In Jesus’ conversation with the Phoenician woman in Matthew 15:21-28, and Mark 7:24-30, she asked him to exorcise the demon from her daughter and he says that the children’s (Israel’s) bread should not go to the dogs (Gentiles). Critics see this as Jesus insulting the woman’s daughter by calling her a dog. It’s true that calling someone a “dog” was a common insult in the Ancient Near East and dogs are even considered unclean in some cultures. The linguistic and the larger literary context of Jesus’s meeting with the Syro-Phoenician women in Matthew 15 and Mark 7 shows that this is not actually the case here. The greek text uses the word κυνάριον (kunarion) which is a little dog or pet dog. Some parts of the bible reference a wild dog or κύων (kuón) in the greek, which is used as an insult when not referring to a literal dog. Since he uses the former, he is calling her daughter a pet puppy (a beloved member of the family), in comparison to the children of Israel. She knows this and still believes he will help her and he does.
Jesus has never objected to helping Gentiles before. He often did so without any fuss. For example, the Roman centurion who caused Jesus to marvel as his faith (Matt 8:5-13), and the men with the legion of demons in Matt 8:28-34 and Mark 5:1-20. In fact, after visiting the Phoenician woman near Tyre in Syria, he goes to Sidon (also in Syria) and heals a deaf man (Mark 7:31-37). Then he returns to Galilee and goes to Decapolis east of the Jordan river (the legion of demons was previously cast out in this area), and he ministers to Gentiles. Here he feeds 4000 families with seven loaves and a few fish (Matt 15: 32-39, Mark 8:1-10). This is similar to what he does for the 5000 Jewish families in Galilee with the five loaves and two fish. Note, the second time they go the Decapolis, the people were more welcoming. Previously when he exorcised the legion of demons they told him to leave out of fear, but the former possessed men stayed behind to testify about their deliverance as Jesus instructed. In addition, there was the Samaritan woman at the well who was one of the few people he told directly outside of his disciples that he was the Messiah (John 4:21-30). Usually, he kept it a secret and he even silenced demon-possessed people who were always trying to spoil his ministry by revealing who he was too early (Mark 1:21-28, Mark 3:11-12).
So why did he say all this about dogs taking the children’s bread with this one Gentile woman? He was teaching a larger lesson to the disciples about Gentiles and preparing them for the future when they will minister to Gentiles. Jesus came for the Jew first because he was the promised Messiah in their covenant with God, as explained by their scriptures (the Tanakh), meaning only they were expecting him. After the Jews, the Gospel was to spread to the Gentile nations because Jesus says, “go and teach all nations.” (Matt 28:18-20). In the Tanakh, it was promised that through Abraham that all nations would be blessed (Gen 12:1-3). This blessing comes from the promised seed of the woman (the messiah), who will bruise the serpent’s (Satan’s) head in Gen 3:15.
Notice the disciples and Jesus left the region of Galilee in the nation of Israel just to take care of a few gentiles in Syria, which is a whole different country. This shows that there is a larger purpose for all of this. I’m sure there were plenty of possessed people in Judah, Samaria, and Galilee. He went out of his way to leave the nation of Israel for a few people. It’s like what he says in the parable about the lost sheep (Matthew 18: 10–14). In the parable, Jesus says, if a shepherd has 100 sheep and one of them escapes, the good shepherd will leave the 99 to go after the one. Jesus left Israel to deal with these few gentiles in Syria, then went to Decapolis east of the Jordan River, to take care of some more Gentiles. As you can see Jesus said that he came for the Jews first (to give the children bread), yet he still went out of his way to help Gentiles (the little dogs that eat scraps from under the master’s table).
Now the linguistics, the Greek words used in Matthew 15:21-28 and Mark 7:24-30 for a dog that is used, is the in diminutive sense (describing the young or small) rather than the pejorative sense (insulting) like it is in other passages in the New Testament and Septuagint. This word is κύων (kuón) which means dog as in a wild or stray dog; an “unclean dog” is the most common usage of “dog” in scripture. Such uses of the word dog can be found in Matt 7:6, Luke 16:21, Philippians 3:2, 2 Peter 2:22, and Revelation 22:15. However in Matthew 15:21-28, and Mark 7:24-30 the word that is simply translated as a dog in some English translations is κυνάριον (kunarion) which means a little dog or pet dog, and in some cases κυνίδιον (kunídion) which means a puppy. A household dog is not classified the same way as a wild or stray dog, so it is not an insult.
Jesus is not insulting her daughter, he is making a distinction of the relationship with God between Jew and Gentile in the old covenant. He was simply reiterating that the Jews were first because they had the covenant right to be first, he never showed any contempt for the women like his disciples, who tried to shoo her away when she asked for help (Matt 15:23), nor did he show any intention to deny her request. He was teaching a larger lesson to the disciples about Gentiles and preparing them for the future when they will minister to Gentiles. Before he went to Tyre, Jesus scolded the Pharisees for teaching man-made traditions as if they were commands from God. This was in reference to “Netilat Yadayim” or ritual hand washing, which is something Pharisees added in the Talmud, so it is not in the Tanakh (Old Testament). Then he said “what you eat does not defile you”, but what comes out of your heart can defile you (Matt 15:10-20, Mark 7:9-20). This was a reference to the kosher food laws which is one of the things that distinguished Jews from Gentiles. Jesus was making a point that under the old covenant the Jews came first because only they had the covenant but in the new covenant the people of God will include Gentiles.
This is why in Acts 10 before God sends Peter to the Gentile Cornelius to minister to him so he could receive the holy spirit, God shows Peter a vision of unclean food. Even though he is hungry Peter rejects the food because they are unclean animals. God responds by saying, “Do not call something unclean if God has made it clean” (Acts 10:15). Then God sends him with Cornelius’ servants to minister to him. Afterward, Cornelius’ household gets saved and receives the holy spirit, and Peter realizes that this salvation that Jesus paid for includes the Gentiles as they are. In Acts 11 Peter informs all the other messianic Jews, who criticized him for going into a Gentile’s house, that Gentiles are to be included in the convent as they are (no need for circumcision or kosher food diets) since they received the holy spirit. The others received what he said when they heard the testimony of Cornelius. In Acts 10:15 God was reminding Peter of what Jesus said in Matt 15:10-11, and Jesus’ interaction with the Phoenician woman, so that he could see that in the new covenant a person is not defined by what they eat or whether or not they are related to Abraham or not. Instead, all can receive the Holy Spirit of God and be saved without converting to Judaism. The full revelation of this came in Acts chapters 10 and 11, but the lesson started in Matthew 15 (and Mark 7).
The back-forth conversation with this woman was simply a learning opportunity for his disciples. He said what he said, to showcase the Gentile woman’s faith, and despite the fact that she had no covenant with the God of Abraham, she believed in the Jewish messiah. Her response is the ultimate purpose for why Jesus said what he said about dogs and children. It indicated to his disciples and future messianic Jewish believers that even the Gentiles who have faith would be a part of the Kingdom. Abraham was not a Jew/Israelite nor under the Sinaitic covenant, because the Israelites and Moses were not born yet, but as a non-Jew, he was counted as righteous because of his faith (Genesis 15:6). Likewise, Job was a non-Jew living in the land of Uz but was also counted as righteous. The same is true for a few others in the old testament like Ruth (a Moabite widow), and Rahab (the Canaanite prostitute), both of whom married into the family of Israel and are ancestors of Jesus. In Rom 1:17, Paul quoted Hab 2:4, when he said “the righteous [or just] live by faith”. Therefore, faith counts as righteousness more than heritage and ritual purity. That is what Jesus’s point was in the previous verses. Gentiles were ritually impure in the old covenant, so in Matt 15:16-20 and Mark 7:19-23, Jesus made a point to distinguish ritual impurity laws (kosher food laws, circumcision, etc) from moral impurity laws (stealing, adultery, murder, lying, etc). Then he goes to Tyre to meet the Syro-Phoenician woman and continues this lesson with his disciples in person.
The lesson is that she may be ritually impure now, but under the new covenant, she will be a sister in the Kingdom because of her faith. Her status as ceremonially unclean is because she is a gentile (a non-jew), and points that out using his analogy of children and pet dogs, but like he tells the Samarian woman in John 4:19-24 it ultimately won’t matter in the new covenant because we will worship God in “Spirit and a Truth”, so he heals her daughter anyway. He called her daughter a little dog to illustrate the covenant comparison. In other words despite the fact that the new covenant doesn’t start until after the resurrection of Jesus, God still shows mercy to these faithful Gentiles because faith is the ultimate qualifier of God’s mercy, grace, and promises. The new covenant isn’t based on whether or not we are related to Abraham, it is based on faith in the God of Abraham and his son the Messiah Jesus himself. Sometimes God has a back-forth conversation that seems insulting or contradicting in order to reveal something deeper. Similar extrapolations can be made about the conversation with Moses about destroying the Israelites and starting over Exodus 32. You can read about those here.
More info on the linguistic context of that scene:
Larry Hurtado’s Blog
Another view of that scenario:
Priscilla Paper’s Academy Journal