Remember the children’s Sunday school story about Joshua and the Israelites marching around Jericho until the walls came tumbling down. We’re never told what happened next because Jericho was one of the Canaanite nations that were to be obliterated at God’s command. Every living thing, including women, children, and animals, was completely destroyed. Today it would be labeled a war crime or a crime against humanity.
We don’t know or forget that Jesus was named after the warrior leader Joshua. (His name is the Aramaic form of Joshua.) For what follows, I’m indebted to Brian McLaren’s book Everything Must Change. He says that Jesus’ response to the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15: 21-31) is best understood in relation of the violent conquest of the land of Canaan by the Israelites many centuries earlier.
The use of the word “Canaanite” in Matthew’s Gospel is an anachronism. It’s like calling a Scandinavian person a Viking in our day. Matthew does that deliberately. Jesus’ initial response to the woman’s request to heal her daughter is horribly insensitive and even racist. He says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Then, by inference, he uses a slur and calls her a dog. This reflects the animosity between these communities that continued down through the centuries.
The determined, intelligent woman will not be detracted, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Jesus is conquered by her faith and immediately heals her daughter. And it doesn’t stop there. Great crowds from this “Canaanite” or Gentile region follow Jesus, bringing those with many different deformities, and illnesses. He heals them all. We know they’re Gentiles because Matthew emphasizes that they “glorified the God of Israel.”
It gets even better. Jesus repeats his earlier miracle of feeding the multitude, now in this Gentile region. After all had eaten they collected seven baskets of leftovers, representing the reconstitution of the seven Canaanite nations destroyed by the Israelites. Jesus takes the old “destroy the Canaanites” narrative and dramatically turns it on its head.
Brian McLaren writes, “To be a follower of Jesus in this light is a far different affair than many of us were taught: it means to join Jesus’ peace insurgency, to see through every regime that promises peace through violence, peace through domination, peace through genocide, peace through exclusion and intimidation. Following Jesus instead means forming communities that seek peace through justice, generosity, and mutual concern, a willingness to suffer persecution but a refusal to inflict it on others” (159).