Children first, then the dogs: the literary origins of Mark’s Syrophoenician woman

Jesus’ interaction with the Syrophoenician/Canaanite woman in Mark 7/Matthew 15 leaves many uneasy, both because Jesus initially refuses to help, and because he speaks of non-Jews as dogs. This behavior seems uncharacteristic of Jesus, who has himself already healed multiple gentiles without question in the Markan and Matthean narratives. Others have suggested that Jesus’ behavior is best explained with recourse to an understanding of the new covenant: only through the death and resurrection of Christ could the covenant be extended freely to gentiles. The Syrophoenician woman was therefore a victim of poor timing. Still others insist that Jesus here does not really mean what he says. Instead, he is parroting the prejudiced attitudes of his countrymen in order to make a point.

This post will take a different track, interpreting the passage based on its literary imitation of a story in 1 Kings 17.

In two previous posts (1, 2) I argued that the story of the Canaanite woman as told by Matthew alludes to the story of the Canaanite Rahab and her redemption out of the doomed Canaanite federation. Corresponding to the faith of Rahab, Matthew’s Canaanite woman praises Jesus as the Davidic king (15:22), the one who “will inherit the nations” (Psalm 2:8). Both she and Rahab therefore commit their allegiance to Israel’s God and to those whom He has anointed to exalt His people among the nations (Joshua and Jesus). And yet, Rahab’s story does not provide the literary structure of the exorcism story in Mark 7. Rahab’s faith and foresight are merely brought to mind.

As for the structure of the passage, we must turn to 1 Kings 17. Adam Winn in Mark and the Elijah-Elisha Narrative, observes the impressive parallels between the story of Elijah’s provision for a gentile widow’s family and the story of Jesus’ exorcism of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter. In both stories the Israelite prophet meets a gentile woman and her children. In both stories there is an initial request, an initial refusal, and a miracle. In both stories there is initially not enough bread to feed both parties. In both stories faith and deference is met with blessing. I will chart these structural parallels below.
A. Request: Elijah asks the gentile woman for bread and water (17:10-11). He asks her to let him eat first (17:13).
A. Request: The gentile woman asks Jesus to exorcise her daughter (7:26).
B. Refusal: The woman refuses because she only has enough food for a last meal with her children (17:12).
B. Refusal: Jesus explains that the children (Jews) must be fed first, and implies that if there is food remaining afterwards, then the dogs (gentiles) may be fed (7:27).
C. Provision: According to Elijah’s word and the woman’s obedience, the woman’s grain and oil are not depleted for the remainder of the famine. Elijah and the family eat (17:15-16).
C. Provision: According to the woman’s faith in the master’s provision through the crumbs dropped by the children (God and Israel), the demon leaves her daughter (7:28-30).

So what is going on in these stories? Some elements have reversed while others have stayed the same. But at the center of both pericopes is the question of whether there will be enough to eat after someone else has already eaten. The answer is clear: through faith in Israel’s God there will be enough. After the Israelite prophet Elijah eats there is enough for the widow. After the children at the table eat there is enough for the Syrophoenician woman’s child. Israel’s exalted status therefore does not prevent God from providing fully for all those who trust in Him.

Towards the end of his discussion, Winn calls Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman a kind of “testing.” Jesus tests the woman’s knowledge of Israel’s God. Jesus states in parabolic form the general rule: God’s blessing comes first to the Jew and then through the Jew to the gentile. The woman expands Jesus’ parable, trusting that even through this system (master/God, children/Israel, dogs/gentiles), and despite her place in it, God will provide fully for her and her family.

So then is this really a test? The woman’s statement does not contradict Jesus’. Jesus has not said something false in order for her to detect a lie. Rather, the woman adds to the general rule what is also true: Israel’s blessing blesses faithful gentiles because God’s blessing to Israel is superabundant.

We can now articulate the purpose for Mark’s imitation. As Mark crafted it, the Syrophoenician woman’s rebuttal encapsulates the whole of the message conveyed by the story of Elijah and the widow. Elijah ate first and there was enough left over—the gentile who has faith in Israel’s God and shows deference to His anointed will not go for want. “Therefore,” says the Syrophoenician woman, “let the children eat first; if the crumbs satisfied the widow, they will surely satisfy me.”

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