Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Cannanite Woman Argues With Jesus and Wins

Another of those passages in the Gospels that I've seen atheists make hay out of is Matthew 15: 21-28

At that time Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.
And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out,
“Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David!
My daughter is tormented by a demon.”
But he did not say a word in answer to her.
His disciples came and asked him,
“Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.”
He said in reply,“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel"
But the woman came and did him homage, saying, “Lord, help me.”
He said in reply,
“It is not right to take the food of the children
and throw it to the dogs.”
She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps
that fall from the table of their masters.”
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.

Actually, it's only the sentence "It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs," which is used in atheist invective, saying that Jesus and, indeed, the entire Jewish tradition is an expression of bigotry against gentiles, the "chosen people" slam.  As an aside, and has been pointed out before, for a "chosen people" the Jews in their scriptures are remarkable for their confessional and minute dissection of their own fault, guilt and wrong doing.  Would that other nations who take themselves as an exception among the human population would spend so much time thinking about and publishing their weakest and most unattractive features.  Would that mine would, today.  You don't ever see the pseudo-Christian, ultra-nationalist Republican right emulating that aspect of scripture, or many others. 

As has also been pointed out, every sin laid on the account of the Jews is known because they recorded it, the prophets among them the first to condemn it in the harshest of terms and to call for repentance and reform, a number of them dying at the hands of civil authority for that.  Including John the Baptist and, in fact, Jesus and many of his named apostles.  

Anyway, the story is certainly shocking, how could Jesus be so callous as to not even acknowledge the woman who is begging him to cast a demon from her daughter.  And to refer to them as "dogs" in a culture which didn't have the same respect for that noble species who are, in fact, morally superior in their behavior to people.  

I think this is another of those places where Jesus said something shocking, brutal, in order to make a point.  He was, certainly, voicing a common form of human thought, the disdain and lessening of "the other" something which has been widely enough present in all human societies that there isn't one which doesn't harbor it.  In this case it's particularly interesting because the Cannanite woman is presented as being the one in control of the narrative.   A woman, who was probably risking scandal in addressing a man other than a family member, from an ethnic group which the scriptures couldn't have treated more badly and who, presumably, would have been about as popular with the followers of Jesus as Southern Baptists who went to  one of James Randi's Amazing Meetings.  And Jesus begins by ignoring her.  The extent to which he would have foreseen what would happen, her persistence would be nice to know, as it is we have no way of knowing how much he figured out beforehand.  His disciples reaction to her is interesting,  they ask Jesus to send her away.   Which he doesn't do, he merely states what a lot of them may have believed, that he came only to address his own ethnic group.  

Then, instead of sending her off, he has a little argument with her WHICH SHE WINS!* In the end he does what she asked him to do, to cure her daughter who is being afflicted by demons, and in doing that, by letting her argument be the deciding factor, he shows that he wasn't there just for the nation of Israel, he was there for even the traditional opponents and enemies of his own nation.  I wish it were possible to know more about how people who saw such a scene, in those times, in that place, among those people, saw and interpreted such an event.  We can only make guesses based on what else is knowable, on the basis of what people alive there and then said.  If, as I suspect, Jesus had intended to make a point by his behavior and his treatment of the Cannanite woman, to teach his disciples something, perhaps to teach the woman something about her own dignity as someone who can even win an argument with a great prophet, this story would be a good one to do that with.  

In the end, as is typical of the atheist use of scripture, they miss the point as badly as someone who doesn't look at it carefully and in context of its time and place.  I look at the story and notice that Jesus did what the woman asked him to in the end and I notice that some very important things happened on the way to get there which are significant for that time and today.   There are Cannanite Women all around us today and the language that the media uses to describe them and to talk about them is more brutal than the words Jesus used, implying rather than denoting, and who are excluded from being treated equally as The Law in Leviticus and elsewhere says is a commandment from God. If we're shocked and scandalized by what Jesus said before he did what the woman asked him to do, how much more shocked and scandalized should we be at people who say and do far worse in our name, holding office that we elected them to?  

I strongly suspect Jesus knew where things were going and he chose to use it as a teaching moment, teaching all of those present something appropriate for their condition, including the Cannaite woman who, it is not often noticed, he praised for her greatness of faith.  She had that much faith in him, even when he seemed to be giving her the cold shoulder, even as he voiced what a lot of his followers must have been thinking to themselves.  

*  I can't ever imagine that happening with Socrates, I say having argued with a silly atheist about Plato last night.   I think such passages are some of the things I find most persuasive, it would be hard to imagine someone inventing such things if they were trying to promote someone in the typical model of a messiah that people seemed to imagine.  

1 comment:

  1. I think such passages are some of the things I find most persuasive, it would be hard to imagine someone inventing such things if they were trying to promote someone in the typical model of a messiah that people seemed to imagine.

    Indeed, one of the criteria Biblical scholars use to determine authenticity is how contrary to expectations the pericope is. This one is like Donald Trump saying something humane about "illegal immigrants." That's hardly a story his followers would make up to prove Trump was the Best Political Candidate Ever!

    Most atheists you'll argue with on-line are wholly ignorant of the scriptures or the scholarship surrounding them. They know nothing of exegesis, think whatever hermeneutic they bring is normative (and "objective," and so not a hermeneutic at all), and regard any simplistic reading of some passage they half-know as the final nail in the coffin of Christianity (which must need a lot of nails!).

    And Matthew is indeed writing to Jews, but it is Matthew who gives the "Great Commission," which is to take the teachings of Jesus out into the world, beyond the boundaries of the children of Abraham. Which is doubly interesting because Matthew and Luke (the only clear Gentile among the gospel writers) both draw from the same source, "Q", as well as from Mark (the earliest, and most "Jewish," of the gospels).