The King of Stories -- To the 'Puppies'!

Introductory note from Jason Pratt: see here for the previous entry; and see here for the first entry of the series. (It explains what I'm doing, and how, and contains the Johannine prologue.)

Lots of plotnotes to this entry, for various reasons; starting with some observations helpful in understanding what happens up in Syro-Phoenicia.

Tyre and Sidon were two major port cities of the old Phoenician Empire, along the southern Syrian coast of the Mediterranean Sea, north of the Galilee region of Palestine. The cities were under Roman Empire rule at that time, of course, along with everything else around "the Sea Amid the Land". These cities still exist and are still major ports for the nation of Syria.

In deep antiquity, traders from Phoenicia established port cities further south along the Mediterranean Coast, forming the semi-independent territory of Canaan (Hebrew for 'trader'); often warring with the Hebrews, and eventually defeated and assimilated.

At the time of this story, Canaan no longer existed--although the major port city Joppa still did, near modern Tel Aviv--but the Israelites still remembered their ancient foes with distaste... and still remembered where they had originally come from.

Some further things to keep in mind for the following story:

1.) By the best chronology I can figure (established on grounds prior to this story), this story takes place soon after Jesus' promise during the Feast of Tabernacles that He would call sheep from 'other folds', and that He was going where His opponents could not follow. Some of the listeners wondered, somewhat incredulously, if Jesus meant He was going to the synagogues of the Diaspora, not merely to reach the Jews but teach the Greeks. This is, in fact, precisely where Jesus is going (anyone north of Palestine on the Mediterranean coast, not a Roman, would be generally regarded a 'Greek').

2.) This takes place after numerous examples of Jesus reaching out, sometimes with approval, to people who might easily be classified as 'pagan'. Similarly, before this point Jesus has shown little reluctance about talking to women in public, even though by tradition a rabbi of all people shouldn't be doing that.

3.) Pilgrims from Tyre and Sidon both, have been mentioned before as being among the crowds down in Galilee, to hear the preaching of Jesus and be healed by Him.

4.) The Twelve Apostles included the lesser-known Simon, nicknamed 'the Zealot'. While the Zealot party had not yet officially formed, followers of the principles of Judas the Galilean would still be around, waiting and hoping for a Messianic military overthrow of Rome (and primed to join his son and grandsons during the Jewish War in the late 60s). Zealots were fierce nationalists, often outright hostile to 'pagan' foreigners. Canaanites, or the descendants of their ancestors, would likely be highly despised by a Zealot, not merely on principle, but also for tradition.

5.) Zelotes (boiler) translated to Hebrew happens to be Kananaios (Greek spelling).

6.) The Hebrew word for someone living in this area of Syrophoenicia was Chananaion (Greek spelling), "Canaanitish": ironically, a close pun to Kananaois in common Greek.

7.) Although the Greek word for dog is 'kynos', the Greek word for puppies (used in both versions of the story) is... kunarion! Again, a close pun to a couple of words relevant to this story. Strictly speaking, the word is a diminutive form of the word for 'teeming'; as in 'crawling with/like lots of vermin'. (Dogs were not mostly well-regarded in this time and place, although anyone might agree that puppies had some cuteness to them...)

So: we have Jesus going north to cities of another fold; bringing with Him on the journey at least one man who could be expected to be hostile about being in a city teeming with derided Chananaion, whose nickname (in which he would take great pride as any good Zealot) happens to be a pun for the people they are going to visit--which is not likely to make him any happier about it, especially if any of the other disciples ever teased him along the way (hypothetical but not impossible).

Facts 1-7 at least help shed light on what is happening (and probably is not happening) in the following story...

To the 'Puppies'!

Now rising up from there (says the Follower and the Disciple, picking up the story--'there' meaning the house Jesus had been staying in down in Judea when He declared all foods to be morally clean)...

He came away into the distant countrysides of Tyre and Sidon.


Jesus wants no one to know, but He cannot elude them for--now look! A Canaanitish woman, a Greek native of Syro-Phoenicia, hearing about Him, coming out from the countryside, cries out, saying, "Be merciful to me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is cruelly demonized!"

[Plotnote: 'Son of David' is a militant Messianic title; and so another factor now comes into play: the territories being visited incognito by Jesus were traditionally regarded as being part of God's gift to the Israeli people (which is one reason why problems still occur so frequently there today.)]

Yet He answered her not a word.

But approaching, His disciples asked Him, saying, "Send her away, for she is crying behind us!"

Yet He, answering (them?), said, "Am I not sent with a mission but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel?"

[Plotnote: there are two options here, depending on whom Jesus is addressing with the answer--which is not exactly as clear as often expected in the text! Jesus could in fact be addressing the woman, in a fashion intended to remind her that yelling out a militant Messianic title in the middle of a city full of traditional cultural enemies to the Hebrews (who claimed the territory as theirs in principle), is not necessarily as much of a compliment as she thinks it is! Indeed, her use of the title in this situation might be considered evidence of an attack on Him of sorts: the woman has heard about a Jewish Messiah operating down south in Palestine, who does healing, but she can only think in terms of an oppressive military threat. In that case, her shout would be a complex desperation of a couple of kinds: ‘help me or I will expose you here in your weakness!’ Or, perhaps, ‘so you think you can come up here and scout out your occupation plans? Fine; but if you expect me to acknowledge you as my king, then prove first that you’ll be a good king by helping me!’

Traditionally, of course, the question is regarded as being asked of the disciples; in which case the question (based on prior story contexts) would have to be a rhetorical retort--Jesus is echoing a common sentiment that He has been fighting against during His whole ministry, including among His disciples. This pitiable hopeless scene, He is implicitly showing them, is the result if He did come only for Israel. In an honor/shame culture, He is shaming them; also He is treating them as a rabbi would treat disciples, giving them an indirect point and expecting them to figure it out.]

Now Jesus enters a house, and the woman enters, and goes straight to Him, prostrating toward His feet, saying, "Lord, help me!"

But He, answering, said: "Let the children first be satisfied; for it is not the best thing to be taking the children's bread and casting it to the puppies."

Yet she answered!--and is saying to Him, "Yes Lord... for the puppies also under the table of their masters are eating the scraps, falling from the little children at the table."

[Plotnote: she recognizes the affectionate diminutive pun--and replies in a witty fashion, as a rabbinic student would be expected to do toward his teacher! She may have bested Jesus' own disciples in meeting this test.]

Then answering, Jesus said to her, "O woman! Great is your faith! Let it happen with you as you wish, because of this saying!--go, the demon has come out of your daughter!"

And from that hour, her daughter was healed; and when the woman came away to her own house, she found the little girl lying on the couch, and the demon gone.


Now going back out of the district of Tyre, He went through Sidon; and proceeded from there to the sea of Galilee within the Decapolis district.

[Plotnote: this indicates a roundabout route up north again along the coast, then east along the road toward Damascus, then down south again, possibly past or through Caesarea Philippi where Philip the tetrarch reigned--and now somewhere on the eastern shore of Galilee Lake. This trip must have taken several weeks, and all through 'pagan' territory--though also through the northern extent of territory traditionally claimed as given to Israel by God.]

And (says the Follower) they are bringing to Him a deaf man who stammered, and they are pleading Him to place His hand on him.

Now, taking him privately away from the crowd, He thrusts His fingers into his ears; and, spitting, touches his tongue; and, looking up into heaven, He groans--and is saying to him, "Ephphatha", which means (says the Follower) "Be opened!"

And immediately his hearing opened up, and the bond upon his tongue was loosed straightway; and he spoke correctly.

Now, He cautions them (who brought the man) that they may not tell anyone; but as much as He warned them, they rather proclaimed it exceedingly more.


Now going up a mountainside (says the Disciple along with the Follower), He sat there; and there came to Him vast throngs bringing with them the lame, the blind, the mute, the maimed, and many others--tossing them at His feet; and He cures them, so that the crowd marvels because the mute are speaking, the maimed made whole, the lame are walking, the blind observing!

And they were astonished most superexceedingly!--saying, "He has done all things ideally! The deaf He makes to hear, and also the mute to speak!"

And they praise the God of Israel.

[Plotnote: as the 'puppies' would not normally be inclined to do!]


In those days, there being a vast throng again not having anything to eat, Jesus, calling His disciples to Him, is saying: "I have compassion on the throng, for they are remaining with Me already three days, and they have nothing to be eating. Now, I am not willing to send them away to their homes, fasting, lest they will be fainting on the road!--for some of them came from afar."

And His disciples answered Him: "Where can we find so much bread in such a wilderness, to satisfy such a crowd?!"

But Jesus is saying to them: "How many breadcakes do you have?"

And they said: "... seven. And a few small fish."

Now He is giving orders to the crowd to be reclining on the ground.

And taking the seven breadcakes, giving thanks, He breaks them--and gave to His disciples, that they may put the food before them. And they placed them before the crowd.

And blessing the few small fishes, He said to place these, too.

And they all ate--and were satisfied.

Now they pick up the extra fragments, seven large hampers full; and those eating were about four thousand, apart from women and little children.

And He sends them away.

[Plotnote: see first comment below for an extended comment here.]


Now stepping into the boat (after sending the crowds away, the Follower and Disciple both report), He went straight into the region of Dalmanutha, into the city-limits of Magadan.

And out come the Pharisees and Sadducees!

[Plotnote: the latter group probably means a deputation from Jerusalem, trying to find Him after the things He said to them during His last trip there. The Dalmanutha region of the southeast Galilee lakeshore would be the closest 'northern Gentile == Greek-by-loose-association' territory to Jerusalem, and would be just across the river from the Galilean border. It's the least and safest effort for the Sadduceean deputation to go; compared to the weeks of Jesus' travels through hostile territory the Sadducees themselves would have considered Israel's own!

Dalmanutha itself likely refers to the 'little bay' of Tarichaea, which featured an ancient fort thus colloquially 'Magadan'. This was also the prime fish salting depot of the region, and so would be well-known to fishermen including as a place to re-provision. Many subsequent texts, however, 'correct' this reference back to 'Magdala'; the terms are roughly equivalent, but this is not the ancient tower of Gennesaret, south of Capernaum on the western side of the Lake.]

And they begin discussing with Him, testing Him, inquiring to have Him show them a sign out of heaven...

But sighing in His spirit, He is answering them and saying: "Why is this generation seeking for a sign!? Truly I tell you, if there shall be given to this generation a sign--!!

"A wicked and adulterous generation for a sign is seeking; but a sign will not be given to it... except the sign of Jonah." (i.e. repent, or face destruction.)

And leaving them, stepping into a boat again, He went away to the other side (north, back to the 'pagans'...)

[Plotnote: this incident has interesting but very quiet parallels to a tragic event that would happen later during the Jewish War. For the route chosen by Jesus along Lake Galilee also became the route of the Roman armies of Titus and Vespasian, flanking the nationalistic Galilee territory in their march toward Jerusalem. Eventually a great battle was fought on the southeastern shoreline near the fort of Tarichoea, known today as Kerak, placed to guard where the river Jordan exits Lake Galilee. After the defeat of 6500 defenders of the fort, their bodies were thrown into Lake Galilee, bloodying the water--which may be why many later manuscripts report a saying of Jesus here concerning how sailors rightly fear a coming storm by red clouds; yet these men cannot read the sign of the coming times. (Incidentally, the historian Josephus, a general of the Israeli troops, betrayed refugees from this battle by suggesting they take refuge in the 'circus' of nearby Tiberius, allowing them to be trapped, the weak and old slaughtered, and the rest sold into slavery by the Romans whom he joined.)]


Now the disciples forgot to get bread, and except for one breadcake they had none in the boat with them.

And Jesus said to them in warning: "Look here! Beware the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees--and the yeast of Herod!"

Now they reasoned toward one another, saying, "...we brought no bread."

But knowing, Jesus said: "Why are you reasoning that we have no bread!? You of little faith! Do you not see or understand yet!? Do your hearts still have calluses?!? 'Having eyes, you do not see! And having ears, you do not hear!'

"Yet do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of fragments did you pick up?"

They are saying to Him, "... twelve."

"And when I broke the seven breadcakes for the four thousand, how many baskets full of fragments did you pick up?"

And they are saying to Him, ""

And He said to them: "How is it that you do not understand already!?! I did not speak to you about bread!!

"But--beware the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees!!"

Then they understood (so the storytellers say), that He did not say to beware the yeast as of breads, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

('yeast' being, however, a Passover symbol for 'sin'...)

Matthew 15:21-39
Matthew 16:1-12
Mark 7:24-37
Mark 8:1-21

[Next time: the Resolution of the King]


Jason Pratt said…
.......[first deferred footnote here]

With all the other plotnotes given in this entry, I decided to save this theological commentary for a footnote instead.

So, in regard to the Feeding of the Four Thousand: obviously there are clear parallels here with the feeding of the Five Thousand, one of the few incidents outside the Passion narrative reported in all four Gospels (whereas the Four Thousand are only reported in GosMatt and GosMark).

Many scholars have thought, in the last century, that this is simply a doublet, the same incident reported (or even outright fabricated) twice. This never seemed very plausible to me; for both authors make a point shortly afterward of including subsequent reference to both feedings, with the emphasis that the disciples had not understood something yet about the providence of God.

I think the key to understanding these incidents, at least as a story (and which would easily fit a history also), is that they expressly take place within an extended arc of travel and preaching to the pagans: the last and largest such arc in Jesus' ministry before His death.

GosJohn tells us (as the other accounts do not) that the first Feeding happened on a Passover weekend (about a year before this incident), and so was seen by the crowds as a particularly 'Jewish' miracle. But we are still a month or two away from the next Passover (the final one of the story), in a 'pagan' country, dealing with 'pagan' crowds.

I do not know for certain, but I wouldn't be surprised to discover someday that a pagan feast was supposed to be celebrated at this time, which these crowds had been on the road to attend (much like the Passover crowds in Bethsaida) but which they had instead 'passed over' in order to spend three days with Jesus in fasting instead.

I think it is no accident that Matthew reports the crowds 'gave thanks to the God of Israel'--a peculiar phraseology for these stories, where most of the time Israelites are the ones thanking God. Who is thanking YHWH now? The 'pagans'.

I therefore think that Jesus took the Twelve on this long northern half-circle route, not only to establish core communities in (mostly) pagan Syria, but also to train them to take the gospel to Gentiles, too--something they weren't really expecting from the Messiah, but promised of course in many ways throughout the Old Testament. Consequently, I am guessing that the Disciples were not expecting Jesus to repeat the miracle with this pagan crowd (perhaps during what would be a pagan festival?), because the other Feeding had been a Jewish Passover event--and Passover is for the Jews, commemorating when they were once slaves but had been freed by God... isn't it?! Why would Jesus do that again... here??

Because the Passover is not only for the Jews; but for everyone.

Jesus was hinting that they should ask Him to do for these 'puppies', what He had done for their fellowmen a year ago. They didn't get it--just as His disciples today often still don't get it.

He provided, anyway--just exactly the same way He had done for them.
And just as He was going to do, in a different way, for everyone in the world a few months later... their final Passover Feast together.

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