A “Canaanite” woman and violence in the OT.

*In a class the other day my prof. brought up this interpretation of Matthew 15 and I thought it was wonderful so I wanted to share it with you.

“When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations – the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you – and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy,” (Deut. 7:1-2).

If you’re like me, you probably have read passages like this in the Old Testament and asked yourself something like, “What the hell?!” I mean, we’re so used to hearing about Jesus as this peaceful, subversive person who lays down his life for others…as the lamb before the shearers is silent, right? Then, we read in the OT of genocide and mass murder. How can this be? How can the God we see revealed in Jesus be the same God that we see revealed in the Hebrew scriptures?

The violence in the OT is problematic for many folks, myself included. I used to try and think about it in terms of the fact that the people saying God told them to kill (Israel) were also, conveniently, the authors of the text (and how often have we heard people saying that God is on their side in battle? Dub-ya). So perhaps God didn’t really tell Israel these things. Perhaps this was just their perspective on the issue. However, I’m not sure this really does justice to the Judeo-Christian narrative.

So, what are we to make of this violence then in light of Jesus? Well, I think it’s clear to say that in the light of Christ this sort of thing will never happen again. Christians will never hear the call to violence like we see in the OT because this just doesn’t make sense in light of the Messiah who laid down his life.

Matthew tells the story of a Canaanite woman (15:21-28). Read it and then come back.

Ok, so there are a few things that are interesting here. Jesus says to the woman, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” Really? This doesn’t sound like Jesus. He came only for Israel? Also, Jesus calls the woman a dog. Bitch. Jesus? One of the things that is most striking about this passage though is that Jesus refers to the woman as a Canaanite. Mark tells the same story and yet he refers to her as a “Syrophoenician woman” (Mk. 7). Why does Matthew call her a Canaanite?

One of the problems here is that there is no such thing as a Canaanite in the 1st century. It would be like someone today referring to someone of Norwegian descent as a viking. We all know that vikings no longer exist. The same was true for Canaanites in the 1st century. There were none. Yet Matthew calls her a Canaanite. Why?

Let’s return to Deut. 7. Israel has just come out of the wilderness and are entering the promised land. They cross the Jordan and enter the land that is unclean which is filled with gentiles. Canaanites. Notice, there are seven people groups named.

Now in Matthew, just before the story of the Canaanite woman, we see the feeding of the five thousand. After this feeding how many baskets are left over? Twelve. How many tribes are their in Israel? Twelve. Jesus is a new Moses and this scene ought to remind us of the manna in the desert. After the feeding of the five thousand Jesus and his companions cross a body of water. Again, here we should be reminded of the Israelites crossing the Jordan prior to entering the promised land, the unclean land of the Canaanites. After crossing the body of water Jesus arrives in Gennesaret, the unclean land of…the Canaanites?

This is where we encounter the Canaanite woman (who isn’t really a Canaanite).

“Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
“Lord, help me!”
“It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”
“Yes Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the masters table,” (“come on, I know you just had a feast with lots of left overs, can we get some scraps?”).

How does Jesus respond to her? With mercy.

Directly following this encounter Matthew recalls the feeding of the four-thousand (in unclean, “Canaanite”, territory by the way). How many baskets of food are collected at the end? Seven. How many people groups were in the promised land when Israel first entered? Seven.

Do you see what’s happening here?

Jesus changes the story of Israel.

Israel crossed over into the promised land, the land of the Canaanites, and were told “destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.”

Jesus crosses into unclean land where he is confronted with a “Canaanite” woman and what does he do? Well if he is to be true to Israels story he ought to kill her. “Totally destroy” her. But what does Jesus do instead?

He shows her mercy.


Jesus changes the story of Israel.

What then can we say about the violence we see in the OT? One thing we can say for certain is that after Jesus such a thing can never occur again. Jesus changed the story of Israel.

  1. Tim Barnett said:

    Hey JT,

    This is a very cool observation!

    Thanks for sharing,


  2. jt* said:

    Tim! Miss ya man.

  3. Bookachov said:

    Hey JT,

    Although the violence still does not sit well, this extraction is intriguing. I love the idea of changing the story of Isreal.
    Do you think he was correcting the story, or contrasting? Fulfilling.. Closing one chapter, starting another..

    By the way, With God On Our Side – Dylan – great tune.

    Peace bro

  4. jt* said:

    @Bookachov, fulfilling perhaps. Jesus is the true Israel, doing what Israel cannot. He is an example of true humanity. All that we are supposed to be and fail to be.

  5. This point in particular saved my ass when i wrote a paper for sex and violence in the hebrew bible class at york. To me this point tells me a lot. It tells me that even God was ashamed and saw a need of redemption of the genocide. If this is true, then there is something deeper going on in the OT stories than simply God being ok with genocide. I don’t know what it is, but it is amazing to see the NT dealing with those types of problem passages.

    I also compared the 3000 saved in Acts to the 3000 killed at MT Sinai, again the NT seeking to redeem of the problems that were posed in the OT.

    Good explaining though JT, I love it!

  6. redandhoney said:

    Nathan: I would be careful in using the word “ashamed” in reference to God. Shame implies that he did something wrong, which is impossible. Perhaps a better word would be that he was saddened by the turn of events.

  7. jt* said:

    @Nathan, that’s a cool connection between the 3000, I hadn’t thought of that before. I’m noticing more and more of this sort of stuff recently!

  8. Bookachov said:

    On the fact that Matthew calls her a Canaanite- As you said, there were no Canaanites at this particular time (I am assuming you have the history here for this question/point). Yet Matthew called her a Canaanite, or wrote that Jesus did (yet Mark did not recall this way). I was just thinking today about the multiple parallels in this part of Jesus’ life and the Isrealites coming into Canaan. I was wondering to myself about this idea. If Matthew called her a Canaanite yet Jesus didn’t, did Matthew in a sense put together the whole parallel, with the amount of bread leftover and all that? Do you think Matthew ‘got it’, that is, the multiple references?
    I am speaking entirely from my head here, and not to challenge, just to discourse the subject. Is it the same in Mark? (I can check that myself, don’t worry).
    Anyhow, I don’t know if I expressed my unfinished thoughts well for you, but thought you may be interested. Or something.

  9. jt* said:


    Yes the passage in Mark follows the same line. Although this is the case, I think Matthew is trying to deliberately communicate something by calling her a “Canaanite”. I have no doubt that Matthew was trying to say something in the way he wrote and the terms he chose. I think all of the gospel writers were communicating the story from their perspective, therefore, they each highlighted certain things. Whether or not Matthew “got it” in a way that Mark didn’t we can’t really be sure but it’s important to ask ourselves why the authors tell the story they way they do. What are they trying to communicate?

    Did that at least address the point you were bringing up?

  10. I’m just a tad bit confused then why we always refer to God as never-changing? Because it seems like He kinda changed his mind on the Issue of Genocide.
    On a different note I have been watching Battles BC on History and they show how bloody some of the Israelite battles where especially under Kind David’s reign and it makes you wonder how Jesus makes much sense from a “never-changing” perspective.
    Maybe that wasn’t such of a different note, I hope that all makes sense.

  11. societyvs said:

    “Yet Matthew calls her a Canaanite. Why?” (JT)

    I just did some research on this term ‘Canaan’ in the OT – not a very well liked group sad to say.

    Noah curses Canaan – makes him a servant of the other brothers. Eventually Abraham is promised the land of Canaan – for his inheritence. Esau, the brother who displeased his father, married Canaanites. Moses carries through on the Abrahamic promise and goes to war with Canaan for the land (eventually Joshua would assume this role). Canaan, was the land inside of Tyre (which is where this Jesus story happened).

    “Well if he is to be true to Israels story he ought to kill her. “Totally destroy” her. But what does Jesus do instead? He shows her mercy.” (JT)

    I think it’s intriguing to think he changed the story of Israel…but the fact probably is the Canaan area was well accepted as part of the area of Tyre and Sidon prior to Jesus. According to Torah this group, Canaan, should have been wiped out – but they were not…maybe there was more of a history of mercy than we know of?

    Maybe when Jesus arrives on the scene he has no reason to partake in anything in that region – being a Gentile region and not of his actual mission (his own people were his immediate concern). This makes sense, Gentiles were not indebted to the law of Israel anyways.

    However, as in the earlier stories about Canaan, mercy is shown by Jesus towards this Gentile leady because her ‘faith’ in the ‘God of Israel’ was matching what it should be (it existed).

    What was the promise to Abraham: “I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God” (Gen 17:8)

    The God of Israel would soon allow His people to inherit the land of Canaan (which happened via war). God’s addendum at the end is intriguing ‘and I will be their (Israel’s) God’. Maybe this Canaanite woman admired that same God? Mercy made sense here, since the promise could be seen extending to those who ‘wanted Israel’s God as their own’…in this case the woman had ‘great faith’. Maybe God is extending mercy to Gentiles and Jesus was quick to recognize this when neccesary?

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