In today’s reading, we have two contradicting narratives about Cana. The first reading (Numbers 13.1-2, 25-33; 14.1-2b, 26-29, 34-35) presents Cana as a land that flows “with milk and honey”. And in the Gospel (Matthew 15.21-28), Jesus describes the Canaanite women in derogatory terms.
“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Of course, Jesus used an idiomatic expression with nothing offensive in itself. However, the Gospel of today begs to question whether Cana is still the promised land (the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites) or this despised or at least contested territory of the New Testament.
Undoubtedly, in John’s Gospel, Cana occupies a crucial place in Jesus’ ministry. There, he performed his first miracle, John 2:1, 3, 7-9, and healed the son of a nobleman, John 4:46-47, 50. Intriguingly, we know that Nathaniel, “the true Israelite”, was a Canaanite, John 21:1-2.
So, if Nathanael the Canaanite was the true Israelite, why is Jesus denying this Canaanite woman her right? “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Anyway, that’s not my point today. My point of interest is, how can anyone justify the inversion of Cana by the Israelites? How can we read the narrative of God’s authorisation to invade Cana?
As we explained yesterday, the Book of Numbers, like all the other books of the Bible, does not present history from a chronological perspective. Instead, it provides insight into how people understand their identity in relation to their past and future. In today’s reading, the upcoming generation needs to comprehend what happened between the exile and resettlement periods. They wanted to know why there were numerous casualties and who was responsible. Additionally, they needed to understand why they were living among the Canaanites. This was necessary because they were generations removed from those who directly experienced these events.
This way, the author(s) interpret their ancestors’ hardships and their takeover of a foreign land due to God’s command to conquer Cana. However, the deaths were not due to God’s inability to protect his people, but rather a punishment for those who opposed him and his servant Moses. The deaths resulted from rebellion against God rather than his lack of protection.
So, this text doesn’t just recount a past history. It tells the story from the people’s perspective in their present-day nation. It’s about a nation founded by settlers who believe their position is God’s will and its predicaments as the fault of a few bad apples. This, however, does not undermine the hand of God in the story of the Israelites; it only reinforces how God, despite human failures and the nasty nature of a people’s past, keeps his promises and maintains his plan for them.