“Cute Little Doggies” Is Way Better

March 30, 2020

After exploring the Gospels and discovering Jesus as a “gentle Savior” in his interactions with women, we follow Jesus to the region of Tyre where he speaks with a Gentile (“Syrophoenician” or “Canaanite”) woman. On first reading our whole case goes out the window. What is it with this whole tossing the children’s bread to the dogs metaphor?

If you’re ready to read about something other than coronavirus, let’s back up a bit. For some time, Jesus had been trying to get away with his disciples for a break from the crowds. In Mark 6:30-31, he says to his apostles, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” Instead, he is discovered and ends up feeding a five-thousand-plus crowd.  Jesus then puts the disciples on a boat to Bethsaida and grabs some prayer time on the mountain. Late that night he walks on water to the disciples’ boat, but by the time they get to the other side, the crowds have found him again (6:53-56).

Then come the Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem to critique their eating-related hygiene practices. After a pointed lesson on what truly makes people “unclean,” Jesus leaves for Gentile territory. Mark 7:24 says Jesus didn’t want anyone to know, but even there he could not hide. In barges a desperate mother who throws herself at his feet asking him to cast out a demon plaguing her little daughter (Mark 7:24-29).

This is the only time in the Gospels, mind you, that a woman speaks to Jesus before being spoken to first – and a Gentile woman, no less. The NIV translates Jesus’ response this way:

“First let the children eat all they want … for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” (7:27)

Why would Jesus use a dog metaphor in response to this woman’s understandable plea?

The “children’s bread” in this metaphor sounds like an exclusive Jewish claim to God’s healing. A parallel passage in Matthew has Jesus saying explicitly, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (15:24) after his annoyed disciples ask him to “send her away, for she keeps crying out after us” (15:23).

Also, many commentaries claim that first-century Jews typically referred to Gentiles as dogs – those dirty, outcast, wild canines that bark and whine and thrust their noses in where they don’t belong.

Hmm. Not so nice.

I recently listened to an interview podcast* that shed more positive light on this conversation. Sarah Ruden, Ph.D, is a biblical linguist who emphasizes literary and historical research in her translations. In the interview she focused on the account in Mark.

She said that the Greek word most translations render as “dogs” is not that commonly used word for dog but one found only twice in the whole New Testament – here and in the parallel Matthew passage. This word connotes something more like “cute little doggies” or “lap dogs.” While maybe not the case in Judea, ancient literature indicates that “in some parts of the Roman Empire, clearly, certain dogs had reached the status of spoiled modern family pets.”* Referring to this cultural practice would be quite appropriate when speaking with a person more familiar with Roman life, and it certainly provides a gentler slant on the metaphor.

A more literal rendering, Sarah said, is something like,

“First allow our offspring to eat their fill, as it’s not fitting to take a loaf of bread from posterity in its childhood [that is, the “official children”] and toss it to the little doggies.”

The Gentile woman in the narrative may have envisioned an alternative to the scenario Jesus presented, one in which the children have so much bounty at the feast that the lap dogs have more than they can eat. Sarah renders the woman’s response literally as,

“Master, even the little doggies under the table eat some of the small children’s scraps!”

Perhaps, Sarah says, this witty, yet humble rejoinder was a blessing of sorts – a wish for the overwhelming prosperity of the Jews yet indicating her own satisfaction with their leavings.

Whatever is was she meant exactly, Jesus – who was not being rude at all – was impressed by her response and granted her request. In the Matthew passage, he commends her great faith (15:28). She clearly believed that Jesus could heal her daughter, and she wasn’t giving up until he said yes.

As I suggest in the “Jesus Knows Best” chapter of The Gentle Savior, Jesus initially may have been speaking aloud the beliefs of his disciples about Gentiles in continuation of his earlier lesson about the label unclean. He teed up the perfect opportunity for this smart lady to show them how strong a woman can be and how much she understood about the availability of God’s grace for all.

Blessings and good health to you. Amen.

* The Bible for Normal People, Episode 116: Sarah Ruden: “Getting Inside the Head of Paul and Jesus,” https://peteenns.com/podcast/

**“Unless You All Become as Little Doggies,” Sarah Ruden blog post, May 11, 2016, http://sarahruden.com/ye-doggies/

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