The Bible and Critical Theory, Vol 1, No 4 (2005)

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When a Woman is a Dog: Ancient and Modern Ethology Meet the Syrophoenician Women

Alan H. Cadwallader


Interpretation of the story of the Syrophoenician women (Mk 7:24-30) has focussed on an analysis of “word” – either the word of Jesus or the word of the woman. Absent from this interpretation is a recognition of the use of the bestial, that is the irrational, for abuse, especially in a gendered context. Moreover the dissonance between the description of a woman as a dog and the affirmation that she has spoken logos has remained unrecognised. The use of animal comparisons to describe human behaviour has an ancient pedigree and has been revived under the formal research label of “ethology”. This paper explores the key emphases of modern ethology, noting its ancient dependencies and its potential, when critically analysed (especially by feminist theory) for a new interpretation of the story of the Syrophoenician women. The survey of ethology highlights the significance attached to the dimorphism of gender, a differentiation that is executed upon the “site” of the child. Particular characteristics and derived responsibilities are held to attach to male and female, related to the survival of the species in terms of reproduction, territorial defence, food provision and protection. The application to the story reveals long overlooked elements of bodily initiative that relativise the position of logos and signal the daughter’s wordless role in the final verse as the key to the whole pericope.

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Bible and Critical Theory: ISSN 1832-3391