Crumbs from the Table?
Yet The Dogs Eat of the Crumbs
Which Fall from Their Masters' Table
Roy Blizzard © 2012
In the New Testament in Matthew 15:21-28 is a simple, but to most people a strange story, that has given rise to all sorts of erroneous Christian and Atheist theology. We find here devils, pagans, dismissing disciples and a seemingly apathetic Messiah who insults the suffering. This is a story tailor made for scoffers and atheists who think all the Jesus stories are bunk. However, when one takes a closer look at this story in the Hebrew, all these seemingly odd features evaporate in a burst of clarity.
21 Then Jesus went thence, and departed into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon. 22 And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou Son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. 23 But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. 24 But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 25 Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me. 26 But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs. 27 And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table. 28 Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.
First of all, we have to look at the place where Jesus is. Tyre and Sidon. The house of Canaan. The descendents of Noah who were given over to the worship of evil. (see my article on a rethinking of the Tower of Babel Story) So it comes as no surprise here that someone in Canaan would have a demon. What the first big question for us is why would a nice pagan Canaanite woman who worships devils want Jesus to cast one out of her daughter? Why indeed?
Secondly, the Canaanite woman cries out to Jesus as Master (not Lord as commonly translated) and Son of David. Both of these are monikers given to Jesus, but for differing reasons. Master was only allowed as an address to those who were acknowledged Torah scholars and Masters in Jewish literature. Son of David was only used as an address to a Jew who was thought to be a person of Godliness and Power, so much so that God would do bidding for him, as God was supposed to do for the Messiah.
The disciples do not perceive her to be anything but a typical pagan Canaanite woman so they tell her to go away and ask Jesus to do the same because she is not Jewish. Jesus however, always searching, poses his responses in such a manner as to get at the heart of the issue. Here is where this story typically breaks down totally for most readers.
Jesus answers that he is only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Well, who are these lost sheep? The Canaanite woman then begs Jesus for help and then Jesus totally insults her by calling her a dog. Or does he? What is going on here? Was she a literal dog that had to grovel and eat from the floor? Would it surprise you to learn that she was actually a Jewish proselyte?
How do I know this to be fact you ask? Well, from a curious passage found in the Talmud in Berakoth 52b which quote the Zuggot (think Torah scholars Hillel and Shammai) which were contemporaries of Jesus.
“BETH SHAMMAI SAYS THAT THE FLOOR IS SWEPT etc. Our Rabbis taught: Beth Shammai says: The floor is swept and then they wash their hands. For should you say that the hands are washed first, the result might be to spoil the food. (Beth Shammai does not hold that the washing of the hands comes first.) What is the reason? — On account of the crumbs [of bread]. Beth Hillel, however, says that if he the attendant is a scholar, he removes the crumbs which are as large as an olive and leaves those which are smaller than an olive. This supports the dictum of R. Johanan; for R. Johanan said: It is permissible to destroy willfully crumbs [of bread] smaller than an olive. What is the ground of their difference? — Beth Hillel holds that it is not permissible to employ an attendant who is an 'am ha-arez [common man], while Beth Shammai hold that is is permissible to employ an attendant who is an 'am ha-arez. R. Jose b. Hanina said in the name of R. Huna: In all this chapter the halachah is as stated by Beth Hillel, save in this point where it is as stated by Beth Shammai. R. Oshaia, however, reverses the teaching and in this point also the halachah follows Beth Hillel.” [Lit., an 'am ha-arez = 'people of the land', 'country people' or an illiterate or uncultured man; the name given in Rabbinic literature to people who through ignorance were careless in the observance of the laws of Levitical purity and of those relating to the priestly and Levitical gifts. In this sense they were the opposite to a haver]
“Who would not know the difference between crumbs of the size of an olive and those of smaller size. Probably a meal of haverim (v. Glos.) is referred to here [a Haver or 'Fellow', 'associate', opp. to 'am ha-arez (q.v.); one scrupulous in the observance of the law, particularly in relation to ritual cleanness and the separation of the priestly and Levitical dues.” [so they would know the difference]
MISHNAH. BETH SHAMMAI SAY: ONE MAY REMOVE BONES AND [NUT]SHELLS FROM THE TABLE; BUT BETH HILLEL RULE: ONE MUST TAKE AWAY THE WHOLE BOARD AND SHAKE IT. ONE MAY REMOVE FROM THE TABLE CRUMBS LESS THAN THE SIZE OF AN OLIVE AND THE PANICLES OF BEANS AND LENTILS, BECAUSE THEY ARE FOOD FOR ANIMALS. AS FOR A SPONGE, IF IT HAS A LEATHER HANDLE, ONE MAY WIPE [THE BOARD] WITH IT; IF NOT, ONE MAY NOT WIPE [THE BOARD] WITH IT. [THE SAGES MAINTAIN]: IN EITHER CASE IT MAY BE HANDLED ON THE SABBATH. AND IS NOT SUSCEPTIBLE TO DEFILEMENT.
Here we see in these passages from the Talmud and Mishnah that what is happening in our story in Matthew is a complex Jewish parrying between Jesus and the Canaanite woman. Jesus perceives that she is not a pagan by her addresses to him and by her responses to his statements he knows she is a proselyte who has been studying the Law and she recognizes the Messiah of the Jews when she sees him.
He tells her that he only deals with the lost house of Israel. She proves she is a part of this by demonstrating her knowledge of Torah / Law. You see there were four types of individuals who were considered part of the house of Israel and who were allowed to be a part of the Kahal (the assembly) and enter into the Temple to worship before God, Priests, Levites, Israelites, and Proselytes. This is where she met Jesus. She was a proselyte.
Jesus’ statement, “It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs.” was not to be taken by us or her to be an insult. It was Jesus’ way of testing her status as a part of the Jewish nation and Jesus’ kingdom. Her response of this complex Jewish argument over crumbs on the table proves without a doubt that this woman had studied the Torah for a long time and was indeed a part of the Jewish nation and thereby deserved to be served by Jesus.
Jesus says to her, “…great is thy faithfulness…”. Not faith as is commonly translated and thought of in American theology. It was not her that was healing her daughter, it was the faith of Jesus that was healing her daughter, she was just existing within his existence and faith. Thereby what she desired was Jesus’ desire and it came into being. The Canaanite woman’s daughter found Shalom, or Wholeness and Peacefulness that very day. No Canaanite demon could exist within Jesus’ existence, so it had to leave.
What was sad was the fact that here was a woman who had been studying the word of God but had not had any of these Biblical Scholars help her daughter. They evidently had no power to do so. This sounds like the church today doesn’t it.
We should take care to be not like the disciples (students) who are not able to perceive the real needs of those around us as we are too busy or too preoccupied to have an answer to those who ask and thereby deprive them of the blessings and existence of God.
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obustudent7 on August 14, 2012:
Very interesting hub! I must admit I was a little lost and do not completely understand, but the overall message was very interesting and educating!