Toss the children's bread to dogs?
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Much has been written about the encounter of Yeshua and a Canaanite woman in the region of Sidon and Tyre. Matthew 15:10-28 and Mark 7:25-30 tell this story of a Syrophoenician woman who finds Yeshua at a house in Tyre and begs him to heal her daughter.
In traditional interpretations of the story, he is depicted as brushing her off, saying ""First let the children eat all they want,...for it is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to the dogs,” where, presumably, the children are the children of Israel and the dogs are the Gentiles (represented by the Canaanite woman herself), a metaphor found in other Jewish writing. "'Yes, Lord,' she replied, 'but even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs.'" As the story goes, he's impressed with her answer and tells her to go home and she returns home to find her daughter healed. Many reconcile this traditional interpretation with Yeshua’s caring nature by stating that: Yeshua was testing the woman with a test he knew she would pass, treating the people he healed as individuals, and dealing with each person differently based on their level of faith.
The traditional view of this story represents Yeshua unfavorably in two ways: first, it depicts him as a racist, and second, it depicts him as indifferent (at least at first) to the sufferings of the woman’s innocent daughter. Yeshua does not deserve such an interpretation and a close reading of the writings indicate that it is probably not an accurate interpretation and that the tortured “test” hypothesis is unneeded.
First of all, it is important to understand why Yeshua was in the region of Tyre and Sidon. Both Mark and Matthew report that Yeshua was fleeing the pressures present in Judea at the time. He was, in fact, in hiding! Mark 7:24a says, “And leaving there, he went into the frontier of Tyre and Sidon. And went into a house and desired no one to know.” Yeshua’s reputation was such, however, that Mark reports (7:24b) “He could not be hidden. For, hearing about him, a woman, whose daughter had an unclean spirit, came up, falling down at his feet.” Yeshua may have believed that he could remain in hiding and thus, he did not immediately respond to the woman’s entreaties. According to Matthew, while Yeshua remained silent and incognito, resisting the temptation to show his presence by responding to the woman, but his disciples grew impatient, and they eventually approached Yeshua asking that he, “send her away, for she cries out after us.” Yeshua responded to his disciples, “I was not sent, except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
This seemingly racist remark is actually not what it seems. Yeshua was actually chiding his disciples for their lack of pity. To understand this, one must understand the words that Yeshua spoke. In both Hebrew and Aramaic the word for “send” is shebaq. Shebaq, like the English word “send” has both a negative and positive connotation. It can mean “to throw out,” or “to send on a mission.” Yeshua was using these similar but contrasting meanings of the word to form a word-play. The disciples had asked that Yeshua shebaq (throw out) the woman, but Yeshua’s response, “I was not shebaq (thrown out). Here Yeshua uses a special form of speech, an ei me (Greek) or eem lo (Hebrew) clause. This type of clause was common in biblical Hebrew. The words mean, literally, “if not,” and they have the effect of negating the previous clause with a special case. In this situation, Yeshua said “I was not “thrown out,” if not ( or except for the special case of ) for the lost sheep of Israel. In other words, I wasn’t thrown out, except for your (the disciples) sake. This was a powerful denouncement of the disciples' indifference to the suffering of another.
This is proven by the fact that Yeshua immediately addressed the woman, whom he had previously resisted communicating with. Turning to the woman, Yeshua recited the first clause of a short proverb, “It is not suitable to take the children’s bread and throw it to a dog.” In the back and forth fashion of the teaching method of the time, the woman responded (correctly) by finishing the proverb like a faithful student, “Truly my lord, even a dog eats from the crumbs falling from the table of their masters and live.” Yeshua rewards her faithful response, as Mark reports (Mark 7:29), “because of these words, go, the demon is gone out from your daughter.”