The passage below raises two questions in my mind but I suspect they both have the same answer. My questions are:

  1. Why did Jesus at first refuse to speak to the Canaanite woman? We know He had no problem crossing gender and racial barriers, as seen e.g. in The Woman at the Well (John 4:1-42).
  2. Why did He refer to her (and presumably all Canaanites and probably all Gentiles) as "dogs"? I say that He was referring to all Gentiles because He contrasted helping her with Israel, when He said, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel."

Matthew 15:21-28

Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.”

Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.

He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”

“Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.

(This story is also related in Mark 7:24-30.)

  • 2
    As stated in the text he did say he was only there to help Israel, however he may have refereed to her and all Canaanites as dogs for the way that society as a whole behaved. She had to prove herself in order to receive help in that passage.
    – Nick122
    Commented Sep 14, 2011 at 21:16
  • I'm flagging this question for closure per more recent topicality guidelines. Commented Dec 22, 2017 at 18:44

5 Answers 5


Jesus is the king of metaphors. This reference was not meant as an insult.

To quote from Life Application Study Bible in reference to Matthew 15:24:

Jesus' words do not contradict the truth that God's message is for all people. After all, when Jesus said these words, He was in Gentile territory on a mission to Gentile people. He ministered to Gentiles on many other occasions also. Jesus was simply telling the woman that Jews were to have the first opportunity to accept Him as the Messiah because God wanted them to present the message of salvation to the rest of the world. Jesus was not rejecting the Gentile woman. He may have wanted to test her faith, or He may have wanted to use the situation as another opportunity to teach that faith is available to all people.

Had she taken what He said as an insult, as it may sound to us today, her faith would have been damaged and her daughter would not have been healed. It is obvious that she understood His reference as nothing more than a metaphor. Much the same as we are referred to as sheep.


It was an insult, but also a challenge. As one of the Fathers said, if you wish to test a man for pride, see if he can bear insult. It is important to consider that to the Jews of that time, Gentiles were 'dogs': they did not keep the law or even have the law, so they, like dogs, not only lived uncleanly but did not have the understanding (because they lacked the law) to even act in accordance with God's will, and thus were 'bestial'.

It demonstrated that true faith, as this woman had, was not barred by racism, phyletism, prejudice, class division, or any other thing. In his ironic use (given that he knew, as God, that she would overcome the insult) of this slur, he demonstrates that 'in him there is no Jew or Gentile, but all are one.'

My wife added this:

It was a compliment, because God knew beforehand she could bear the insult. If she would have been 'offended' and turn away, he would never have used the slur.

  • The Jews used "dogs" as a common insult, referencing wild dogs. Jesus' reference was different, giving a picture of children's pets around the dinner table. While Jesus was making a strong statement about the relationship between the gentiles, the Jews, and himself, it was not an insulting one. Commented Apr 6, 2012 at 15:50
  • Jesus did not use the picture of the children's pets, he merely used the term dogs. It was the woman who made the connection.
    – user304
    Commented Apr 8, 2012 at 1:19
  • Young's literal shows Jesus using little dogs as well, though many of the other translations do not. I see wild dogs as being so different that to associate them with pets would be ridiculous. More importantly, I find it really hard to believe Jesus insulting someone like this. When he did insult people, he was very clear about it, like with the Pharisees. Commented Apr 9, 2012 at 16:07
  • God doesn't have to answer to men for using an insult to show forth the faith of a woman.
    – user304
    Commented Apr 9, 2012 at 18:45
  • We do have to answer to him for proper interpretation and for dishonoring him, though. Commented Apr 10, 2012 at 19:47

Jesus had just finished using sheep as an illustration when talking with his Jewish disciples - an illustration that they would understand. I doubt Jewish people of that day typically kept dogs as pets. Yet when talking with a woman whose culture evidently did keep dogs as pets, he uses it as an illustration, not to drive her away, but to communicate effectively with her. His comments leave her thinking of all the times she had told her young daughter, now suffering with no other remedy in sight but Christ's healing, not to sneak food off the table for her puppy. The woman seemed to understand that he, as the child of the Heavenly Father, was not to change his focus from accomplishing what he came to do, in order to dedicate his time to reach Gentile populations. Yet she reminded him that his work would inevitably have a spillover effect for good on all gentiles around (praise God for that!). She seemed in no wise belittled by his illustration using pets, nor am I.


I disagree with all above interpretations.

Jesus was very wise and obviously familiar with the Greek culture which still extended into his territory of Nazareth and environs. In Greek culture, being a dog wasn't an insult, but rather what we label today as a skeptic. As such, Jesus is simply making the distinction in this passage between the Children of Israel and the Gentiles in the sense that the Children of Israel are chosen and their religion expects them to believe in the Jewish God;

However, the gentiles of which this woman was, are assumed not to believe in the Jewish God, as after all they were not Jewish. It is this reasoning Jesus follows, and the word dog might make more sense if you yused the modern synonym to the Greek Gospel for "Dog" and contemplated it as "skeptics".

In Jesus' wisdom he was impressed by the humility and thoughtfulness of this woman, who rather than affirm she was a skeptic, was very clever in flipping it right back to Jesus by herself making use of the double meaning and basically demonstrating her faith in him as Master by her tenacity and subsequent witty reply. She affirms she is a believer, and even if he wishes to call her a skeptic, her words say otherwise as she puts her faith in Him and lets Him call her however he wishes without complaint.

This is typical of Jesus' own path and those who follow.

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    Welcome to C.SE! Could you please source your claims? Thanks! Commented Mar 27, 2013 at 3:09
  • Personal interpretation requires validation. Maybe instead of skeptic it's cynic; perhaps dogs were generally thought of as insulting, except to cynicism, contemporary to Jesus and in many striking ways similar. Wiki: "Cynic" derives from Ancient Greek κυνικός (kynikos), meaning "dog-like", and κύων (kyôn), meaning "dog" (genitive: kynos). Appears in Greek Koine 16th Century Bible: 26 ο δε αποκριθεις ειπεν ουκ εστιν καλον λαβειν τον αρτον των τεκνων και βαλειν τοις κυναριοις 27 η δε ειπεν ναι κυριε και γαρ τα κυναρια εσθιει απο των ψιχιων των πιπτοντων απο της τραπεζης των κυριων αυτων
    – Hello
    Commented Mar 27, 2013 at 6:52

Firstly, if it is of any consolation, he did not call her dog in an insulting sense as kuōn G2965 (Matt 7:6) "do not give what is holy to dogs"; but the word used here is kunarion G2952 can be translated as pet dogs or little dogs.

The the reason why Jesus and the apostles uses such language is due to the particular cultural norm; It may appear racist insult to someone in today's time but it was the general understanding of Jews concerning pagans. The Canaanite woman was a pagan as opposed to Samaritan woman who was a half-breed. The incidents show that Jesus was kind and compassionate towards pagans and women compared with other religious Jews.

On John 4:7 Charles Ellicot comments

Josephus spoke of this as the customary way of the Galileans going up during the feasts at Jerusalem (Ant. xx. 6, § 1). The Pharisees, indeed, took the longer road through Peræa, to avoid contact with the country and people of Samaria, but it is within the purpose of His life and work (“needs go,” i.e., was necessary that He should go) to teach in Samaria, as in Judæa, the principles of true religion and worship, which would cut away the foundations of all local jealousies and feuds, and establish for all nations the spiritual service of the universal Father (Joh. 4:21-24).

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