From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre.He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’ And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’
Translation: But from there, he arose (and) went into the region of Tyre, and he entered into a house (and) and definitely did not want anyone to know, and he was surely not able to be hidden. But immediately, a woman, whose daughter had an unclean spirit, heard about him. She came in (and) fell down to his feet. But the woman was Greek, syrophoenician by descent. And she was asking him that the demon might be thrown out of her daughter. He said to her, "Let the children first be filled for it is not good to take the children's bread and throw to the little dogs." But she answered and said to him, "Yes Lord, and the little dogs under the table eat from the children's crumbs." And he said to her, "Because of this word, go. The demon has gone out, out of your daughter." And when she went into her home, she found the child had laid upon the bed and the demon had gone out.
And again, going out of the region of Tyre, he went through Sidon, to the Sea of Galilee, to the midst of the region of Decapolis. And they brought to him a deaf man who had a speech impediment and they beseech him that he might place the hand on him. And he took him from the crowd by himself and thrust the fingers into his ears and he spat (and) touched his tongue. And he looked into heaven (and) he groaned, and he said to him, "'Ephphatha'--that is, 'be opened'." And his ears were opened, and immediately, the bond of his tongue was released, and he was speaking plainly. And he commanded them that they might speak to no one, but as much as he commanded them, the more greatly they were proclaiming. And they were being amazed beyond measure, saying, "He has done all things well, and he makes the deaf to hear, and the speechless to speak."
Background and situation: Chapter 7 is situated between the feeding story of Mark 6, which takes place on the Jewish side of the Sea of Galilee, and the feeding story of Mark 8, which takes place on the gentile side. The purpose of the two feeding stories is to incorporate both Jews and gentiles into the New Community. They are "one bread" (8:14).
The gentile markers of the text are strong. Jesus is in the region of Tyre, a city originally founded by phoenicians, and which is located on the Mediterranean Sea northwest of the Sea of Galilee.
Tyre was a large and important port city. From Tyre, goods from the east made their way into the Roman Empire. Its major rival was Alexandria, founded by Alexander the (so-called) Great c. 325 BC, just after he had decimated Tyre. In the three hundred years since, Tyre had bounced back. It continued to have one of the best harbors on the Mediterranean.
The syro-phoenician woman: The lection begins by noting that Jesus "definitely did not want" anyone to know he was in the region of Tyre. At the same time, he was "surely not" able to be hidden. This indicates both that Jesus is attempting to operate "under the radar" and also that, nevertheless, word about him had spread even into the Roman province of Syria. (The syrophoenician woman had "heard" of him (7:25).)
Not only is Jesus in a gentile region, but the woman who approaches him is identified both as Greek and syrophoenician. After Alexander conquered the region, many of his soldiers were granted land and farms as the spoils of war. After Alexander's death, governance of the region passed to one of his generals, Seleucis. The combination of conquest and subsequent governance brought with it the settlement of many Greeks.
The Roman general, Pompey, conquered the region in 64 BC, whereupon it became the Roman province of "Syria." As had happened following Alexander's conquest, retired Roman soldiers settled there after Pompey's conquest. (The locals, remembering Pompey's conquest, sided with Julius Caesar against Pompey during the Roman civil war.)
The designation of "phoenician" recalls the region's Canaanite past. Some scholars believe the phoenicians were the original Canaanites. Others say these "sea people" came from somewhere else, established various cities, including Tyre, and intermarried with the local population.
The close association between "phoenician" and "Canaanite" can be seen in the gospel of Matthew. In his telling of this same story, Matthew changes "syrophoenician" to "Canaanite."
In sum, this Greek/syrophoenician woman is associated with three major enemies of Israel--the Canaanites, the Greeks, and the Romans. Not only is she a gentile, but she is a foreigner, a "triple enemy," and a woman. This story pushes the boundary geographically, ethnically, and sexually.
Like Jairus had in chapter 5, the syrophoenician woman falls at Jesus' feet. This was an appropriate gesture for Jairus, but not for the woman. Women were not to approach men in such a bold manner, especially when they were in a home (7:24), and especially not if the woman was gentile.
The woman asks Jesus to "throw out" the demon from her daughter. Jesus responds, "Let the children first be filled for it is not good to take the children's bread and throw to the little dogs." (Among Jews of that time, "dogs" was a not uncommon designation for gentiles.)
The statement indicates the Jewish priority first stated by Paul in Romans 1:16--"...the Jew first, and also to the Greek." (All of Paul's writings came before the earliest gospel. Personally speaking, I see several Pauline traces in Mark.)
The woman has been put in her place, but she won't stay there. Not only has she breached proper etiquette by approaching Jesus, she compounds the breach by arguing with him. This was not done.
She replies, "Yes Lord, and the little dogs under the table eat from the children's crumbs." She grants Jewish priority, but argues for gentile inclusion as well.
To buttress that last point, when Jesus speaks of "children," the word teknon is used, which refers to "biological children." The woman speaks of paidion, another word for "children," but a more inclusive one; it could include the entire household, including slaves.
In an astonishing turnabout, Jesus agrees with the woman and grants her request. Note also that Jesus doesn't say anything about the woman's faith being the trigger for the exorcism. Rather, it is her argument that he applauds--"because of this word, go" (dia touton ton logon upage).
Thus, it may fairly be said that the only time in scripture that Jesus loses an argument, he loses it to a foreign woman identified with three enemies of his people. This is a stunning development.
Isaiah is fulfilled: Jesus then travels by way of Sidon toward the region of the decapolis. Sidon was north of Tyre, and was another important, and ancient, phoenician city. It had a close association with the pagan goddess, Astarte.
The decapolis--literally, "ten cities"--was a region to the southeast of the Sea of Galilee. To go from Tyre to the decapolis by way of Sidon would be like going from Denver to Colorado Springs by way of Boulder. This is historically unlikely, but history is not Mark's point. Mark wants to underline that Jesus is travelling widely through gentile territory. (The cities of the decapolis were all Greek in origin.)
An unidentified "they" brings a deaf man with a speech impediment to Jesus. A "crowd" is also mentioned, but Jesus takes the man away from people and they go off by themselves (kat' idian).
The healing is strikingly personal. Jesus "thrust" (ebalen) his fingers into the man's ears, then spit, presumably onto his own hands, and touched the man's tongue. This, of course, was a serious abrogation of the purity laws. Saliva was a contaminant.
The story is earthy and physical. Perhaps it should not surprise us that the tone of the story also seems even somewhat sacramental. As he was touching this man in such a personal and physical way, Jesus "looked into heaven" and "groaned." The word is estenaxen, "groaning of persons in distress." (The NRSV's "sighed" seems lame.)
This underlines the drama of the scene and emphasizes Jesus' solidarity with those in pain and distress at their plight. Perhaps it was this down-to-earth sacramental quality which prompted the early church to incorporate saliva, along with the word ephphatha, in the liturgy for the sacrament of baptism.
The passage ends with the exclamatory statement: "He has done all things well, and he makes the deaf to hear, and the speechless to speak." Is there a whisper of Genesis here? Genesis 1:31: "God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good." The latter part of the sentence, "the deaf to hear and the speechless to speak," clearly draws upon Isaiah 35: 5-6: "...the ears of the deaf unstopped...the tongue of the speechless sing for joy."
The word translated here as "speech impediment"--mogilalos--is quite rare. It is used only here in the entire New Testament, and also only one time in the Greek version of Isaiah 35:6. What is Mark saying? The Messianic age spoken by Isaiah has arrived!
Ephphatha: Today's lection is the second of three Markan episodes in which Jesus is quoted in the Aramaic language. The first, talitha cum, was in the story of the raising of Jairus' daughter (5:41). Talitha cum means "rise up, little girl." The word translated as "rise up" is the same one that is used in telling of Jesus' resurrection.
The final one is 15:35: "Eloi, eloi, lama sabachtani"--"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" The Aramaic calls attention to Jesus' sense of abandonment at the cross. The theology of the cross is a major theme of Mark's gospel. (It's not for nothing that Mark is sometimes called the "most Lutheran" of the four gospels.)
The cross hangs over everything in Mark. The resurrection account is noticeably sparse at least partly, in my view, because Mark doesn't want to take too much attention away from the cross. Even then, the reader will notice that the resurrection is of "the crucified" (16:6).
What is the significance of ephphatha? The imperative--"be opened"--sets the psychological stage, if you will, for the inclusion of the gentiles in chapter 8. When he had fed the 5000 in chapter six, he was on the Jewish side of the lake, and 12 baskets were left over. When he will feed the 4000 in chapter 8, it is in a gentile region and there are 7 baskets left over--the number 7 is the number for completion, perfection, universality. The two events, taken together, announce and exalt the reconciliation of both Jews and gentiles and their full incorporation into the New Community.
The broadening of heart and mind to include the "Other" is one of the most difficult psychological manuevers there is. We project what we don't like in ourselves on to the "Other." We tend to see the "Other" as less than us, not as fully human, sometimes not even as loved by God.
This, in my view, is the importance of ephphatha. Jesus is saying: Open your hearts and minds! My New Community includes both Jews and gentiles!
One final note: The syrophoenician woman "heard". The deaf and mute man now "hears" and "speaks." Neither of these people is named. Shortly, in 8:18, Jesus will accuse his own disciples of not hearing: "Do you have ears, and fail to hear?"
This is yet another case in which the disciples do. not. get. it. They do not "hear," but the anonymous man and the anonymous woman do!
Image: Jesus and the syro-phoenician woman, David Croker