Law and History: How to Read the Law of Moses

This is the eighth in a series of studies on Deuteronomy 22:30-23:8.

And Jesus went out thence, and withdrew into the parts of Tyre and Sidon.  And behold, a Canaanitish woman came out from those borders, and cried, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a demon. But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. But he answered and said, I was not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. But she came and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me. And he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread and cast it to the dogs. But she said, Yea, Lord, but even the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table. Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith:  be it done unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was healed from that hour (Matthew 15:21-28).

I believe this story reinforces my reading of Deuteronomy 23:1-8 as intentionally paradoxical — a riddle of God’s grace included in the laws of exclusion, because I think Jesus is acting out the same sort of paradoxical application of the law. Consider the story. Jesus has departed into the region of Tyre and Sidon, gentile territory, in order to rest from the hustle and bustle of his ministry in Galilee (Mark 7:24). But immediately, according to Mark, a Gentile, pagan woman appears, asking for help (Mark 7:25). The woman is identified as a “Greek,” a “Syro-phenecian,” and a “Canaanite” (Matthew 15:22; Mar. 7:26). Though she is not from the particular nations mentioned in Deuteronomy 23:1-8, she is a Gentile from an idolatrous nation — the kind of people that Deuteronomy warns against and that Nehemiah included in the list of forbidden people on the basis of his principled interpretation of Deuteronomy 23. If Jesus followed Nehemiah’s interpretation of the law, she would be excluded.

Jesus answer suggests He follows Nehemiah’s understanding of the law, for He speaks very clearly: He is not sent to help Gentiles, but only the lost sheep of Israel. Also, His rejection of her plea adds to the disciples attempt to send her away. At this point, one might expect her to be disappointed at least, and perhaps even angry that she is being treated with such disrespect by a man known as a prophet and healer. What is more, Jesus did not just turn her down once, but twice — the second time labeling her as a Gentile “dog.”

From the perspective of Deuteronomy and Nehemiah, this rejection of a Gentile seems legitimate. She had no right to the special blessings of chosen people. Also, contrary to some modern misconceptions, Jesus was not a philanthropist healer on a medical mission. His healing was specifically designed to restore Israel to her priestly role among the nations. It was a messianic task, not a humanitarian work.  As we have already seen from considering Deuteronomy, however, the prohibition of Gentiles was never intended to be absolute. The law itself pointed to “gracious exceptions.”[i]

Jesus’ answer to the woman might seem to us like an insult, but it would be perverse to assume that was Jesus’ intention. What, then, is He trying to do? Working backwards from the end of the conversation and assuming that it ended in the way He wished, I think we can say that He was accomplishing two things. First, He is establishing the literal realities of His ministry and commission. Neither this woman nor any other Gentile should presume the right to be healed by Jesus. He was sent to the lost sheep of Israel and bringing Israel back to God was his calling. Of course, that was just the first step toward the redemption of all mankind, but that first step was the work Jesus was called to do.

This fits with the passage in Deuteronomy because the verses in Deuteronomy are concerned with membership in the assembly of Yahweh, the definition of who belongs to “Israel.” People who do not belong are excluded from the special blessings of the chosen people and from Israel’s priestly status. The gift of the Messiah Himself and His healing ministry is, of course, first of all for the assembly of Yahweh, not for others — especially not for someone who could be identified as a “Canaanite.” This woman was a perfect representative of those who were forbidden to join the assembly of Yahweh. Therefore, Jesus rightly rejects her.

But Jesus is the God who gave the law. He knows well about His own grandmothers:  Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth. Tamar was turned down, but her faith found a way to get from Judah what she sought for the kingdom of God. Rahab was a social outcast, but her faith found a way to save her family and build a future as an ancestress of the Messiah. Ruth was turned down by Naomi and four times urged to return to her pagan people (Ruth 1:8-15), but she persisted in faith and eventually won a prominent place in the most distinguished family in world history.

In the case of each of these famous women, there is a consistent principle, one that appears in the lives of men like Abraham, Moses, and David: God tests His people. What we see in the Gospel story is that yesterday, today, and forever, Jesus is the same Yahweh, the God who tests His people’s faith. Yahweh tested Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth not because He is mean, but because He loved them and sought to refine their faith, to bring it to its highest and most beautiful expression. In trial, their faith persisted in spite of rejection, and even grew, because it was genuine.

That, then, is the second reason for Jesus’ apparently harsh words — to test this woman’s faith — for her blessing. She showed up as soon as he entered the house (Mark 7:25) and persistently begged for Him to heal her daughter (Mark 7:26). From the beginning, then, her faith was clear. By testing her faith, Jesus purified it, leading her to join the ranks of Ruth and others who did not take no for an answer.

This Canaanite woman actually displayed her faith in more ways than one. First, she addressed Jesus as the “Son of David,” so she knew about Israel and God’s plan for His people, at least to some degree. It seems probable that she had come to Jesus because she believed that He was the Messiah, which is the only thing the title, “Son of David” could have meant in this context. When, therefore, Jesus seemed to reject her, she did not easily give up or get discouraged, because she had some idea of what it meant that Jesus was the Messiah.

Mark tells us that the woman appeared in the house where Jesus stayed almost immediately after He arrived. Matthew offers details that fill out our understanding. We see, for example, that when this woman first sought His mercy, Jesus ignored her (Matthew 15:22-23). Her response, however, was to continue to plead for Jesus’ help. The disciples asked Jesus to send her away because she was troubling them so much, but again, she did not give up.  Jesus then gave her his first “answer,” rejecting her plea with the statement that He was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel (15:24). At this point, she approached Him and bowed before Him, asking for help (15:25). Again, her persistence in the face of rejection showed her trust in Christ. Since she continued to beg, Jesus responded in language even harsher, in effect calling her a Gentile dog: “It is not right to take the children’s food and give it to dogs” (15:26).

Her response to this was amazing. She did not argue with Jesus about His Jewish mission or show frustration or anger at His words to her. Rather, she accepted His seemingly harsh words and built her answer on the presupposition of their appropriateness. This time her answer was not mere persistence, repeating the same request over and over. Rather, her answer showed faith in Jesus as the one who was commissioned to save Israel. She acknowledged God’s special purpose for the seed of Abraham, but added to it in a surprising way. For what she added to Jesus’ picture of the children eating bread at the table borrowed what we might consider the most insulting aspect of the whole scene, the reference to Gentiles as dogs: “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table feed on the children’s crumbs.”

This answer showed humble child-like faith of the sort Jesus commended on other occasions. Her words displayed wisdom born from trust in the kind of person Jesus is. It was not her cleverness or quick tongue that won Jesus’ favor, but the fact that she trusted in Him as the Messianic representative of Israel’s gracious God, the God who shares His favor promiscuously to those who trust in Him.

Jesus’ conversation with the Canaanite woman is typical of the way God deals with people who come to Him for help. If we keep in mind the kind of God Yahweh is and has displayed Himself to be, we will read the law differently and notice the riddles and paradoxes it includes. We will learn to see God’s grace in places we would not normally expect it, even in laws that seemed primarily concerned with restricting entrance to the assembly of Israel.

Reading back into the law from the perspective of this story, perhaps we should see these laws as tests for the Gentiles who would come to the God of Israel, tests that require them to show their understanding of and trust in His person. Gentiles who know what kind of a God Yahweh is, will trust in Him and seek Him, knowing that the apparently harsh rejection of various nations in Deuteronomy’s laws was not intended as a rejection of individuals who turn to Yahweh and seek His favor. It was always true that “dogs” could eat from the crumbs that fell from the table.  It was even true that so-called “dogs” could be the ancestresses of the Messiah Himself!

Ralph Smith is Pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church, Tokyo, Japan.

[i] I put this expression in quotation marks because I do not really think it is proper. God’s grace is not an exception to the rigor of His justice.  He is a gracious God who delights to turn the curse into a blessing. But on the surface, it seems like an exception to an explicit command. My argument is that the laws themselves contain allusions to the so-called “exceptions” which indicate clearly that the “exception” is, in fact, part of the purpose of God from the beginning.  The example of Jonah illustrates this principle perfectly. Jonah knew and understood that an announcement of judgement was equivalent to an invitation to repentance and grace.  He learned it from many places in the law, including Deuteronomy 23:1-8.