Aimee Byrd

Inside the word. Outside the box.

I saw something on social media saying that Jesus listened to women. It reminded me of something I wrote about in my book, Recovering From Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Here is an excerpt from my chapter, Girls Interrupted:

What do Rahab, a dog, and the Canaanite woman have in common?  Answer: they all foreshadow the great commission. And this will make some people who really want to know about dogs in heaven happy. But I’ll come back to the dog part later. First, let’s look at two women, separated by more than fourteen hundred years.

Rahab is one of the Gentile women Matthew named in the genealogy of Jesus. Looking at the women in Matthew’s genealogy is an interesting study. While we are used to seeing the women in our own ancestral family trees, as I mentioned earlier most genealogies in that time were patrilineal. And yet along with the fathers, Matthew included Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. This is a curious choice of women to include. These women may not sound like what we are used to being taught regarding “biblical womanhood,” which often encourages women to be passive. But here they are in the genealogy of our Savior.

Why did Matthew include Rahab, for instance? Richard Bauckham insists that it is because Rahab represents God’s openness of his covenant community to the Gentiles. She was a Canaanite, a prostitute even, who openly professed her faith in the God of Israel and was then welcomed to become a member of God’s household. But not only was Rahab admitted into the covenant family; she also has a spot in this blessed genealogy. We covered her story in detail in the last chapter, but now I’d like to connect her with another gynocentric interruption.[1]

Interestingly, Matthew gave us a snapshot of another Gentile woman in his gospel. In Matthew 15:22 we have a Canaanite woman who persuades Jesus to change his mind. That’s a pretty big deal, right? We read, “a Canaanite woman from that region came and kept crying out, saying, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely tormented by a demon.’” Bauckham picks up on some parallels explaining this encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman as “a new Rahab encountering a Messiah who could be a new Joshua”:

Her address to Jesus, “Son of David,” is equivalent to Rahab’s confession of the true God that is inseparable from her recognition that this God has given the land to his people Israel (Josh. 2:9). Like Rahab she takes initiative and asks boldly for the kindness she so desperately needs (Josh. 2:12–13). Like Rahab she receives the mercy for which she had asked (Josh 6:22–25). Finally, and very importantly, like Rahab, because of her faith she is a first exception to the rule about Canaanites.[2]

Let’s read the rest of the interaction between Jesus and the Canaanite woman:

Jesus did not say a word to her. His disciples approached him and urged him, “Send her away because she’s crying out after us.”

He replied, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

But she came, knelt before him, and said, “Lord, help me!”

He answered, “It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

“Yes, Lord,” she said, “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

Then Jesus replied to her, “Woman, your faith is great. Let it be done for you as you want.” And from that moment her daughter was healed. (Matt. 15:23–28)

This text has gotten under my skin in the past. Jesus doesn’t have very kind words for this desperate woman at first. But a closer look makes this first response from Jesus appear as if he is throwing her a softball rather than being cruel. Matthew was certainly throwing one to us as readers. He had just opened his gospel with some of these supposed “dogs” named in the ancestry of Jesus. In a footnote, Bauckham reminds us “that Jesus cannot ultimately reject this woman for her ethnicity without repudiating two of his ancestors in the genealogy.”[3]

Just as with Rahab, we see a Canaanite woman—about as valuable as a dog—exercising bravery, initiative, discernment, and resolve. By describing this woman as a Canaanite, Matthew was gesturing to the tension of this encounter—the Jewish nationalism of the time was “not only directed at the Roman occupying power but also at the presence of pagans in the land of Israel, which they polluted with their idolatry and immoral lifestyle.”[4]  But this woman doesn’t only approach Jesus; Mark described her as falling at Jesus’s feet (Mark 7:25), what looks to be both a desperate and humble move. It reminds me of the woman who suffered from twelve years of bleeding who touched Jesus’s robe. When Jesus discovered her, Luke said, “she came trembling and fell down before him” (Luke 8:47). Here too we have a desperate, brave woman, begging for mercy at the feet of Jesus.

Obviously, she took initiative by seeking out Jesus. In a parallel text in the gospel of Mark, just before his account of this story, Mark said that Jesus was trying to keep his location on the down-low at this point. Perhaps his desired concealment was working with the Jews, the people who actually have the promise and who have seen his miracles. But this pagan woman was able to seek him out. She was looking for Jesus.

And what does Jesus do as she bravely falls at his feet begging for mercy? He ignores her. John Calvin said that this silence was a “sort of refusal.”[5]  He was answering her by not answering her. That seems pretty cruel right there. Maybe that’s what we think sometimes when we are praying and see no answer in sight. But that does not stop our Canaanite woman, does it? She reveals her faith, and “it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42).

This pagan woman gets into a sort of humble theological battle of wits with Jesus. Falling at his feet, she uses a particular title for Jesus, saying “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David!” (Matt. 15:22). Richard Bauckham points out an added bravery and cleverness of employing a title to address Jesus that actually “should make Jesus her enemy.”[6]  It is through David’s line that the expected Messiah, who was going to deliver Israel and conquer her oppressors, would come. This Gentile woman is identifying Jesus as the Messiah. How remarkable is this for her to know? What a discerning Gentile! She didn’t have the Law or the Prophets, and yet we see in this confession that some crumbs have already fallen from the table: Israel’s neighbors have heard about the promised redemption.[7]  This woman had a daughter taken over by a demon and was going to risk it all to implore the only One who had power over evil to help her.

Addressing Jesus as the Son of David spices things up in another way. Bauckham draws the reader’s attention to how this title evokes the genealogy with which Matthew opens his gospel and presses the question of what this title means.  What is the Messiah coming to do? How is Jesus then going to respond to this relentless woman who confirms his title? Is she his enemy after all? Jesus’s answer “echoes Ezekiel 34 (cf. 34:16, 30), as Davidic messianic prophecy (see 34:23– 24) that is not anti-Gentile, but has nothing to say about Gentiles at all. Matthew’s narrative thus situates itself in intertextual relationships with Deuteronomy–Judges, with Ezekiel 34, and with Matthew’s own genealogy of Jesus.”[8]  Fascinating!

So, who is this Jesus, this Son of David, and what is he going to do? Does his answer reveal what the Jewish nationalists expect of him?

Is the Davidic Messiah’s role to be that of a new Joshua who, this time, will lead an obedient Israel in driving out the Canaanites who survived the original conquest, repossessing and cleansing the land? Or is his role confined to that of the shepherd of God’s scattered and injured sheep, healing and gathering them, saved at last from oppressive leaders and threatening nations alike as in Ezekiel 34? Or do the Canaanite women in his ancestry require a more positive relationship with the Gentiles? All this is at stake in Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman, who could have stepped out of the genealogy in order to press her claims on her descendant.[9]

This Canaanite woman is discerning. And Jesus knows it. His initial silence provokes her to persist. She humbly acknowledges her own unworthiness when replying to him. She even accepts the designation of a dog. Yet she is so theologically sharp. She knows Jesus is the Redeemer and that even she has a claim to his grace.[10]  So she doesn’t waver.

And she is resolved. Jesus makes what looks like a terribly racist and demeaning remark. But like I said, he is tossing her a softball. Jesus knew this woman had bravery, initiative, discernment, and resolve. She had not been able to be one of the blessed disciples who sat at his feet learning. She was not raised in the Jewish tradition. And yet she took hold of the crumbs Israel dropped at the table, and her faith is strong from that diet. The Spirit of God can work with crumbs. That’s the power of God’s Word. And this woman is sharp. “What the Canaanite woman does, with the clever twist she gives to Jesus’ own saying (Matt. 15:27), is persuade Jesus that he can act compassionately to her without detracting from his mission to Israel. Like Rahab, with her exceptional faith she secures an exception that can set a precedent…By placing Jesus briefly in salvific relationship to many Gentiles, Matthew seems to be indicating that the Canaanite woman’s precedent is not to be an isolated exception but the beginning of the messianic blessing to the nations.”[11]

Matthew ended his gospel with Jesus the Messiah authoritatively proclaiming this “precedent constituted by the Canaanite woman” at “a universal scale”[12]  with his great commission: “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18–20).

These women’s bravery, initiative, discernment, and resolve are models of faith for us all. Rahab’s faith led to the birth of our Savior, and both women’s actions foreshadow Jesus’s blessing on all nations. If we are to follow some of the hyper-masculinity and femininity teaching taught in some conservative circles, these women would look more rebellious than full of faith. Should we regard them as exceptions to the way faith normally operates?

And yet Rahab and this unnamed Canaanite woman do not point to themselves, do they? Their faith wasn’t in their bravery, their discernment, their initiative, or their own resolve. Their faith was in the Lord. They had faith in his calling, his initiative, and his resolve. They responded to the call. Both Rahab and the Canaanite woman have a lot to teach us. In the account of the Canaanite woman, Matthew actually gave us the woman’s perspective. She functions almost as an interruption to the narrative. She’s interrupting the disciples, she’s interrupting Jesus’s concealment, and she’s interrupting the dominant male voice that we read in Scripture. What do we learn from this gynocentric interruption? We learn the amazing call of the gospel.

And we learn that the metaphor the Canaanite woman plays off of to persuade Jesus is powerful! While many of Jesus’s contemporaries didn’t know what to think of him, used him for his blessings, and even sought to kill him, this woman knew the value in the crumbs that fell from his covenant table.

Now this doesn’t fully answer our dog theology question, but it is promising that they will get some eternal crumbs, right?


[1] Throughout Scripture, we get snapshots from a woman’s perspective and experience, which is especially remarkable considering its male writers and the patriarchal culture of the time of writing. Richard Bauckham brilliantly introduces the idea of female-centered (gynocentric) interruptions of the dominant male-focused (androcentric) writings of Scripture in his first chapter, “The Book of Ruth as Key to Gynocentric Reading of Scripture.” Richard Bauckham, Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002),

[2] Bauckham, Gospel Women, 44.

[3] Bauckham, Gospel Women, 44, quoting Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 415.

[4] Bauckham, Gospel Women, 43.

[5] John Calvin, Commentary on the Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, vol. 2, Calvin’s Commentaries 16, trans. William Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 264.

[6] Bauckham, Gospel Women, 44.

[7] See Calvin, Commentary on the Harmony of the Evangelists, 263. 25. Bauckham, Gospel Women, 44.

[8] Bauckham, Gospel Women, 44.

[9] Bauckham, Gospel Women, 44.

[10] See Calvin, Commentary on the Harmony of the Evangelists, 269.

[11] Bauckham, Gospel Women, 44–45. 30. Bauckham, Gospel Women, 46.

[12] Bauckham, Gospel Women, 46.

3 thoughts on “Girls Interrupted

  1. Graham Dugas says:

    What does Jezebel, dogs and blood all have in common? Answer: they all foreshaddow a mighty fall. She was no longer “a member in good standing” after her numerous run-ins with God’s spokesmen. One of her trusted allies threw her under the bus.

    Like

    1. AJ. says:

      Come on…. thats not necessary.

      Like

  2. Mathilda Frank says:

    Could you please elaborate on your comment Graham? I don’t understand how your comment relates to post.

    Like

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