Dogs in the ancient world (Proverbs 26)

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Illustration: Ancient hunting dogs in a cave painting

In Proverbs 26:11 a fool is said to return to his folly as a dog to its vomit, and in 26:17 Solomon pointed out – possibly from childhood experience – that it is dangerous to grab a dog by the ears. These statements would be equally true of both wild and domsticated dogs. But the question is often asked: Did the Israelites keep dogs as pets?

Dogs were first domesticated in prehistoric times. A site called Ein Mallaha in northern Israel yields the earliest uncontested archaeological evidence for domesticated dogs (ca. 9600 B.C.), though there may be an earlier site at the Palegawra Cave in Iraq. Even so, most dogs in the early Biblical period were wild, and ancient people naturally regarded them with fear and disdain. The portrayal of dogs in the Bible is especially negative (e.g. 1 Samuel 17:42-43). They are depicted as roaming carnivores that hunted in packs, even inside cities (1 Kings 14:11, Psalm 22:16). To have one’s corpse devoured by dogs was a dreadful fate (1 Kings 21:19), and the epithet “dog” was insulting (2 Kings 8:13), if not humiliating (2 Samuel 3:8), implying that an individual was either worthless (1 Samuel 24:14) or evil (Psalm 22:16). In fact, the reference to a dog in Deuteronomy 23:18 probably refers to a male prostitute.

Other ancient cultures viewed dogs more positively. In Mesopotamia puppies were used in purification and healing rites. In Persia dogs were revered. Similarly, in Egypt some dogs were considered sacred, and many were mummified. The Philistine city of Ashkelon, during the Persian period, maintained a cemetery of over 1000 pits filled with carefully buried puppies, though the significance and function of this burial ground is difficult to interpret. In the Greco-Roman world dogs were frequently domesticated, as is attested in a conversation between Jesus and a Phoenician woman (Matthew 15:26-27), as well as by Greek vases depicting hunters with their dogs at their sides. A Latin sign found in Pompeii reads cave canem (“beware of dog”).

Whether the ancient Israelites disliked dogs more than did other peoples is unknown. Most Biblical references to dogs are negative, but that may be more an accident than a reflection of how Israelites felt overall about this species. There are occasional positive references to dogs (Job 30:1). For the sake of comparison, we might observe that there is no word for “cat” in Biblical Hebrew, although cats were domesticated in Egypt and must have been known in Israel. It may be coincidental that cats are never mentioned in the Old Testament (although there is one reference to cats in the Apocrypha at Baruch 6:22). The reality is that we cannot say with certainty how the ancient Israelites viewed dogs (or cats) in general or how common it was to have such animals in their home.


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