In Matthew 15:21-28 and Mark 7:24-30 we read the account of the Canaanite (Syrophoenician) woman who came to Yeshua (Jesus) and requested that He heal her demon possessed daughter.
As she repeatedly cries after Yeshua His disciples ask Him to send her away; upon which He makes this statement to them, “ I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (see also Matthew 10:6).
When the woman bows down at His feet, continuing to plead with Him for help, we find this most remarkable yet totally misunderstood statement from Yeshua to her: “It is not good to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.”
Did Yeshua just speak a derogatory slur to this woman? Let's find out!
If you will stick with me I would like to address this problematic scripture that when combined with the words of the Apostle Paul in Philippians 3:2 has caused untold antisemitism on countless millions of innocent Jews throughout the world; bringing hatred, and even murder upon them for almost 2000 years.
I have been previously taught that in ancient times Jews referred to gentiles as “dogs”. I was taught that this was the cultural norm during the time that Yeshua walked the earth as well as before and after. Supposedly, Jews called gentiles (and such was the woman mentioned above) dogs because they were unclean and impure and thus intimate or close association with gentiles was forbidden. Hence, Yeshua in this Scripture was only following the cultural norm when He spoke to this woman and called her a dog.
But is this really the truth?
Since most Christians have also been taught the above scenario, it led to the second problem and wrong scriptural interpretation. This second problem came about because of the Apostle Shaul's (Paul) words in Philippians 3:2.
“Look out for dogs, look out for the evil workers, look out for the mutilation!”
Since the Apostle Shaul here is speaking to non-Jews (gentiles) that have come to believe in Messiah Yeshua about not having to succumb to those who were trying to “force” circumcision for salvation upon them, and since most of the ones causing this trouble were the Messianic Jews, it is believed that here Paul is taking the old “slur” of Jews calling gentiles dogs and he is actually “dumping” it back on the heads of the Jews. In other words, so Christian commentaries say, the Apostle Paul is reversing this “slur” upon the heads of the Jews. The Apostle Paul, if you please, is now calling his fellow brethren, the Jews, “dogs”. OH my GOODNESS how we have SCRIPTURALLY erred!
This doctrinal “dogma” has caused untold problems for the Jewish people throughout the centuries and from the hands of Christians. How awful!
If you don't believe me then look it up in Christian commentaries. Also, in Hitler's Germany signs read:
“No Jews or Dogs Allowed”.
Now, let us address some of these things.
First, there is NO historical evidence to support that Jews in any era called non-Jews dogs just because they were not Hebrew! Period! There is no evidence from Scripture that Jews called gentiles dogs, nor (when taken in its proper context) from any ancient Jewish literature. The Talmud makes mention of people being like dogs but it does not call gentiles dogs just because they were gentiles. It may refer to a gentile as a dog because they act like one, but it would also refer to another Jew as “acting” like a dog. If Jews were to refer to a gentile as a dog it would only be because they were not able to distinguish clean from unclean and holy from unholy, hence the Scripture: “do not give that which is holy to the dogs”. This Scripture was most likely talking about the proper methods of sacrificial disposal. In addition, Matthew 7:6 is generally understood in the context that you do not share something of value with those who will not appreciate it, they cannot discern its value. This Scripture neither calls a gentile a dog nor makes reference to this effect. Jews have never had this policy, but on the other hand, Christians have historically referred to Jews as “dogs” simply because they were Jews and for no other reason. If there were any Scripture where a Jew called a non-Jew a dog it would be by Yeshua in the referenced Scripture above. This is the only occurrence (Matthew and Mark). If you keep reading you will discover that this was not a derogatory slur by Yeshua.
Second, let's talk about dogs for a moment. Dogs are mentioned numerous times throughout the Old Testament and in ancient Jewish and other Eastern writings. They are also mentioned several times in the New Testament other than the scriptures in our study. Dogs can have positive and negative qualities. They make good watchdogs to alert of danger for their human family, they helped to herd animals, they show loyalty, they can easily be trained for various types of skills that assist humans, they can be domesticated pets, etc. On the flip side: dogs are scavengers and will eat anything including human flesh (as noted in the Bible) and their own vomit, they run in destructive packs, they can be very aggressive as scavengers, etc. Anciently, dogs had various uses but whether or not they were domesticated changed with different cultures and societies. They are depicted in many ancient reliefs alongside man and in more noble ways. The modern day (Western culture) position of the domesticated dog cannot be applied to every ancient culture. The dog has come a long way.
Third, the ancient Israelites considered the dog to be an unclean animal. Some dogs were used as family watchdogs or to help herd the sheep but for the most part they were just half- wild scavengers who roamed the streets and helped to keep the city clean by eating the refuse. Elijah makes mention of this in I Kings 21:24. Because the dog was of “low” estate in the Hebrew culture, one can find that the word “dog” is used Scripturally to demean someone's enemy OR TO abase oneself. See 2 Samuel 9:8, Deuteronomy 23:18 (male temple prostitute), I Samuel 24:14, II Samuel 3:8, II Samuel 16:9, II Kings 8:13, Psalms 22:20 for examples. However, in none of the Scriptures does it refer to a non-Jew as a dog simply because they were not a Hebrew. When a person is referred to as a dog or if they refer to themselves as a dog, it meant that they were referring to one of the negative qualities and the uncleanliness or low estate of the dog. Servants would often refer to themselves as a dog.
Fourth, in the Apostle Paul reference in Philippians one has to dig very deep historically to discern exactly what he could have been referring too, but rest assured, it was not the aforementioned. Paul was a very educated man and his writings are very difficult to understand as the Apostle Peter himself witnesses to in II Peter 3:14-16. If Peter found them difficult to understand and admitted that people were already twisting them, then imagine how much they have been misunderstood and twisted by people for the past 2000 years. I will say that it is possible that Paul was referring to the “aggressive nature of the dog” that some of these people had who just happened to be Jews, although some of them were probably non-Jewish proselytes also. They had become like “scavenging dogs” aggressively following and attacking the Apostle Paul wherever he went spreading the gospel to the nations.
Psalms 22:16 “for dogs have compassed me; the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me; they pierced my hands and my feet.”
This verse has often been used to say that when Yeshua was on the cross that He was surrounded by “dogs” or “gentiles” that were crucifying Him. However, could He not also have been saying that people who were “acting like the aggressive, scavenging dog” killing its prey, were surrounding Him on every side? Its all context.
Now, let's begin looking at Matthew 15:26 and see what Yeshua could have been truly saying to this woman.
In verses 21-22 it states that Yeshua went into the region of Tyre and Sidon and a woman from that area came to Him pleading that He heal her demon possessed child.
The area of Tyre and Sidon was in the territory of the tribe of Asher. With the exception of the tribe of Judah the original occupants of the land were never completely driven out but the Israelites lived amongst them. Even in Judah the Jebusites were not completely driven out. When the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel and carried the people away many of the poorest of the people were left behind. The Assyrians also resettled other nationalities of peoples in the Northern Kingdom territory. There would have been intermarriage between the Israelites and these other people groups. It is necessary to understand this information as background for this study. To the Jews they would simply have been gentiles.
The woman in our story would have been of this people group. In this study we will examine and try to discover more details about her past ancestry.
In verse 22 it is recorded that the woman cries out, “have mercy on me, O Lord (Master), Son of David!” This is an interesting statement. This woman calls Yeshua “Master” but then she refers to Him as the “Son of David”. This is a Jewish Messianic title! Now, this should make one wonder how this Canaanite woman came about the knowledge of a coming Jewish Messiah who was to be the Son of an ancient Jewish King named David. Just for information, the Centurion never referred to Yeshua as Son of David when he asked Him to heal his servant. He just said that He was a man of authority.
The next verse (23) states that Yeshua did not answer her and His disciples wanted to send her away but Yeshua stated to them (verse 24): “ I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
This scripture poses some theological discussion. Most Messianic Jews and Bible scholars state that this means that Yeshua was looking for “Jews” from the Southern Kingdom (Judah, Benjamin and most Levites) who had gone astray. This would also include any other people from other tribes who had settled down into the Kingdom of Judah. In the first century many Hebrews still knew to what tribe they belonged. We see this in the New Testament, for example, the Apostle Paul states that he was from the tribe of Benjamin, and it is stated that Anna was from the tribe of Asher (Luke 2). Many scholars argue that all the tribes returned to the land after the Babylonian captivity. This just is not true. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell exactly who came back to the land after the Babylonian captivity and it was the tribes of Judah, Benjamin and Levi. The 10 northern tribes never returned to their allotted lands, or to Judah, in any great numbers but they remained scattered in many locations where the Assyrians had re-planted them.
The Assyrians were a very cruel people and actually practiced what could be called the first “ethnic cleansing”. When they re-settled conquered people groups it was in an effort to make them forget who they had been, and they never let them return to their homeland, unlike the Jews who were given permission to return by Cyrus. The Northern Kingdom was carried away some 100-125 years earlier than the Southern Kingdom, that in addition to the time that the Southern Kingdom spent in exile. This would be a lot of time for descendants to forget their heritage and desire to return to a land for which they had no memory. No one would still be living from the Northern Kingdom who remembered their former lives in a land so far away, unlike Judah who still had many elderly people who returned to the land after they had been in exile. The Scriptures record that these elders were saddened when they saw the second Temple after remembering Solomon's beautiful Temple.
When we look throughout the Old Testament we will find that the phrase, “House of Israel” always refers to the Northern Kingdom of Israel, which was also called Ephraim or Joseph. Why should we understand it to mean anything different in this Scripture? Yeshua stated in John 10:16, “other sheep I have which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.” This sounds strikingly similar to what many of the prophets had to say regarding the coming back together of the two Kingdoms under one shepherd and King (Messiah). Read Ezekiel chapters 34-37 for starters.
In addition, it is recorded in Matthew 4:12-17, “Now when Jesus had heard that John was cast into prison, he departed into Galilee; And leaving Nazareth, he came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is upon the sea coast, in the borders of Zebulun and Naphtali, That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying, The land of Zebulun, and the land of Naphtali, by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles; The people which sat in darkness saw great light; and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death light is sprung up. From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
The Galilee is where Yeshua spent the most time during His earthly ministry. It was Galilee of the Nations because the 10 tribes never drove out the prior inhabitants of the land when they came in to conquer the land. Yeshua came to bring “light” to this Northern Kingdom territory because they had been the tribes who had been “divorced”, “cast away”, and “sown” amongst the nations as so clearly explained in the book of Hosea. As the prophet Hosea describes their punishment he also tells how they will be re-gathered into the family. Yeshua came to find his “lost sheep”, the “lost sheep of the House of Israel”. He began by starting in the most likely place on earth to find these lost tribes and that would have been in the territory where some of them could be still found.
Was this woman one of them? It would make perfect sense that her ancestry could have included the DNA from one of these Northern tribes. That would explain why she would have known about the coming Messiah, Son of David.
Yeshua tells His disciples that He came for the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Could He have been telling them that He didn't want to send the woman away because she was part of the lost sheep?
After the woman continues to plead with Yeshua, He tells her, “it is not good to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.” Her response is then recorded, “Yes, Lord (Master), yet even the dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their Master's table.”
There are two Greek words used for dogs in the New Testament. One denotes the half-wild stray dog that roamed the streets (as discussed in the first lesson). The second word for dog is used in this verse and it actually means, “a little dog” or a “puppy”. Many newer translations translate the dog in this scripture as “little dog”. It denotes that this dog was owned by the family. This was not just a stray dog. However, the family owned dog did not eat what was set aside for the family to eat but he only got the left over scraps. While he was part of the family property, he was not “inside the family” who got the best that the family had to offer. Big difference! He was “outside” the family!
The woman offered no opposition to the way that Yeshua referred to her but apparently agreed with His analogy of her position. Why?
Let's just suppose that the woman felt as though she was in a “lowly” position compared to Yeshua. Suppose that maybe she felt like she was “lower than a servant”. If you read above then you would see that she could have then considered herself to be a “dog” of “lowly stature”. Yeshua, knowing this, spoke to her where she was at. Why would this woman feel self-abasement as she stood before this man that she just referred to as “Son of David”?
If we suppose that it was because she was indeed a “lost sheep of the House of Israel”, with DNA linking her to one of the 10 Northern Tribes at some point in her history, then it would be easy to understand why she would feel this way.
I Kings chapter 12 could certainly explain her “lowly” feelings when standing before who she believed and confessed to be the Son of David.
I Kings chapter 12 explains the rift between King Rehoboam of Judah (Solomon's son) and Jeroboam, who becomes the first King of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. In verse 16 the people of the 10 northern tribes exclaim: “What share have we in David? We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse. To your tents, O Israel! Now, see to your own house, O David!” Then in verse 19 the Word makes this statement: “So Israel has been in rebellion against the house of David to this day.”
This woman, whose ancestors denounced the tribe of Judah and the inheritance of the coming Son of David, and whose ancestors rebelled and fought against the the Southern Kingdom, now stood before the very one that her ancestors had denounced and wanted no part in an inheritance. How lowly as a dog would that make someone feel? She was now asking the King of David for help. Yeshua spoke to her heart and the sincerity of her heart spoke to His, and He granted her request. I believe that Yeshua found a lost sheep of the House of Israel.
Her response “even the little dogs eat from the crumbs that fall from the Master's table”, was exactly where she had found herself. She was part of the family in that she carried the DNA of Israel in her body, but she was, and her ancestors, living outside the family. The Northern Kingdom had been divorced from YHWH but the Southern Kingdom Judah had not. Truly she was outside the family. She carried one of the traits of a “dog”, that of being “lower than a servant.”
As Hosea states about the Northern Kingdom:
1:4 “ and bring an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel” and God will sow (Jezreel) them in the nations
1:6 “ for I will no longer have mercy on the house of Israel”
1:9 “for you are not my people, and I will not be your God”
If we look at it this way, no wonder she felt as if she were in a “lowly” state as that of a dog.
No longer able to reap the full benefits of being part of the family, she was only able to get the “scraps” that Judah (the Jews) allowed her to have.
As Yeshua told the Samaritan woman, “You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews.” The Samaritan woman and the Syrophoenician woman had met the Son of David that their ancestors had renounced. They had lost much of the true and straight way because of the sin of their ancestors, but the Messiah was here now. By the way, this Samaritan woman was the first person that Yeshua revealed Himself to.
In Hosea we read the rest of the story regarding the rejected House of Israel.
Hosea 2:23 “And I will have mercy on her who had not obtained mercy, Then I will say to those who were not My people, 'You are My people!' And they shall say, You are my God!”
The woman had come full circle. She had gone from being a “lowly dog” rejected and scorned by Judah, to being accepted as part of the family by Messiah, Son of David.
She had found her way home!! Yeshua had left the ninety and nine and found a lost sheep!
Just for the record, in the parable of the Rich man and Lazarus we find similar wording. It says of the beggar Lazarus that he “desired to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.”
This is such a great parable with some similarities to the subject matter, but I will save that for another time.