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Another Look at Mark 7:24-30, Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman

[24] Jesus got up and went away to the regions of Tyre. Whenever he visited a house he wanted no one to know, but he could not escape notice.
✦ [Commentary] Tyre was a port city, a place of commerce, the mixing of peoples, and known for prostitution.

[25] But right away a woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit heard about him, and came and knelt at his feet.
✦ A woman with a daughter with an unclean spirit is herself unclean; in fact, the daughter’s problem is most likely due to the mother’s sin (according to the thinking of the time).
✦ Jesus is trying to get some alone time, some down time (cf. v. 24) and she just walks in! Not cool. Besides, an unclean woman in Tyre = prostitute. Interrupting at mealtime?! Women shouldn’t even be there. An unclean woman? Gag! Talk about losing one’s appetite!

[26] The woman was a Greek, by race a Phoenician from Syria, and she started asking him to drive the demon out of her daughter.
✦ A foreigner?! An unclean, foreign woman?! Three strikes! No wonder she only “started” to ask a question. Any respectful man in his right mind would of course cut her off before she even started and tell her to get out!

[27] He was saying to her, “Let the children be fed first, since it isn’t good to take bread out of the children’s mouths and throw it to the dogs!”
✦ Whoa! What’s going on here with Jesus? Calling a woman and her daughter “dogs”? Actually, a better translation would be “bitches,” female dogs (with a derogatory feel even in today’s language). Has Jesus lost it? I was once taught that Jesus, knowing the woman’s reaction and words before she even said them, carefully used just the right words to evoke her faith. Hmm. So therefore it’s OK for Jesus to call a downtrodden woman and her sick daughter a couple of bitches? I don’t buy it. No, what I see here is an all-too-human Jesus: tired, trying to get away from the crowds, being pushed past his limit by yet another needy person, and losing his cool. It happens to the best of us. However, the story isn’t over yet...
✦ But first a little more about dogs back in those days: a good Jew would NEVER have a dog inside his house, let alone near his dinner table! Dogs wandered the Jewish garbage heaps. In those days, women, like animals, were considered unable to control themselves and in need of men to keep them in line. Women and animals were not rational; they were pure emotional creatures. So “throw it to the dogs” does NOT mean handing some tasty morsels to the household pet. It means tossing the inedible bits (gristle and bone and innards) to those mangy animals that roam the garbage pits. It’s a mega-insult!
✦ It must be said, from a worldly perspective, Jesus said the right thing. He put that despicable woman/animal/bitch in her place.

[28] But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table get to eat scraps dropped by children!”
✦ First of all, what is she doing talking back?! She’s been put in her place. It’s time to leave, not talk! How dare she even open her mouth!
✦ But the Greek literally says, “she replied and says to him.” Replied AND says. Two verbs. Greek uses double verbs for emphasis. It’s as if this were in italics. “She SPEAKS BACK to him”! (Is she out of her mind?!)
✦ Note: She’s not a “good Jew” so she may very well have dogs wandering around in her house.
✦ Now this is amazing: One Greek scholar says that these words spoken by this woman are the most beautiful, most poetic words in all the New Testament, and certainly in the book of Mark. Her reply is written in the iambic meter. And it combines an almost stuttering emphasis in the first half of her sentence with a flowing second half. In English it might be like this:
“But the bitsy bitches b’neath the table...are dining out on the tender morsels from the dear infants.” A staccato machine-gun b-b-b-b and then flow.
✦ What is going on here?! Not only is this animal-woman speaking with intelligence (logos) but with the words of a well-trained professional speaker-poet! Once again the Bible has flipped our expectations upside-down.

[29] Then he said to her, “For that insightful answer, be on your way, the demon has come out of your daughter.”
✦ “Has come.” Not “OK, now I will....” It’s already a done deal. Just as Jesus has said on other occasions, “Your faith has healed you,” he might as well say here, “Your words (logos) have healed your daughter.” A remarkable—inconceivable—thing for him to say in that day and age.

[30] She returned home and found the child lying on the bed and the demon gone.
✦ Why still in bed? Why not up and walking around (as in other miracle stories)? Well, perhaps, another reasonable translation might be “reclining” instead of “lying” and “couch” (at the dinner table) instead of “bed.” In other words, not only are the woman and her daughter not bitches, but the mother is intelligent and gifted and able to soothe Jesus’ ruffled feathers; and the daughter is a sign of things to come: all people (men AND women, Jews AND foreigners, adults AND children) welcome at the table, the place to gather and receive blessings.

A Jon Andreas paraphrase of Mark 7:24-30:

Jesus was so tired of his touring schedule and all the crowds and all their demands that he thought he would disappear into the city for a while. He found a nice place where he could eat and rest with a few friends in relative peace. But right in the middle of dinner a sleazy and grungy woman in a low-cut blouse and mini-skirt barged in and walked right up to him.
“Listen!” she demanded. “I’ve got this sick girl...”
“No!” Jesus yelled. “Enough! Can’t a man get some peace and quiet without some bitch coming in and...”
“O Wise One,” she replied sarcastically, “even this barking bitch beside you can benefit from your care and compassion.”
There was silence in the room. Jesus smiled, chuckled, shook his head.
“Thank you,” he said, “your words have not only healed your girl but me too.”
By the time the woman returned to her apartment, her daughter was waiting for her at the kitchen table with a plate of food.

(Commentary drawn from articles by Alan H. Cadwallader and Glenna S. Jackson in the Sept-Oct 2012 issue of The Fourth R.)

© 2017 Jon Andreas. All rights reserved. Written November 2012, edited Oct. 2017