JESUS IN THE REGION OF TYRE AND SIDON
During the summer of 2005, while standing on top of the dump of Area A-5, I had a conversation with the director of the Hazor excavation, Dr. Amnon Ben Tor. He asked me why most Christian pilgrims and tourists visit Megiddo, but not Hazor. I responded that there were two reasons. The first reason is logistics. The pilgrim / tourist lands at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv and spend the first night in either Tel Aviv or Natanya. The next day they head for Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee. Megiddo is just off the road on the way to Nazareth, so they stop there. The second reason is its Biblical connection. Megiddo is mentioned in Revelation 16:16 as Armageddon. With that, Amnon said, “Find me a New Testament connection for Hazor!” I replied that I thought the Lord Jesus walked past the site on several occasions with His disciples. He said emphatically, “Write me an article!”
As I contemplated and researched this assignment, I came to the conclusion that Jesus walked past the ruins of Hazor with His disciples on their way to the region of Tyre and Sidon. But I wondered, “Why did Jesus take His disciples to the region of Tyre and Sidon?” There might have been a handful of Jewish people living in this predominately Gentile area that was outside the territory of Galilee. In fact, Josephus, the First Century Jewish historian comments that “among the Phoenicians the Tyrians, are notoriously our bitterest enemies” (
Against Apion 1:70, 71; LCL 1:191). That does not sound like a nice neighborhood to visit!
The accounts of this visit to Gentile territory can be found in Matt. 15:21-28 and Mark 7:24-30.
The Syro-Phoenician woman is used by the Lord Jesus as a test case to expose prejudice in the lives of the Twelve and then teach them a very valuable lesson concerning prejudice. The lesson is this:
an exclusive mentality caused by pride; one that says we’re better than you, economically, ethnically, physically, religiously, can result in prejudice and could lead to partiality and discrimination.
Just prior to Jesus’s departure from the Sea of Galilee, He addressed the issue of defilement. His disciples asked Him about His comments. He answered them, “What comes out of a man, that defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy,
pride, foolishness. All these things come from within and defile a man” (Mark 7:20-23). Jesus then gave a vivid lesson to His disciples about pride that came to fruition as prejudice.
Matthew and Mark are the only gospel writers that record this event. Mark, hearing this account from Peter, would have recorded it because this was a lesson Peter had to learn the hard way. Even though he was an apostle to the circumcision, Peter came to realize that salvation was for all, both Jews and Gentiles. Mark was also writing to a Jewish audience in Rome. Both record this event because they may have included this event in order to provoke their Jewish audience to jealousy when they realize Gentiles can be part of the Kingdom of God as well (Rom. 11:11, 12).
The Geographical and Historical Setting
Matthew and Mark both record that Jesus and the Twelve departed to the “region of Tyre and Sidon” (Matt. 15:21; Mark 7:24, 31). Commentators are divided as to whether Jesus and His disciples actually visited these Phoenician cities or they just stepped out of Galilee into the region of Tyre. If it’s the latter, they could have gone up the Hulah Valley, just past the ancient city of Hazor and headed up the hill toward Kedesh of Naphtali. Josephus says that Kedesh, or Kedasa, as it was known in the First century, was “a Tyrian village” (
Wars 2:459; LCL 2: 503). The fact that Sidon is mentioned by the gospel writers seems to indicate that they went deeper into Tyrian territory than just stepping outside of Galilee.
I assume that Jesus either visited the city of Tyre, or He and His disciples were very close to it. Strabo, a Greek geographer, wrote a description of the city of Tyre sometime at the beginning of the First Century AD stating: “Tyre is wholly an island, being built up nearly in the same way as Aradus; and it is connected with the mainland by a mole, which was constructed by Alexander when he was besieging it; and it has two harbours, one that can be closed and the other, called ‘Aegyptian’ harbour, open. The houses here, it is said, have many stories, even more than the houses at Rome, and on this account, when an earthquake took place, it lacked but little of utterly wiping out the city. The city was also unfortunate when it was taken by siege by Alexander; but it overcame such misfortunes and restored itself both by means of the seamanship of its people, in which the Phoenicians in general have been superior to all peoples of all times, and by means of their dye-houses for purple; for the Tyrian purple has proved itself by far the most beautiful of all; and the shell-fish are caught near the coast; and the other things requisite for dyeing are easily got; and although the great number of dye-works makes the city unpleasant to live in, yet it makes the city rich through the superior skill of its inhabitants. The Tyrians were adjudged autonomous, not only by the kings, but also, at small expense to them, by the Romans, when the Romans confirmed the decree of the kings. Heracles is paid extravagant honours by them. The number and size of their colonial cities is an evidence of their power in maritime affairs. Such, then, are the Tyrians” (
Geography 16.2.23; LCL 7: 267, 269).
Pliny the Elder, writing later in the First Century AD, describes Tyre in these terms: “Next Tyre, once an island separated from the mainland by a very deep sea-channel 700 yards wide, but now joined to it by works constructed by Alexander when besieging the place, and formerly famous as the mother-city from which sprang the cities of Leptis, Utica and the great rival of Rome’s empire in coveting world-sovereignty, Carthage, and also Cadiz, which she founded outside the confines of the world; but the entire renown of Tyre now consists in a shell-fish and a purple dye! The circumference of the city, including Old Tyre on the coast, measures 19 miles, the actual covering 2 ½ miles” (
Natural History 5:76; LCL 2:279). For a history of Roman Tyre, see also Fleming 1915:70-73 and Bikai 1992:61-68.
Strabo briefly mentions Alexander the Great building a causeway from the mainland to the island of Tyre. The full history is very interesting. Alexander the Great thought himself to be Heracles. The oracle of Delphi instructed him to offer a sacrifice in the temple of Heracles in Tyre. When he approached Tyre on his way down the Phoenician coast in July, 332 BC, he asked to sacrifice at Tyre. The people of Tyre refused him entrance. [Memo to people of Tyre: When Heracles comes knocking at your door and wants to sacrifice to himself, you let him in … or else!]. Alexander built the causeway to the island in order to conquer the city, thus fulfilling Ezekiel’s prophecy made several hundred years before. “They will plunder your riches and pillage your merchandise; they will break down your walls and destroy your pleasant houses; they will lay your stones, your timbers, and your soil in the midst of the water (26:12).”
The Greek god Heracles, known as Melkarth to the Phoenicians, was the main deity of Tyre. Yet he was not the only god worshipped in this city. An inscription was discovered in the necropolis of Tyre that dated the dedication of a temple to the god Apollo to around AD 28/29 (Rey-Coquais 1977:1-3, Plate 50; Bikai, Fulco, and Marchand 1996). This event took place around the time of the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman.
From the accounts of Strabo and Pliny the Elder, we learn that the people of First Century AD Tyre excelled in two areas. First, they were master seamen. They were the best mariners in the Mediterranean world, plying their ships and trading as far as Spain, if not beyond. Second, they were skilled dye workers that manufactured a famous red-purple dye that was given the name Tyrian purple. This dye was extracted from a certain gland of the spiny dye-murex (Ziderman 1990). This product brought great wealth to the city.
The extraction of the dye from live snails and discarding them to rot, as well as the whole dyeing process did not leave the best fragrance in the city. For some young men of Tyre, a career choice might have been a difficult decision to make. “Do I stay in the polluted city of Tyre and make a lot of money, or do I sail on the Mediterranean and enjoy the fresh sea breeze?!”
The Theological / Chronological Setting
The journey to Tyre and Sidon took place around the time of Passover, AD 29. In order to understand the significance of this journey, a brief review of key events in the ministry of Jesus to the disciples must be recounted.
In the spring of AD 28, sometime after Passover, Jesus is at the height of His popularity. The crowds are following Him, listening to His messages, seeing people being healed and demons being cast out of people. The gospel writers state that the people were from Galilee, Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, Perea and Tyre and Sidon (Mark 3:6-12; Luke 6:17-19). This raises the possibility that this Syro-Phoenician woman had already heard Jesus and seen Him heal the sick and cast out demons in Galilee before He came to Tyre. Or, she had heard about Jesus’ mighty works from family or friends that had gone to Galilee. Most likely the former is the case because the woman expressed her faith in the Lord Jesus and had a correct theological understanding as to who He was (Rom. 10:9-17).
Later in the spring, Jesus healed a woman who had an issue of blood for twelve years (Matt. 9:20-22; Mark 5:25-34; Luke 8:43-48). According to Eusebius, a 4th century Church Father, this woman was a Gentile from Caesarea Philippi (
Ecclesiastical History 7.18; LCL 2:175,177).
In the fall of that year, the religious leaders accused Jesus of doing miracles by the power of Beelzebub (Matt. 12:24; Mark 3:22; Luke 11:15). At this point in time, Jesus made a major shift in the focus of His ministry. He decided to take His disciples over to the “other side” to the Decapolis city of Gadara, a pagan / Gentile city where they ate non-kosher food and worshiped pagan deities. One could go into a deli at Gadara and purchase a ham and cheese sandwich, or go to the fish restaurant at the harbor of Gadara on the Sea of Galilee and have a meal of catfish and chips!
One of the disciples baulks at this venture and makes the excuse, “Let me first go and (re)bury my father.” Jesus rebukes him with the words, “Follow Me. Let the dead bury their own dead” (Matt. 8:18-22; Franz 1992:54-58). This was the first recorded time in Jesus’ public ministry that He goes to Gentile territory.
Upon returning to Galilee, Jesus is rejected a second time by His family and the people of Nazareth (Matt. 13:54-58; Mark 6:1-6). In the winter he sends out His disciples, two-by-two, with instructions: “Do not go into the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter a city of the Samaritan. But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And as you go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons” (Matt. 10:5-8).
Just before Passover of AD 29, the disciples returned from their preaching tour and met Jesus at Capernaum for a debriefing time. He wanted to hear how their tours went so He took them to a “desert place” near Bethsaida. The crowds, however, followed Him. Jesus took this opportunity to use the crowd as a “test” for the disciples. Would they be able to demonstrate the power the Lord Jesus gave them at the beginning of their preaching tour and feed the multitudes? The disciples passed up the opportunity to feed the multitudes and let Jesus feed the 5,000 men plus women and children (Matt. 14:15-33; Mark 6:30-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-14). When the leftover food was picked up, there were twelve full baskets. Each disciple held a circular basket and realized that the score of their “final exam” was just like the edge of the basket … a big fat zero! They flunked the exam.
The day after the feeding of the multitudes, the Lord Jesus gave a discourse in the synagogue of Capernaum on the Bread of Life (John 6:22-39). Many of His disciples thought that some of what He said was a “hard saying” and they “walked with Him no more” (John 6:60-66). Jesus asked the Twelve if they were going to leave as well. Peter responded, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Also we have come to believe and know that you are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (John 6:68, 69).
After these events, the Lord Jesus took His disciples to Tyre and Sidon. Why does He do this? I think it is safe to say, they were not going for the Grand Opening and dedication of the new Temple to Apollo! However, there are at least three reasons for this trip. First, the Lord Jesus knew He had one year to instruct His disciples in sound doctrine and how to reach the world with the gospel before He returned to Heaven. The focus of His ministry now is no longer the multitudes, but rather, His disciples. He wanted to spend quality time instructing them in the word of God. Second, He wanted to avoid Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee and Perea. After Jesus fed the multitudes, they wanted to make Him king (John 6:15). Antipas would have seen this as an insurrection and a threat to his throne, and wanted Jesus arrested. The third reason is Jesus is now going to initiate another test for His disciples and teach them a valuable lesson about prejudice after exposing this sin in their lives.
The Test to Reveal the Disciples’ Prejudice Against Gentiles
The Lord Jesus departed from the area of the Sea of Galilee and went to the region of Tyre and Sidon (Matt. 15:21; Mark 7:24). Most Bible geographers trace the route of this journey via Safat and Gush Halav (Jish) in Upper Galilee and then down through Lebanon to Tyre. For example, see the Carta Bible Atlas, map 234. That road, at points, is very steep and reaches a high elevation. An easier, more convenient route was up through the Hulah Valley past Hazor and then up into the hills past Kedasa and continues north to meet the east-west Roman road. This road went from Paneas (Banyas) to Tyre (Aviam 2004: 133-135) and was called the “Way of the Sea” by the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 9:1; Rainey 1981; 1989). It was a little bit longer, but had a more gradual incline and was not as high in elevation as the road over Upper Galilee.
Mark adds the detail that He entered a house. Were they in Tyre? If so, were they trying to get away from the rotten stench of the city? The text says He did not want anybody to know He was in town. Yet He could not be hidden (Mark 7:24). Apparently some of the Phoenicians who heard him in Galilee recognized Him as He came into town.
A woman (Matthew identifies her as a Canaanite, cf. Gen. 10:6, 15; Mark says a Greek, a Syro-Phornicain by birth) came to Jesus in the house and cried out to Him, “Have mercy on me, O Lord (
kurie), Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed” (Matt. 15:22; Mark 7:25, 26). She apparently heard from others that Jesus was in town and knew that He had cast out demons in Galilee. She may have thought, “This is the Man that could take care of my daughter’s problem.”
Notice in her cry to Jesus how much she knew of the Person and work of the Lord Jesus. She cried for mercy because as a Canaanite, she was not part of the covenant community, yet she knew that Jesus was the God and King of the nation of Israel. She calls Him Lord (
Kurios) and Son of David. This is the first time in her conversation that she will call Him Lord and could be using it in the sense that Paul wrote about in Romans 10:9-13. This was her confession of the Jesus as Lord (Yahweh): “For ‘whoever calls on the name of the LORD (Jesus as Yahweh) shall be saved’” (10:13).
Jesus seemingly does not answer her plea. He is silent. Some have accused Jesus of being rude by ignoring this woman. But in His omniscience, He knew of her faith in Him and He wanted her to express that faith so that His disciples could see it. This was a test for the disciples in order to see if they were prejudice. Unfortunately the disciples failed this test as well. They misinterpret His silence as a rejection of her. Their nationalistic pride led to a prejudice against this woman, so they discriminated against her by saying to Jesus, “Get rid of her! She is harassing us as well.”
Jesus answered the disciples (implied in the context): “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24). “[The] ‘Lost sheep of Israel’ does not mean the lost sheep
among Israel, as though some were lost and others not. The expression indicates the lost sheep
who are Israel” (Wilkins 2004: 539).
The phrase “lost sheep of the house of Israel” should have caused the disciples to recall the instructions that Jesus gave when He sent them out on their preaching tour a few months earlier. When He instructed them about the “lost sheep”, He also said not to go in the “way of the Gentiles”. In essence, He was saying, do not walk on the Roman roads. What had they just done? They walked down the Paneas – Tyre Roman Road to this city! They were now in Gentile territory and should have realized that the instructions Jesus had given the disciples before were not valid at this point.
The Canaanite woman, on the other hand, probably caught the irony, absurdity, and maybe even the humor of the statement. She said to herself: “What are you doing here? This is Phoenicia! You are outside the Land of Israel. It’s Gentile territory! There are very few lost sheep of the House of Israel here anyway.” She came to the realization that Jesus was on her side, so she fell at His feet (Mark 7:25), worshipped Him (Matt. 15:25) and said, “Lord, help me!” This is the second time this woman calls Jesus Lord (
Jesus responds to the woman, “Let the children be filled first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs (puppy dogs)” (Mark 7:27).
Some people may not like dogs, but everybody loves puppy dogs. The Jewish people considered dogs unclean animals and most likely would not keep them as pets. On the other hand, however, in the Roman world they were good pets. Children enjoyed playing with puppy dogs. There is a marble funerary altar on display in the newly reopened Greek and Roman wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The altar has a little boy on the side in high relief with his pet dog wagging his tail at his feet. The provenience is unknown, but it dates to the first half of the first century AD. It was dedicated to a deceased child named Anthus, and called “sweetest son” by his father Lucius Iulius Gamus.
In His statement, the Lord Jesus points out the priority of the gospel. The little children (the lost sheep of the House of Israel) are filled first (cf. Rom. 1:16; 2:11-16, 26-29; 3:9; 16:26; Isa. 42: 5-7). While it may not be proper manners to feed pets under the table, it is hard to stop the little children from dropping crumbs to the puppy dogs under the table.
In her response, the woman acknowledges the priority of the gospel to the Jewish people first. She said, “True Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their master’s table” (Matt. 15:27). This is the third time she calls Jesus Lord. In essence she is saying, “Gentiles may not be part of the covenant community, yet there were some dogs at the Master’s table, i.e. part of the family. People may look upon her as a puppy dog, yet she was under the table, a Gentile who had believed in the Lord Jesus.”
Jesus successfully got her to express her faith in Him. He says, “Oh woman, great is your faith!” (Matt. 15:28). As a result of her faith, her daughter was healed of the demon possession. Interestingly, there was one other person commended for his great faith in the Lord Jesus and that was the Gentile centurion in Capernaum (Matt. 8:10; Luke 7:9).
The disciples had flunked the prejudice test, yet Jesus turns this into a teaching opportunity. He reinforces what He has been saying all along: Gentiles are included in God’s program of salvation. Jesus knows that if His disciples can begin to grasp this lesson with one Gentile, they will be able to handle 4,000 of them when they get to the Decapolis in a few weeks (Matt. 15:29-39; Mark 7:31-8:9).
If we are honest with ourselves, we are all prejudice to one degree or another. This prejudice leads to partiality and discrimination (James 2:1-9). It is sin and must be confessed to the Lord and forsaken (James 2:9; I John 1:9).
The believer in the Lord Jesus must see this world from God’s perspective. He is not a respecter of persons and shows no partiality towards individuals (Acts 10:34, 35; Deut. 10:17; Rom. 2:11, cf. Rom. 3:29-30; 10:12-13). The believer’s attitude should be based on John 3:16. If God loves the world (and He does) and the Lord Jesus Christ died for all our sins (and He did), then I must view the world from that perspective. Each individual, whatever their ethnic or economic background, however they look, whatever may be their faults, is a person who God loves and the Lord Jesus paid for all their sins of the Cross and rose again from the dead three days later and offers the forgiveness of sins and the righteousness of God (Eph. 2:8, 9; Phil. 3:9).
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