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.

 

Was Judas set up to fail?

Q. Here’s a Good Friday and Easter question. Jesus tells the disciples about his betrayal, “The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.” If it was already determined how Jesus would die, and who would do it, was Judas set up to fail? Did Jesus mean that Judas would only have to be annihilated (like never born) instead if hell?

A traditional icon of Judas betraying Jesus with a kiss. Was this a set-up?

Your questions are similar to ones that some other readers of this blog have asked earlier, which is not surprising, since they are questions that will occur to thoughtful and compassionate listeners to the story of Jesus’ sufferings, death, and resurrection.

A couple of years ago I did an eight-part series of posts on the question of whether Judas was doomed from the start. Had he  been selected before all time, and identified in biblical prophecies, as the betrayer of Jesus? The series begins with my response to the question, “Did Jesus forgive Judas?” but it necessarily opens out into these other issues. By the end I find it necessary to ask, “Did Jesus betray Judas?” I’ll quote a bit from the opening of that post to show why that question comes up.

So here’s the script.  Jesus needs to die for the sins of the world, but to do that, he needs to be betrayed. So God chooses someone, Judas Iscariot, before all time to be the betrayer. In the mysterious interplay between divine sovereignty and human moral responsibility, Judas is somehow also personally culpable for this, so he pays for the deed (and all his other sins) by going to hell forever.  Not that he ever had a chance of salvation; he was a “son of perdition” and so “doomed to destruction” anyway (as some English versions translate this phrase).  Jesus himself knew, from an early point in his public ministry, that Judas would betray him. “I chose the twelve of you,” he says, long in advance of the betrayal, “but one is a devil.”  John explains that “he was speaking of Judas, son of Simon Iscariot, one of the Twelve, who would later betray him.”  And by this John means not that the “devil” Jesus refers to here would eventually be recognized as Judas; already at this time it was known, at least to Jesus, that Judas was the betrayer.

I’m not buying it.  Why not?  Because there’s absolutely no way that Jesus could have recruited Judas to be his disciple on this basis.  “Come and follow me, because I need you in my inner circle to betray me at just the right time, though for performing this necessary service you’ll burn in hell forever.”  Nobody would take that offer.  Instead, Jesus would have had to make Judas think he was inviting him to join in announcing the good news of the kingdom of God, proclaiming liberty to captives, healing the sick, helping the poor, while all along he was actually setting him up.  In other words, the only way for Jesus to get Judas to sign on as a disciple, so that he would then be the betrayer, would have been to deceive him.  And when true reason for his “calling” came to light, we could not blame Judas for feeling that Jesus had betrayed him.

But such a course of action is simply not consistent with the character of Jesus as it is clearly and consistently portrayed in all four gospels.  I think we have to conclude instead that Jesus chose twelve disciples in good faith, all as potential true followers, but that he knew at the same time that one of them would betray him.

(Though Jesus, as I argue throughout the series, didn’t know exactly which one that would be until very close to the time of the actual betrayal. I truly believe that human freedom is so radical that there are some human choices that are undetermined to such an extent that even God doesn’t know what they will be. But, as I argue in another post, also prompted by a question about Judas, “It is no failure in omniscience not to know what cannot be known.”)

In my series I hold out the possibility that Judas could have repented and been saved. But assuming he did not repent and was lost, was he then  annihilated, as if he had “never been born”?

This is another question that I’ve addressed in an earlier series of posts. I have a three-part series on the question “Is Hell a Place of Never-Ending Punishment?” After a long and somewhat technical examination of the relevant Scriptures, I conclude:

The biblical data does not present a simple, straightforward picture of “hell” as a place of never-ending punishment for those who reject God.  The picture is complicated, and readers of the Bible must understand the Hebrew and Greek terms and ideas behind our English translations in order to reach the most informed conclusion possible about this issue.

My personal experience shows me that followers of Jesus who are people of good will and equally committed to the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures can come to different conclusions about whether those who ultimately reject God are annihilated or instead suffer never-ending punishment. The statement about Judas offers possible support for the former view.

But as I also say at the end of my series about hell, “The Bible doesn’t tell us nearly as much as we would like about the fate of people after death.  But it does tell us a great deal about the character of God, in which justice and mercy are perfectly balanced.” And I think especially in this Holy Week we can find great encouragement in the recognition that God, “in his great mercy, has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” Whatever questions may linger in our minds about some of the most complicated and uncertain matters treated in the Bible, the resurrection assures us of God’s mercy towards us and God’s desire that we live in hope, not doubt or dread. And that’s really something to celebrate!

How could God use a man and not save him?

Q. How is it fair to a person born to be put through hell in life because he is used by the devil and God. Is this like the story of Job? How could God use a man and not save him?

I’m not entirely sure what you’re asking about here, but let me reassert, as I’ve said often on this blog, that I believe God gives everyone the opportunity to trust in Him and be saved, and in fact God makes every effort to bring each person to salvation. As the Bible says, God “doesn’t want anyone to be destroyed. Instead, he wants all people to turn away from their sins.” So I don’t believe that God would “use” somebody for His purposes and then just discard that person afterwards. Any purposes God pursues through our lives are subservient to the purpose God pursues for our lives, which is to bring us to know and trust Him and enjoy His presence forever.

In terms of the story of Job specifically, in my study guide to that book I note, “The book of Job has much to say about the ‘problem of evil,’ that is, why there is so much suffering in the world if it’s governed by a good God. But [in the opening story] the Adversary [the name for Satan in the book] begins by raising a different problem, the ‘problem of good.’ If apparent goodness is always rewarded and bad conduct is always punished, how can we ever really be sure that a person is genuinely good, and not just trying to win rewards and avoid punishment? It turns out that the only kind of universe in which genuine good can be known to exist is one in which good people sometimes suffer undeservedly, but still demonstrate continuing loyalty to God.”

This is what God “uses” Job to demonstrate over the course of the book (if we may use that term). And there’s no question that at the end he’s “saved,” that is, fully returned to God’s tangible favor and blessing.

I hope this helps address your concerns.

Did the Israelites really massacre the Canaanites, and if so, was this really at God’s command?

Q. Peter Enns has a book out called The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. In this book, among other things, he argues that there is a huge lack of archaeological evidence for the exodus and for the Canaanite “genocides.” He says that outside of evangelical scholarship this is essentially an undisputed fact. He argues that these stories likely reflect a sort of “tribal deity” rhetoric/mentality and are full of hyperbole and would have been characteristic of how people in that time and place related to God. He also argues that to the extent that the Israelites did massacre the Canaanites, they were not in fact carrying out God’s will but were instead doing what they erroneously thought God was telling them to do (since they related to him as a tribal warrior god). What do you make of these claims?

I haven’t yet read this particular book by Enns, though I have read some of his other books and I appreciate him as an honest, thoughtful, careful, articulate, and provocative writer. But I do discuss the historicity of the Canaanite genocides and their theological implications in this post, in light of a review of another book that makes similar claims.

I’m not qualified to speak to the archaeological debate, though I can  imagine how it could easily devolve into circular arguments: “Of course there’s no trace left of the campaign against the Canaanites, because the Israelites were told to ‘break down their altars, smash their sacred pillars, burn their Asherah poles, cut down their carved idols, and completely erase the names of their gods.’ You shouldn’t expect to find anything.  It’s just an argument from silence that it didn’t happen because you haven’t found anything.” But basically I will leave the archaeology to others.

Instead, to address the biblical and theological side of things, let me say again that the biblical stories of genocide are so disturbing that it would be a great relief to think that they never really happened. However, I think we have to ask ourselves what the implications would be if they actually had happened, and for that matter what the implications are that the Bible says they happened. As I wrote earlier, I think we need to see these stories as exceptional and even incongruous within the Bible, and on that basis see whether we can account for them somehow.

The best I’ve been able to do with that is still to see the life and teachings of Jesus as normative for the interpretation of all of Scripture, and on that basis to conclude that no one today should emulate the actions or attitudes represented by the genocide stories in the Bible. Instead, we need to hold them in an uncomfortably painful tension with the normative teachings about loving our enemies and seeking forgiveness and reconciliation, pursue those things, and await the day when “we shall know fully, even as we are now fully known,” and hopefully then understand.

Why did God reject Saul for offering sacrifices, but not David or Solomon?

Q. Why did God reject Saul as king for offering sacrifices, but not David or Solomon when they offered sacrifices?

Saul was rejected as king not specifically because he offered sacrifices, but because he disobeyed a direct command that God had given him through the prophet Samuel.

Samuel had told Saul, “Go down ahead of me to Gilgal. I will surely come down to you to sacrifice burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, but you must wait seven days until I come to you and tell you what you are to do.”  But Saul, worried that his whole army would desert him, offered the sacrifices himself, just before Samuel arrived.

“You have done a foolish thing,” Samuel told him. “You have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. But now your kingdom will not endure; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people, because you have not kept the Lord’s command.”  In other words, the penalty for this outright disobedience to a direct command from God was that Saul would not be the founder of a royal dynasty; while he would remain king, his descendants would not rule after him.

Secondarily, however, this disobedience did lead Saul to usurp a privilege of the priesthood.  As I discuss in this post, by offering these sacrifices, Saul was imitating the Canaanite priest-king model instead of respecting the separation between the kingship and the priesthood that was established in the law of Moses.

Saul subsequently disobeyed another direct command from God when he was told, again through the prophet Samuel, to completely destroy the Amalekites.*  Saul instead kept their king, Agag, alive as a trophy of war, and his soldiers kept the best of the cattle to “sacrifice to the Lord”—as part of a grand feast that they would enjoy themselves.  Samuel asked Saul once again, “Why did you not obey the Lord?”  The penalty for outright disobedience this time was that Saul would not even remain king himself for his natural lifetime; he would die early and be succeeded by “one of his neighbors”—not one of his own descendants.

A sketch by Hans Holbein the Younger for a mural depicting Samuel confronting Saul after the battle with the Amalekites

It is true that during a deadly plague, David built an altar to the Lord and sacrificed burnt offerings and fellowship offerings upon it.  But David actually did this in direct obedience to a command from God, and in any event these were the kind of offerings that any ordinary Israelite could offer.  The author of Psalm 116 says, for example:

What shall I return to the Lord
    for all his goodness to me?

I will lift up the cup of salvation
    and call on the name of the Lord.
I will fulfill my vows to the Lord
    in the presence of all his people. . . .

I will sacrifice a thank offering to you
    and call on the name of the Lord.
I will fulfill my vows to the Lord
    in the presence of all his people,
in the courts of the house of the Lord
    in your midst, Jerusalem.

Presumably when the psalmist says “I will sacrifice a thank offering,” this involves the assistance of the priests and Levites at the temple.

I think we should understand in the same way the statement that is made about the dedication of the temple itself in Jerusalem:  “Then the king [Solomon] and all Israel with him offered sacrifices before the Lord.”  The text makes clear that priests and Levites were present, and we should understand that they were the ones who actually offered these sacrifices, but at the initiative and expense of the king and people.

I hope these observations help answer your question.

– – – – –

*Episodes in the Bible like this one, where God commands complete destruction, are very troubling.  Some interpreters, like Philip Jenkins, argue that they never really happened.  Others like Adam Hamilton suggest that the biblical writers or characters were wrong in thinking that God had actually commanded this.  As I say in my review of Jenkins’ book, “I see these stories as exceptional and even incongruous within the Bible.”  In this post I describe my own efforts to come to terms with them.

Why did God give Nebuchadnezzar so many chances?

Q. I’ve been reading through Daniel and have been struck by how much God seems to communicate with and pursue Nebuchadnezzar. Any theories on why the God of Israel gave so many chances to a pagan king?

God certainly gave Nebuchadnezzar repeated opportunities to acknowledge Him, even after Nebuchadnezzar rebuffed and defied His initial overtures.  I explain the character of Nebuchadnezzar’s defiance in my book After Chapters and Verses:

I was recently part of a Bible study group that was looking at the book of Daniel. When we took up the third episode in the book, the participants were fascinated to hear how Nebuchadnezzar made a statue ninety feet high out of gold. Some of them glanced down at the notes in their Bibles and read them out loud to try to help the group understand this story better.

One note suggested that this was an ostentatious display of the wealth, power and prosperity of the empire. Another observed that a huge gold statue would have been overwhelmingly bright and dazzling. But I asked the members of the study to consider whether anything we’d encountered earlier in the book of Daniel would explain why Nebuchadnezzar made this statue out of gold.

They thought back to the previous episode, which we’d discussed the week before, and remembered that the king had had a dream about a statue. Its head was made of gold, but its chest and arms were silver, its torso and thighs were bronze, its legs were iron and its feet were made of iron and clay. Daniel’s interpretation of the dream was that Nebuchadnezzar’s empire, symbolized by the gold head, would be displaced by an inferior empire, which would then be replaced by another, and another, in the years to come.

In light of this dream and its interpretation, our group recognized that Nebuchadnezzar created a statue that was entirely gold to offer a direct and very public rejection of the message he’d received from God. He was saying, using the very symbolism of the dream God sent him, that his own empire would actually last forever and never be displaced. And by insisting that all the officials in his kingdom bow down to this statue, he was requiring them to join him in contradicting God’s revealed vision of the future, and to give their allegiance to him and his empire instead. No wonder Daniel’s friends felt they had to disobey!

And no wonder we marvel that the God of Israel continued to pursue a pagan emperor even after this.

One reason for the continuing pursuit may be that God had given Nebuchadnezzar an important trust to fulfill as the emperor of what was then the entire known world for the people of Israel, and also as their temporary lord during their exile.  In this role it was crucial that Nebuchadnezzar ultimately acknowledge that “the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.”  God went to great lengths to win this acknowledgment. (See Blake’s illustration below!)

But I think we should also see Nebuchadnezzar as an individual example of a general principle.  As Peter puts it in the New Testament, God is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”  God goes to great lengths and makes repeated overtures to every soul, striving to bring it to repentance and salvation so that it can fulfill His purposes for it on earth.

And we can see how Nebuchadnezzar was offering small but positive responses as God reached out to him.  Even though Daniel said his dream foretold the end of his empire, instead of punishing Daniel for disloyalty or treason, Nebuchadnezzar rewarded him, as he’d promised to do for anyone who could tell him a dream he’d had while asleep but forgotten once he woke up!  In this way he tacitly agreed with Daniel that “there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries” that are beyond human capability.

Similarly, after Nebuchadnezzar saw God deliver Daniel’s friends from the fiery furnace, into which he’d thrown them for refusing to bow down to his statue, he decreed severe punishment against anyone who would “say anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.”  And in the end, as I noted earlier, Nebuchadnezzar did acknowledge that “the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.”

So in response to God’s repeated overtures, we see Nebuchadnezzar slowly recognizing and acknowledging more and more about God’s supreme claims.  It shouldn’t surprise us that God would continue to pursue anyone who was steadily coming around like this.  And we should be encouraged by similar signs, even small ones, that the people we dearly want to know and love God are being steadily pursued and are beginning to respond.

William Blake, “Nebuchadnezzar” (1795). An illustration of God’s decree against the emperor, “Let his mind be changed from that of a man and let him be given the mind of an animal . . . so that the living may know that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.”