Wednesday, March 08, 2006

It's a Dog Eat Dog World: Jews, Dogs, and Unclean Animals

The Bible is not fond of dogs. Which is putting it mildly.

Out of the 40 references (in English Bibles) to dogs, most are decidedly uncomplimentary. Dogs are generally described as licking blood, eating vomitus, or consuming a carcass. When not doing these activities, they are described as being outside of God's city, or dumb (as in "unable to speak") or greedy. Ecclesiastes 9.4 ("a living dog is better than a dead lion") is the only passage that might even conceivably be complimentary to dogs, and that's a stretch.

Leviticus 11 is the prime passage about clean and unclean animals. Dogs are not specifically mentioned, but animals such as dogs are described in vs. 27 ("And whatsoever goeth upon his paws, among all manner of beasts that go on all four, those are unclean unto you"). Specifically, eating a dog or touching the dead animal's carcass are forbidden in Lev. 11.

Modern Jews have often extended this to include a prohibition of touching even a living dog. The question I'm posing is whether Jews in Palestine in the time of Christ would have felt that such touching was forbidden.

The reason this comes into question is because of references to dogs in Matthew 15 and Mark 7.

Dogs and humanity have a common heritage throughout most of recorded history. Unlike cats, which were not domesticated until relatively (historically speaking) recently, dogs are constant companions of man from early on. Dogs are beloved around the world, and this love transcends cultural barriers. Several examples: in Grady McWhiney's Cracker Culture, he speaks of the fiercely dog-loving swarth that cuts across Ireland, Scotland, northern England, and southern France, and he connects that culture with that of the dog-loving southern US. Another writer, recounting the story of the Chinese conquest of Tibet in 1959, speaks of the horror felt by the dog-loving Tibetans when the Chinese invaders slaughtered Tibetan dogs wholesale. In other words, and dogs and man have shared domestic life throughout history.

What I'm trying to determine is whether dogs and man shared any life in Jewish Palestine in the first century, AD. I am arguing that they do, and that Jesus' interaction with the Syrophoenician woman (in Mark 7 and Matthew 15) specifically indicates that dogs were part of daily Jewish life.

Modern day orthodox Jews will usually not touch, much less eat unclean animals. Dogs (per Lev. 11) are certainly among those unclean animals. But there is no biblical commandment against touching a live unclean animal. Dealing with dogs (such as having them as house pets, or using them in herding) would be neither commanded or forbidden. To go further than the Bible commands, and claim that the Bible forbids touching a live unclean animal is to make a commandment where God has not made such a command. And it's not possible to accurately read 21st century orthodox Jewish observance back into first century Palestine, without doing violence to history and the text.

(Interestingly -- to me -- is that Job 30.1 speaks of shepherds using dogs. Of course, Job greatly predates the giving of the law, but such a use of dogs would be consistent with most of what we know around the world as far as the behavior and customs of shepherds).

Of the 40 references to dogs in the English Bible, the word Kunarion (which indicates "little dog," a small animal) is found in only 4 of the 40 references: in Matthew 15.26 & 27, and Mark 7, 27 & 28. All of the other references translated "dog" are (in Greek) Kuon, indicating a large animal, a wild dog, or a scavenging dog.

The Matthew 15 passage is as follows:

22And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil.

23But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us.

24But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

25Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me.

26But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs.

27And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table.

28Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.

Likewise, in Mark 7:

25For a certain woman, whose young daughter had an unclean spirit, heard of him, and came and fell at his feet:

26The woman was a Greek, a Syrophenician by nation; and she besought him that he would cast forth the devil out of her daughter.

27But Jesus said unto her, Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it unto the dogs.

28And she answered and said unto him, Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children's crumbs.

29And he said unto her, For this saying go thy way; the devil is gone out of thy daughter.

30And when she was come to her house, she found the devil gone out, and her daughter laid upon the bed.

The thrust of the passages is this. The woman -- specifically identified as gentile, "a Syrophoenician by nation" -- is praying for her daughter's exorcism. Jesus in turn puts her off, and finally brushes her aside, suggesting that it would be improper to take the children's (i.e., the Jews) food, and give it to the dogs. (The implication here is that any non-Jews are dogs). In each usage -- Jesus' statement, and the woman's response -- the word used is Kunarion -- the small dogs -- housepets?

The interchange between the unnamed woman and Jesus seems to indicate that the animals in question are known, familiar creatures. In other words, they are not speaking of, say, lions. They use a term that indicates familiarity and the manner in which they speak seems to indicate an event both are familiar with -- perhaps from childhood: small house pets under the table, eating scraps of food that children -- then as now -- inadvertently drop on the floor.

If modern-day Jews are correct in their observance (i.e., that even touching dogs is against the commandments) then having such animals as housepets would obviously have been sin for an observant Jew like Jesus. But if it's not wrong touch the body of a living unclean animal such as a dog, then it's very likely that Palestinian Jews of the first century would -- like families all around the world -- have had dogs as pets. (Of course, this would also indicate that dogs would likely have been used for shephereding -- as in the Job 30.2 passage -- and for protection, as guard dogs).

I'd also suggest that the presence of dogs is one of those things that people might have taken for granted, and therefore it wouldn't have been mentioned by the biblical writers, except perhaps in passing, such as in these passages. So we have to infer their presence, because it won't be explicitly stated.

I suggest that these passages -- Mark 7 and Matthew 15 -- indicate that dogs were companions of Palestinian Jews in the first century. Such a presence also tells us something about the nature and practice of their understanding of the law.

1 comment:

James said...

This is an interesting topic. Let me submit this idea. The Jews of Jesus' day would have been familiar with many of the activities of the gentiles that lived near them even if they did not engage in those activities themselves. I think it is just as probable that Jesus mentions the dogs to this woman because as a gentile it would have been something she had grown up with, not necessarily something He grew up with.

I have never been to a professional sporting event (not that I think they are sinful or unclean), but they happen all around me and I have often spoken to others who have gone about the events. If someone recorded my conversations about pro sports games would people assume 2000 years from now that I went to them? Probably, but it would be incorrect.

I believe the general disdain for dogs in the scriptures would have discouraged any of the Jews who believed in strictly observing the law from being around dogs if they could avoid it.