Shared culture is all-pervasive. If I say that I learnt French at school using the Tricolore books, or that I watched seemingly endless episodes of dubiously-dubbed Heidi on tv, there will be a whole cohort who know exactly what I am talking about.
Jesus was a first-century Jew. Most of the people whom he speaks with in the Gospels were Jewish, though some were Gentiles living among Jews. Most of the people who told and compiled the stories about Jesus were Jewish. Their shared culture was curated not in movies and pop music, but in the library of the Hebrew Bible. Jesus was a builder, but he didn’t do woodwork at school, he learnt it by apprenticeship. At school, his curriculum was the Bible. For entertainment, albeit not exclusively so, more stories from the Bible.
This all-pervasive shared cultural background resonates with every conversation in the gospels. So, when Matthew and Mark record Jesus having a conversation with a Syrophoenician woman about a dog, like Pavlov's bell it calls to mind the various references to dogs in the Hebrew Bible.
Though some see the term as a racial slur, nowhere is it used as such in the Hebrew Bible. The comparison is used to describe someone as of no importance, as when the Philistine champion Goliath asks the boy David if he comes at him as if he were a dog, and not a mighty warrior; or when people humble themselves before a dignitary to ingratiate them to him. But it is not ethnicity that is being interrogated.
Dogs are, on the other hand, repeatedly invoked in the judgement of illegitimate rulers whose downfall is being prophesied. Anyone belonging to Jeroboam or Baasha or Jezebel or Ahab will be eaten by dogs, who will lick up their blood.
In the Psalms, dogs—unclean scavengers—symbolise circling enemies.
There are two wonderful evocations of dogs in the Proverbs:
‘Like a dog who returns to its vomit is a fool who returns to his folly.’ (26:11) and
‘Like somebody who takes a passing dog by the ears is one who meddles in the quarrel of another.’ (26:17).
And in Ecclesiastes, the wonderful evocative expression:
‘But whoever is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion.’ (9:4)
So, when Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman discuss dogs, and when Matthew and Mark’s earliest audiences listen along, these and a handful of other dogs are circling the story.
Jesus is probably not pulling a passing dog’s ears, meddling in someone else’s quarrel, asking—deserving—to be bitten for his trouble.
He may well be invoking a judgement on the illegitimate rulers in Jerusalem. After all, he has come fresh from an encounter with scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem, some of whom will reject him, others of whom will continue in their interest. Though he is far from Jerusalem, he will soon enough turn towards that city. But first, like Elijah or Elisha in hiding, does he invoke dogs from the surrounding nations to prophesy the downfall of the Herodians at the hands of the Romans? Does he do so here because this woman has seen him for who he is, the Son of David, the true heir? Or do Matthew and Mark see this? Do they construct their story with this in mind, or their readers read it in between the lines? One cannot be fully certain of authorial intention, but this is how shared cultural reference works; the active making of certain connections, multiple, thick with meaning.
When Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman speak of children and dogs, are they speaking of Jews (children) and Greeks (dogs) or of the woman’s daughter and the unclean spirit that afflicts her? Is Jesus speaking against a system that has encouraged the woman to appease the demon, and the woman expressing concern not only (understandably) for her daughter but also for the demon (an early example of Stockholm Syndrome)? It may sound far-fetched, but there are plenty of cultures that seek to placate the spirits, plenty of people in my own culture that will advise you on how to do so. And elsewhere, even Jesus treats such spirits as troubled creatures in need of being seen, heard, and released from their torment, as much as releasing those tormented by them.
Will Jesus, who has removed himself from his critics and enemies return, as a dog returns to its vomit? (Yes, he will. And, moreover, he will go to Jerusalem. Does he not learn!?)
And what of the living dog and the dead lion? This evocative saying is, in my view, very much at the heart of the exchange. Jesus who will give his life that others might live, not only on the cross but in all his actions leading up to it.
I’ll admit to being dyslexic, to lying awake at night wondering whether there is a dog. It turns out that there is, and that he has a tail to tell.