The Canaanite Woman: Motif of Border Crossing

The story of the Canaanite woman is one of the crucial texts in the Bible that reflects motif of ‘border crossing,’ especially against the backdrop of Jewish/Gentile relations in regards to salvation history.

The story of the Canaanite woman in Matthew has distinctive features in comparison with its earlier version in Mark. Matthew expands the story, and changes her identity from a Syrophoenician woman to a Canaanite who addresses Jesus as Lord, by yielding to Jesus’ religious credentials. In contrast to the role of Jesus in Mark’s gospel, Matthew’s Jesus is much more powerful and insistent about his exclusive mission to Israel. Matthew is insistent on the woman calling Jesus “Lord,” and “Son of David,”.  Jesus, in turn, is celebrating and commending her on her faith, for this is significant for her identity as a Canaanite woman.

Why is it important that a pagan woman have faith in Jesus and worship him as Lord? It is important to ask this question especially in light of the fact that Jesus, in turn, thinks of her as a dog. Is it somehow a prerequisite that the needy woman must change her faith in order to receive healing for her daughter, as happened in the colonial regime as well?

When the privileged choose to cross borders, there are demands, not preconditions. In Mark’s account, it is symbolic that Jesus chooses to cross a border to go into the Gentile territory of Tyre and Sidon.1  When Jesus, as a privileged religious leader and a healer, crosses borders and demands privacy, he manages to obtain what he wants. He is well-received in Gentile territory in Mark’s narrative. In Matthew, however, it is not clear if Jesus actually entered into Tyre and Sidon or if he traveled towards that region. The exclusivism of Israel was an important motif in Matthew. When Jesus insisted that he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel, this may suggest a view that perhaps he did not cross the northern border into Tyre and Sidon.2 

In Matthew, it may be presumed that it is the woman who crosses the border in her desperate condition, thereby entering this area in a less privileged status.3  In the story, the woman’s desperate condition makes her marginal and less privileged, whereas Jesus, who could either offer or deny his power, is in a very privileged position comparatively. What happens when the less privileged woman crosses the borders and enters into the land of the privileged healer seeking help?  She probably does not encounter a pleasant experience across these borders. She may have been exposed on the streets, rebuffed repeatedly, humiliated and poorly treated by insiders.

What a difference it makes when the empowered cross borders as opposed to the powerless. If Mark’s story is an example of the powerful crossing a border and retaining their powerful status in a foreign land, then Matthew’s account is an example of how the powerless are treated across borders. In other words, from Mark’s account we can see that when the powerful Jesus crosses a border, whether it happens in the colonizing way or in a graceful way, he is well-received in Gentile territory. He maintains his powerful status, seeks comfort, and demands that his needs be met. Whereas, when the powerless cross the borders, they are often chased, suspected, evicted, or humiliated as was the case of the Canaanite woman in Matthew’s account.

Border crossing is defined differently, depending on who crosses the border. The woman was seen as no better than a beggar and as an outsider who willingly chose to cross. In her interpretation, Guardiola-Saenz sees a protest within the woman rather than a passive acceptance of her otherness, as Levine expounds. While identifying with the Canaanite woman’s border crossing, Guardiola says “she crosses the border not to worship the dispossessor, but subtly to demand restitution.”4  

In the imperialist context, border crossing, conversion, or worshipping the same God have all been considered prerequisites for attaining favor among the dominant oppressors.  If the intention of the woman’s address of Jesus was to worship him rather than to ask a simple polite favor, was asking for the first requirement on her part done to seek healing for her daughter?

As Guardiola-Saenz claims, if it is a protest for the marginalized to claim their rights, then the unpleasant experience is always associated with struggle, and the oppressed are prone to further oppression, abuse and even violence. In this Gospel story, the dispossessed woman is depicted in relation to being possessed, ill-mannered, demonstrating inappropriate behavior in public (illustrated by shouting in public), and deprived of dignity. The setting clearly shows that crossing borders was not a mutual intention in the story. There is resistance and rejection for the woman who attempts to engage beyond borders.

In Matthew’s version, the woman crosses the border and experiences further vulnerability, displaying absolute humility and low self-esteem. As described in the text, her body language suggests her oppressed status which is more than just a plea for the sake of her daughter. She is denied dignity; she is humiliated, insulted, and considered a nuisance in the public. Therefore, what is being said in these stories is determined by who crossed borders.

When Jesus crosses the border, according to the version in Mark, we can ultimately see a different mood. Jesus is well received, treated, and supported in the foreign land. Thus, it is customary that the marginalized often protest against boundary makers and have to force themselves to cross borders. However, they usually end up facing violence, humiliation, and insult when they have to trespass in order to cross the boundaries. This does not happen when the border-crossing occurs by mutual reconciliation that leads towards eradicating the borders.

1  Many cultural tensions and conflicts between Jews and Gentiles in the borderlands of Tyre and Galilee were rooted in religious, social, and economic differences. Gerd Theissen gives a thorough discussion of Tyre and its community. He imagines that it is a mixed community of Jews and Gentiles. And Mark’s world view has not been limited to the Israelites alone, but was expanded as he was responding to the needs of Gentile readers, whereas Matthew maintains Israelite exclusivism. See Gerd Theissen, The Gospels in Context: Social and Political History in the Synoptic Tradition (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1991), 70-81.

2Jack Dean Kingsbury, Matthew as Story (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), 149-50.

3For instance Amy-Jill Levine and Laeticia Guardiola-Saenz believe that Jesus in Matthew remained in his own territory and it is the woman who crosses borders of Tyre and Sidon to meet Jesus. See A.J. Levine, The Social and Ethnic Dimensions of Matthean Salvation History (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen, 1988), 138, and Guardiola-Saenz, “Borderless women,” 74.

4Guardiola-Saenz, “Borderless women,” 76.