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The Bible does not like dogs.
• When evil queen Jezebel is pushed off a balcony to her death, her corpse is eaten by dogs in the street.
• Proverbs tell us that just as dogs return to eat their own vomit, so fools return to their own folly. Or my favorite, meddling in the argument of your neighbors is like picking up a dog by its ears.
• On the cross, Jesus references Psalm 22, which includes the lines “save me from the power of the dogs,” and “packs of dogs close in on me.”

If we know much about ancient civilizations, this negative evaluation isn’t surprising. I’ve seen something similar when I’ve been in developing countries or places of deep poverty–dogs not really owned by anyone, lurking on the edges of society, scavengers, semi-wild. I tried to engage them, but they were wary of white, short-term, do-gooders from afar.

My farmer grandfather believed dogs were to be big and loud, to bark when someone came onto the farm, maybe scare away foxes and skunks, but certainly not to be “loved.”

The Bible is wrong about dogs.

Dog in the Manger! Unfortunately, it isn’t a biblical reference, but owes more to Greek mythology.

Dogs are wonderful creatures. I speak not only from personal experience of the many wonderful blessing that dogs have brought to my life—but also of service dogs for the blind or veterans with post-traumatic stress, dogs sniffing for survivors among earthquake rubble or for explosives at the airport.

Whether or not you are a dog lover, dogs present an interesting case-study in how we read the Bible.

Is the Bible correct about absolutely everything—dogs, for example? In order to maintain the integrity of scripture, to continue to read and trust the Bible, we too must think dogs are mangy and vicious? If you pull on any of the Bible’s loose threads, then the whole thing unravels?

Or does the Bible reflect its historical viewpoint? In other words, the Bible’s views about dogs are not “God’s views” about dogs, but are simply the views we would expect from an ancient culture.

Dogs put this tension in bold relief. How do we know when the Bible is telling us the wisdom of God, the everlasting Word of Life, and when it is merely what you would expect from Middle Eastern nomads in the bronze age? Is it okay to say that the Bible’s comments about dogs are bound by its historical, cultural setting, but some the Bible’s weightier matters are not?

I’m not going to propose solutions here. My aim is simply to point to the challenge. Of course, there are no easy answers. Seeing the issue is enough, for now. Seeing that we are all always interpreters of the Bible is enough. Watch out for those who claim “simply to be reading the Bible.”

Biblical interpretation is always more art than science. It does involve knowing the original historic situation, but also listening to and learning from others, the wisdom of the wider church. It involves the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Even the Dogs Under the Table Eat the Children’s Crumbs

I’ve always loved the story of Jesus’s encounter with a Syro-Phoenician  woman, and how dogs are part of their conversation. Jesus is traveling, or possibly hiding, in a gentile area when a mother pleads with him to heal her daughter.

This artist’s depiction of the encounter has it all–cute, little dogs, and children eating bread, as well!

Jesus’s response is odd, to say the least. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” The Jewish people are the children. The gentiles are dogs.

Is that answer meant to be humorous or sarcastic? It feels brusque. Biblical interpreters have taken all sorts of tacks and bent over backwards trying to explain, maybe explain away, these words of Jesus. I take Jesus’s words pretty much at face value. Jesus did not see his life’s-work as dealing much with non-Jews. His primary focus was on his own people.

We may wish it was otherwise, but we tend to forget that although Jesus is the Messiah, the eternal Word of God become flesh for us and our salvation, he was also a product of his time. He carried the assumptions of his people and his society. While there are clues in Jesus’s words and ministry that point toward the eventual welcome of all people, can we really expect Jesus to have reached that conclusion completely and publicly during his short earthly ministry?

I like to ask students if they think Jesus knew the earth was round. There is no definitive answer, but it leads to a good discussion. Some want to say, “Of course, how could the Eternal Word, through whom and for whom the universe was created, not know the earth was round and revolved around the sun?” Others say that when Jesus emptied himself to become incarnate, he left this sort of knowledge behind and became a truly first century Jewish male. Can we really even call Jesus “fully human,” if we believe that he was walking around all the time silently thinking to himself, “I wish I could tell them that the earth revolves around the sun!” Or “Why couldn’t I have come to earth after they had invented flush toilets and central heating?”

The woman’s response to Jesus is stunning. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She is bold and playful, wise and assertive.

Jesus is obviously taken by her words. He is impressed and appreciative. By listening to this determined woman, Jesus is stretched. He listens to an outsider, an unlikely source of wisdom, and she helps him to see in new ways. Might that work for us, as well?

Less important, but not unimportant, here is also a small beginning of seeing dogs differently. Thanks to the woman’s comments, we start to see dogs as part of the family, valued, taken care of.

It is the start of a transformation. I wonder what similar transformations still await us? What, or even better—who—do we now consider dirty and dangerous, that someday, maybe before long, we will come to realize are beautiful and wonderful gifts from God?

Finally, as a gentile, I am a glad to be a dog in God’s Kingdom. Like the gentile woman, I know from experience that dogs under the family table can have it pretty good, can eat very well, are included, and cared for. They are loved.

We are described in many ways in the Bible—servants of God, ambassadors of Christ, children of God, sheep of his pasture. But being God’s dog is more than okay with me.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the Reformed Journal's previous iteration, Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

10 Comments

  • Linda says:

    Steve, I saw the title of this essay, “How dogs help us read scripture,” and knew, without peeking, who had written this essay.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Most excellent. I love it, the hermeneutical dog-test. Woof.

  • Kathy Jo Blaske says:

    I bought a valentine for my best friend. The cover pictures a close-up of a bull dog. The inside reads “I woof you!” 🙂

  • Kathy Davelaar says:

    Thank you, Steve. This is really wonderful.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Steve, for an interesting article. I think you are really onto something. So, where do we stop or how far do we go with your helpful perception? Such insight can either destroy or enlighten one’s faith in our day and age. The Bible, a product of an ancient and primitive historical setting and a non scientific mentality? What is true and what isn’t? And what about the inspiration of Scripture? That must play into just where the lines get drawn. Of course the Koran and the Book of Mormon were also inspired by God, so say the Muslims and Mormons. We can pretty quickly dismiss their claims for truth, as they can our claims. I’m more concerned with our claims. Thanks again, Steve. Great food for thought.

  • Tom Brandt says:

    Steve,

    Thanks for this. The story of Jesus’s encounter with the Syrophoenician woman has always fascinated me. My own interpretation of this story is that Jesus was always thinking several steps ahead of everyone else. When she asked him for help, he responded as he know he would be expected to be as a first-century Jewish man, and she responded as he knew she would. He then responded unexpectedly for a first-century Jewish man, showing his followers what his mission truly was

    As a gay man who grew up in the 1970s when to be gay was to be an outcast, his acceptance of this woman, an outcast, means the world to me.

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