Women of the Bible Series: The Woman of Canaan / The Syrophenician Woman
In the scriptures, sometimes the same stories are told by different authors. This serves to expand upon the record of the person or event, and it serves to emphasize the importance of the story being told. Thus, it was surprising to me when I searched LDS.org for thoughts and insights on The Woman of Cannan (Matthew 15: 22-28). She is recorded twice in the scriptures, the second time as the Syrophenician Woman (Mark 25: 7-30). Yet there are just over a handful of references that teach her story in LDS theology. Better still, the verses themselves are not referenced to other scriptures in our modern scriptures. They are simply stand-alone scriptures that are repeated in the Bible, yet have deemed little repeating in modern Mormon scriptural study.
In summary, the story is of a Canaanite woman. She is a Gentile; which is to say that she is not Jewish, and therefore, she is an outsider. She came to Jesus because her daughter is “grievously vexed with a devil” (Mathew 15:22). She asked Jesus to heal her daughter, but Jesus ignored her. She remained and pestered His disciples to the point that they asked Jesus to send her away (Matthew 15:23). She again begged Jesus for help, but He responded by saying that His purpose is to give bread to the children of the house of Israel (thus, the bread– his blessing is not for her, as she is a Gentile). She replies that even the crumbs of Jesus’ bread would be enough to heal her daughter. In this, it is evident that although she is not a Jew, she yet does not worship Baal. It is a testimony that she recognized Jesus as Lord of the House of Israel (1). Jesus accepts this testimony and faith of the woman, and instantly her daughter is healed.
I think there are four reasons that this story is something that Mormons seem to shy away from. The first is that we don’t like to think of Jesus as ignoring anyone. The story is clear that she beseeches Him, yet He does nothing. But I think this is one of the virtues of the story—after all, haven’t all of us prayed for things to which we received no answer, or at least, no immediate answer? And don’t we ask again?
The second reason is that this woman is described as a woman, not as a mother. She is beseeching Jesus’ help for her daughter, yet she is described as a woman. In modern Mormon dogma that directs motherhood as the preferential feminine descriptor, this woman retains her independence. The title of mother is dependent on a relationship with a husband and offspring, and is in no way negative. Yet the woman of Canaan retains her personal independence; she sought Jesus for her daughter, yet she is not cornered into motherhood as her identifier. Instead, she is identified and defined by her testimony of and relationship to Jesus.
This leads into the third reason why Mormons might be confused by, or choose to avoid her story: Perhaps she is a single mother. There is no mention of a husband, or her genealogy, or the familial house where she resides. She is defined by her testimony, a testimony that she seeks to share with her daughter, even though the community they reside in brands them as Gentiles.
The forth reason is that the daughter in the story is described as being “grievously vexed with a devil” (Matthew 15:22). Exorcism is not something that Mormons discuss often, if at all. Indeed, Bruce R. McConkie attributed the act of exorcism to false priests:
“In imitation of the true order whereby devils are cast out of people, false ministers (having no actual priesthood power) attempt to cast them out by exorcism. This ungodly practice was probably more common anciently than it is now, because few people today believe either in miracles or in the casting out of literal devils. But over the years it has not been uncommon for so-called priests to attempt to expel evil spirits from persons or drive them away from particular locations by incantations, conjuration, or adjuration’” (Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. , 259).
But I suspect that the Canaanite woman’s daughter wasn’t “possessed,” but rather, she might have been someone who suffered from mental illness. A 2005 article in the Ensign by Elder Alexander B. Morrison teaches us that those suffering from mental illness “do not need exorcism,” but “they require treatment from skilled health-care providers.” Yet the Canaanite woman was not living in a time when she could obtain modern medical treatment, medication or support for a mentally ill daughter. Likewise, perhaps her daughter had cancer or another debilitating internal illness. Having seen close family members suffer through the pain of cancer and its associated surgery and chemotherapy, I feel it is fair to describe cancer as a devil that can take over the human body. So- if we consider the daughter as being someone in need of a cure, regardless of the condition that is described as a “devil,” then we can be more compassionate toward the mother and daughter who were in need of a miracle: we don’t need to fear the concept of casting out devils.
Clearly the Woman of Canaan’s story is important because it is recorded twice. So- what is her story teaching us today? I believe her story teaches at least four things with different emphasis: Faith, perseverance, atonement and patience.
As a Gentile, she was a foreigner to the House of Israel because Jewishness is passed down through the mother. In today’s terms, the Woman of Canaan might be considered a person of another faith, or even an immigrant. Her story teaches us that even those who are not members of the LDS church can have great faith in Christ. Others may even recognise and even seek our spiritual advice because of our religious devotion, even if they do not seek to become members of the church. In the crumbs that we shed in little ways and in small teachings to friends, we might inspire others to seek Jesus. This is an of itself is a blessed thing that we learn from the Gentile woman, who although was forbidden from learning of Jesus, still had faith to seek Him in the best way she could.
This faith aspect of this story also strikes me in regard to the I Was a Stranger program. This program is aimed at helping refugees regardless of their religious affiliation; it’s purpose is not conversion, but healing, feeding and clothing those in need. These individuals are also the Canaanite woman. They have left their homes –being propelled personally or forced by war- to seek the miracle of a new and healthy life. They are showing faith in humanity by seeking a new life. As messengers of Christ, we are obligated to help heal them, even if they are not Christian, and even if they are not Mormon. They are still children of God, just as the Canaanite woman and her daughter.
This story teachers us that we are meant to righteously challenge with devotion and intellect. The Canaanite woman kept asking for Christ’s help. Her motivation was because of her daughter. As a dedicated mother, she would not stop asking for Jesus’ help. She was twice refused, but she doggedly stayed, and in the end effectively challenged Jesus to heal her daughter in “crumbs.”
As a mother, I absolutely relate to this. If my child was ill in any way, I would risk or give my life for her to be well again. This includes pestering Jesus for His help, even if He ignored me at my first asking. This mother asked Jesus, again, and again. She did not give up. In the end, the perseverance of a mother gained the blessing of Jesus for her child.
But I think this is not limited to seeking on behalf of a sick child, but it also applies to those who plead on behalf of an imperfect church. The Canaanite woman was smart—when Christ replied that His “bread” was not for her, because, she as a Gentile, was effectively a “dog,” she responded by saying “yet the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs.” (Mark 7:28) In this, the Canaanite woman is testifying that Jesus is the Lord. She bears her testimony of Jesus, even though she is not a Jew. Similarly, women in the church who seek ordination do not seek ordination in many of the ways in which their adversary accuse: because of an absence of faith, or because they are “apostate.” These women believe in the power of the priesthood. They recognize that there is spiritual power in something they cannot play an active part. These devoted “Canaanite women” persevere in seeking ordination for their daughters, so they can have a church life that they believe is better, healthier, and filled with service to Christ. It is because of this faith that they keep asking for ordination, just as the faith of the Canaanite woman caused her to persevere in seeking a specific blessing from Jesus.
Just as Jesus’ disciples became impatient with her, and wanted Jesus to dismiss her, there are those who have said unkind things about the women seeking ordination. And yet, if we are to follow the example of the Canaanite woman, being called a dog is possibly a part of the perseverance that Christ demands for those whom He would bless in such a generous way. The key is in perseverance, in spite of being initially rejected. Just as a mother seeks in every way possible to heal her child, so must we seek for the miracle of Christ to better and heal our lives in every way possible. We must persevere, and keep asking for that which we believe is righteous.
Nothing is mentioned of the father of the daughter of the woman of Canaan. I wonder if this might be because she is a single parent. Perhaps that is why she is yet labeled as a Gentile: she might have been labeled because she was pregnant before marriage. If this is the case, then is spite of her sin, she still believes. I know no pregnant, underage LDS teen who stops believing in the gospel of Jesus Christ, even though they have made mistakes. They still believe. Is this why Jesus’s disciples told her to go away? She was not considered worthy by them to be in His presence? Is this why Jesus ignored her for a time? But when she proved that she knew who He was, what His teachings were, and how powerful even the “crumbs” of his commandments were, He blessed her. This reminds me of the atonement that Christ offers to all of us, even when we make decisions that are in conflict with His teachings.
As a teen, I began praying that I would be able to be a mother. I was young, but had been told I could never carry a pregnancy. I was hurt and confused—wasn’t this God’s plan for me? Weren’t all Mormon women supposed to be mothers? In time, I came to the conclusion that God did not require all females to be mothers. But I still wanted to be a mother. I fasted and prayed. I dated boys and men who were open to adoption. They fasted and prayed, too. I married, and my husband fasted and prayed with me. My family, friends and everyone who knew us were fasting and praying with us for well over a decade. Finally, after hundreds of adoption applications, 4 rounds of IVF and 3 surrogacy transfers, I conceded. I was to be a Gentile in the Mormon church– a barren woman branded unworthy of children.
I told God that I would accept that He would not have me be a mother. I came to a powerful conclusion, that even if I were not to be a mother, no matter how unwelcoming Mormons were to me because they thought I was cursed with infertility, and no matter what became of my life, I would never deny the Christ. NEVER. I was, and am still not sure if I believe in Mormonism as perfection, but this was the faith I grew up in, so I determined that I would remain, even if only to feast on crumbs. So I swore to God, that no matter what came, and in spite that He and I disagreed on my being a mother, I absolutely, completely believed and still believe in Christ.
Four months after this discussion with God, my two daughters came to me. Tiny, sick, beaten and hungry… just crumbs when they arrived… they became my daughters. It took four years for the adoption and associated paperwork to be final, but I became a mother. In God’s time. Because I would not deny the Christ. It took patience. And I was blessed. Just as you, in patience will also be blessed.
I am the Canaanite woman because like her, I refused to deny my faith in Jesus, no matter the outcome. I love that in the scriptures, she is only noted as a woman, rather than as a mother. I find this deeply empowering– because it means that she is remembered and known independently and individually for her testimony; not for her fertility.
In the end, I am going to guess that you are the Canaanite woman, too. Because sometimes when we ask for a righteous blessing—to protect a child, to be a mother, to be healed of cancer, to get the job that will put food in the table, to have fellow church members include us as friends….sometimes, it doesn’t come. But with faith, perseverance and patience, it does come. We ask. And we ask again. And again. Sometimes it does not come in this life. But it will all come to us, in God’s time. This is what this story is teaching us; when we remain with Christ, even when we feel (or are told by disciples) we are not welcome, we will be blessed. The crumbs will come, and miracles will happen when we remain with Christ.
How might you be like the Canaanite woman? How can you maintain faith, perseverance and patience as you seek specific and needful things from Christ?
- Matthew L. Bowen, Studies in the Bible and Antiquity 5 (2013): 15.