It seems like Jesus is more of a civil servant here by being coerced into helping a noisy petitioner.

  • Things like that make me wonder about the transmission of the story.  The heart of the story has to be the healing because without that there’s nothing to tell.  But then almost everything else seems like a frustrated storyteller trying to get the point across.

    [Story of healing is told.]

    Listener: That was dumb, didn’t he know not to interact with those people?

    Storyteller: Of course he knew.  That’s the point.  He knew that the rules said no and he did it anyway.

    Listener: He also forgot that he was sent here for us.

    Storyteller: He didn’t forget.  That’s part of the point too, if you only do the minimum required of you rather than trying to those who need help in general, then you’re an asshole.

    Listener: Then why doesn’t he help all of those people.

    Storyteller: He does, she was just the first.

    Listener: But why was she the first.

    Storyteller: Because she asked a lot or something.

    Listener: That’s a lot of stuff that wasn’t in the story.

    Storyteller: Well … that’s because I told you the abridged version, I thought all of that was self evident so to save time I told a shorter version.  Here’s the full version:

    [Story as it exists.]

    On the other hand, it could just as easily be the the story was that way from the beginning.  (Or even, I suppose, that it actually happened as recorded.  But I tend to disbelieve the casting out of demons.)

  • This is Jesus at his most human, I believe. He initially responds to the woman with the prejudice of the society he was raised in. But instead of simply accepting it and leaving, the woman stands firm and challenges him–and changes his mind. What’s the very next thing Jesus does? He heads for the Decapolis. Gentile territory. And there he repeats the feeding miracle he’d done for a crowd of Jews, this time for a crowd of Gentiles. The first time, there were twelve baskets of leftovers, one for each of the tribes of Israel. This time, there are seven baskets: one for each of the seven Canaanite nations his Father commands the Hebrews to wipe out in Deuteronomy 7. At Jesus’s table, there’s enough food for everyone.

  •  “Things like that make me wonder about the transmission of the story.
     The heart of the story has to be the healing because without that
    there’s nothing to tell.  But then almost everything else seems like a
    frustrated storyteller trying to get the point across.”

    I think the story makes perfect sense if you read it from the perspective of a “submission” theology.  Jesus saw the woman as vile and undeserving.  He said so.  She agreed.  So he deigned to give her what she wanted, since she put herself in submission to him.

  • Anonymous

    Sadly, you can equally well read that story as “you can throw those people a bone now and then as long as they abase themselves properly and don’t pretend to be equal to the good folks”. 

  • Anonymous

    I wouldn’t say the scriptures “didn’t matter as much” to Jesus; I think he was making the same point here he does with the Sabbath and many other places. He knows the law and agrees with it (and even grills the woman to make sure she does, too). He knows his mission and he knows he needs to stay focused and he needs to keep a low profile. But he also knows the commandment of the law to be merciful and compassionate, and he fulfills that too. It’s not that one is more important than the other; both are important and Jesus pays heed to both seemingly contradictory commands.

    I’m not sure why Miller is in this post, though; he is making an entirely different argument about how much we can trust our interpretation of the commands of the Bible, and what counts as a sin in the first place. In this passage, Jesus doesn’t question either of those at all, and elsewhere, he has no problem quoting scripture from the imperfectly translated Septuagint. He doesn’t say, “Have you ever considered that those passages condemning the Canaanites were not applicable outside their limited cultural and historical context?” Instead he says, Yes, the Canaanites stand condemned, but I’ll help you anyway.

  • Anonymous

    Trying to tell this story as the Perfect Jesus *testing* the woman always makes me feel really, really icky.

    Me too. Reminds me of a few occasions where I stood up to authority and the authority got all flustered and was like, “Well, yes, I was just seeing if you really serious about X…” rather than admit they were mistaken.

  • Anonymous-Sam

    Odds are actually very good that Jesus never read the scriptures. The ability to read and access to holy writing were not exactly a guaranteed right to every layman, much less a heretic on the verge of being hung up by his wrists and ankles.

  • Anonymous

    So all the instances of Jesus quoting the Tanakh, including at least one instance where he read straight out of a Torah scroll, were added by the gospel writers?

  • guest
  • Anonymous

     The dude spent a good thirty years before becoming a heretic and getting hung up by his wrists and ankles, and access to the holy writings is something that Jews were and are very big on, what with having a commandment to read the Torah regularly.

  • Tricksterson

    Kooks like the woman decided to adopt a long and noble Jewish tradition:  Nagging God.

  • Tricksterson

    The story of the adulterous woman has hum writing in the dirt.  So presumably he was literate.

  • Anonymous-Sam

    I can neither prove so nor otherwise, but I believe it to be incredibly likely, given that Jesus himself certainly didn’t write the gospels — they were written of him, and yes, took some liberties (the whole virgin thing…)

    Benly: But was that still the case ~2030 years ago, nearly a century before the Jews realized that killing people for working on Sunday was unconscionable (the arbitrary death penalty for such sins was discarded in the mid first century CE)? Going by Exodus and Deuteronomy, I don’t think the layman was originally intended to be at all in charge of his own spiritual welfare. Early scripture places a huge divide between priests and the common person. That may have changed over a few thousand years, but I think it more likely than not that priests back then wanted to be set completely aside from the common man, lest their authority be undercut. It’s a lot easier to dictate what God wants when you’re the only one who can claim to know his will, and anyone willing to consign people to death for half the crap in Deuteronomy is clearly not a reasonable person (much less anyone who thinks Deuteronomy 13 is the True Word of God).

    Honestly, I don’t think it matters much either way. If he wasn’t versed in scripture, then more power to him. If he was, then he had to be pretty ballsy to go up against the priesthood and preach what amounted to pure heresy, knowing they’d be coming for his head.

  • I like the Real Live Preacher’s version–it makes a good story, and if I were reading a book, I would probably like that story better, because it makes more sense of the characters and their actions.

    Conversely, I hate the Gospel version, because it’s not presented as a story to entertain but as the truth–and Jesus acts like a complete prick. Saying that someone is unworthy and unclean because of her nationality is horrible.  (Not to mention that Jesus calling a woman a dog is tantamount to him calling her a bitch for bothering him.) 

    And the Canaanite woman doesn’t call him on his bullshit. She doesn’t say that he’s wrong. She just says, “Hey, if I’m a dog, then throw me a scrap.” 

    And once she says that–effectively saying that she’ll be glad of the smallest fragment of mercy, even if he does give more to people that he considers more deserving–THEN he gives her what she needs.  She’s humiliated herself and begged for charity and said that she’d be satisfied with scraps of his mercy just as dogs are satisfied with scraps and bones…so he’ll deign to be nice and give her what she asked for.

    And I’m left wanting to drive Jesus’s teeth down his throat for ridiculing and humiliating an impoverished woman who needed help and whose only crime was being of the wrong nationality.  

    And if he was “testing her faith”–well, that reminds me of a little trick that Social Security has of refusing help the first time you apply. Sometimes even the second. “Testing to be sure you’re serious,” they call it.  And it hurts people, because they don’t always know that “testing” is the policy, and, feeling crushed and abandoned, they give up. Or worse.

    I’ll tolerate that kind of thing from a bureaucracy that is admittedly flawed.  But from a guy who’s supposed to be the embodiment of a good, loving, compassionate God, it’s pretty despicable.

  • Anonymous


    Short version: the literacy rate was low but the rate of education in matters including scripture was high. Not every religion is a mystery religion, and keeping the details of scripture mysterious is actively anathema to the commandments of the Torah.

    It sounds like you’re forming an image of Jewish history based on personal preconceptions about the nature of religion and priestly classes (or possibly about the nature of Judaism based specifically on the context of the Crucifixion, but I would rather assume the better option here.)

  •  It feels like the point is not helping the Canaanite woman, but teaching the disciples- “You still have to help those who are beneath you.” And its weirdly opposed to the parable of the Good Samaritan, where one of “those people” behaves better than “one of us” and is the example for good behavior. Instead, we get “yes they are awful, aren’t they but we still have to help when they ask”.

    It just occurred to me that this is very similar to this parable: http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+18%3A1-8&version=NIV

    Except Jesus himself is acting like the corrupt Judge. I’m not sure what to think about that.

  • Tricksterson

    Remind me plaese which books these all come from.  I would assume different books would be pushing different Jesuses

  • Anton_Mates

    The heart of the story has to be the healing because without that
    there’s nothing to tell.  But then almost everything else seems like a
    frustrated storyteller trying to get the point across.

    Depends what the point actually is.  If the storyteller’s trying to convey how awesome Jesus is as a Jewish messiah, the story works perfectly: non-Jews acknowledge their inferiority to win Jesus’ favor, and he rewards them for knowing their place.  Probably not a message Paul would approve of, but Paul didn’t write Matthew.

  • I utterly fail to see how literacy being uncommon among people in Jesus’ period and social class means that Jesus was illiterate, despite the gospels explicitly depicting him as literate.

    By that logic, because kidney failure is uncommon among people in my period and social class, I must have functional kidneys, despite what my doctors say.

  • Ursula L

    The problem with this story is that intent is not a magic wand.

    It doesn’t matter what greater lesson Jesus was trying to teach.  It doesn’t matter if that lesson was for the disciples there at that time, or for us, now.

    Jesus was incredibly cruel to the mother in this story.  This is the story of a family who is suffering horribly, as a family member is dangerously ill in a way that they can neither fully understand or treat.

    The lesson Jesus was hoping to teach doesn’t undo the cruelty of his actions.  

    He initially refused to help a family in distress, when he could easily help them.  When they asked for help, he responded with racial/ethnic slurs and insults. When he did help, it was with contempt, only after the desperate mother reaffirmed the ethnic prejudices of the culture of Jesus and the disciples, which said that her family, the daughter whom she loved, who was desperately ill and needed help,  were no better than dogs begging for discarded scraps of  food.  

    According to many forms of Christian theology, Jesus is fully part of a “Triple-O ” God.  

    Omnipotent.  All-powerful.

    Omniscient.  All-knowing.

    Omni-benevolent.  All-kind, all-loving, all-compassionate. 

    Jesus explicitly handles this situation in an unkind, un-compassionate way.  There is no humane or kind reading of this story that justifies Jesus using  hypothetical hungry dogs as an analogy for a living, caring, desperate, mother’s love. 

    It’s also very much un-omniscient.  If Jesus is part of a Triple-O god,  then the omniscience should have allowed him to know how to help this desperate parent in an ethical and moral way.  Such as providing help without accompanying insults.  Even if there is a larger lesson to be taught, an omniscient, all-knowing being should have no problem figuring out how to teach that lesson without explicit racism and cruelty. 

    So what we’re left with is someone who is all-powerful, but neither compassionate nor wise.  Power without the responsibility that comes from either wisdom or compassion or, ideally, both working as a single unit. 

  • Ursula L

    Short version: the literacy rate was low but the rate of education in matters including scripture was high. 

    I’m not sure how one would measure literacy in the ancient world.  And I’m not inclined to trust a wikipedia article flagged as unverified for lack of citations. 

    Certainly, schools as we know them didn’t exist, and things like standardized testing didn’t exist.  They also didn’t have a government bureaucracy that required extensive paperwork by ordinary people, making more recent measures of basic literacy in the general public, such and the proportion of people who could sign their names rather than making a mark on their marriage certificate, impossible.  

    On the other hand, we see evidence of some level of literacy in some ways.  Written graffiti, for example is common, even in the places frequented by the poor.   (Kids will learn the naughty words, if nothing else.)  In Ancient Rome, leaders considered written inscriptions to be effective propaganda – you don’t go through the expense of creating such things if you think that no one will understand them.  

    Reading and writing, while closely related, are still somewhat different skills.  A person being able to recognize common words and phrases, know what sounds letters stand for, and be able to sound out words if they stopped to concentrate, and perhaps write their name with concentration and effort,  is quite different from someone who reads with such skill that they can’t look at text and not interpret its meaning automatically, or someone who can sit down and write while thinking about the meaning they want to write but not the individual sounds and letters that make up words. 

    There is also a sort of in-between level of literacy, which I remember experiencing when I was very young and first learning to read or write.  At that point, reading something new was a struggle.  But when re-reading a text I was already familiar with, it became easy, because the words on the page triggered my memory of the text, and my memory of the text helped in the recognition of the words on the page.  

    Jesus seems to have had a sort of mid-level literacy.  He’s shown reading comfortably from scriptures, texts which he probably studied from specifically, so that when he read, he was not fluently reading something he was seeing the first time.  He also could write at least a little, such as his writing on the ground when the woman accused of adultery was brought to him.  But he isn’t shown reading for pleasure, or reading things which he wasn’t already familiar with. And he isn’t shown writing extensively, such as writing down his own teachings, writing letters to family and followers, etc.  

    He’s basically what a non-wealthy literate person would be expected to be, in times before the printing press and the production of inexpensive paper made access to written works affordable.  He studied and could read the things his society considered important enough to keep many written copies of, to create an social infrastructure to allow more general access to those texts.  

    But written stuff was too rare and expensive for him to dream of having access to something like a library, or to read something new just for fun.  He was no Roman aristocrat, reading poetry and writing philosophy.  

    He certainly didn’t consider his own ideas to be something to be written down, to arrange to have copied, to distribute in written form.  He commented on scripture, verbally, he didn’t write it.  And it took decades before anyone considered writing down and copying what was remembered of his work.