I remember a few years ago I watched the movie The Machinist, starring Christian Bale. I thought it explored some interesting issues, and I later went online to see what people were saying about it. I encountered one online forum in which someone suggested that he had found a mistake in the film: the clock appeared to be showing exactly the same time at different times of day in the film. Now, the observation was correct, but the assertion that it was a mistake betrayed the fact that this person had missed what the film was trying to do with that motif: the viewer was supposed to be provoked by this apparent problem to look deeper into what was happening within the movie.
I think the same thing can happen with the Bible. I’m currently thinking about Mark’s interaction with the Syrophoenician woman, and pondering why Mark includes this episode. Here are some of the numerous questions I’m currently thinking about:
- Why did Jesus go to Tyre in the first place? To get a break? But he already knew there were people in this region who were interested in him (3:6-12) To reach the Gentiles? But he had already done this decisively in the Decapolis (5:1). Because of an impulse to follow the ministries of Elijah/Elisha? If so, why? To escape Herod Antipas?
- Why does Jesus initially rebuff the woman? Because he is not convinced that it is time to go to the ‘unclean’ Gentiles? But he has already intentionally gone to the uncleanest unclean Gentile imaginable – a bleeding, grave-dwelling, pig-lover in the Decapolis! And he willingly cleansed him. Is it because he can’t imagine opening his healing ministry to the child of a Canaanite woman? But this would not have been a shocking thing for a Jew: Elijah had done exactly this in exactly the same area – a fact which Jesus elsewhere explicitly approves at the beginning of his ministry (Luke 4:25-26). Is it in order to engender a response that he wishes to hear? If so, why?
- Why mention that when Jesus leaves Tyre, he goes to the Sea of Galilee via Sidon? This is clearly the complete wrong direction.
I have a few hunches about some of these questions, but I’m still thinking them through. I had a browse online to see what other people are saying, and I found some similar comments to those I found about The Machinist: ‘Aha! Mark has made a mistake! He thinks Sidon is on the way to the Sea of Galilee!’ But as a master storyteller, couldn’t it be that Mark is doing something similar to the director of that movie? Perhaps he’s provoking the reader, causing us to ask, ‘What, why go to this classic Gentile duo of Tyre and Sidon??’ It might be that by paying attention to apparent anomalies like these that we will attune ourselves to what Mark wants us to see in Jesus’ ministry.