Genocide or Healing ?

Reading one of the Bible’s most disturbing passages

What most attracts you to the Bible and what most repels you?

We often ask students this in introductory Bible courses. Some, as you might expect, find it uncomfortable; they don’t feel it’s right to dislike anything in Scripture. Others, however, are glad for the question because they do experience problems when they read the Bible.

One text troubling to many is Deuteronomy 7:1-6, in which God through Moses tells the Israelites that when they enter the land God gives them they are to destroy utterly the seven Gentile nations they meet: the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites.

It’s not hard to see why this passage disturbs many. God tells the Israelites not only to defeat those nations but to destroy them and show no mercy. Today we’d call that genocide. How do we read the text that is our authority for living when it commands genocide? What kind of a God do we serve anyway?

The Bible as Drama

As we struggle with a text this harsh, we need to remember something of the nature of the book we are reading. The Bible is not simply a rule book, a collection of moral sayings, or a set of examples for holy living. Neither is it merely a book of disembodied ideas or doctrines to be believed. The Bible is first and foremost a story, a narrative. But it’s more than just a story; it’s the authoritative Story out of which we live our lives. It’s our script, really, since it’s the Story God calls us to enter into and live and make our own.

Perhaps the best way to put it is this: the Bible can be read as a six-act play. Act 1 is creation; Act 2 is the fall; Act 3 is the history of Israel, Act 4 is the story of Jesus, his death and resurrection; Act 5 is the story of the church; Act 6 is the coming new creation when we will live with God on the new earth.

Now the thing about acting in a drama is that you do not simply repeat what has come earlier in the story. The plot develops and new things happen. We are in the midst of this production, in Act 5. We’ve already seen the early part of the play, and we know it ends with the consummation of God’s kingdom in the new creation. But until that time we need to continue to ad lib, as it were, as we live our lives. In order to perform this story faithfully, we have to be attentive to what came before and be faithful to it. Yet we also need to be creative in carrying the plot forward to its expected end.

Understanding the Bible as a drama can help us understand how the individual scenes fit together. As the biblical story unfolds, earlier parts of the story get picked up later on and transformed. So, for example, Christians no longer sacrifice animals in a temple—the cross of Jesus transformed and transcended that previous part of the narrative. The command to genocide in Deuteronomy 7 is another one of those threads. And its place of transformation is the story of the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15.

The Canaanite Clue

Jesus, Matthew tells us, has gone to the region of Tyre and Sidon—Gentile territory north and west of Galilee. Matthew records that a Canaanite woman came to Jesus and began shouting. Now the term Canaanite here is rather odd. Matthew is the only writer in the New Testament who uses it. (Although Mark recounts the same story, he calls the woman a “Syro-Phoenician.”) Matthew’s use of the word Canaanite is similar to someone from Sweden calling herself a Viking. Or someone from France saying he is from Gaul. In Jesus’ time no one had been called a Canaanite for many, many years. So why does Matthew use this particular term to describe this woman?

We find our clue in the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy the Canaanites are those people God commands the Israelites to exterminate. They are the quintessential enemies not only of Israel but of God. By calling her a Canaanite, Matthew points out that this woman represents all that God and God’s people are against.

And so Jesus, Israel’s Messiah traveling in Gentile territory, encounters this member of a condemned people, an enemy of God who confronts him with an astounding request. “Have mercy on me Lord, Son of David, my daughter is tormented by a demon,” she says. Have mercy. In Deuteronomy 7 God explicitly tells the Israelites to show no mercy. Yet here is a Canaanite begging for just what her people were denied. What’s a good Jewish boy to do?

Jesus, the text tells us, does not answer her at all. He remains silent.

And so the scene is set. A Gentile woman, of a hated people, asks an Israelite for healing, for salvation, for her daughter. What will Jesus do? What should Jesus do? After all, Jesus knows the Story. Jesus knows the commands given to Israel to eradicate the Canaanites. And Jesus probably knows some other details that we also know, because Matthew has given them to us. For example, early in his gospel Matthew mentions four women from Jesus’ ancestral line, at least two of whom were Canaanites: Tamar was a Canaanite, as was Rahab, a Canaanite woman from Jericho, the first city Israel destroyed when they conquered Canaan. Ruth was not from Israel but from Moab, and Bathsheba was probably a Hittite. These are Jesus’ foremothers.

Will Jesus reaffirm Jewish hatred of Canaanites, or will he transform it?

The disciples, who are probably aware of the command in Deuteronomy, are pretty clear about what should happen: “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” They don’t think the woman or her daughter deserves Jesus’ or their attention. As far as they’re concerned, the story of a Canaanite woman has no intersection with the story of the Jewish Messiah.

But Jesus doesn’t send her away. He simply says (and the text isn’t clear to whom he speaks; he may be responding to the disciples), “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Although it isn’t clear to whom Jesus speaks, as far as the woman is concerned, this Jew has left the door open a crack—she can continue her plea. He hasn’t sent her away as his disciples have urged.   

So she kneels and says, “Lord, help me.” Then Jesus says, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Again, to whom is he talking? Again, the text doesn’t tell us. Neither does the text tell us the tone Jesus uses. Is he joking? Is he being insulting? It’s not entirely clear.  

What we do know is that here Jesus describes what he has to offer in terms of bread. If we have been reading Matthew’s story sequentially, we already know that Jesus has no trouble whatsoever providing ample amounts of bread when he wants to. He has, after all, just fed 5,000 people (not including women and children) in the wilderness (Matt. 14:13-21). Maybe the woman has heard about this incident and even knows there were baskets of crumbs left over. Does she also know that before the Israelites took her land and destroyed her people they received bread in the wilderness? Does she know that those who followed Jesus would have seen him as (at least!) a new Moses because he provided this bread? Does she realize how the reference to bread is a part of the story in which her people are destroyed? We don’t know. What we do know is that she doesn’t ask for her ancestral lands back; her response to Jesus is merely, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” Her response is quick and witty; it also demonstrates that she knows Jesus can provide bread, more bread than the house of Israel will ever need.

And so Jesus, who knows the story of his ancestors, looks beyond this woman’s ancestry and sees her need. This time, the text tells us, he answered her: “Woman, your faith is great. Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

The passage begins with uncertainty: a hated Canaanite woman and the silence of Jesus in the face of her request. It ends with healing: the hatred of Gentiles has become the healing of Gentiles. The Story is being transformed.

But there’s more. More to the Story

Shortly before the story of the Canaanite woman, as we have seen, Matthew relates the story of Jesus’ feeding the 5,000. After this huge crowd has been satisfied with five loaves and two fishes, there are 12 baskets of broken pieces left over. Almost everyone agrees that those 12 baskets represent the 12 tribes of Israel.

Immediately after telling us about the Canaanite woman, Matthew tells us another story about bread. This time Jesus feeds 4,000—again, not counting women and children (15:29-39). This time there are seven loaves and a few fish that feed the crowd. And afterward, Matthew tells us, seven basketfuls of bread are left. If the 12 baskets in the first feeding represent Israel, then what do the seven baskets represent? Deuteronomy 7 gives us an answer: seven nations are listed for the Israelites to exterminate. Elsewhere the Old Testament lists other nations to be destroyed, but in this list there are seven. Seven is the biblical number for fullness and completeness. Seven Gentile nations represent all the Gentile nations.

A careful reader of the Bible, by the way, might also note that the complete inventory of nations in the book of Genesis (chapter 10) after the flood list 70 nations and that in one of his speeches in the book of Acts Paul mentions the seven nations of Canaan (Acts 13:19). Seven baskets left over means that there are enough crumbs from the table for all the Gentile nations to be fed. Just as there is enough bread for Israel in the first feeding story, so there is enough bread for the Gentiles to be fed in the second account. The enemies of Israel, the enemies of God, are no longer to be hated and excluded. They are to be healed and fed. From genocide to healing: Jesus has transformed the hatred of enemies into the love of enemies: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies” (Matt. 5:43-44).

Today we are still taught to hate our enemies, particularly if they are enemies of God. And we live in an age in which genocide is still an all-too-frequent reality.

But as followers of Jesus we know that we are no longer in the Deuteronomy 7 part of the Story. Those who follow Jesus have traded in our hatred. We have been loved, and now we are called to love—yes, even our enemies. We who have received mercy are now called to extend mercy. We who have received Jesus as the bread of life have entered into his Story, a story of feeding and healing, a story in which all the nations of the earth are offered blessing.


About the Author

Dr. Sylvia Keesmaat is adjunct professor of biblical studies at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto. She attends Lindsay (Ont.) Christian Reformed Church.

Rev. Grant LeMarquand teaches biblical studies and mission at Trinity School for Ministry, near Pittsburgh, Pa.