Is Jesus insulting the Canaanite woman by calling her a “dog”?

Q. I read the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman the other day and I have no idea what Jesus is talking about in the parable when he references crumbs and dogs eating the crumbs. Can you shed some light on this passage?

“The Woman of Canaan” by Michael Angelo Immenraet, 1670s

This story is confusing and sometimes upsetting to readers of the gospels because it appears that Jesus is not only rebuffing someone who comes to him for help, he’s actually insulting her in the process.

A Canaanite woman asks Jesus to deliver her daughter, who’s suffering at the hands of a demon, but he won’t even speak to her. When his disciples urge him to help, he replies, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (The woman is a non-Israelite.) And when she appeals to Jesus personally, he responds, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

So Jesus seems to have a very callous and insulting attitude. However, I think something different is actually going on here.

This was an oral culture whose ways were embodied in popular sayings. These were often cited in support of a particular course of action. When two people had different courses in mind, they would pit different sayings against each other until one person had to admit, “Okay, you’ve got me there.”

This kind of thing can happen in our own culture. For example, two friends might visit a new part of town on a weekend, looking for a restaurant where they can have dinner. The first place they consider says it can seat them immediately. One of them might say, “Maybe we should eat here. After all, ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.'” But if the other thinks there could be a better restaurant down the street that would be worth the wait, he might reply, “Yes, but ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained.'”

Similarly, I think Jesus is actually quoting a popular saying to the woman: “It’s not right to throw the children’s bread to the dogs.” This saying probably had a general application meaning something like, “Don’t use something expensive or valuable for a common purpose.” Jesus is applying it to the mandate he has, during his limited time on earth, to concentrate his efforts on ministry to the people of Israel, as their Messiah. (After his resurrection, his message will spread to all the people of the world from that starting point.)

The woman, however, comes up with what I think is an original saying of her own in response: “Yes, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Jesus responds, in effect, “You’ve got me there,” and he heals her daughter.

But this was not merely a battle of wits that the woman won by her cleverness and quick thinking. Rather, I believe Jesus evaluated every situation he encountered in order to discern how God might be at work in it. In the gospel of John he’s quoted as saying, “The Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing.” So Jesus was always on the lookout for when his Father might be doing something that he could join in with.

I believe, for example, that when his mother Mary came to him at the wedding in Cana and told him that the hosts had run out of wine, while Jesus thought initially that the time hadn’t come yet for him to do “signs” in public, he ultimately recognized that Mary’s persistent and trusting faith was an indication that God was at work in the situation. And so he did his first miracle there, turning water into wine.

I believe that Jesus similarly recognized the Canaanite woman’s bold request and audacious persistence as indications that God was giving her the faith to believe her daughter could be delivered if she sought help from Jesus. It was in response to that recognition, inspired by the woman’s reply to his challenge, that Jesus acted to heal the daughter, giving an advance glimpse of how his influence would soon extend beyond the borders of Israel.

 

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

2 thoughts on “Is Jesus insulting the Canaanite woman by calling her a “dog”?”

  1. I think Jesus is speaking in Scripture shorthand, so one needs to try to see what dogs mean in Scripture when used as a metaphor for a group of people.

    Php 3:2  Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. 

    Rev 22:14  Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. 
    Rev 22:15  Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. 

    Both Paul and John knew that dogs as a metaphor for people was a term with negative connotations, that is, a believer is not to be a “dog” whatever it means.

    Deu 23:17  “None of the daughters of Israel shall be a cult prostitute, and none of the sons of Israel shall be a cult prostitute. 
    Deu 23:18  You shall not bring the fee of a prostitute or the wages of a dog into the house of the LORD your God in payment for any vow, for both of these are an abomination to the LORD your God. 

    We see in the above that a dog is somehow related to being a member of a pagan cult and/or a prostitute.

    Jesus uses the dog metaphor elsewhere.

    Mat_7:6  “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.

    In these NT instances above , the Greek is kuon, which means dog or hound.

    So here is Matthews version of the story:
    Mat 15:21  And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 
    Mat 15:22  And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” 
    Mat 15:23  But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” 
    Mat 15:24  He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 
    Mat 15:25  But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 
    Mat 15:26  And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 
    Mat 15:27  She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 
    Mat 15:28  Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. 

    What does not show up in this translation is that Jesus uses the Greek kunarion, which is the diminutive of kuon, literally “little dog”, where a diminutive form of a noun is often used as a term of affection, such as Prisca being called Priscilla or “little Prisca”. What I think is going on is that Jesus is responding to her calling him Lord (which shows some kind of faith) with a term that has the possibility of finding hope within it with the term “little dog”. In other words, this is a test of faith for the woman. How will she understand the term? She ACCEPTS the term as one of affection, does not deny Jesus’ concern, and asks for the residue (crumbs) as being enough to bless her. Jesus in turn sees how great is her faith, she passes the test of faith, and he blesses her.

    Thoughts?

    1. I find this to be a plausible interpretation. Like the one I offer in this post, it suggests that Jesus is not insulting the woman, but holding a possibility out to her that she embraces, and blessing her when he sees her faith.

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