Jesus and the Conquering of Canaan: The Syro-Phoenician Woman and the Floodgates of Grace

When Jesus left there, He withdrew to the area of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came and kept crying out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is cruelly tormented by a demon.”

Yet He did not say a word to her. So His disciples approached Him and urged Him, “Send her away because she cries out after us.”

He replied, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

But she came, knelt before Him, and said, “Lord, help me!”

He answered, “It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and throw it to their dogs.”

“Yes, Lord,” she said, “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table!”

Then Jesus replied to her, “Woman, your faith is great. Let it be done for you as you want.” And from that moment her daughter was cured.

Moving on from there, Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee. He went up on a mountain and sat there, and large crowds came to Him, having with them the lame, the blind, the deformed, those unable to speak, and many others. They put them at His feet, and He healed them. So the crowd was amazed when they saw those unable to speak talking, the deformed restored, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they gave glory to the God of Israel. (Matthew 15:21-31)

The story that immediately preceded this one dealt with issues of ritual purity — of being clean or unclean. In it, Jesus made a paradigm-shifting declaration that it is not exposure to external contaminants that makes us clean or unclean before God, but the state of our hearts.

It’s not an accident that Matthew followed that teaching with this story, because Gentiles like this woman were considered ritually unclean. Contact with them was to be avoided by devout Jews because of what they ate, how they lived, their general posture of hostility toward God and his people, and above all, their involvement with idols and the worship of pagan gods.

Tyre and Sidon, where Jesus traveled at the beginning of this passage, had a particularly fraught history with Israel. Its people, the Syro-Phoenicians, were old enemies of the people of God, responsible for dragging them into idolatry at various points. And the most famous Syro-Phoenician woman in the Bible is not the one we see here in Matthew — it’s Jezebel.

Right from the start, then, Matthew loaded this story with historical and prophetic resonance.

It’s also interesting that he called the woman a “Canaanite” (not a “Syro-Phoenician,” as Mark did). In Matthew’s day there was no land of Canaan and no one who could properly be called a Canaanite, so this is a literary use of the term — he was directly connecting her to the people groups Joshua was commanded to drive out of the land of Israel.

It’s a little like Matthew was going out of his way to draw a direct line between this woman and all of Israel’s most ancient nemeses — the people who tempted them to sin, led them into idolatry, and made them “unclean” in times past.

The Past All Over Again

In the Old Testament story, if you recall, Joshua (whose name is the Hebrew form of “Jesus”) led the people of Israel into the promised land with strict instructions to drive out all of the Canaanites, making absolutely no compromise with them.

You may also recall that Israel failed to follow this command. Although Joshua made a good start of it, the people ultimately chose not to push out the Canaanites. They intermarried with them as God had commanded them not to.

And the Canaanites, like the Syro-Phoenicians and Jezebel after them, led them into unfaithfulness to God.

That background looms over this interaction and tells us something about how we should understand it. As Jesus met with this unnamed woman, Israel’s history replayed — and changed. Between the two of them, Jesus and this Gentile woman reversed years of enmity and ushered in a prophetic demonstration of the kingdom of God.

Lord, Son of David

From the start, the interaction doesn’t really go the way we would expect.

First, the Canaanite woman addressed Jesus as “Lord, Son of David.”

This was a specifically messianic term and a very, very Jewish one. After all, it was David who most famously battled the enemies of God who remained in the land. Goliath’s fall was the first public display of David’s kingly vocation on behalf of Israel. This woman, a descendant of Israel’s ancient enemies, not only knew Jewish prophecy well enough to know about the Messiah, but she also recognized him when he came — and she chose to put her own hope in him, calling him “Lord” as a sign of submission and respect.

Far from being a Jezebel, leading the people away from God, she was a model of faith — running to him for help. If she was a Canaanite, she was a repentant one; one who, like the Canaanite Rahab, or the Syro-Phoenician widow who housed Elijah, chose to stand with the God of Israel even against her own people.

Even the fact that she was seeking freedom for her daughter from a demon says something powerful and significant. In the ancient pagan world, demon possession was not necessarily viewed as a bad thing. We can see an example of this in Acts 16, where a demon-possessed girl in Philippi had the power to tell the future. When Paul cast the demon out, the response was anger and persecution from those who profited from the girl’s condition.

The ancient Canaanites practiced witchcraft, divination, ritualized sexuality, and worse, inviting and interacting with demons in legendary ways (there is a reason these people produced giants, and it’s not suitable for Sunday school). They would have seen demon possession as a gift, even if a double-edged one.

But this woman’s love for her daughter overcame any ambiguity her culture would have felt about the demonic. She recognized it as an evil, and she wanted her daughter freed.

The Lost Sheep of the House of Israel

Despite the woman’s faith, the disciples still viewed her as unclean and unwanted. Offended by her, the disciples urged Jesus to send her away. As a Gentile, an enemy, she wasn’t welcome in their eyes.

But Jesus didn’t reply directly to their request. Instead, he enigmatically told them that he was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. This echoes Matthew 10:5-6, where he sent his disciples out two by two and told them not to go anywhere among the Gentiles or Samaritans, but to remain among the Israelites.

A Matching of Wits: Even the Dogs Eat the Crumbs that Fall from the Children’s Table

So far, nothing about this interaction was naturally encouraging to the woman. Rather than welcoming her, Jesus’s disciples tried to drive her out. Rather than answering her request, Jesus stared off into space and said something cryptic (and negative) about sheep.

But rather than take a hint, she only pressed in more. And the prophetic overtones of the story continue to grow.

She fell on her knees in front of Jesus, fulfilling, in an instant, centuries of prophecy — “For the Gentiles shall seek Him,” Isaiah declared in Isaiah 11:10 (NKJV), and in 60:3 (NKJV), “The Gentiles shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” Isaiah 42:6-7 declared that God would give the Messiah as a light to the Gentiles, opening their blind eyes and bringing out their prisoners from the darkness.

But perhaps it’s Isaiah 56:8, with its prophecy of foreigners who would join themselves to Israel, that best shows us what’s happening in this moment:

“For My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.”
The LORD God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, says,
“Yet I will gather to him
Others besides those who are gathered to him.”

Jesus, whose light had drawn this woman, this “other,” to himself, did not immediately respond with grace. Instead, he called her a dog — deliberately insulting her, although not as harshly as some would have. The word he used for “dog” is a diminutive and not as ugly as the usual term, suggesting a pet such as Gentiles might have had — although Jewish people wouldn’t have kept dogs as pets. Dogs were generally despised by Jewish people, and were viewed as unclean.

For us, this part of the story is hardest to swallow. But we should underscore that in the moment, there wasn’t anything unusual about Jesus’s response. The disciples’ disdain, Jesus’s refusal to help, the insult he paid the woman — all of this is expected; it’s what the Jewish followers of Jesus would have anticipated he would do.

The wild card is the woman. She isn’t playing to script. She simply isn’t being the faithless, detestable, haughty Gentile the disciples want her to be.

And there’s a strange detachment in Jesus’s answers, starting with his initial dodge of the disciples’ request to send her away, that suggests that although he’s saying his lines, his heart isn’t in them either.

That in fact he’s caricaturing not the woman, but his own people’s prejudiced expectations of her and of the Messiah.

That he’s placing the whole sordid matter of ethnic strife, hatred, and entitlement into the spotlight for everyone to see, only to reverse it in one breathtaking moment.

The Great Reversal

In Jesus’s masterful handling of this scene, it was the woman who got to stage the turning point. Her answer was equal parts humble and witty, and it displayed tremendous faith.*

Once again she wasn’t the Canaanite of their expectations. She was intelligent, sharp, likable. And utterly locked on to the compassion and kindness of God.

In an instant, Jesus threw off the part he’d been playing and staged an unexpected, powerful reversal. He had successfully drawn out of her a demonstration: that those who were once Israel’s enemies were now bowing at his feet, beseeching God and demonstrating faith, humility, and understanding far greater than the natural children of Israel were doing — Pharisees and disciples alike.

His disciples saw what he wanted them to see: That it is Jesus who finally conquers Canaan, but he does it not through violence or judgment. Rather he does it through his merciful presence and grace.

The moment they saw this, he publicly praised the woman for her faith and granted her request. Even at a distance, her daughter was instantly delivered.

“O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire” (Matthew 15:28, ESV).

Opening the Floodgates of Grace

This story, surprising as it is, doesn’t end with the woman’s acceptance. Remember, it opened with Jesus moving into a Gentile region — and according to verses 29-31, he stayed among them. The region Matthew describes is the Decapolis, or Ten Cities, a place marked with Gentile colonies that earned the north of Israel the monicker “Galilee of the Gentiles.”

And there, having begun a work through one woman’s faith, Jesus continued it — by doing among the Gentiles the very same messianic works of healing, deliverance, and restoration that he had been doing among the Jewish people. That these were Gentile crowds he ministered to is confirmed by their reaction — “They gave glory to the God of Israel” (Matthew 15:31).

We need not to miss this: the gifts that Jesus himself said were “only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel” are given to Gentiles in this passage. The prophetic suggestion here is that the borders of Israel were beginning to extend. As Paul would later say, Gentiles were being grafted in by faith.

Jesus truly did go first to the lost sheep of Israel, as he said. He spent nearly all of his ministry within the boundaries of Judea, ministering to the Jewish people, delivering them from demons and disease, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom to them. But nearly is not all.

In the Gentiles, Jesus didn’t see enemies. He saw more lost sheep.

The floodgates opened by this woman’s faith did not stop pouring until Jesus healed multitudes, taught them, and fed 4000 Gentiles in a repeat of the miracle he did for the Jews.

In hindsight, what he ultimately did for her, and her people, was far greater than what she asked for — the stand she took, of faith and belief in the compassion of God, turned out to have consequences much greater than the healing of her daughter.

And ultimately, her interaction with Jesus and the consequences of it became a prophetic foretaste of what would happen on Pentecost when the Gentiles were fully invited in.

“I have other sheep that are not of this fold,” Jesus told his disciples in John 10:16. “I must bring them also, and they will listen to My voice. Then there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

The words are a direct echo of Ezekiel 37:21-24:

This is what the Lord GOD says: I am going to take the Israelites out of the nations where they have gone. I will gather them from all around and bring them into their own land. I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel, and one king will rule over all of them. They will no longer be two nations and will no longer be divided into two kingdoms. They will not defile themselves anymore with their idols, their detestable things, and all their transgressions. I will save them from all their apostasies by which they sinned, and I will cleanse them. Then they will be My people, and I will be their God. My servant David will be king over them, and there will be one shepherd for all of them.

Jesus and the Final Conquest of Canaan

Jesus’s original answers to the Syro-Phoenician woman are some of the hardest to understand in the New Testament. They read harshly and feel so out of character.

The initial moment of tension puts words to the way Jesus’s disciples and other Jewish onlookers would likely have felt about this woman. But it was all very quickly turned on its head — the script flipped by the mercy of God and the faith of an enemy.

We might forgive Jesus a little bit of theater here — it seems that he knew he had a worthy sparring partner in this woman, whose wit did not fail her despite her desperation. And it seems to me that a parallel can be drawn to Jesus’s unexpected interactions with another non-Jewish woman — the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4.

The Samaritans, occupying a liminal world between Jew and Gentile that was created by the actions of the Assyrians so long ago, were the opposite of the lost Israelite tribes — they were the Gentiles moved into the land to replace them, who wound up intermarrying with a few stragglers and adopting aspects of Jewish religion for themselves (not without some radical modifications, however).

In this case too, the disciples were shocked and confused to find Jesus conversing with a Samaritan, and a woman on top of that. They expected him, as a good Jewish rabbi, to keep his distance from people like her. The conversation itself has similarities as well, although the roles are switched. In John 4, it’s the woman who’s a bit cagey about who she really is and what she really wants, and it’s the woman who expresses offense and surprise at being approached. It’s Jesus who approaches, and who offers himself to quench her thirst.

It’s another case of a script not playing out as expected — although in this case, Jesus and the woman were alone, and he didn’t need to make a point to any onlookers.

In the end, the woman became the first Samaritan convert and the first evangelist in the pages of the gospels.

But Jesus always had a mission that was bigger than the Judean milieu of his day. As we saw in the Old Testament prophets, the Messiah was always for the whole world. In his interactions with these women, Jesus made that plain. He who created the whole world came to find his lost sheep — all of them.

Like Joshua before him, Jesus led the final conquest of Canaan — but this time, he would seek the victory not through violence but with love.

*A final note: lest you think this is a modern, feminist reading of this passage, it is commonly held among conservative Bible commentators today — and I first encountered it in a fourth-century writer, John Chrysostom. He and other ancient commentators believed that Jesus was egging the woman on in order to bring her virtuous qualities to public view — his disciples and everyone else bore witness to her remarkable character.

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This is Part 236 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


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2 responses to “Jesus and the Conquering of Canaan: The Syro-Phoenician Woman and the Floodgates of Grace”

  1. Gay Rushing Avatar
    Gay Rushing

    “Its people, the Syro-Phoenicians, were the same people called “Philistines” in the time of Jesus.” I would be interested in your source (s) for this. I googled around a bit and what I read suggested that the Philistines were a different people group team Canaanites. Always ready to learn from you. Your perspective makes me think!

    1. Rachel Avatar

      Hi Gay, you are absolutely right! The Philistines came from (probably) Crete, and were later arrivals in the land. You caught me in a rare instance of relying on my memory instead of fact-checking myself, and I appreciate it! I’ve updated the post to fix it.

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