Daniel Harrell is Christianity Today’s editor in chief.
In Matthew’s gospel you find the story about a woman crashing a dinner party. By labeling her a Canaanite (15:22), Matthew connects her to those promiscuous and pernicious Promised Land pagans God commanded Israel to exterminate on account of their idolatry. You can read about it in Deuteronomy 20. The name Canaan belonged to the son of Ham, Noah’s youngest, whose sordid story you can read in Genesis 9. The ensuing “curse of Ham” provides the backdrop for the Deuteronomy edict, but in later centuries, the narrative was exploited as divine warrant for enslaving generations of dark-skinned Africans, arbitrarily labeled Ham’s descendants. In the eyes of most slave traders and missionaries, Africans were uncivilized Canaanites, dogs undeserving of mercy even from God. In the United States, few efforts were made to convert slaves to Christianity until the 18th century, and only then after it was guaranteed that baptism would not alter their status as “property.”
In context, it’s hard to read Matthew’s label of this party-crasher and not hear shrill racial overtones—nobody else in the New Testament ever gets called a Canaanite dog. That it comes from the mouth of Jesus will prove poetically and powerfully ironic, but not without first disturbing our sensibilities. Jesus acknowledges a stereotype that categorized the woman with the worst of outsiders, an enemy of Israel, cursed by God, marked by her color with no hope of anyone seeing her character. Ethicist Stacey Floyd-Thomas once preached how “black lives matter” may be as old as this encounter, though here, to everyone besides Jesus, the woman’s black life does not matter. And yet she persists, undaunted and relentless. “Her black life may not matter, but her black faith does.”