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The Dog

Its Gradually Changing Status

Stephen Broyles

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. Visit the British Museum online.


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 about dogs.)

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.

(Proverbs 26:11)


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.


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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.







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