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Children & Dogs: More on Mark 7:24-30

October 12, 2012

One further observation about the little scene between Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30 is that the initial response ascribed to Jesus is not a derogatory reference to the woman, or a simple misogynist or racial put-down, but is instead a parable-like saying specifically appropriate to the woman.

In the ancient setting, a woman with a child at home has, as a prominent responsibility, seeing that food is prepared and provided for her family. And in such a setting, with both children and household dogs, every such woman would practice exactly what Jesus is portrayed as saying:  You first feed the children, then the household dogs.  In short, Mark has Jesus using here a proverbial-like saying with which she could specifically relate.  (I don’t think commentators have noticed this.)

The woman’s response is entirely in entering into the scene projected in the domestic picture given in this proverbial saying,  cleverly noting what mothers in such situations also know–that household dogs do get morsels from the table while awaiting their turn to be fed, dropped from the children’s portions.  It’s almost an amusing response, and I am inclined to think that Mark intended readers to smile knowingly.  (But you have to have been privileged, as I was, to have grown up in households where the dogs were fed leftovers from the family food.  There are some advantages to being an old fart brought up in simple circumstances!)

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13 Comments
  1. Does this count as the first example of trickle down economics?

  2. Excellent. Love it.

  3. Ed Steinmann permalink

    I thought of your post just now while slipping my cats some fish under the table. :-) Hmmm. Maybe Mark didn’t like cats.

  4. Bobby Garringer permalink

    Isn’t the whole point of Mark’s recording the incident to prompt reflection on an actual event? And don’t the details convey a vividness of an event recalled?

    Your historically and culturally based explanation serves to embed the details of the story in a very real situation.

    The story illustrates a “Jew first and then to the Greeks” strategy and attributes the strategy to Jesus himself — a conviction conveyed by each of the Gospels, Acts and the New Testament letters.

    It seems to me that the burden of proof is on anyone who would want to question the reality of what Mark has recorded and who insist that the Jew-to-Gentile methodology was a creation of the early church in contrast to what the “historical Jesus” had done.

    • Bobby,
      Yes, you have a point. There are good reasons for thinking that the story reflects an actual incident. At least it has a certain verisimilitude to the cultural situation of Jesus’ ministry. But my posting was focused more on the report/narrative that we have in Mark, what the author might have intended by it. So, this is what I mean by saying that this is distinguishable from questions such as what Jesus may have thought about gentiles, etc.

  5. Mike Bird permalink

    Larry, it sure is an interesting story. It is especially interesting to see how it is portrayed in Jesus Movies! I like how George Caird put it, he told us to imagine Jesus asking the question with a wry smile on his face, inviting the woman’s witty reply. From memory, Morna Hooker had a good article on it too in ExpT back in the 70s.

  6. Personally I think that it is more than “almost an amusing response”, I can quite see Jesus bursting out laughing before responding. We don’t have any specific descriptions of Jesus’ sense of humour, but I believe he must have had one, and it shows up subtly in a few places, like this one.

    The woman’s response is quite in keeping with the back-and-forth style of the time, though unusual, of course, in that it comes from a woman. The disciples were upset enough with the woman already, this must have scandalized them, yet Jesus simply accepts her. Why did the church not learn that lesson for so long?

    • Yes, but in your comment (and also Mike Bird’s) we move from the text of Mark to imagining it reflecting an actual event. The latter may well be the case, but the issues involved are distinguishable. I’ve simply focused on the text of Mark and how we are likely supposed to read it.

      • Don’t completely agree with you here, Larry. What you say would be true if (and only if?) it was also true that what is in a text is _only_ what the author intended to put there. I doubt that is true, and that there are probably many things in any text that are, in some sense, true and that give insight into the author, but that were unnoticed by the author himself/herself. Your focus here, and it is a valid one, is not so much on the actual text of Mark, but more on what the author may have consciously put in the text.

        That said, you are of course right, in that my comment went beyond the text, though I do think that it is possible the author of Mark intended the humour to come through.

      • One quibble: My focus is precisely on the text of Mark and its distinguishing details. What is in a text is self-evidently what an author wished to put there. What meanings readers take from texts . . . ah, that is another matter! I’m one of those who hold that our readings should be anchored and shaped in some ways first with the cues placed in a text by an author to guide interpretation of it. But, of course, readers can do what they like. But, as I laid out in my inaugural lecture years ago, I advocate a “hermeneutics of agape“, in which a reader’s first duty is to respect that the text read is the product of another human being who deserves to be heard and his/her intentions respected.

      • Larry, I am not sure I expressed myself well and so you seem to have missed what I tried to say, sorry. I agree, for the most part, that “What is in a text is self-evidently what an author wished to put there”. I also agree that “our readings should be anchored and shaped in some ways first with the cues placed in a text by an author to guide interpretation of it”. However, my point was to ask whether everything that an author puts into the text is done consciously. That I doubt: I think authors include more than they mean to. This is not talking about meanings that readers might find in the text for themselves, but rather that there can well be details that are from the author’s pen and from his/her mind that they were not thinking of directly when they wrote.

      • Hmm. Possible, I guess. But I don’t see the “value-added” involved in speculating about this. How would one know what an author did or didn’t intend, beyond what he/she puts in writing? But let’s not go diverting off into airy speculations about the matter, at least not here, please.
        In comparing how each of the Gospel-writers shows some readiness to recount shared traditions with some individuality, I’m driven to see the importance of attending to the details of what they chose to write and how they each chose to write it.

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