Jesus and the woman of Sidon

Jesus interaction with the Canaanite woman with the seriously ill daughter can appear harsh and out of character. However Jesus was simultaneously elevating the woman and demonstrating the paucity of the racist and privileged entitlement his male disciples displayed.

In Matt 15:21-28 and Mark 7:24-31 we have two accounts of Jesus interacting with a woman in the region of Tyre and Sidon. Jesus leaves the area of Capernaum and goes north to Tyre where he encounters the woman with a sick daughter.  She is called a Canaanite in Matt 15 and a Syrophoenician in Mark 7.  At the conclusion of the miracle with the woman Mark 7:31 tells us that Jesus went via the region of Sidon and then back down towards the Sea of Galilee.

Why does Jesus make this trip north from the area of Galilee (which was relatively Gentile in nature) to the very Gentile area of Tyre?  We don’t know.

Mark alone tells us about the trip to Sidon in Mark 7:31 (after Jesus was in the region of Tyre) which is interesting – if you look on a map you wouldn’t go from Tyre to Sidon if you were headed home to Galilee.  It was the opposite way to your destination. 

Geographical place names are important to close Bible reading.  Mark is probably drawing our attention to another woman associated with a miracle in the land of Sidon – the widow of Zarephath in 1 Kings 17:8-16. Elijah performed a miracle to ensure the widow and her son didn’t die from starvation. Later, when the son became ill and died, Elijah raised him to life. Here Jesus enters the same region and similarly will be encountering a faithful woman distressed about her child. While Jesus is primarily focused on the lost sheep of Israel, God’s grace has never recognised boundaries.

Tyre, though Gentile, had a reasonably large Jewish population (enough to rate a mention in Josephus’ record of the uprising in AD 66[1]).  But the relationship between Tyre and the Jews was not really a happy one.  There was historical tension between the relatively wealthy people of Tyre and the poor farmers of Galilee.  There is evidence of significant trade between them as well as minor military conflict (as recent as 40BC).  Furthermore Joel 4:4-6 and 2 Mac 8:11, along with historical records point to the involvement of Tyre in selling Jews into slavery[2].

Interestingly the chief god of Sidon was Eshmun[3] – who was considered the god of healing.  Exploration of the ruins of his large temple in Sidon has uncovered 11 marble statues of children with inscriptions on them talking about Eshmun’s healing of the kids[4]

The Eshmun temple which is located a little way up in the hills near Sidon on the Asclepius River.  The temple was erected in the 5th century bce and dedicated to Eshmun, the god of Sidon[5].

If you knew Jesus – the famous healer from Galilee – was coming to Sidon and your child was ill, you had a choice to make. Who would you approach for healing?  The son of David, the Jewish Messiah?  Or the chief god of the area, the local god of healing who – apparently – had a history of success with sick kids? 

Enter an unwelcome participant

Into the record comes a local woman.  We don’t know this woman’s name only that Matthew (who wrote predominantly to Jews) calls her a Canaanite and Mark (with probably a broader audience) calls her Syrophoenician – ie from the coastal region of Syria.  The Evangelical Dictionary says:

Mark 7:26 identifies a woman whose daughter Jesus heals in the region of Tyre (v. 24) as  Ἑλληνίς, Συροφοινίκισσα τῷ γένει, referring thereby to her Hellenistic-Gentile origin in Phoenicia, the coastal area of the Roman province Syria, which was often called “Syro-Phoenicia” to distinguish it from the former colony of Phoenicia at Carthage (“Libo-Phoenicia”; cf. Diodorus Siculus xix.93.7 with xx.55.4; Justin Dial. 78). Matthew, on the other hand, because it is focused on Syria, uses the older name.”[6].

So the two expressions, Canaanite and the Syrophoenician, basically mean the same thing for the different audiences of each gospel.

This woman – alone and we can reasonably safely assume therefore a widow or at least single – comes to appeal for her sick child.  God is a father to the widows and orphans (Psa 68:5) and human concerns about race don’t limit God’s care.  The woman knows enough about Jesus to identify him as the son of David (the Messiah) and therefore the one who could help her daughter. She trusts in Jesus and it is her great faith which leads to her daughter being healed (Matt 15:28).

The interaction – helping a woman, teaching the disciples

This record can read that Jesus was rudely ignoring the woman and then was pretty tough on her.  But there is another way to read it:

The text can be understood as follows: Jesus is irritated by the disciples’ attitudes regarding women and Gentiles.  The woman’s love for her daughter and her confidence in him impress Jesus.  He decides to use the occasion to help her and challenge the deeply rooted prejudices in the hearts of his disciples.  In the process he gives the woman a chance to expose the depth of her courage and faith[7]

Kenneth E. Bailey

Jesus knew about his disciples’ attitudes.  Perhaps he was there for this reason. 

All the interactions are clear in the record of Matthew 15, so I’ll follow the story from this source rather than jump back and forth into Mark.

In v23 Jesus initially ignores the woman – as people would have expected him to do.  She passes the test and continues to ask him.  The disciples fail the test.  They want this annoying Gentile woman to leave, who cares about her sick child!?

In v24-25 he acknowledges her but points out his mission is to Israel.  Talking to her would have surprised, or even shocked his disciples.  One didn’t talk to a woman, let alone a Gentile.  But they would have approved of the limitation on God’s mercy.  The woman on the other hand doesn’t accept any such limitation.  She bows and asks for help.  Jesus is the hope of Israel, but the gentiles are not hopeless. 

In v26 Jesus opens a window of possibility to her.  Rather than dismiss her, he provides a challenge.  The children should get the food, it shouldn’t get thrown to the dogs.   The word Jesus uses doesn’t mean the wild dogs, or the large guard dogs, but something quite different. The word he uses is the:

diminutive of κύωνa ‘dog,’ 4.34, but in the NT the diminutive force may have become lost, though a component of emotive attachment or affection is no doubt retained and thus the reference is presumably to a house dog)—‘house dog, little dog.”[8]

Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains

This is not an insult but Jesus is making the point that the kids come before the pets.  I suspect the disciples saw it as a reaffirmation of the door being closed.  But there is more going on.  By engaging with the woman Jesus has opened a game of ‘challenge-riposte’ which daSilva explains:

The challenge-riposte is essentially an attempt to gain honor at someone else’s expense by publicly posing a challenge that cannot be answered. When a challenge has been posed, the challenged must make some sort of response (and no response is also considered a response). It falls to the bystanders to decide whether or not the challenged person successfully defended his (and, indeed, usually “his”) own honor[9]

David A. deSilva

Rather than shut her down as would be expected, Jesus is opening an opportunity for the woman by opening and then continuing a conversation.  He essentially is allowing her the ability to engage with him in what we might call banter, to be an equal worthy of ‘sparring’ with.  The woman heard it and saw an opening – pet dogs are still loved.  Pet dogs are still fed.

In v27 the woman provides a clever response to the small door Jesus had opened.  Having elevated her to worthy of interaction, Jesus then when he hears her humble but insightful response acknowledges her remark (“Because you said this” Mark 7:29).  In doing so culturally he was recognising her as an equal or more, someone who bested him in the riposte[10].  His disciples at this point would be aghast but Jesus goes on as if this is perfectly fine and heals the woman’s daughter.

The woman’s persistent faith in Jesus’ mercy was in stark relief to the prejudice of his disciples whose attitudes are exposed just as surely as the woman’s virtues are highlighted:

…in all Israel they have seen neither such total confidence in the person of Jesus in spite of his hard words nor such compassionate love for a sick child. Her response is a deadly blow to their carefully nurtured prejudices against women and Gentiles[11]

Kenneth E. Bailey


We know four things about the woman:

  1. She was persistent.  After she appealed to the Lord and got no response she kept on trying.  The disciples “came and begged him, “Send her away, because she keeps on crying out after us” Matt 15:23.  We are told to pray without ceasing in 1 Thes 5:17.  We are never told to give up on prayer, even when we don’t get an answer.  Even if others are against us.  It is not pointless repetition if we are genuinely asking.  Jesus used a parable of a widow wearing down an unjust judge to encourage us to keep asking God (Luke 18:1-8).  This woman demonstrates that sometimes the lack of an answer is not a “no” but a test to see whether our faith will continue.

  2. Like any mother she would do anything for her children.  The woman’s daughter was unwell.  She wasn’t stopped by the initial lack of reaction.  She wasn’t discouraged by the disciples trying to get her sent away.  Jesus’ answer to her could have been disheartening but she wouldn’t give up.  Just talking to a Jew, a man, a great teacher would have been terrifying.  The disciples wouldn’t have been the only ones to frown on her disgraceful behaviour.  But she has a daughter.  She is a mother.  When your child is ill or needs help you do anything and nothing stands in your way.  She is a relatable mother, acting in a way most mothers would understand.

  3. She was humble, she was prepared to beg if that is what it took.  When Jesus says his priority is the Jews she doesn’t argue.  But she does trust there are leftovers for the Gentiles.  After all why was Jesus here?!  We might feel we are not first-class disciples.  We might feel disadvantage, but Jesus is here for us.  He is in our lives for a reason and that reason is our salvation.  This woman saw past the barriers to that simple fact.

  4. She had faith that Jesus could heal.  She appeals to Jesus as the “son of David”.  This was understood to be Messianic title (Matt 12:23, 22:42).  In Matthew it is particularly used in the context of healing (‘The son of David’ in the Old Testament was Solomon and Jewish mythology had built up about Solomon being a healer and casting out demons[12]).  The woman wasn’t synagogue educated.  She wasn’t a Bible scholar.  But she knew who Jesus was and what he could do – and that is what mattered.

The woman’s example demonstrates that Jesus responds graciously to all who have the courage and persistence to ask him.  The disciples thought they were privileged because they were Jewish.  In reality this woman gained true privilege because she had faith.  Jesus quietly exposed the bankruptcy of racism and privilege by elevating and providing for this faithful woman[13]

by Daniel Edgecombe

[1] Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987), 628.

[2] Emily J. Thomassen, “Jesus’ Journey into Gentile Territories,” in Lexham Geographic Commentary on the Gospels, ed. Barry J. Beitzel and Kristopher A. Lyle, Lexham Geographic Commentary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016), 251.

[3] John Day, “Canaan, Religion of,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 833.

[4] Donald R. Vance, “Literary Sources for the History of Palestine and Syria: The Phœnician Inscriptions,” Biblical Archaeologist: Volume 57 1-4 (Philadelphia: American Schools of Oriental Research, 2001), 11.

[5] Donald R. Vance, “Literary Sources for the History of Palestine and Syria: The Phœnician Inscriptions,” Biblical Archaeologist: Volume 57 1-4 (Philadelphia: American Schools of Oriental Research, 2001), 11.

[6]  Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990–), 312.

[7] Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 222.

[8] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 43.

[9] David A. deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Westmont, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 29.

[10] Kristen Rosser (2012), Even the Dogs Eat the Crumbs: Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician Woman

[11] Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 224.

[12]…with one exception, ben Dāwid/ υἱὸς Δαυίδ is always, in the OT, used of Solomon, who was later renowned as a mighty healer, exorcist, and magician. Especially significant in this regard is the Testament of Solomon (second century a.d.?). Its use of υἱὸς Δαυίδ in connexion with Solomon the healer does not appear to be under Christian influence (cf. the title; 1:7; 5:10; 20:1; 26:9). Matthew, it seems reasonable to suppose, both knew the Jewish legends about Solomon’s powers and probably intended to present Jesus in their light” W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison Jr., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, vol. 2, International Critical Commentary (London; New York: T&T Clark International, 2004), 135–136.

[13] Michael J. Wilkins, Matthew, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2004), 551.

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