Sexism in the Bible: Mark 7:24-30

Mark 7:24-30 text.

Although unknown, the author of the Gospel of Mark was almost undoubtedly a male, just like the rest of Biblical authors are assumed to be.  By using the feminist method of Biblical criticism, we can closely examine how the author, both explicitly and implicitly, views women.  Living in an extremely patriarchal society, the author clearly displays the sexism that was so common in the era, and so common throughout the Bible itself.  This negative view of women is especially exposed in the passage of Mark 7:24-30, in which Jesus interacts with a Syrophoenician Gentile woman.

The woman is almost immediately shown as weak and submissive: “She came and bowed down at his feet” and “begged” Jesus to cast the demon out of her daughter.  The author describes the woman bowing down even before revealing her as a Syrophoenician Gentile.  Her being a Gentile is arguably much more important and relevant to the purpose of the passage, but still the author emphasizes how submissive the woman is first and foremost.

Even Jesus himself appears to be relatively sexist, at least by today’s standards.  Already attempting to avoid other people, Jesus is in no way eager to help the woman.  The author’s wording, that Jesus “could not escape”, seems to imply that the woman’s attention is very unwelcome.  The first words he says to the woman are not exactly encouraging: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

“The children” that Jesus refers to are the Jews, or the children of God.  “The dogs” that Jesus refers to are the Gentiles, including the woman and her possessed daughter.  Without focusing on the feminist issues, this quote seems to note that the Jews, “the children”, deserve to be saved first, to “be fed first”, rather than saving the Gentiles, “the dogs”.

Notice that the “dogs” are the woman and her daughter.  Again, the one in need, the daughter with “an unclean spirit”, is a female.  Not only is the woman’s daughter possessed, not only are they Gentiles, but, to top it all off, they are females – the very essence of weakness and dependence, in the author’s eyes at least.

In her response to Jesus’ “dogs” comment, the woman is again presented as submissive.  Not only does the woman still address Jesus respectfully, she seems to accept her description as a “dog.”  She replied to Jesus, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

Finally, after continually begging and pleading, Jesus helped the woman, saying to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”  And when the woman went home, her daughter had been healed.  It should be noticed that Jesus didn’t directly and personally exorcise the daughter’s demon, as his practice usually was.  Instead, Jesus reluctantly drove the demon out of the Gentile daughter from a distance, showing his lack of regard for non-Jews.

Throughout the entire story, the woman is described as submissive, a Gentile of Syrophoenician origin, and even a dog.  Never, however, is she, or her daughter, addressed by name (whatever it may have been).  The women are a composition of stereotypes – weak and submissive women, dog-like Syrophoenician Gentiles – rather than individuals worthy of respect.

Yes, Jesus did eventually grant the woman’s request, which is often interpreted as Jesus extending his holy message to the ‘lowest of the lows’, so to speak.  Jesus’ mission was not only to God’s people, the Jews, but also poor, weak Gentile women from various places.  By the standards of the time, this passage could therefore be seen as liberating for women; God’s grace was available to them too.

However, as the Bible is arguably the most influential book still today, we must interpret the passage through our modern point of view.  Sure, Jesus did help her in the end, but that doesn’t make up for the author’s characterization of the woman.  She was a stereotypical woman, weak and submissive.  She was a stereotypical Gentile, undeserving of respect, refusing to stand up for herself even after being inexcusably referred to as a “dog” by Jesus.  Using the feminist method of Biblical criticism, I can only conclude that the passage of Mark 7:24-30, like much of the Bible, is extremely dangerous for women in today’s society.

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