When the Good Book Sounds Bad

Persisting With the Bible Beyond Its Offense

Todd Brewer / 3.17.22

In an odd and unexplained turn of events, Jesus abruptly left the familiar shores of Galilee and ventured northwest to the region of Tyre and Sidon. While there, he met a local woman — a Gentile from Syria Phoenicia — who pleaded with him for a healing. The woman’s young daughter was afflicted by a demon, and the Jewish exorcist might provide a miracle. She was distressed. Jesus refused, adding insult to her despair: “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

The scene provokes uncomfortable questions. Jesus had never withheld a miracle from the desperate but here he seems bothered by this woman’s persistence. How could he be so callous to a sufferer? His ridicule seems to betray what we might call a xenophobic hatred of Gentile foreigners. Racism even. Had Jesus grown up praying the imprecatory psalms with his Gentile neighbors in mind? Perhaps Jesus believed the Gentiles to be an enemy deserving of untimely death, God’s retribution upon the ungodly heathens. Characterizing Jesus in these terms happens often nowadays. He was a human, it is said, raised within a prejudiced culture. With in the span of a handful of verses, Jesus is written off as a backwards, ancient relic of a bygone era.

This episode might be a rare one in Jesus’ life (for the most part), but it cannot be said to be an isolated event in the Bible, which often provokes discomfort, if not outrage. God told Abraham to kill his son Isaac. Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead for misleading the apostles. The strangeness of scripture so often eludes what we believe to be right and true. When the good book sounds bad, failing to hold the right views or tow the party line, scripture’s offensiveness quickly leads to its irrelevance. It must be wrong, or perhaps misguided.

The worth of a writing or work of art is often measured by what the interpreter inalienably believes to be worthwhile. It might be said that this process is more intuitive and perhaps even superficial than rigorous. What calls itself ideological criticism can function more like what Immanuel Kant called taste, an aesthetic judgment derived from a priori cultural norms. One reads to confirm what one already knows. In the case of scripture, the discomfort of the interpreter self-evidently justifies their rejection of it, risking nothing and learning nothing. Judgment comes far more easily and naturally than understanding, particularly when one reads from the safe distance of self-assuredness.

Seeking to articulate an alternative that overcomes one’s distaste for scripture, one might conversely propose a subservient stance toward the text, giving over oneself entirely to its truth. Assuming, as it were, the viewpoint of the text and minimizing all distance between scripture and oneself. But this path can neither be achieved nor is it desirable. The temporal distance between then and now cannot be overcome by simply imagining this chasm to be nonexistent. One cannot become a first century follower of Jesus, no matter how hard one tries.  Moreover, the resultant understanding would be the reproduction of an alien, dead meaning with no real connection to everyday life today.

It is a mistake to characterize our relation to ancient texts — particularly scripture — as one of rejection or wholesale acceptance. The question of the Bible’s meaning cannot be bifurcated into such a stark, black and white alternatives. Or, to put it differently, the interpreter does not stand under the text as a wholly passive recipient of its truth, nor does the interpreter disinterestedly stand over the text to subject it to scrutiny. In both cases, the meaning of the scripture is definitive and univocal, bounded in such a way that its significance can be construed as a simple up or down vote.

Instead, we speak with and hear from scripture alongside it, asking of it questions and receiving answers that are as strange and foreign as they are enlivening. One is never addressed by scripture in an unmediated fashion, understanding its voice always entails an increase of its meaning beyond replication. Guided by charity and curiosity, the translation of the words on the page to the complexities of everyday life occurs through the mysteriously coextensive process of interpretive persistence and what one might deem divine illumination. It is rarely an easy dialogue, filled will perplexity, false starts, and unexpected moments of clarity.

When the good book sounds bad, it is so often less a sign of its offensive irrelevance and more an invitation to further dialogue, to discover a truth that exceeds appearances. I sometimes wonder about Paul’s own wrestling with scripture in the years that followed his Damascus Road conversion. How he peered the scrolls of scripture with new eyes and reconfigured previously revered texts. He did not reject his scriptural inheritance out of hand, but found that its meaning had shifted. That which had promised life to him (Lev 18:5) now seemed more like the way to death. The unconditional promise given to Abraham had no relation to the giving of the law 430 years later. The trials of the wilderness generation might have been as cautionary tales of failed temptations, but they now also served as cautionary tales of deadly consequences of the law. Scripture’s appearance had shifted to Paul, who gained new insights from it even as its previously assumed meaning gave way.

When Jesus indirectly called the Syrophoenician woman begging him for a miracle a dog, the uncomfortable possibility of Jesus’ racism should beckon further inquiry. Rather than the presumption of guilt, persistence beyond discomfort opens new possibilities of meaning. Jesus was, as he said, sent to the lost sheep is Israel, the foretold Jewish messiah for the salvation of the world. To the Jew first, and also the gentiles, as Paul would later say. The critique of supposed ethnocentrism on the part of Jesus arises precisely from Jesus’ own ministry.

Persisting with the text beyond offense, one can detect a playfulness on the part of Jesus — maybe even humor. He is assuming an unfamiliar role for the purposes of subverting it. He calls her a dog and waits for her response. Will she (like us) find fault with his words? Or will she notice the subtlety of his voice, perhaps vocalized in mocking anger, detecting the game at play. Clearly, she did and responded in kind: “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” In an instant, her daughter was healed.

The story of the Syrophoenician woman and Jesus is, for us, a parable about Biblical interpretation. It is a call to stay with scripture even when the good book sounds bad and persist with it beyond offense and into everlasting life.


featured image created by Mikey Karpiel.

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