Are you familiar with the term “boggle threshold”? “Boggle” is a word game, but for psychologists it defines the point the mind boggles when confronted with some new idea. Letters in no particular order contain words but serious effort is required to find the words. Likewise, when we hit a “boggle” moment, serious effort is required to change the mind.
Such a boggle moment appears in Matthew 15 in the form of a “Canaanite woman.” God’s judgment awaits the centuries we have used privilege and status to demean and hurt others who had different names, different bodies, different skins, different differences. That’s the purpose here: We need to have a boggle moment that transforms our past cruel treatments of others.
Behold the “Canaanite” woman. We will never understand until we grapple with the meaning of “Canaanite” in Scripture. “Canaanite” means enemy of Israel. Deuteronomy gives explicit instructions on how “Canaanites” are to be handled by God’s people. “When the Lord your God thrusts them out before you, it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is dispossessing them before you.”
There Are Good Canaanites
The talk down at the watering hole has been the same for centuries: “The Only Good Canaanite Is a ‘Dead’ Canaanite, “I Don’t Have Anything Against Canaanites as Long as they Leave the Country,” and “My Best Friend Is a Canaanite.” Now, there’s a new slogan in the street: “There Are Good Canaanites.”
Now, we have two competing truths: The status quote truth of the hard-nosedDeuteronomic destruction of all Canaanites and the subtler ironic truth that not all Canaanites are evil.
The first good Canaanite in the story of the conquest is a woman. Now, we have a Canaanite woman. Add to those two strikes she is not a woman of the nobility or the daughter of a priest. She is a prostitute, a Jericho “hooker.” Her name: Rahab.
For the hard-nosed readers of Scripture, the moralists, the Puritans, the literalists this is “strike one, strike two, strike three,” you are out.
Avoiding “Boggle” Moments
We have devised methods to avoid “boggle” moments. Those are our faces staring back at us from the book of Joshua. The story of the conquest of Jericho has been passed down for generations and they are, as Ellen Davis notes, self-congratulatory accounts. Victories are bigger than life when retold by the warriors. Rahab saved the spies “bacon” but in the retelling of the story the Israelites made jokes about her. Rahab’s name, for example, was an old soldier’s joke. The Semitic word means “wide” and is used for the female genitalia. They heard the name “Rahab” and knew what to make of this “broad” or so they thought. Men have an entire vocabulary for putting down women, keeping them in their place. We don’t like being boggled so we make fun and try to keep people and ideas in their place.
By making fun of “Rahab,” her contribution to the faith of Israel is demeaned. Revival preachers in the South had a formula for the sermon: the opening jokes were always told about Others deemed “less than” the good white Christians in attendance. The humor masked the racism, the xenophobia, the homophobia.
The old names have a “stickiness” that lasts longer than Gorilla Glue. For how many centuries have women been stuck with labels that keep them in subjection? Women, for example, are dehumanized by being objectified. When men objectify women, they perceive them as things rather than human beings.
But the old story of putting down Rahab has been transformed by the last editor of the story. She is now the first person to proclaim faith in Israel’s God within the bounds of the Promised Land. Whenever we put down other groups by giving them ugly, vile names, do you know that those very groups will produce people that God will use to increase faith, to bring victory to God’s people?
Here’s a “boggle” moment: The voice of God comes through the voices of those who are demeaned, made fun of, and put down.
Naming Our Shame: Stickiness and Dehumanizing
Our culture has a dictionary of demeaning names for people considered less than, people considered evil or disgusting. Sara Ahmed, in The Cultural Politics of Emotion, provides the term, “stickiness” to describe how we dehumanize others. We label people and we repeat these names to one another, so they stick and in repeating they become even stickier. Think of the names thrown about in your lifetime for Japanese, Germans, Chinese, African Americans, Native Americans, gays, immigrants.
This propensity for cruelty is called dehumanization. David Livingston Smith explains: “Subhumans, it was believed, are beings that lack that special something that makes us human. Because of this deficit, they don’t command the respect that we, the truly human beings, are obliged to grant one another. They can be enslaved, tortured, or even exterminated—treated in ways in which we could not bring ourselves to treat those whom we regard as members of our own kind”.
The people who believe that God loves all the world, that God has made of one blood all nations of the world, have been the most notorious dehumanizers in history. We have not only acted in these heinous ways, but we have also implicated God. For example, the writers of Scripture ascribe all Israelite cultural attitudes and behaviors to the will of God: “God told us to hate the Canaanites.” “God said kill all the Canaanites.” Cultural attitudes resist conversion, but court divine approval. It takes centuries to undo cultural ways because they are so thoroughly assimilated with the faith.
In Matthew 15, again, a woman. Again, a Canaanite. A Syrophoenician. “A Canaanite woman cries out to Jesus.”
Turns out the Canaanite woman is one tough cookie. She challenges Jesus to step across the invisible border separating Jew from Gentile. And Jesus doesn’t sound good at first. He comes across as a stern authoritarian purist, a Puritan. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” This doesn’t sound like Jesus. There may not be a “boggle” moment as big as this in the Bible. Jesus uses the cultural put-down, the demeaning term for women: DOG. You don’t need help with the translation do you? Well, it’s like Jesus saying, “You bitch.”
The Canaanite woman snaps back, “Yes sir, and even the dogs eat from the crumbs that fall from their lords’ table.
Changing from Cruelty to Acceptance
And then we get the gospel truth. Jesus accepts the woman’s correction; he heals the child. All that business about defilement and abomination disappears in this seminal story. Jesus reconceives all human relationships. She’s not a dog; she’s a child of God. A new orientation. A new way of being.
Jesus becomes an immigrant from Israel as he crosses the border and enters Tyre and Sidon. How odd does that make our own immigration policies seem when we realize that Jesus is walking with the immigrants coming up through Mexico to the border of the United States? Jesus walks among the refugees moving across a continent in search of new life.
The march of humanity never ceases. Like the Jews leaving Egypt – the land of slavery. Like the Jews coming home from captivity after the exile. Like Mary and Joseph in a caravan back to Nazareth. Like Ruth, the Moabite, coming with Naomi to Bethlehem. And Ruth is in the genealogy of Jesus. A Moabite woman. A prostitute named Rahab and the mother of Solomon -Bathsheba – all in the family tree.
Pile up the names: foreigners, sojourners, aliens, strangers, Muslims, Blacks, Indians, Rednecks, but remember there is Jesus in their midst.
Jesus flips the “script” of “stickiness.” He melts the glue that has caused disrespect, cruelty, and dehumanization to so many Others for so many centuries. Jesus now binds us to one another. This story is the most dramatic in all the Bible of what it means to embrace fellow human beings that we are tempted to discard, mistreat, judge, condemn, and send away. Jesus’ own disciples suggest, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” We need to be careful of the slogans we make up to help us feel better. “Send her away.” “Lock her up.” “Build the wall.” “Fight like hell.” “Send them back.”
Rahab the Canaanite prostitute is bound to the unnamed Canaanite woman in Matthew with what Gardner Taylor calls the “scarlet cord” that weaves through the Bible from Rahab to now. Remember the spies told Rahab: “Tie this crimson cord in the window through which you let us down.”
Grasp the scarlet cord and join the throng of the unexpected, surprising people of “great faith!” Amen.