Readers are often puzzled by the incident in Mark 7:24–30 where the Syro-Phoenician woman comes to Jesus. ‘Gentle’ Jesus seemingly ruins his public image by calling her a dog, and rejecting her request to heal her daughter until she insists. Was Jesus just having a bad day?
We should look at our context first (as always). We are in the centre of what is often called “the Bread Section” of Mark’s Gospel. In this section, there are the two feeding miracles — of the five thousand in 6:30–44 and of the four thousand in 8:1–10.
Between the two feeding stories we have a long teaching on the Jewish food laws (7:1–23), the longest teaching on the interpretation of the Jewish law in the Gospel. There, Jesus teaches that all foods are clean, and that it is the contents of the heart rather than the stomach that really matters.
Having ‘broken the boundaries’ between Jews and Gentiles by doing away with the Jewish food laws, Jesus sets off into Gentile territory, to the region of Tyre and Sidon (7:24). He enters a house, presumably Gentile, and eats a meal. In doing this, he further breaks the boundaries between Jew and Gentile, as Jews would avoid going into the houses of Gentiles (cf. John 18:28), and would not eat with them for fear of breaching the food and cleanliness laws. It is at that point that our scene begins.
We are explicitly told that the anonymous woman is a Gentile (the first use of the word in the Gospel) and, to emphasise it, we are further told that she is a Phoenician from Syria. She falls at Jesus’ feet and begs him to cast the demon out of her daughter.
In v.27 Jesus gives his strange reply: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Not very polite, one could say, nor does it seem to address her request at all. Which children? What food?
Let’s look again at our context. The feeding story of 6:30–44 has a strong Jewish flavour: there are many allusions to the Old Testament, especially of Yahweh shepherding and feeding his people in the desert (see Ps 78:18–25 and Psalm 23 — note the “green grass”). The baskets used are kophinoi, small Jewish baskets. The numbers used are 5 (as in the books of the Pentateuch), and 12 (Tribes of Israel).
In the second feeding story, the flavour is quite different: it takes place in Gentile territory, the Old Testament allusions are missing, the baskets (spuridas) are non-Jewish, and the numbers are 4 (signifying, in Jewish thought, the four corners of the world) and 7 (signifying all the nations).
In both scenes there are also strong Eucharistic allusions, with Jesus taking the bread, giving thanks, breaking it, and giving it to his disciples. The words are almost identical to the Last Supper scene (14:22).
In this Bread Section, Jesus moves from Jewish territory, where he has received a rather lukewarm reaction (see the lack of response after 6:56 when Jesus heals many people), into Gentile territory where he is warmly welcomed (compare the exuberance of the crowd after Jesus heals just one man in 8:36–37).
And so he has fed both Jews and Gentiles in texts that point to the Eucharist, and has taught by his words and actions that there are no food boundaries between Jews and Gentiles.
So what does Jesus mean when he speaks to the woman? First, we need to consider what tone of voice he uses. Is it a harsh rebuttal? Or is it said with a smile?
Now Jews used to call Gentiles “dogs.” It was a derogatory term, perhaps because the dog was considered an unclean animal to which unclean meat could be thrown (Exod 22:31). More than that, throughout the Ancient Near East going back to pre-exilic times, an inferior would frequently refer to themselves as a dog (see 2 Sam 9:8: “What is your servant, that you should look upon a dead dog such as I?”). On an ostracon from Lachish in the early sixth century BC, written from an Israelite to his superior in Jerusalem just before the Babylonians destroyed the city, we find written: “Who is your servant, a dog, that my Lord remembers his servant?” Dogs were generally considered contemptible in the Ancient Near East.
So, in Jewish terms, Jesus uses a word that means a Gentile, or one who is supposedly inferior, after she has fallen at his feet (she will call him ‘Sir’). But Jesus softens the usual Jewish term to “puppies.”
The woman immediately understands what he is saying: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs." She is very glad to pick up anything that has fallen from the table of the “children.” The children that she alludes to, of course, are the “children of Israel” (cf. Isa 17:3, 9). After all, the Jewish response to Jesus’ feeding and other miracles has been poor.
Here we remember how the Gospel was spread historically: to the Jews first, and then to the Gentiles. It is almost a slogan for Paul (Romans 1:16; 2:9, 10). It will be the Gentiles who will warmly welcome the Gospel. There will be a great amount of food that will ‘fall off the table’ of the children of Israel and will be gladly taken by the ’dogs,’ and the astute woman is delighted with the offer. After all, there were plenty of leftovers when Jesus did the feeding at both meals! The allusion to Ps 78 in the first feeding story reminds us of how generously God fed those who cried out to him.
The woman’s reference to the table also reminds us of the Eucharist. One of the biggest issues in the early Church was about the sharing of meals (and Eucharist) between Jews and Gentiles (see Gal 2:11–12 for Peter’s difficulties with it, and Acts 15).
But of course, the way Mark has arranged this whole Bread Section has demonstrated that there is only one Eucharist, and one food, and it is for both Jew and Gentile. At the end of the Bread Section, we are told “there was only one loaf” in the boat (8:14). Nearly fifteen years earlier than the writing of this Gospel, Paul, in 1 Cor 10:17, had spoken of the “one loaf” as the centre of unity: “because there is one loaf, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”
In this Bread Section, the word “bread” is used 17 times (of the 21 uses in the Gospel, the remainder being at the Last Supper), and the name of Jesus does not appear in the Greek text at all. Jesus is the bread, the one loaf, and he is food for all, Jew and Gentile. This teaching suggests that the Markan community was having separate Jewish and Gentile Eucharists, and Mark is trying to bring these house churches together.
The woman is blessed by receiving this ‘food’ from Jesus, and goes home to find her daughter well. Only now are we told that she was a rich woman, as her daughter was lying on a klinen, the bed of a wealthy person. The ‘rich’ Gentile comes begging to a Jew for scraps and receives the good news about Jesus — food from heaven indeed.
So the dog reference was a joke really and Mark’s original readers would have thought of Jesus and the woman having a good laugh. But those Roman readers would have been laughing too. After all, in breaking boundaries and including all the Gentiles in God’s plan of salvation, Jesus had gone to the dogs!