And Your Little Dog Too!

Tone of voice can make all the difference. Is a statement meant to be serious? Humorous? Sarcastic? Without other cues, we naturally rely upon context to help us understand the tone. However, sometimes context is insufficient to indicate the intended tone definitively, and therefore the meaning.

What Are You Doing Here?

One such example is with the prophet Elijah. After his decisive victory in a showdown against the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18), Elijah finds himself running for his life. He ends up in a cave on Mt. Horeb—the mountain of God. He’s discouraged, frustrated, and depressed. Reading it, you get the sense that Elijah is questioning whether his prophetic mission accomplished anything of value. In 1 Kings 19:9, God asks Elijah a question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

This question seems straightforward enough, but where you decide to place the emphasis colors the meaning of the question:

What are you doing here, Elijah?
What are you doing here, Elijah?
What are you doing here, Elijah?
What are you doing here, Elijah?

Which is right? In this case, it’s pretty hard to tell.

In biblical languages, sometimes word order can give you a clue. In some cases, the first word in the sentence can indicate emphasis—sometimes. For example, in Greek, the phrasing of a question can indicate whether the expected answer is positive or negative.

Jesus and the Canaanite Woman

There’s a problematic text in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew that might suffer from an uncertain tone of voice (among other things).

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Matt 15:21–28 (NRSV)

Most of Jesus’s ministry took place in Galilee and the surrounding area. His headquarters were in the town of Capernaum on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Yet, he makes a surprising excursion out of the region to Tyre and Sidon. It’s surprising because this area was not Jewish. That in itself is not very remarkable. Several times Jesus and his disciples venture into the Decapolis region on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee—which was also very Gentile in the 1st century. However, that area had once been Israelite territory. Tyre and Sidon were never part of Israel—they were Phoenician. Matthew emphasizes this when he identifies the woman Jesus encounters as a Canaanite—the only time this word appears in the New Testament.

Let’s be honest. Jesus’s dialogue with this woman seems downright rude. This woman is in distress over her daughter, pleading for help. At first, Jesus ignores here. Then, when the disciples force him to respond, he calls her a “dog?” Really? Our English translations don’t do justice to this dialogue. The Greek word is kunárion (κυνάριον). It’s a derivative of the usual Greek word for dog (kúon). In other words, it means a little dog—or a puppy. So Jesus might be calling her a puppy, or he might be referring to the woman’s daughter as a puppy—which would make the woman a full-grown dog. Either way, it still comes across as rude.

This passage isn’t the only one in Matthew where Jesus talks about dogs. In the Sermon on the Mount, he says, “Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you” (Matt 7:6). Here the word is not a puppy but a full-grown dog. In Greek, this word for dog was also a euphemism for a male prostitute. I don’t think that’s at play here, but now you know.

There’s another problem with Jesus’s response to her: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” This statement implies there is a limited supply of food. Were Jesus’s abilities to heal people limited? By helping this woman, would Jesus deny help to the lost sheep of Israel? He’s not even in Israel! If you think about it for more than 10 seconds, you can begin to see a whole host of theological difficulties and implications.

So how do we make sense of this troubling dialogue? I think we may be missing two crucial elements: tone and audience.

Know Your Audience

Let’s step back and examine the context. This dialogue begins with a request by Jesus’s disciples. Tired of hearing this Canaanite woman’s cries for help, they begged Jesus to send her away. I wonder if this entire dialogue was not meant so much for the Canaanite woman as it was for the disciples. Throughout the gospels, the disciples were following after Jesus. One gets the sense that they didn’t often have a clue why they were going someplace or what Jesus was about to do next. Before we are too hard on them, I suspect most of them were pretty young—maybe under 21. So, cluelessness ought to be expected.

I suspect the disciples had been wondering why they were in Phoenicia in the first place. Why would Jesus want to come up here? There aren’t many Jews around here. What are we doing here? And now there’s this annoying Canaanite woman that won’t leave us alone! Would someone please make her stop! They get so sick of it that they finally ask Jesus to send her away—shoo her away like you would an annoying little yapping dog.

So, perhaps, Jesus’s dialogue with the woman isn’t meant so much for the woman as it is for his disciples. Here, the tone could add whole new layers to this dialogue. What if Jesus’s tone was sarcastic (and directed towards the disciples)? “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel;” “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Perhaps he’s giving voice to what his disciples had been thinking. He may be chastising them for their misunderstanding of Jesus’s mission.

I find the woman’s response best of all. She doesn’t seem offended at his rudeness. She doesn’t miss a beat. She gives it right back to Jesus: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” In other words, “I don’t care if you Jews think my daughter and I are dogs. The crumbs would be enough to satisfy our needs.” I think she knows Jesus is really responding to his disciples, and she joins in to let them have it.

Jesus applauds her boldness as a sign of her great faith. He heals her daughter in response to her faith. God’s grace and mercy are more inclusive than the disciples imagined.

Opening Our Eyes to God’s Kingdom

I’ve heard some claim that this Canaanite woman changed Jesus’s mind with her response—and taught him to expand his ministry. I disagree. I think Jesus knew exactly what he was doing—the disciples needed a lesson about the scope of God’s kingdom. The mission of Jesus was more extensive than just “the lost sheep of Israel.” Yes, these lost sheep were his primary concern, but not his only concern. God’s redemption plan was much larger—and Jesus reminded the disciples of that.

It’s a good reminder for us too. I am pretty organized. I like to formulate a plan and work towards a goal. I don’t think I’m particularly unique in this. We develop visions, missions, strategic plans, and goals. However, no matter how much we organize, plan, and strategize, we should not turn a deaf ear to the cry of the outsider—the person not like us.

I know within our church community, we like to plan. Yet, despite our planning, some of our most impactful work as a church has been unplanned. When we have responded to a need we didn’t even know existed until presented to us. As much as we might try to plan out the work we think God has for us; God reminds us our plans may not be God’s plan. It’s God’s kingdom and he establishes the plans.

Jesus took the disciples to an unfamiliar place and engaged with a person outside their comfort zone to teach them a lesson about the scope of God’s kingdom and their future role. May we remember this lesson as we seek to do God’s will. Thy kingdom come; thy will be done.

4 thoughts

  1. Thanks for an interesting perspective I had not considered. June and I have discussed this story many times and always found it troubling.

    People who suffer a stroke in their non-dominant hemisphere do not develop aphasia or loss of language but they may lose prosody of language. People with aprosodia can be more socially impaired than people with dominant hemisphere strokes who develop aphasia because communication is so distorted if they cannot express or understand the prosodic elements of language.
    “He is smart” is a statement when the last word is said with a downward inflection but a question when the pitch is higher and imperative if “smart” is emphasized. It must be a challenge for the good writer to provide prosody through context. As readers, we do well to recognize our aprosodia of written language. I’m supposed to understand the emotive content from the written words of a second temple era Jewish author?

    I suspect this issue is one of the problems with social media miscommunications and a reason emojis developed. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank for the post Rob.
    This story is odd when you consider the location. Would you go into a country music bar and make disparaging comments about George Strait, or Texas? Only if you are looking for a fight! Maybe Jesus’s speech tone was such that the audience knew what He was implying because of tone.
    And we should take the disciples lack of understanding with mercy, as a 50+yr old, despite the most meticulous of plans, things don’t work out. It’s frustrating and I don’t understand why God is allowing this or that.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Very thought provoking! The initial period of ignoring the woman was definitely a test of her faith. And she, much like the persistent widow of Luke 18, received mercy. The sarcasm aimed at the apostles is a very interesting take and makes a lot of sense. I think the woman responding with sarcasm in her desperate situation is less plausible. Could she have been just responding humbly with truth, acknowledging that she was a dog? A dog that needed help from Messiah. And hopefully the apostles learned that same truth for themselves.


    • Thanks, Eric!

      There’s an interesting theme that we see in the Gospels (and in ancient documents of the time) related to women in distress. Normally it’s widows. These women in distress have nothing to lose. As such, they speak truth to power and use their voice to advocate for the helpless. Their statements can be quite bold–even shocking. This is the context of Jesus’s parable about the persistent widow. It shows up also in ancient court documents and stories. I may write a post on that sometime soon. It’s another difficult passage where there is more going on than I think we realize.

      I personally don’t see anything in Scripture that would lead me to think she is self-identifying as a dog. If anything, I see the OT and NT affirming the value of ALL human life in the eyes of God–not seeking to label people as unworthy dogs. She is in need of help, but I don’t see that making her a dog.

      Her posture is pleading, but her statement seems bold rather than contrite–much like the persistent widow. Sarcasm might be too strong a word, but I do see an audacious boldness in her retort.


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