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Tom Goodhart’s recent tribute to his canine pastoral assistant Hilde invites further reflection on the role of animal companions in our spiritual lives. Christians talk a lot about how others help us in our walk with God. It is good to be reminded that this is a role for quadrupeds as well as bipeds.   

Pity the dyslexic agnostic insomniacs – there are probably a few in my congregation and in yours – who lie awake all night wondering whether there is a dog. If there is a dog in your life, as there is in mine, you already know that the love of dogs passes all understanding. (A reference site gives credit for this quip to David Foster Wallace in Infinite Jest, but I think I encountered it first in a Woody Allen film.) 

We will not find much guidance in scripture on these matters, however. The only animal in the entire Bible who figures in someone’s life as a family member is a fictional creation, the lamb in the prophet Nathan’s cautionary allegory for King David. What would you think, asks Nathan, of a rich man whose barns and pens are crowded with livestock but who, when a guest arrives, steals a poor man’s only lamb, who “shared his food, drank from his cup, and slept in his arms,” and throws it on the grill?  (2 Samuel 12:3)  

Gee whiz, says the king: I didn’t think of Bathsheba that way. So we do have one biblical reference to companionship with a domestic animal. The lesson that Nathan wants the adulterous and murderous king to draw from his tale, however, is not “Be kind to pets.”   

Beyond that, scriptural pickings are sparse.  Dogs do not appear often in Biblical writings, seldom in a favorable light.  The second epistle of Peter (2 Peter 2:2) reminds us of their endearing habit of licking up their vomit. The Canaanite woman who asks Jesus to heal her daughter compares herself to a dog who scavenges for scraps under the table (Matthew 15:26-27). When God tells Gideon (Judges 7) to send away all the soldiers except those few who lap up water like dogs, is canine wisdom being commended? That seems rather a stretch.    

In the book of Job we find two passages worthy of note. The Lord, speaking out of a storm, asks Job whether he can catch Leviathan with a hook or “make a pet of it like a bird or put it on a leash for the young women in your house” (Job 41:5). The questions are rhetorical, but they suggest that the concept of a household companion, in a cage or on a leash, was not unknown in ancient Israel. True, we don’t know just what Leviathan is. One on-line site, stronger on creativity than on paleobiology, suggests “perhaps a crocodile, or a mythical sea-monster, or an aquatic dinosaur.” Whatever it is, Leviathan is not promising as a pet.     

Earlier in the book of Job we are invited to “ask the animals, and they will teach you” (Job 12:7).  But in the only biblical narrative I can find where an animal speaks directly to a human companion (Numbers 22:21-35), the message is rather harsh.  Balaam rebukes his donkey for making a fool of him, but he has already made an ass of himself. 

Cats and their owners will surely protest:  why this absurd idolization of dogs? They are rambunctious, quarrelsome, and noisy – oh, how noisy! They don’t know how to moderate their eating: leave them three days’ supply of food and it will be gone in an hour, and then they’ll be sick. Dogs take up too much room in the world, especially on the sofa. And, for heaven’s sake, they can’t even learn to use a litterbox. 

We will need to engage in hermeneutics of a broader sort to discern what pets can teach us. What can we learn from our dogs? Many lessons suggest themselves. Be patient. Accept others’ affection and return it. Enjoy your puppyhood to the fullest but don’t waste your time lamenting its passing. Live in the present and don’t dwell on yesterday or worry about tomorrow. Do not judge. Get enough rest.  All these comport well with scriptural imperatives. 

So far as I can determine, cats smaller than lions are nowhere mentioned in Scripture. (Search a full-text English Bible for “cat” and all you will find is “cattle” and “catastrophe.”) But cats embody a widely held conception of God, all the same. Cats are observant but distant, affectionate when it suits them but not on demand. They keep their own counsel. They communicate in enigmatic ways to those with the patience to listen. They are always alert – they slumber not, neither do they sleep. And they are always observing and judging us.   

Perhaps my perception is colored by my journey from a youth spent with pet cats to an adult life shared with a succession of exceptionally companionable canines. My current housemate Clara Bo may have infected me with her jaundiced view of the feline species. A more appreciative assessment of a feline friend is offered by eighteenth-century poet Christopher Smart: 

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry. 
For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him. 
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way. 
For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness. . . . 
For he purrs in thankfulness when God tells him he’s a good Cat. 
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
(The full text of the poem, all 75 lines, may be found here.) 

Dogs and cats alike exhibit a noteworthy virtue, one whose importance has never been greater than in a time of pervasive misinformation and mistrust. When I am out for a walk with Clara, I feel free to voice my frustrations and my anger with the latest pompous pronouncements and shameless prevarications emanating from leaders in our political or cultural or, alas, ecclesiastical lives.  No matter how vehement my rant, Clara listens patiently until I finish. She never argues or contradicts. And by her very calmness she helps to dispel the disquiet in my soul. When I stop ranting at last, she does not even expect an apology. Acceptance and forgiveness are her natural state.   

I wonder sometimes whether, like Mary, Clara keeps all these things and ponders them in her heart.  Or perhaps she, like nearly all the dogs and cats with whom we share our lives, has such a large heart that anger and bitterness cannot take root there. Some people – rarer than rubies – have such hearts too. 

Go ahead: let your dog or cat help you name, and face, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that beset you. Turn to your pet when the world is out of joint and everyone in a position to promote healing seeks instead to inflame animosity and heap insult on injury. If you have no pet, borrow one the next time your patience is exhausted or your hopes dashed.     

Tom and Hilde got it right.  A walk with dog, or a cuddle with cat, can assist you in your walk with God. 

David Hoekema

David A. Hoekema resides in West Olive, Michigan, and, in winter, in Green Valley, Arizona.  He retired in 2018 from Calvin College (that was still its name), having served as Academic Dean, Interim Vice President for Student Life, and Professor of Philosophy.  Previous positions were at St. Olaf College in Minnesota and the University of Delaware.  He worships at Second Christian Reformed Church of Grand Haven and at Southside Presbyterian Church of Tucson, two vibrant and supportive communities of followers of the Lamb.

8 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Psalm 22.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Classic Yiddish joke: If you see a Jew with a dog then either the Jew’s not a Jew or the dog’s not a dog. Quoted by both Isaac Bashevis Singer and the TV series Shtisel.

  • Ron Calsbeek says:

    Thanks for this, David. We acquired a kitten recently. She tests our Labrador’s patience, provoking him without mercy, but never succeeds. We are hoping for an increased sense of kitten morality, but at present we have concluded that she is totally depraved and the Labrador was born without sin.

    Too flippant? Maybe, but not frivolous. Our patient pooch is a constant reminder of God’s abiding love.

  • Rosemary says:

    Spot on, David!

  • Karen Ophoff says:

    Exactly three years ago today, January 9, unaware of the impending pandemic, we brought home our puppy Ozzy after much deliberation and calculating of lifespans. Best decision ever. There are days when I think dogs are the crown of creation.

  • Heidi De Jonge says:

    Oh, I am with you in every way. Many times a day, I thank God for our dog. She has been the best gift.

  • Greta Hoekstra says:

    One of my favorite things about Clara Bo is that she is always happy to see me. Another trait to emulate.

    Greta Hoekstra

  • Henny Flinterman Vroege says:

    I’m convinced that our cat, Sheba, is amoral. But we love her anyway. 🙂

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