Who is the Syrophoenician Woman in Matthew 15:21-22?

After his conflict with the Pharisees in 15:10-20, Jesus withdraws from Galilee into the region of Tyre and Sidon. There he meets a Syrophoenician woman who asks him to heal her demon possessed daughter. Matthew calls her a Canaanite, the only occurrence of Χαναναῖος in the New Testament; Mark 7:29 calls her a Syrophoenician woman.

Syrophoenician woman

Jesus has withdrawn from Israel before in Matthew. In Matthew 2:14 Joseph withdrew to Egypt to protect Jesus. When Pharisees began to conspire to destroy him, he withdrew (12:15). After Herod Antipas executed John the Baptist Jesus withdrew into the wilderness (14:13). In each case Matthew uses a verb (ἀναχωρέω) which has the sense of taking refuge (BDAG). It can refer to an army which “beat a retreat” (BrillDAG).

In Mark 7:24 indicates Jesus entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Matthew omits this explanation. It is certain Jesus was staying with a Jewish family. The context makes it clear enough he would not be visiting a Gentile family.

Why does Jesus withdraw to Tyre and Sidon? By mentioning both cities together, Matthew may be alluding to Jezebel, the quintessential Canaanite Baal worshipper who promoted Canaanite religion in the Northern kingdom. The two cities were associated with Jezebel, the daughter of Ethbaal, king of the Sidonians in the days of Elijah.

Sidon was the firstborn son of Canaan (Gen 10:15). Hiram of Tyre built David’s palace (2 Sam 5:11) and Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 5:1). Elijah left Israel when Jezebel sought his life and lived in “Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon” (1 Kings 17:9). The situation is similar, Pharisees are seeking to destroy Jesus, so he withdraws to the same area Elijah fled when Canaanite woman sought him.

Although the two Phoenician cities were about twenty-five miles apart, they are regularly paired together in the prophets: Isaiah 23, an oracle against Tyre and Sidon although the two are not paired in the text. Since Tyre and Sidon are regularly condemn by the prophets, Jesus uses them in Matthew 11:21: if the people of Tyre and Sidon saw miracles he did among the villages of Galilee, they would have repented!

This Syrophoenician woman is therefore presented as a pagan Gentile in the tradition of the worst of all Baal worshipers in the Old Testament.

Matthew makes the connection clear by calling her Canaanite rather than a Syrophoenician woman. From the perspective of a Second Temple period Jewish male teacher and healer like Jesus, this woman is extremely low socially. Yet her she is wanting to witness another miracle and giving Jesus the worship and adoration which the house of Israel as so far failed to give to their messiah. It is remarkable this woman would approach Jesus, and his response is even more surprising: Jesus refuses to even talk with this woman!

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