The Lectionary readings for Holy Communion continue to juxtapose Solomon, son of David, and Jesus: 1 Kings 11:4-13 and Mark 7:24-30.
The call on God’s people was to be a light to the surrounding nations, revealing the glory of Yahweh in his goodness, expressed by mercy and justice. Never was this more fulfilled than in the latter part of David’s reign and early part of Solomon’s. Solomon had an international reputation for wisdom, and splendour; and it was known that his authority came from Yahweh. But as his reign progressed, in accommodating foreign gods alongside his own, this testimony to the nations became compromised. It was no longer clear from whom Solomon derived authority, no longer clear what distinguished his people from the surrounding peoples. This angered Yahweh, who determined to tear Solomon’s kingdom from him, though not entirely.
In this context, dogs become interesting. As forewarned, the majority of Solomon’s son Rehoboam’s territory tears away from him under Jeroboam. But rather than leading the people back to Yahweh, Jeroboam leads them further astray. For this unfaithful response to having been raised up, Yahweh passes judgement on him: his dynasty will be cut off, and ‘anyone belonging to Jeroboam who dies in the city, the dogs shall eat’ (1 Kings 14:11). This comes to pass, and a second dynasty supplants them, that of Baasha. But Baasha acts no differently from Jeroboam. The same fate comes to him and his dynasty: ‘I will consume Baasha and his house, and I will make your house like the house of Jeroboam son of Nebat. Anyone belonging to Baasha who dies in the city, the dogs shall eat’ (1 Kings 16:3, 4). The third dynasty doesn’t even get going; but the fourth gives rise to Ahab, and his Sidonian wife Jezebel. Ahab is recorded as the most wicked of all the kings of Israel. When he and Jezebel conspire to kill their neighbour Naboth, the prophet Elijah announces that where the dogs had licked up the blood of Naboth, they would also lick up Ahab’s blood (1 Kings 21:17-24; note the refrain ‘anyone belonging to Ahab who dies in the city the dogs will eat’). This too comes to pass (1 Kings 22:37, 38). The same fate is predicted of Jezebel (1 Kings 21:23, restated in 2 Kings 9:6-10) and comes to pass (2 Kings 9:30-37).
Dogs, then, are vicious, feral, agents of judgement. (We might also note that three of the psalms of David—22, 59, 68—employ the metaphor of a pack of dogs to describe enemies. Christians have found Psalm 22 to be a close fit for describing Jesus’ crucifixion.) Yahweh reveals himself to be slow to anger but determined to deal with sin, to cut it off and root it out. That may be uncomfortable for us as comfortable westerners, but it is as fundamental to God’s character as loving-kindness.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus, following an episode where he is circled by a pack of enemies, withdraws to the region of Tyre and Sidon. This would count as one of the surrounding nations, to whom God’s people were to be a light. It is also the region from where Jezebel had come. There, a Gentile woman finds him, and begs him to deliver her daughter from oppression by a demon, a ‘god’ in rebellion against the god of Israel. Jesus says to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” to which she replies, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
In referring to the woman and her daughter as dogs, Jesus is not making a racist or sexist slur, but is identifying them, as members of the often-hostile surrounding nations, as those who will be agents of Yahweh’s judgement on his own unfaithful people. This judgement is imminent. Yahweh has determined to judge the nations, starting with his own people for their failure to be a light to the surrounding nations. Israel will be judged; its present ruling dynasty will be removed. In the light of this, Jesus is now offering bread—true sustenance—to the children. The children are not the Jewish nation of the time per se, but those few Jews who, with childlike trust, place their trust in him as the one sent from God. They need to be fed, strengthened for the coming judgement, at which time the dogs will get their fill.
The genius insight of the Syrophoenician woman is that while, yes, she is a member of the pack of dogs, among the Gentiles too there are those who recognise Jesus to be the one sent from God. Here is a dog who wants to be brought into the family of those who will be raised up, in and after the impending judgement, to start again. To be a faithful remnant of Solomon’s kingdom. And through her Jezebel-upending faith, the demonic presence that constrains her own dynasty is driven out. She is the gatekeeper for people like me, Gentiles who put our trust in Jesus the Jew and find ourselves brought into God’s family.