We think of Jesus as that guy who opened up God to people of every nationality, but on one occasion a non-Israelite woman pleaded with Jesus to heal her daughter, and Jesus couldn’t have seemed less interested.
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel,” said the Lord and Savior of all humanity.
Let’s take a moment and admit to our souls that this is extremely weird.
Matthew calls this woman a “Canaanite”, which is an interesting choice. By the time of Matthew, there shouldn’t have been any Canaanites wondering around.
The Law of Moses instructed the Hebrews to kill them all.
Yet, when Matthew’s so-called Canaanite woman begged Jesus even harder, Jesus doubled down: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
This was a mother in misery.
And Jesus called her a dog.
Now can we admit that this is weird?
This is the same Jesus who on the night his betrayal told Peter to put down his sword against Roman soldiers (which, as an aside, why did Jesus wait until that night to say anything about Peter’s sword?). This is the same Jesus who gave us the Good Samaritan. Who gave us the new covenant in which there is “no Jew nor Gentile, no slave nor free, no male nor male and female, for we are all one in him.” Right? Jesus calling someone a “dog” sounds a lot like comments I read underneath Youtube videos, but not a lot like Jesus.
So, what’s going on here? That’s what we’ll cover today. As usual, we have some ground to cover.
Jesus, The Rabbi
Last week, we talked in detail about the Essenes, and I briefly mentioned the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Today, we’re circling back to the Pharisees.
As I said yesterday, if someone in the first century was a rabbi, that means they would have aligned with the Pharisees.
Jesus was a rabbi.
If you don’t believe me, ask his friends and enemies:
- Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. Matthew c26 v49
- Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Mark c9 v5
- “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him. The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.” Mark c10 v51
- On one occasion a Pharisee stood up to test Jesus. “Rabbi,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Luke c10 v25
- “And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Rabbi, rebuke your disciples.’” Luke c19 v39
- “Then there came to him some of the Sadducees…and they asked him, saying, ‘Rabbi…’” Luke c20 v27
Jesus is identified as a rabbi in every one of the four gospels.
Jesus’s disciples called him a rabbi.
The Pharisees called him a rabbi.
The Sadducees called him a rabbi.
Even a blind man called him a rabbi.
So, what’s a rabbi?
Pay attention to the details of this next part. To me, they’re everything.
In the towns of Galilee, Jewish children around the age of five or six entered Bet Sefer—essentially Jewish elementary school. By the age of ten, most of these children, starting with B’eresheit bara Ehohim (where have you heard that?), would have memorized the entire text of the Torah.
Which is freaking amazing.
The children who excelled in Bet Sefer (because memorizing the Torah apparently isn’t by itself amazing) graduated to Bet Talmud. By the age of fourteen, most children in Bet Talmud would have had the entire Hebrew text memorized.
(Which is double . . . triple . . . quadruple . . . infinity amazing)
And again, the teenagers who excelled in Bet Talmud would have a chance to move further. The final stage of Jewish education was called Bet Midrash. Before you could be accepted to Bet Midrash, you would present yourself before the rabbi whose group of disciples you hoped to join. After all, it was through Bet Midrash that Jewish children would become rabbis themselves.
As I pointed out last week in our discussion of the Essenes, the rabbis also understood that texts are pliable things. Flexible things. Things that look different from different angles.
Texts have to be probed.
Viewed from different perspectives.
Applied in different circumstances.
Sure, any literate person can read the words of a text, but the Pharisees correctly understood that that is just the beginning. Once a text is read, the reader has to decide what it means, and whether its mean the same thing now as it did when it was written. Sure, the Torah instructs Jews not to work on the Sabbath, but how does one follow this command? The Jewish Mishnah is full of commentary on this, and there were many splits of opinion on this issue and many others.
Can you walk? If yes, how far can you walk? If you drop something while you walk, can you pick it up? If you can pick up something you drop, can you pick up other things? How many other things? How far? Is there anything you cannot pick up? How much weight can you pick up and carry? How far can you move something you pick up? Does it matter if the load you pick up is shared by others? Are there any exceptions for emergencies? Are there any other Jewish laws that supersede Sabbath laws?
(You may pass this off as legalism, but violation of the Sabbath is punishable by death, so figuring this out was important work.)
If you were to compile a list of a particular rabbi’s interpretations of the law, the prophets, and the writings, the list you would end up with was called that rabbi’s “yoke.”
A rabbi’s yoke could be understood by making a list in two columns. In one column, you would list the things on any issue of the Torah that a rabbi did not allow. In rabbi speak, these things were said to be “bound”. In another column, you would list the things that a rabbi allowed. Things that were allowed were said to be “loosed.”
Where have you heard this language?
Usually, rabbis would trace their yoke back to the rabbi who taught them, who would trace their yoke back to the rabbi who taught them. If you followed the trail long enough, you would go back to a kind of exceptional rabbi of the Tanakh who had reached such a stature that they were conferred the authority to make new interpretations of the text. A rabbi with authority to reinterpret the text was and is said to have s’mikhah, the Hebrew word denoting authority. The ceremony of giving s’mikhah would involve two rabbis already with s’mikhah who would place their hands on the new rabbi, thus vouching for their exceptional competence.
When the best of the best of Bet Talmud presented themselves before a rabbi to be accepted to the final stage of Jewish education, Bet Midrash, the question of greatest concern to the rabbi was whether this disciple had what it took to propagate the rabbi’s yoke—that rabbi’s way of living out the Torah, the Nevi’im, and Ketuvim (the law, the prophets, and the writings).
If you have to re-read what I just wrote, do so because this is the key to everything ever taught by that son of a carpenter from poor Galilee.
Remember last week how I showed how John the Apostle depicted John the Baptist in a way that would have appealed to the Essenes?
Even despite John the Baptist’s Essene connections, John the Baptist also took on the title “rabbi”, and this detail is not an accident.
So much debate has been devoted in our time to why John baptized Jesus. Understanding the baptism scene requires understanding the Essenes and the Pharisees.
Notice the convergence of influences that Matthew brilliantly paints together. John laid his hands on Jesus, and became Jesus’s first witness for his s’mikhah. At the same time that John baptized Jesus, God came down on Jesus as a dove. Any Pharisee reading Matthew would instantly recognize that Matthew was making an argument.
God was Jesus’s second witness, and Jesus now had s’mikhah.
The text was now his.
He had the “keys to the kingdom.”
Notice in the text how many times his s’mikhah gets emphasized in the gospels.
- When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law. Matthew c7 v28-29
- Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?” Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. Matthew c21 v23–24
- Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Matthew c28 v18
- The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! Mark c1 v27
Matthew places the “sermon on the mount” almost immediately after Jesus gets his s’mikhah and calls his first disciples. Notice how much of the sermon on the mount takes the form of “You have heard that it was said [old teaching on the Torah] but I tell you [new interpretation of the Torah].” There is a reason Matthew arranges his gospel the way he does. He is tying together all these elements of Jesus’s rabbinical identity as a Pharisee with authority to reinterpret the text.
And when you view Jesus as the Pharisee that he was, other texts start to look different.
Notice what happens when Jesus is asked where his s’mikhah came from.
Jewish children who go through Bet Midrash are trained to respond to questions with questions. In fact, the answer to the original question is usually in the responsive question itself. As you will see, Jesus’s answer is that his s’mikhah came from (1) John the Baptist and (2) God. But notice how he answers:
Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?”
Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?”
They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”
So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”
Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
Do you see it? Matthew depicts a carpenter’s son from Nazareth as both (1) possessing s’mikhah and (2) dominating the Jewish leaders in the kind of discourse that would have been mastered only at the highest level of Jewish education.
But Jesus was about to do something even more radical.
As I said earlier, a disciple wishing to study under a particular rabbi would present themselves before the rabbi for a kind of oral exam on steroids. If the student passed the test, the rabbi would tell the student, “come follow me.” So, the rabbi would drill the candidate with an excruciating barrage of questions about the Hebrew text—about the law, the prophets, the writings, the oral law, prominent rabbis’ interpretations of the text, and so on. The goal was to weed out students who would not effectively carry on the rabbi’s way of living out the Torah. After all, to choose a disciple was to make a serious time commitment.
But Rabbi Jesus did something altogether different.
Right after Matthew records John the baptist and God giving Jesus his s’mikhah, Jesus took the extremely rare step of presenting himself to his new disciples—rather than the other way around.
Of course every once in a while, you are presented with a childhood prodigy. Mozart, Pascal, Picasso, and even Tiger Woods were undeniable childhood prodigies.
But Matthew wants to eliminate any doubt that Jesus’s disciples were not like them. When Matthew tells us that Peter and Andrew were fisherman, he is telling you that at some point in Peter and Andrew’s Jewish education, they had to go back to their family to learn the family trade because they were not good enough for any of the rabbis.
When you read that Peter and Andrew “dropped their nets”, this is what you’re reading. Not that Jesus’s long hair and blue Swedish eyes would put people into a trance—as depicted in every Jesus movie. Or that “there’s just something about Jesus”—as I’ve heard in so many sermons.
When Jesus said to Peter and Andrew, “come follow me,” this was the first time in their whole life that a rabbi had told them that they were good enough.
Which gives a wholly different meaning to Jesus’s words, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
But Jesus was about to do something even more radical.
While Jesus and his disciples were camped outside Caesarea Philippi, he told his disciples that they were given “the keys to the kingdom.” This may not mean much to you. But I promise it did to them.
Someone given the “keys to the kingdom” was given the authority to make new interpretations and judgments about what is permitted and not permitted.
This is s’mikhah.
Jesus told his disciples that they had the power to bind and loose.
And then he told his disciples to make more disciples.
Who would continue to bind and loose.
Don’t believe me, read Acts 15.
Matthew is doing something never before heard of.
Matthew is arguing that people in the “Jesus movement” would be given authority to make decisions about what is right and wrong, what is allowed and not allowed.
When we read Jesus telling his disciples, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another,” what he is doing is giving us our compass. He is setting the parameters of this authority. BUT, as I have taken great pains to demonstrate, we—like the Jews have done for centuries—get to decide in our day what that commandment means.
Jesus has great faith in his disciples to determine what to loose and what to bind.
Especially the ordinary disciples who don’t spend their free time writing blog posts.
This is totally different than how I was brought up to understand church. This is totally different than how I was brought up to understand being a Christian.
Do you need a glass of water?
Jesus did a lot of reinterpreting.
The seventh and final yearly festival of the Jews is Sukkot (Sue-COAT), or the “Festival of Tabernacles.” The weeklong festival commemorates the Old Testament story of the Hebrews exiting slavery in the Nile-lush Egypt and living dependent on God in the barren desert. The festival-goers construct a sukkah—essentially a big tent made out of branches—and have a weeklong religious camp festival.
And—to commemorate the Hebrews’ former life in the Sinai desert—passionate sermons about water.
The Hebrews’ story of the wandering in the desert is all about relying on God’s provision. Water is everything. Water is dependence on God. Water is thirst for God. Longing for God. Desperation for God. It is what came out of some rock that God miraculously provided in the Sinai desert. When we get to John c7 in the New Testament, these details are the subtext of what must have been a remarkable scene.
Jesus, we are told, had been hiding out all week during the festival, but by the end of the chapter it was the seventh day—what Jews to this day call the “last and greatest day of the festival.”
The last day has a certain ritual. First, the priest would assemble all the people and read aloud from Jeremiah:
Lord, you are the hope of Israel; all who forsake you will be put to shame. Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the Lord, the spring of living water.
After reading Jeremiah, the priest would pour a pitcher of water and wine on an alter (what Leviticus calls a “drink offering”) while these people who had been dancing and drinking wine for a week would shout, “HOSANNA, HOSANNA!” And as the crowd became more and more inebriated, they would get louder and louder.
And this is when Jesus finally came out of hiding.
After all the build up, John tells us that Jesus yelled at the top of his voice:
Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.
By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.
And a totally new way of understanding Sukkot, not to mention the prophet Jeremiah. The Pharisees had been talking about the Holy Spirit before Jesus arrived on the scene. I’ll talk more about this in Part 7, but the Pharisees understood the spirit of God on a limited number of occasions to enter people and give them divine revelation. But the Holy Spirit was not given to the masses. What Jesus said during this Sukkot was revolutionary.
Before we end, I mentioned some rock…
As I said, the Israelites left Egypt and “wandered” around the Sinai Desert for forty years. They began their journey in a place called Rephedim, where the writer of Exodus tells us there was no water. It is in Rephedim that Exodus says God miraculously provided water from a rock.
Their story in the desert continued for forty years, but the narrative made no mention of how they continued to get water during that time.
Until their last year.
In a different book, Numbers, we are told that the Israelites are at the end of the forty years when they come to a place called Kadesh. At Kadesh, a familiar story emerges. There was no water. The people panic. And, again, God provided water from a rock.
Apparently, this bothered some Pharisees who were intimately familiar with the barrenness of the Sinai desert.
Reasonably, so thought the Pharisees, the Israelites drank water in the forty years of wandering in the desert.
I think we would all agree with that.
But the only mentions of them having access to water were in Rephedim in year one and in Kadesh in year forty. There really isn’t much water in the Sinai desert and the text speaks to nothing in between years one and forty.
(Remember our discussion about problematic doublets throughout the Old Testament text?)
So where did they get their water in the forty years of wandering in the desert between Rephedim and Kadesh?
After some debate, the rabbis decided—in all seriousness—that the rock in Rephedim and the rock in Kadesh must have been the same rock.
But Rephedim and Kadesh are hundreds of miles apart. So, how did the same rock from Rephedim forty years later appear in Kadesh?
They concluded that the rock must have followed them.
I laughed just typing that.
Here’s a second century text that describes the view from Jesus’s time.
So the well, which was with Israel in the wilderness, was a rock of the size of a large vessel, and was oozing out and rising as from the mouth of this flask, traveling with them up the mountains and down to the valleys. Wherever Israel encamped, it encamped opposite them before the door of the Tabernacle.
This is silly.
After all, the writer of the account of Kadesh really went out of his way to show that the Israelites had no idea where they were going to get their water from. If an “oozing” watering rock for forty years had just been “traveling with them up the mountains and down to the valleys”, the Hebrews wouldn’t have been panicked in year forty about where they would get their water.
So, it’s a good thing that Jesus came down to Earth to clear up all that Jewish nonsense, right?
Not quite. Here’s Paul. You could say he wrote some parts of the New Testament.
Our ancestors were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them. I Corinthians c10 v2-4
Paul is one of us, right? He’s not supposed to engage in this tortured reading of the sacred text, right?
But he went even further. The next line: “And that rock was Christ.”
That rolling rock—which is not in the actual text—but which a bunch of Pharisees haphazardly one day just imagined up . . . was Christ?
Christ was a rock? That rolled around in the desert?
What does that mean?!?!
By now you’ve seen this enough times: Jesus, Paul, Matthew, John, Peter, and the rest of their gang were Jews. And the ancient Jews weren’t as interested in the original intended meanings of their text as you are today. What you read when you read the Bible is a mix of new ideas and realizations that come into contact with old upbringings. Paul was thoroughly a Pharisee. When you read his letters, you are reading the thoughts of a man who sees the old lessons from his rabbi with his new conviction that it was all rushing towards Jesus.
John does this.
Matthew does this.
Luke does this.
Peter does this.
This trips people up when the New Testament uses the words that “[such-and-such event] ‘fulfilled’ some text in the Old Testament.”
A better way of understanding the word “fulfilled” is probably more like “resembled”.
The New Testament book of Hebrews puts it this way: “The Torah is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves.”
Each author of the New Testament would interpret the story of Jesus differently because they all grew up perceiving different shadows. In other words, as Jews, each New Testament writer grew up with different perspectives on the Torah. This is one reason why modern Christians who expend so much effort to argue that the Bible doesn’t contradict itself are putting their energy into the wrong line of questions.
I think Jesus was interested in the Old Testament text, but not for its own sake. The New Testament depicts in Jesus a complete disinterest in the Old Testament’s priestly cult, tribalism, the Temple in Jerusalem, purity regulations, the history of Israel, and so on.
Unless, of course, something in the Old Testament was useful to make a point about something else.
What Jesus was and is interested in are humans. Humans as they are right now. Humans with all their problems and contradictions. Humans who don’t fit neatly into boxes.
And the stories that humans would write down from time to time as they tied to understand themselves and their place in the cosmos. And as they tried to understand God. And how they relate to God.
So, let’s circle back.
We started this discussion with Jesus ignoring a desperate woman for the sole reason that she was not a Hebrew. And then he called her a dog.
When Jesus called that Canaanite woman a “dog”, he was speaking as a Pharisee as part of a debate that Pharisees were having among themselves. I have no idea whether Jesus said this to her face or not. But I do know this: The woman was his secondary audience. Jesus’s primary audience was the people in his vicinity who had been reared up to hate anyone who might challenge Israel’s occupation of its “promised land.” He said what he did because he knew she was about to do something that would defy Hebrew expectations.
Read what happens next.
Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
We assume that our enemies gloat over us. That they hate us as much as we hate them. That they despise us. Look down on us. Don’t believe me? Listen to any Donald Trump speech.
We don’t think of our enemies as vulnerable. As humble. That they would eagerly wait like a dog to eat the crumbs that fall off our table.
And this woman was just that.
Her words were among the greatest to have ever been spoken. And this story is one of the greatest to have ever been written down.
Jesus’s life took place in a time when the Jews were wrestling with how to think about outsiders. For a moment, Jesus appeared to take one side of the argument. But he did so in a way that would advance the other side. He allowed the woman to do something that would advance the human race.
He allowed the woman to show that the grace and goodness of God can be found even in the people we hate the most. Even in the people we imagine gloating over us.
I believe that Jesus could have chosen any ancient religion through which to use human understandings of God and the cosmos to point to himself, but you would be hard pressed to find a more oppressed group in all of history than the Jews.
So he chose the Jews.
And to push them forward, he took possession of some of the harshest ideas of their language.
Because, as the Bible says, he became them.
That Jesus, a champion for oppressed people anywhere, would choose the Jewish people in Israel should not be surprising. Though, I think Jesus has a heart for the Muslims just as he does the Jews. The point of the Old Testament is not what it literally says, but how the first century writers thought it pointed to something better.
Paul would later do the same thing in Greece, and it is the Greeks whom we’ll talk about next week. If you can believe it, the Bible borrows from them too. And WAY more than it borrowed from Babylon.