«The ‘peculiar benevolence’ the woman finally receives from Jesus in the
story certainly qualifies her as a προσηλυτος.»
The story of Jesus’ exchange with a gentile woman, in Matthew 15:22-28, has fascinated (and scandalized) many. Some feel the text has Jesus insulting her merely for her ethnicity (thus some polemicists even accuse the passage of depicting Jesus as racist). Others, on the other hand, assert that the text is misunderstood, because the Greek word for dog in the text is actually in the diminutive, and thus could be referring to a puppy or pet. This short blog entry, however, will propose a different approach to the text, treating it instead as a subtle allusion to how membership in Israel is determined more by faith than lineage.
Note that, in the text of Matthew, a gentile woman asks for a miracle healing/exorcism, and the disciples ask Jesus that she be sent away. Interestingly, although the disciples asked Jesus to send her away, Jesus does not do so; rather, He responds that He is only sent to the lost sheep of Israel. That immediately begs a question: how does such a statement relate to His refusal to meet their request? In verse 26 He implies that it would not be proper to give something that is meant for the children (i.e. of Israel) to dogs. When the woman shows great humility and faith, she then gets precisely that which Jesus had just insinuated was for Israel.
While many readers are taken aback by her being called a dog, on the question whether such was in reference to her lineage, it is worth noting that descendants of Jacob, too, can get receive the designation of dog (cf. Isaiah 56:11, Proverbs 26:11, 2 Peter 2:22), among other choice words (like worm, cf. Isaiah 41:14). Nonetheless, the implication remains that she is not one of the children, but rather a dog, and what she was asking for was for the children, not for dogs.
Here it may be worth noting how Matthew 3:9 lines up with Galatians 3:29, as the verses show that a person who does not descend from Abraham biologically could still be Abraham’s son, via correct faith. Such can be tied in with how John 8:44 and Romans 9:6 line up with Revelation 2:9, showing that there can be descendants of Jacob who are excluded from Israel, and then one can see what makes a true Jew in Romans 2:28-29 and Colossians 2:11. On a deeper level, if the tree in Romans 11 is understood to be Israel and the woman in Revelation 12 is understood to be Israel, such would mean the true Israel is comprised of believers (i.e. membership in Israel is not based strictly on lineage, which is even an OT concept, as per Ruth 1:16, Esther 8:17 and Judith 14:10).
Once all that is grasped, one may get a different sense of the deep exchange in Matthew 15, where Jesus refuses to send away a gentile woman even though He says He’s only sent to lost sheep of Israel, and where He then gives that woman precisely what He had insinuated only was for Israel. In short, the text can be read as subtly hinting that the woman’s faith brought her into the true Israel (it converted her from being one of the dogs to being one of the children; perhaps it could be said she was one of the lost sheep).
Interestingly, there seems to be somewhat of an analogous concept in the Zohar. The relevant text reads as follows:
כל זמנא דישראל עבדי רעותא דמאריהון הא על פתורא דמלכא אינון אכלי וכל סעודתא אתתקן להון ואינון ממהוא חדוה דלהון יהבי גרמי דאיהו תמצית לעע”ז וכל זמנא דישראל לא עבדי רעותא דמאריהון הא סעודתא לכלבי ואסתלק לון תמצית ככה יאכלו בני ישראל את לחמם טמא בגוים דהא תמצית דגעוליהון אכלי ווי לברא דמלכא דיתיב ומצפה לפתורא דעבדא מה דאשתאר מגו פתורא איהו אכיל דוד מלכא אמר תערך לפני שלחן נגד צררי דשנת בשמן ראשי כוסי רויה תערך לפני שלחן דא סעודתא דמלכא נגד צררי אינון כלבי דיתבי קמי פתורא מצפאן לחולק גרמייהו ואיהו יתיב עם מלכא בענוגא דסעודתא בפתורא
Translation: every time Israel does the will of their Lord, upon the table of the King they will eat, and the whole meal is prepared for them, and from their joy[ous feast], they give bones which have been sucked clean to the workers of foreign worship [or idolaters]. And [likewise] every time Israel does not do the will of their Lord, the meal goes to dogs, and they are given the sucked [bones]. [Hence it is written in Ezekiel 4:13] “thus the children of Israel will eat their bread, defiled among the nations.” That [refers to] the sucked [bones] of their own defilement, which they eat. Woe unto the son of the king who sits and waits at the table of the servant and eats what is left from that table. David, the King, said [in Psalm 23] “You prepare before me a table in the presence of my enemies, You anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.” [Regarding] “you prepare a table before me,” this is the meal of the King. [Regarding] “in the presence of my enemies,” they are the dogs that sit before the table, waiting for the portion of its bones, and he who sits with the king [does so] with the joy of the meal on the table.
While they are not identical, similar to the approach to Matthew 15 explored above, this Zoharic text posits that the difference between a seat at the table and being treated like (or worse than) a dog is not one of lineage, but rather behavior and practice (within the context of the faith).
(1) Glenna S. Jackson, ‘Have Mercy on Me’: The Story of the Canaanite
Woman in Matthew 15.21-28, (New York: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), p. 106.
(2) Cf. the entry for κυναριον in Liddell-Scott’s Lexicon. However, it may be worth noting that the Peshīttā simply uses kalb, an ordinary word for dog.
(3) Also relevant may be Sirach 26:25, though it has questionable manuscript support. The text contrasts a woman who is shameless (αδιατρεπτος) with a woman who possesses shame (εχουσα αισχυνην), and says while the latter will fear the Lord, the former is likened to a dog (with the seemingly obvious implication being that women who do not fear the Lord are likened to dogs).
(4) Also of interest is Galatians 4:24-25, which seems to subtly insinuate that disbelieving Jews are something akin to spiritual Ishamelites.
(5) See also Ephesians 2:12-19, which says that, without Christ, the gentile believers were separate from the citizenship (πολιτεια) of Israel [v. 12], however after accepting Christ they cease to be foreigners, and become instead fellow-citizens (συμπολιται) [v.19].
(6) Vol. II, 152B, or parshat Terūmah, paras. 488-489, in the Sūlam.