When the news of an extremist militia group’s failed plan to kidnap Governor Whitmer broke, I immediately connected the attempt in part to her status as a woman in power. Others who I talked to downplayed her gender, citing political reasons and the stay-at-home orders as to why this plot was hatched, and I fumed. Where were all the other failed kidnapping attempts of state governors who enacted strict restrictions to keep COVID at bay? Who would entertain kidnapping a man? And yet I am to believe that gender had no undercurrent in this plot?
I notice the erasure of gender again in a story worlds away from October 2020 and the concept of women in power—the Syrophoenician woman’s tale in Mark 7. It’s short, only about four verses. Jesus goes to a mostly Gentile area, Tyre, and a woman asks him to help her daughter who has been possessed by a demon. Jesus rejects her at first, saying that he has come to serve the children (Jewish people) first and not dogs (her). The woman, undeterred, extends Jesus’ metaphor—even dogs eat the scraps from under the table of the children. Jesus approves of her answer and tells her that her daughter has been healed. (Jesus does not explicitly cite her faith as the reason for this healing, contrary to some Bible subheaders’ opinions.)
Preachers have commented how the story celebrates the woman for her humbleness or how she is a living example of Jesus’ previous teaching—“clean” ideas from one who is “unclean.” Other articles cite Jesus’ outreach as another reason for preaching the gospel to all peoples. Still others highlight his shift from rejection to acceptance as proof that Jesus learns, a mark of his humanity. The woman becomes a vessel of meaning—for us, for Jesus.
I don’t buy this talk. Doesn’t it seem odd that a story of a woman challenging Jesus is told as an example of her humbleness rather than her courage? How come Jesus questioned this woman, almost like she needed to prove her worthiness of his time (similar to how he brought the woman who bled for twelve years to account)? When the synagogue leader’s daughter died, Jesus merely reassured Jairus to just believe. Gender brings another layer of complexity to this story, so why isn’t it even a footnote in interpretations?
Most times when I read stories of women in the Bible that make me uncomfortable, I am content to wave my hand and say, “It was the first century. I can’t expect writers and original readers to conceive of—let alone align with—current-day gender politics.” Sue Monk Kidd’s The Book of Longings challenged this thought. It revolves around Ana, the wife of Jesus. She rails at being betrothed to further his father’s ambitions. She takes joy in writing and dares to not want children, despite motherhood being the sole reason for her existence in the eyes of the world. She does housework but resents that it is not valued as much as her husband’s manual labor.
Ana reminds me that the idea that a woman is a complete person in and of herself is not a twenty-first-century invention. Kidd writes, “I saw Ana not only as the wife of Jesus, but as a woman with her own quest—that of following her longing in pursuit of the largeness inside herself.”
Perhaps she was not seen as complete two thousands years ago, but can’t we honor the Syrophoenician woman fully when we read her story today? Not to look at her as a representative of unreached people or the paragon of “knowing her place,” but simply as her? To recognize her desperation to heal her child, her willingness to look beyond her own culture, her longing for a faith that will feed her and see her, her sharp wit and courage to challenge a man who could do unspeakable things to her? She does not desire to be first—she has never been taught to consider herself first—but only included. Can we see a full human when we read this story rather than a faceless void to contort into whatever larger narrative our church ascribes to?
The familiar narrative thrust upon women in the Bible (and to an extent in life) is to see them only in service to someone else’s story, whether that be another man’s story, Jesus’ story, or the reader’s own faith story. But if we take a different view—acknowledge her identities, look towards largeness rather than erasure—perhaps we may find something different in the Syrophoenician woman’s words.
As I am reading the gospels, I am fitting together Jesus: the puzzle pieces of Sunday school answers from my youth and the stories I read now—his retreats to quiet places, orders to not speak of miracles, deliberate uses of parables to hinder understanding for all except the inner circle, and the cross. With every question and seeming paradox I find, I move towards a fuller picture of him.
I hope to fit together and trace the fullness of the women of the Bible too, even when they are nameless and their stories are brief. They were not just vessels of meaning; to paraphrase Kidd, they were a voice.
Alex Johnson (‘19) is a virtual computer science teacher and a proud resident of the Creston neighborhood in Grand Rapids. When she isn’t reading Young Adult fiction, she’s playing board games with her housemates, listening to podcasts, scrolling on education Twitter, and preaching the gospel of intentional community to anyone who will listen.