Last time, we left Jesus in Gennesaret as reported in Matthew 14 and Mark 6. In both accounts, the following chapter begins with encounters between Jesus, Pharisees, the people, and His disciples.
The text doesn’t tell us where these exchanges took place. Logically, these things probably happened in Capernaum, although we aren’t told. The next geographic information we are given is a bit of a surprise:
Jesus went out from there and withdrew into the region of Tyre and Sidon. (Matthew 15:21, cf Mark 7:24)
Gennesaret was a rather obscure place. Tyre and Sidon were not. Each are mentioned about 50 times in the Old and New Testaments. Both were in the region of Syria. (Specifically, they are located in what today is the modern nation of Lebanon.) This is the only time recorded in the Gospels when Jesus’ ministry took him beyond the borders of Israel, into a distinctly Gentile territory.
It is worth spending a few minutes looking at this region. The region of Syria is along the northeastern coast of the Mediterranean, just north of Israel. You may recall stories from David and Solomon’s reigns that at least hinted at the seagoing strength of Tyre, and the abundance of cedar wood from the nearby forests of Lebanon.
Tyre reached its peak of power during the period of Phoenician independence (1200-800 BC) which included David and Solomon’s time. But you’ll also recognize the names of other major people groups that dwelt in Syria over the centuries: including the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites.
In fact, just like Israel, Syria is on the natural route connecting Africa, Europe, and Asia. All of the major ancient empires swept through this region: Babylon, Egypt, Assyria, Chaldea, Persia, Greece, and Rome. And many of these confrontations are reported for us in the Old Testament.
So, the region of Tyre and Sidon was militarily and politically strategic, and at times it was a great power, but it was not good. In 1 Kings 11:1 we read that Solomon took a Sidonian wife, and a few verses later we read:
For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. (1 Kings 11:5)
So Solomon’s wife from Sidon likely played a key role in Solomon’s backsliding.
It is also worth noting that in 1 Kings 16 we read of King Ahab:
As if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, he took as wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal, and worshiped him. 32 He raised up an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he had built in Samaria. 33 Ahab made the Asherah; and Ahab did more yet to provoke Yahweh, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him. (1 Kings 16:31-33)
And so, I find it surprising that Jesus would pick this place to visit in the middle of his active years of ministry. We aren’t told why Jesus went to the region of Tyre and Sidon and we only read of one encounter that Jesus had there.
A woman described as “a Greek, a Syrophoenician by race” (in other words a Greek speaking Gentile from Syria/Phoenicia). She asks Jesus to heal her daughter, but his response indicates that His blessings are only for the Jews. Her wise, humble, and faithful response earns His respect.
Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Be it done to you even as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that hour. (Matthew 15:28)
I myself am a Gentile by birth. I thank God that He has given us this picture of Jesus’ mercy on a Gentile with faith. Even more, I am eternally grateful for God’s mercy to me in His gift of faith that I may be grafted in to His kingdom!
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Note: all scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the World English Bible which is in the public domain.