Jesus’ Encounter with the Woman in Tyre
by Dcn Bob Evans
Let me share with you some insights into one of the most puzzling Gospel passages. It is Matthew’s account of Jesus’ encounter with the woman in Tyre. [see Matthew 15:21-28]. This Gospel passage takes us deep into the social and cultural world in which Jesus lived and ministered – a world many of us are not very familiar with. To start with, many are stunned by the seemingly callous way in which Jesus responded to the woman’s plea, even at one point referring to her as a “dog.” To better understand this passage, let’s begin by considering the cultural setting in which this encounter took place.
Both Mathew and Mark tell us that, following their celebrating Passover in Jerusalem, Jesus had His disciples return to Capernaum via the Mediterranean coast route through the region of Tyre [Mt 15:21; Mk 7:24]. This was in the beginning of the second year of Jesus’ public ministry.
The city of Tyre (today known as Sur) originated as an island about a mile off the Mediterranean shoreline, in what is modern-day Lebanon. The city was well-known in ancient times. The strategic location of the island enabled the Phoenicians to dominate the Eastern Mediterranean seaways for centuries. Their capital, Tyre, could not be attacked by a land-based army. This so infuriated the Greek conqueror, Alexander the Great, who lacked his own navy, that he had his army spend seven months progressively piling rocks from the shoreline out to create a land bridge, or causeway, to the island. In 332 BC, when Alexander reached the city, the Greeks largely destroyed it. He sold nearly 30,000 of its inhabitants into slavery. Following the sacking of Tyre by the Greeks, the elegance of the city was slowly restored over the centuries, and a permanent causeway was constructed; but Tyre never regained its seafaring prominence.
Why did they go to Tyre?
Matthew said that they “withdrew to the region of Tyre” [Mt 15:21]. Mark said that they “went off to the district of Tyre” [Mk 7:24]. It’s not clear from the narrative why Jesus had them go to Tyre or why He had them take such a long round-about route home to Capernaum. Many biblical scholars have concluded that Jesus was seeking respite by distancing themselves from crowds and people who might recognize them by going into predominantly Gentile territory. But both evangelists speak of their going to Tyre, and other details that followed, so that the purpose of this long round-about route and its consequences might unfold as the story progresses.
Follow the Details
Before we delve into this passage, we need to recognize that all of Scripture, including the Gospels, is Middle Eastern stories, by Middle Eastern authors, to Middle Eastern listeners. From Middle Eastern Biblical Anthropology, we learn that ancient Middle Easterners told stories much differently than do people in Western cultures. Middle Eastern storytelling was a partnership exchange: the speaker/writer was responsible for conveying the lesson; it was the responsibility of the listeners to discern the lesson. If the speaker/writer made the lesson too obvious it was a grave insult to the listener. The “message” was not primarily in the plot but in the details used to tell the story. 1
In the ancient Middle East, one never
posed a question to another in public.
Tyre would have seemed an ideal place for them to get away from crowds and not be recognized. So, they crossed the causeway to enter the city. But, a local woman, a Gentile, recognized Jesus and called out: “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon” [Mt 15:22].
Here we see a very important aspect of ancient Middle Eastern culture that is quite different from what we are familiar with. In that culture, one never posed a question to another in public. It was always, initially, regarded as a challenge to one’s honor which must be defended in the culturally-appropriate way.
Honor was regarded as the highest
virtue in the ancient Middle East, it
was held above all else.
One of the most difficult concepts of ancient Middle Eastern culture for Westerners to grasp is that “honor” was regarded as the highest virtue in the ancient Middle East, it was held above all else. 2 “Honor” in the ancient Middle East did not have to do with one’s personal integrity; but more to do with the esteem others held you in. In the ancient Middle East, personal identity was group-centered; one’s worth was defined by the “witness” of those around them, not by one’s character or deeds.
One could seriously impact another’s honor by placing them in a situation where they were ill-equipped to respond. Consequently, there was a cultural requirement to appropriately “pushback” on the challenger. 3 This was sometimes referred to as a riposte. The woman’s cry, addressing Jesus as “Son of David,” would have been interpreted in that culture as, “Are you going to live up to the obligation you have as the son of a king?” This had all the appearances of an honor challenge. 4
The culturally-appropriate response to
a public challenge to honor, from a
woman, was to ignore her.
“But he (Jesus) did not say a word in answer to her.” The culturally-appropriate response to a public challenge to honor, from a woman, was to ignore her. And that’s exactly what Jesus did.
“His disciples came and asked him, ‘Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.’” Since the apparent honor challenge had been directed to Jesus, only He could respond to it; others could not interfere.
“He (Jesus) said in reply, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’” Jesus replied to His disciples with what was the well-known understanding at the time that the Messiah was for the Jews. So far in this encounter, Jesus has not broken the social taboo of responding directly to the woman.
The woman would not accept the
cultural norm of being ignored.
“But the woman came and did him homage, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’” The woman would not accept the cultural norm of being ignored. She would not back off but instead blocked Jesus’ way by prostrating herself in front of Him. This brought everyone to a halt.
‘He (Jesus) said in reply, ‘It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.’” So, Jesus also breaks the cultural taboo and addresses her directly. But why in that manner?
Recall that Matthew identified the woman as a Canaanite. The Canaanites were bitter enemies of the Israelites when they entered the Promised Land. The Canaanites were descendants of Noah’s grandson, Canaan, and like Canaan were considered a cursed people [see Genesis 9:18-27]. So, Jesus referring to the Canaanite woman as a “dog” was quite consistent with what one would expect from a first-century Jew.
Of course, many find Jesus’ words here shocking. However, most of us lose sight of the fact that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine. In His full humanity, He was in fact a first-century Jew. And as such, Jesus initially lived within the cultural norms of His time and learned of the fullness of God’s plan for Him progressively, just as the rest of us humans do.
There were no historians in the ancient
world, at least in the sense we
think of “historians.”
We must also recognize that there is a reason Matthew has included this detail in his account of Jesus’ encounter with the woman in Tyre. None of the evangelists were writing history lessons. There were no historians in the ancient world, at least in the sense we think of “historians.” Most “historians” then were men employed by kings, pharaohs, conquerors and emperors to “record their mighty deeds.” No one was engaged in trying to objectively record what actually happened. The ancients saw no need for such an effort. In their view, “history keeps repeating itself; only the particulars change.” This does not mean that all “historical” accounts from that time are biased. Rather, the purpose of those accounts was to teach something, not to present precisely what happened.
The evangelists were teaching faith lessons to the communities they were writing to using stories from the words and life of Jesus. There are many historical events for which the Scriptures are the only written record we have, but the Gospels were not intended to teach history. So, part of our discernment effort is to figure out, as best we can, why Matthew chose to recount this story using the particular details he chose.
“Then Jesus said to her in reply, ‘O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed from that hour.” This unnamed pagan woman, in the far-off city of Tyre, had profoundly affected Jesus. What had all the appearances of a public honor challenge turned into a remarkable exchange between a mother who was pleading for her daughter and the man-God, Jesus Christ, who was confronting an even broader scope to His mission than He had previously envisioned.
Following this encounter, Jesus
openly ministered in Gentile lands.
On the basis of Matthew’s Gospel, prior to this encounter, Jesus had not openly ministered in Gentile lands. In fact, Matthew tells us earlier that when Jesus first sent out his disciples, he specifically told them not to go to Gentiles [see Matthew 10:5-6]. However, following this encounter Jesus openly ministered in Gentile lands.
This encounter with the woman in Tyre, and her profound faith in the face of what would have seemed almost insurmountable discouragement, appeared, at least to Matthew, to have brought about deep contemplation over the full scope of Jesus’ mission. What may have begun for them as a respite walk turned into an extended period of much needed one-on-one time for them with Jesus. As Mark put it, they “left the district of Tyre and went by way of Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, into the district of the Decapolis” [Mk 7:31]. This was going deep into lands that had been Gentile ever since the invasion by the Assyrians, centuries earlier.
The lesson in this story of the encounter, as recounted by Matthew, makes the point that God teaches us His will largely through the circumstances He places us in. Matthew used this story to illustrate that even the most perfect human on earth, Jesus Christ (fully human and fully divine), learned the will of the Father in the same manner all of us learn His will for us. Matthew had experienced this same learning process in his own life [see Matthew 9:9]. Through the working of God, Matthew was at his post in the customs house in Capernaum when he encountered Jesus who called Matthew from there to follow Him. That encounter, in a most unlikely circumstance, in a most public place, changed the whole course of Matthew’s life.
Recall that I indicated at the outset, a point that has been made by a number of biblical scholars, Middle Eastern Biblical Anthropology has taught us about Middle Eastern storytelling: the “message” was not primarily in the plot but in the details used to tell the story. If we had relied primarily on the plot, which we customarily do in Western cultures, we would have come to a much different conclusion about what the lesson was that Matthew intended in his account of the encounter in Tyre. We tend to treat details as intended to give depth, authenticity and color-commentary to the story. That’s not the way ancient Middle Easterners treated details. They carefully constructed the telling of the story to convey the message through the details. As you delve into other biblical passages, see this pattern exhibited over and over again.
1 Alter, Robert, The Art of Biblical Narrative, (New York: Basic Books,1983).
2 Barnard, Alan and Jonathan Spencer, The Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology (New York: Rutledge Publishing, 2003),
3 De Silva, David A, The Hope of Glory: Honor Discourse and New Testament Interpretation (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishing, 1999),
4 Neyrey, Jerome H., Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998).