In our society, dogs are considered man’s best friend; those cute, cuddly creatures that go on walks with us and sleep at our feet. However, in Bible times this sort of imagery would most likely have been the farthest thing from a person’s mind when speaking of a dog. Dogs were regarded as unclean animals, especially by the Jews (cf. Exodus 22:31; I Kings 22:38). Jews saw dogs as despicable and miserable creatures. Thus, it is not surprising that Biblical references to dogs are most always hostile and to refer to a person as a dog is deliberately offensive (2 Samuel 16:9; Philippians 3:2). What is surprising, even shocking, is to see Jesus indirectly call the Syrophoenecian woman a dog (Mark 7:27)

That is why the narrative must be read in the context of Jesus’ move into Gentile territory on His messianic mission. The term ‘dog’ signified a traditional distinction between the Jews and the Gentiles that is important to the story. In the thought of that day, the Jews considered themselves children of God (cf. Exodus 4:22; Deut. 14:1). They differed from other nations because of their inclusion in the covenant of Abraham (Genesis 17). The issue at stake between Jesus and the Gentile woman is whether Jesus is sent to ‘the children’ or to ‘the dogs.’ Note that the woman maintains the same distinction in her response to Jesus in verse 28. This humble and insightful reply goes to show that this Gentile woman at least in part understood that while Jesus came to the Jews first, the mercies of God would extend beyond ethnic Israel even to ‘dogs’ who would repent and believe.

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