Jon Ericson has already asked a question about the "odd little story" of Jesus' interaction with the Syrophoenician woman, and more could be asked (e.g., What is the main point of the story in context? and Why does Jesus speak to her with apparent rudeness?). [Haha, I just found that Jon has said the same thing—how ironic!]

Among the possible questions, I'm asking, Why would Jesus, the God-man, resist her request at first, and then give in?

Jon asked his question on the basis of Mark's account; for my question, Matthew's account is even more striking, because it contains even more back-and-forth between the woman and Jesus:

22A Gentilee woman who lived there came to him, pleading, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! For my daughter is possessed by a demon that torments her severely.”

23But Jesus gave her no reply, not even a word. Then his disciples urged him to send her away. “Tell her to go away,” they said. “She is bothering us with all her begging.”

24Then Jesus said to the woman, “I was sent only to help God’s lost sheep—the people of Israel.”

25But she came and worshiped him, pleading again, “Lord, help me!”

26Jesus responded, “It isn’t right to take food from the children and throw it to the dogs.”

27She replied, “That’s true, Lord, but even dogs are allowed to eat the scraps that fall beneath their masters’ table.”

28“Dear woman,” Jesus said to her, “your faith is great. Your request is granted.” And her daughter was instantly healed. —Matthew 15:22-28 (NLT)

We have clear teaching on the immutability of God, which I do not question, nor am I asking for an attempted reconciliation of how a changeless being could have apparent change, but why he would do so—what does it teach us about him? Perfection himself does not quibble for the sake of quibbling; why then does he offer her resistance before giving in?

  • 3
    Would this be more appropriate on Christianity.SE?
    – Jas 3.1
    Jul 15, 2012 at 22:57
  • @Jas3.1 I consider it a question about a Bible passage. But I am on the side that says interpretation is impossible to divorce from theology. Thanks for the edit BTW.
    – Kazark
    Jul 16, 2012 at 13:37
  • Jesus plainly says, “I was sent only to help God’s lost sheep—the people of Israel.” which literally says he came only for a select people, certainly not for gentiles. Most readers who are not Jews but still call themselves "Christians" would rather believe the message of Jesus was a universal one that pertained to all mankind, which this biblical passage denies. A more universal message that transcends the message of Jesus would naturally be all inclusive and would thus later thought to be understood in this way. If we allow for an underlying spiritual message, which certain early church fath
    – user3480
    Feb 11, 2014 at 3:38
  • fathers seemed to favor, the meaning of "the people of Israel" could then be re-interpreted to refer to all "Christians" no matter what their ethnicity or nationality. But literally understood, the passage appears to come from the theology of early Jewish Christians, perhaps under the leadership of James (brother of Jesus), based at Jerusalem.
    – user3480
    Feb 11, 2014 at 3:38
  • So how do you explain the fact that he does in fact answer her request?
    – Kazark
    Feb 11, 2014 at 4:16

3 Answers 3


A Puritan Answer

This answer is an attempt at an exposition of a comment that Richard Sibbes makes in his book Josiah's Reformation:

God doth always hear, though he seemeth not to hear sometimes, to increase our importunity. Christ heard the woman of Canaan at first; but yet, to increase her importunity, he gave her the repulse and denial, and with the same, inward strength to wrestle with him. (123)

This passage is a marvelous example of the interplay that, without relinquishing one bit of his sovereignty for even a moment, God with loving condescension chooses to have with his creatures. Christ here teaches us about the way he relates to us, and about prayer.

Prayer and Intercession as Struggle in the Bible

The Scriptures are full of examples of people who struggled with God in (often intercessory) prayer:

  • Abraham pressed God hard when he interceded for Sodom.
  • Isaac cried out for maybe twenty years over the barrenness of Rebekah.
  • Jacob wrestled with God all night long. Even when injured, he refused to let go until he received the blessing he sought.
  • On multiple occasions, Moses boldly argues with God about his announced plans to destroy the people of Israel, and prevails.
  • Hannah prayed so passionately she made a devout and godly priest, a man not unacquainted with prayer, think that she was drunk. Her prayers spanned a number of years before being answered.
  • David intensely mourned Bathsheba's child while the child lived, even though God had decreed to kill the child. Though God did not answer his prayer, neither was David condemned for his actions.
  • In the transference of the office of prophet from Elijah to Elisha, Elisha refuses to listen to Elijah's repeated exhortations to stay behind, even though Elijah was a great prophet and spoke for God. But pressing on was what God actually wanted him to do, and the struggle served as a test and preparation for his own prophetic ministry.
  • Other Old Testament examples could be named; Daniel, Nehemiah and Ezra were all men of fervent, prolonged prayer.
  • Jesus' own parables of the importunate widow and the knocking neighbor.
  • Paul uses "struggle" as a term for prayer, both with reference to himself and Epaphras. The nature of this prayer seems to be prominently intercessory.

Interplay in the Role and the Person of Jesus

In Christ, we are all able to struggle with God. Jesus himself, though, as our mediator is the primary one who gives importunate, intercessory prayer. In his sleepless strength, he prays passionately for us beyond any passion we have ever felt, day and night, with wisdom and knowledge we shall never even approach. Christ is the one who struggles with God in this type of prayer; I cite the entire book of Hebrews on this point.

I find this profoundly baffling. Surely, those who paint God the Father as the angry person of the Trinity and Jesus as the loving person blaspheme the Most High. However, if we step too far in the other direction, we deny the need for an atonement sacrifice and a high priest. Jesus is truly the mediator with the Father. Once again, an immutable God, who has loved his own from eternity, reveals himself to us in mutable concepts, that is, that he needs to be passified by the continual intercession of Christ for us to be acceptable to him.

Jesus as God-man is supremely able to have interaction with his creatures and to be affected by them (yet somehow without ceasing to be supreme ruler). We see that in Mark's telling of this very story:

He didn't want anyone to know which house he was staying in, but he couldn’t keep it a secret. —Mark 7:24 (NLT)

His mourning for Lazarus also comes to mind.


Jesus' interaction with the Syrophoencian woman, like many similar cases in Scripture, shows that he cares to be more to us than a database which can be queried for results, and more to us than an impersonal deity who mechanistically orders the universe. He graciously summons us to struggle with him, so that we might avoid apathy and fatalism. Prayer is a means of grace; he would not have us malnourished.

It delights him when someone pursues him so wholeheartedly that when even he himself throws impediments in the way, the pursuit continues. He is too kind to let us be lukewarm.

Sibbes continues his discussion by saying,

God seems not to hear, because he delights in the music of his children's prayers. Oh how he loves to hear the voice of his children! As a Father to hear the language of his child, though it be none of the best; so it is sweet music in God's ear to hear the prayer of his children. He will have prayers to be cries. Therefore he defers to hear; but in deferring he doth not defer, for he increaseth our strength, as Jacob's wrestling, that we might cry after him, wrestle with him, and offer violence unto him again.

  • Perhaps I will come back and add more references later on.
    – Kazark
    Jul 15, 2012 at 22:35
  • As a clarification, I do not intend the immutability of God to be mixed together with his interaction with us, but for the two to be hold in tension. It's a manifestation of the divine sovereignty/human freedom problem, which Biblical is a paradox.
    – Kazark
    Jul 17, 2012 at 1:49

It is because the gentile woman addresses Jesus as the Son of David. David was a shepherd who became the great king of Israel. Jesus as the Son of David indicates His being a shepherd and also king of Israel. As the Son of David, the shepherd and king of Israel, Jesus can't help this gentile woman. This title is reserved only for the Israelites as seen in His comment about His being sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.

Eventually Jesus helps her to realize who He really is and who she really was. He mentions that He is a bread on the table reserved for the children, and not for the dogs. This is a great revelation. Instead of a great king on the throne, Jesus is saying that He is actually a piece of bread. And He also points out that she is a gentile dog. If the woman would have been offended by this, then this will be the end of the story. Instead she agreed with Jesus, by saying that the dog can eat the scraps (crumbs of bread) that has fallen down underneath the table.

By saying this, the gentile woman also correctly identifies that Jesus is no longer the bread on the table. If you look at verse 21 it says:

[Mat 15:21 NKJV]

21 Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon.

This verse shows that Jesus has just been rejected by the Jews (Matthew 15:1-20). The children has rejected the bread, causing the bread to fall down from the table, and now the crumbs of bread is underneath the table, in Tyre and Sidon where the gentile dogs are. Thus Jesus as the small crumbs is ready to be received and eaten by the gentile woman.

When Jesus hears this, He equates her revelation as great faith and subsequently her demon possessed daughter is healed. This is indeed a great revelation because man always consider God as a great king who can solves our problem outwardly. However, Jesus reveals that His way of solving man's problem is by becoming a small bread, even small crumbs to be their food to heal them inwardly.

Thus this points out that when we have problems, we need to focus primarily on eating Jesus as the awesome crumbs and all our problems will then be taken care of by itself.


We should persist when seeking God.

In the scriptures there are many who have earnestly sought God, Jacob is one of them . The scriptures say that he wrestled with the materialized angel until daybreak, but did not prevail against Jacob, so the angel blessed Jacob for his "persistence".


Genesis 32:24-30 (NRSV)

24 "Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak."

25 "When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him."

26 "Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”

27 "So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”

28 "Then the man[a] said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,[b] for you have striven with God and with humans,[c] and have prevailed.”

29 "Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him."

30 "So Jacob called the place Peniel,[d] saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”


On this occassion we have the Canaanite woman pleading earnestly with Jesus to heal her daughter which was tormented by a demon. Jesus answered:,“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Meaning that she did not deserve to be healed and that the Jews had priority over the non -Israelites. (The dogs under the Mosaic Law were unclean animals). The woman discerning his point , answers:“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table. The woman showed great faith and so Jesus said to her ,“Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matthew 15:22-28 NRSV)


Another example is the Galilean woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. In her condition she was not permitted to touch other people ,(Leviticus 15:25-27) despite her condition she gathered enough courage to press through the crowd that surrounded Jesus to touch his garment. She kept saying, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped. (Mark 5:24-34 NRSV)


Non of the above persons would have been healed or blessed if they gave up on the first objection,they all persisted until they got what they wanted.The lesson for us is to persit and be bold when we seek God.
Jesus to stress the importance of persistence gave the following illustration. Luke 11:5-13 reads, (NRSV)

Perseverance in Prayer

5 "And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread".

6 "for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him."

7 "And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything."

8" I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything

because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs."

9 “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.

**10 "For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. "

11" Is there anyone among you who, if your child** asks for[a] a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish?

12 "Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? "

13" If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit[b] to those who ask him!”

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