I observed in the last post some similarities between Matthew’s nameless female Canaanite mendicant and the Canaanite prostitute Rahab. I want to try to draw that connection a little tighter here and show that these women play a similar role in their respective narratives. They are not simply righteous gentile women, they are unlikely harbingers and inheritors of Israel’s redemptive promises.
I scanned a few commentaries to see if others note this connection and found that Richard Bauckham does in Gospel Women. Bauckham likens Matthew’s Canaanite woman to a “new Rahab” who encounters a “new Joshua” and receives mercy (44). The women are also both “exceptions to rules about Canaanites.”
Matthew’s hand as a redactor of Mark I think solidifies Bauckham’s conclusions. Matthew makes three significant changes that strengthen the connection with Rahab.
First, and most importantly, he replaces Mark’s Syrophoenecian woman with a Canaanite woman. Matthew wants the woman to be identified as a Canaanite rather than as anything else. By identifying her as such, Matthew is evoking the long story of Israel’s difficult relationship with the Canaanites.
Second, like Bauckham suggests, Matthew adds a rule of gentile exclusion into Mark’s miracle story. Jesus declines to help the woman at first because he “was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24). A similar rule was laid on Joshua’s shoulders—that he should utterly destroy the Canaanites and the other inhabitants of Canaan (Deuteronomy 20:17). In this way, the kingdom established by Joshua was to have no place for non-Israelites just as the kingdom established by Jesus was to have no place for gentiles. Both of these rules functioned to safeguard the integrity of God’s people, to prevent the proliferation of lawlessness and idolatry. At the same time, the stories of both Rahab and Matthew’s Canaanite woman (along with Matthew’s centurion) demonstrate the possibility of bypassing such rules.
Third, the woman in Matthew (but not in Mark) implores Jesus with a messianic title, “son of David.” In effect, the woman acknowledges Jesus as the new Davidic king who will expand Israel’s influence and purge the land of idolatry just as the scriptures ordain. She both reminds the reader of good Davidic kings like Hezekiah and Josiah and recalls the scriptural passages about a future Davidic king who will defeat Israel’s enemies and judge the people (Isaiah 11 and Ezekiel 34). She is also aware, however, that there is more to the story. She knows that gentiles and even Canaanites can share a place in the coming Israelite kingdom if and only if they confess Israel’s God as alone worthy of worship. Rahab is the paradigm of such confession.
So how does the story of the Canaanite woman function in Matthew’s narrative? I think it outlines a Biblical mechanism by which gentiles can gain entry into the messianic kingdom. It does so by alluding to the story of Rahab, the fall of Jericho, and the establishment of David’s booth in Jerusalem (i.e. the first conquest narrative). According to Matthew’s procedure, gentiles need not become Jews. They must, however, like Rahab, declare the supremacy of Israel’s God and of Israel’s Davidic king. Matthew’s Canaanite woman does this by both honoring Jesus as David’s son and by honoring Israel as God’s chosen heir, as the children seated at the father’s table. She accepts her lower position as a dog under the father’s table but also knows Israel’s exalted status brings both judgement and blessing to the nations. She can say with Balaam the seer “Blessed is everyone who blesses [Israel], and cursed is everyone who curses [Israel]” (Numbers 24:9).
In sum, God-fearing gentiles could, as Rahab before them, lay hold of the coming Israelite kingdom and redemption by means of faith in David’s son, God’s anointed. By this faith they could escape the wrath of God and the new conquest of the nations; represented first by the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 and second by the fall of pagan Rome in the centuries that followed.