“Well-behaved women seldom make history.”
The original source of the above now-famous quote can be traced to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in her book A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. Ulrich was writing about “The Hidden Ones” (Cotton Mather, predecessor of the first Great Awakening): the quiet, pious women who support revival from the sidelines through private intercession. As Ulrich bemoaned, chaste women rarely achieve notoriety; as such, her quote has come in recent years to be used as a mantra for counter-culture women. But even though it’s an ironic reversal of Ulrich’s original meaning, this use of the phrase can be applied to the majority of women recorded in the New Testament—most notably, the Syrophoenician woman remembered in Matthew 15:21-28.
In this story, which is also recounted in Mark 7:26-30, Jesus passes through the area of Tyre and is accosted by a desperate Canaanite woman. The woman pleads with Jesus to free her daughter of an evil spirit. What follows is a well-known exchange of wit, ended by the woman’s great declaration of trust in God. In respect for her faith, Jesus commends her, and her daughter is healed instantly.
Most of the time, when this passage is taught, it is used as an example of how God rewards persistent faith. While the Syrophoenician woman is indeed a great example of faith, the story becomes even more insightful when we dig into the culture. As we begin to understand the context of this passage, we realize a startling truth: This woman stole from Jesus.
1st Century Jewish culture was not kind to women. Although Jewish parents did not abandon their unwanted girl babies, as was common amongst their Greco-Roman neighbors, they could still take upwards of a month to give her a name. While they were allowed in the temple, women were restricted to their own secluded court. And due to the complex culture of honor, where women’s primary role was to guard positive shame through purity and privacy, they had very limited opportunities to speak in public or challenge males.
The Canaanite woman broke all these rules brazenly. According to the social structure of the time, she had no right to approach Jesus. She was not of his group due to a number of factors: She was a woman, and worse yet, she was a Canaanite. Jesus was doing the honorable thing when he ignored her; the woman was acting shamefully. Yet she approached him, and not with timid piety; the Greek words used to describe her actions indicate she was making a scene, and carried on long enough to grieve the disciples. “Now she’s bothering us. Will you please take care of her?” (v.23, MSG)
Undeterred, the woman prostrated herself before Jesus. She begged him again; he continued to refuse, claiming his dedication to the ministry in Israel—again, his was the culturally honorable response. Still she pleaded. At this point, Jesus had every right, according to the rules of the day, to kick her out of the way. Instead, he insulted her: “It’s not right to take bread out of children’s mouths and throw it to dogs.” (v.26, MSG)
In the culture of honor and shame, every question, compliment, and insult is considered a challenge to one’s honor. One must respond appropriately to defend one’s position or risk public shame. Although the woman had no right to play this game with Jesus, he responds with biting wit. Most men, let alone women, would have accepted this scathing insult as defeat and withdrawn to avoid further shame. But to the surprise of all, the woman responds in kind: “You’re right, Master, but beggar dogs do get scraps from the master’s table.” (v.27, MSG)
This statement is phenomenal on a number of levels. Not only is it an excellent play on words that turns Jesus’ statement around in a perfect counter-argument (the MSG Bible prefaces v.27 with “She was quick”), but it also shows her faithfulness to God. In one crafty phrase, she gracefully excepts her position in society as a “dog” but swears her unswerving loyalty to Jesus as His “dog.” It was a masterful argument, and with it the woman did something no other man or woman in recorded Scripture has ever done: She stole honor from Jesus.
Jesus played the challenge-and-response game frequently, masterfully insulting everyone from the Pharisees to the men of his own hometown. In all other instances recorded in Scripture, Jesus wins these games. The Syrophoenician woman is the only opponent to whom he concedes defeat and thereby honor.
Jesus’ final response to her can be best translated as, “Oh, woman, your faith is something else.” (v.28, MSG), or, as John J. Pilch aptly puts it in his book Cultural Tools for Interpreting the Good News: “Touché, woman! You give as good as you get.” (pg.20)
That woman had no right to speak to Jesus, much less to challenge Him in His words. She made a boisterous scene and risked great public shame to present her request. She violated every cultural rule to demand something she had no right to. Yet she received not only her request from Jesus, but also ascribed honor and a place in Scripture.
Many other women in the Bible violated cultural rules to get to Jesus: The “sinful” woman who anointed Jesus with perfume (Luke 7:36-50), the woman with the “issue of blood” who pushed through the crowd to touch Jesus (Luke 8:42-48), and others. All these women violated cultural rules to demand something they had no right to—to steal from God, as it were. They were anything but “well-behaved women.”
And, perhaps, if we want to receive something from God and make history for Christ, we shouldn’t be either.