Its Gradually Changing Status
In this relief, a man reclines on a banqueting couch while a dog lies
beneath it. Did the dog always enjoy such status?
From the Nereid Monument,
Lykian, about 390-380 B.C., from Xanthos (modern Günük, south-western
Turkey). Copyright © 2000 The British Museum. Used by permission.
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Americans are a nation of dog-lovers. We take them into our families
and look upon them, often, as one of us. “Every dog should be brought up
along with a baby,” Don Marquis said, “if you can find a child with a
good enough pedigree that it will not give any germs to the dog.”
There were dogs in Jericho centuries before Joshua fought the battle
there. In the oldest layers of this very old city, scientists have found
the teeth of domesticated dogs. (And of house cats, too, but this is
Ancient art sometimes depicts dogs. A knife-handle from pre-Dynastic
Egypt decorated with scenes of war and the hunt (two ways of doing the
same thing) shows dogs wearing collars and leashes. A golden plate from
Ras Shamra shows a bow hunter in his chariot accompanied by two dogs. An
early Dynastic III cylinder seal has a man milking a goat inside a
stable; the gate is guarded by a dog.
And yet the dog’s present-day position as a decent, noble animal has
been hard won. In ancient Israel the dog was considered an unclean
animal. Several verses in the Bible know the usefulness of watchdogs and
sheep dogs, but for the most part we only read of half-wild,
half-starving scavengers that prowl the city by night. The dog lived on
the refuse of the streets or on the terephah—one of the flock
which has been torn by a wild animal and therefore unfit for human food.
Dogs were so efficient at refuse-picking that Elijah put them in the
same class with carrion birds. What the birds scavenge in the field,
dogs scavenge in town (1 Kings 21:24). Their efficiency is obvious in
the story about the death of the bad queen Jezebel. When the men came to
bury her, the dogs had already made off with everything except her
skull, feet, and hands.
Because of the dog’s low estate in Israelite society, the word “dog”
was used in Hebrew speech and writing to demean one’s enemies and abase
oneself. It was good manners, at least in court circles, when addressing
one’s superiors, to refer to oneself as “your servant.” The effect could
be heightened by saying, “your servant the dog.” Canine self-effacement
reached a high point—or low point—when Mephibosheth bowed and scraped
before King David and bawled, “What is your servant that you should
concern yourself about a dead dog such as I!” (2 Samuel 9:8). If a
servant is a low thing, a dog is even lower, and a servant who is a dead
dog is worthless and unclean into the bargain.
A special use of the word dog shows up in Deuteronomy 23:18: “You
shall not bring the hire of a harlot, or the wages of a dog, into the
house of the Lord your God in payment for any vow.” Here “dog” is a male
cult prostitute, the masculine counterpart of the harlot. The presence
of these functionaries at temples and shrines was common in paganism,
and at times they were imported into the worship of the God of Israel.
The law in Deuteronomy prohibits this. (One of the curiosities of
biblical interpretation is that some people have thought the verse
prohibits the buying and selling of dogs. This belief was common in
north Alabama where I grew up.)
Against a Hebrew background Jesus says, “Do not give dogs what is
holy; and do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they (the swine)
trample them underfoot and (the dogs) turn to attack you” (Matthew 7:6).
Those who reject the message about the Kingdom of God are as
unacceptable and unclean as the dog and the pig under Israelite law.
One of the dog’s habits became proverbial:
Like a dog that returns to its vomit
is a fool who reverts to his folly.
The Book of 2 Peter alludes to this proverb and makes a new
application. The Christian who is enticed back into the sins he put off
at his baptism is the fool of the proverb (2 Peter 2:22).
Now here is a passage which I have saved until the last. A Gentile
woman in conversation with Jesus once said, “The dogs under the table
eat the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7:28). She meant that Gentiles, too,
ought to be allowed, so to speak, at least the scraps of God’s favor.
Her words tell us that by Roman times, dogs were allowed into the house,
where they shared a closer life with humans. Those of us who have loved
dogs will like that. One is, in fact, sleeping behind me in my chair as
I write this.
Next: Donkey |
Sheep and Goats |
Hunting dogs led by attendants.
Stone panel from the North Palace of Ashurbanipal , Nineveh, northern
Iraq, Neo-Assyrian, about 645 B.C. Copyright © 2000 The British Museum.
Used by permission.