THE STORY OF YESHUA
by miriam berg
Phoenicia was a strip of coastal country at the eastern
end of the Mediterranean Sea, between the sea and the
Lebanon mountain range. The name comes from the Greek
word for "purple," because of a dye which was produced and
exported by the Phoenicians. The people themselves were
related to the Philistines who lived on the coast farther to
the south on the Egyptian border. These people had been
called the "Peoples of the Sea" by the Egyptians, since they
had invaded the coast in ships from the sea; probably they
were Greeks from the isle of Cyprus.
Phoenicia looms large in world history, despite the fact
that it is even smaller than Palestine, a narrow corridor
stretching only 100 miles from Tripolis to the north to
Mount Carmel in the south. But the Phoenicians are acclaimed
as the greatest seafarers of ancient times. They sailed as far
away as the islands of Britain to bring back tin ores for the
manufacture of bronze during the Bronze Age. They sailed even
further away to the continent of North America to bring back
iron ore for the manufacture of iron tools and weapons, as is
proved by the finding of more than one thousand Phoenician
implements in the iron mines of Pennsylvania. Even more important
than this, perhaps, they were the inventors of the alphabet, a
system of writing different from all others, in that the symbols
are phonetic instead of pictorial. All the alphabets in the world
are descended from this ancient Phoenician alphabet.
Sidon, or Saida which is its modern name, is the oldest
of the great Phoenician cities. It lies on the coastal
plain about 50 miles north of the sea of Galilee. It
was founded by the Peoples of the Sea about 1800 B.C.E. which
is also about the time of Abraham, the legendary ancestor of
the Hebrews. Today it has a population of about 25,000 and
is still an important city of Syria although its harbor has
gradually silted up over the centuries.
Tyre, or Tyrus as it was called by the Greeks, was
originally a colony of Sidon, founded about 1450 B.C.E.
It stands on an island off the coastal plain about 20
miles south of Sidon. Because of its island defenses, Tyre
was able to withstand David, and the Assyrian kings, and
Nebuchadrezzar himself, remaining unconquered until it fell
to Alexander the Macedonian in 332 B.C.E. It has a population
today of about 8,000.
There is a dynastic relationship between Tyre and Israel:
Ithobaal I was the king of Tyre in 860 B.C.E., and was the
father of Jezebel, the wife of Ahab of Israel who was fought
by Elijah over Yahvism. Jezebel's daughter Athaliah married
Jehoram of Judah who was the seventh king of the Davidic line; so
that Jezebel was the grandmother of Ahaziah, the next king over
Judah. Thus the king of Tyre became one of the ancestors of all
the succeeding kings of the Davidic dynasty.
It was to these cities that Yeshua came after leaving
Beth-Saida to avoid the pursuit of Herod. The gospels are not
clear on whether Yeshua visited Tyre or Sidon or both.
But at this point we might even think that Herod had won and
Yeshua had been defeated; Mark says that he stayed at a house
and didn't want anyone to know he was there, as if he was in
hiding. Mark finishes by saying that "he could not be hid"
because even the Phoenicians knew of his reputation and came
seeking him. Probably the disciples reported it in this bland
way because they did not understand that Yeshua was concerned
for his safety from Herod and for theirs as well. Everything in
the gospels shows them to have been none too bright.
Only one incident is recorded during Yeshua's stay in
Phoenicia. A woman came to him in his place of hiding and
pleaded with him to come and cure the mental disturbance
in her daughter. She is reported to have been a Syrophoenician
by race and for some reason Yeshua apparently refused at first.
This is surprising; earlier Mark told us that they came from
Idumea in the south and Tyre and Sidon in the north, having
heard of him, and he healed many. We have also heard how he
healed the servant of a Roman centurion and praised his faith.
What he probably said was something like this:
Why should you think I can cure your daughter,
when the Jews of my native Galilee have rejected me?
Should not the children of Israel first be fed?
Is it meet to take the bread from the children
and give it to the neighbors?
This is more consistent with his teachings, revealing the
great distress in his spirit at having fled Galilee. Again,
it was his later followers, who never grasped his full thinking,
who must have distorted his questions into the nationalistic
statement that it is not meet to throw the chidren's bread to
the dogs. Nonetheles whatever it was Yeshua said to her
at first, she did not take it ill, but responded playfully
Of course, rabbi; for even the pet dogs eat of the crumbs
which fall under the children's table.
Yeshua was moved by this; Matthew says that he told the
woman that her faith was great, as he had the centurion, and he
agreed to come with her to see what he could do for her daughter.
And he apparently did cure her, after seeing her and speaking
to her and calming her. But once again his later followers
exaggerated the tale to show that he healed her at a distance
merely by speaking a word.
Matthew reports Yeshua as saying to the woman when she first
came to him, "I was not sent but to the lost sheep of Israel."
Now this statement is consistent with the two earlier ones
which Matthew reported as part of the instructions to the
disciples for their tour, but is equally inconsistent with all
of his other teaching. Possibly the phrases about the "lost
sheep" grew out of his quotation from the books of Numbers and
Ezekiel, that the people appeared to him like sheep without a
shepherd, especially after the death of Yohanan, who had been
their great shepherd. Or else Yeshua realized that he had first
to reach all of his own countrymen before he could expect to
convince any other peoples.
I do not think, however, that Yeshua meant to stay
in Tyre permanently, nor to exile himself from Galilee. Probably
he needed time to take stock of his mission and to think
out his next steps, as well as to defuse the friction which he
had aroused in Herod and the religious leaders. No more could
he have deserted his eager followers forever than Socrates
could have accepted banishment from Athens, going abroad, as he
put it, in order that he might get a dinner. So, although we do
not hear any more about his stay in Phoenicia, we can be sure
that he was merely biding his time, waiting until he was sure
that it was time for him to return and recommence his teaching.