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Pets in the Bible and Their Exegetical Significance

Graphic images of pets in ancient and modern life.

Is it meaningful to speak of “pets” in the Bible? Some claim “pet” is a purely modern category,1 so much so that what a modern person would call a “pet” does not exist in the Bible. If so, then to speak of “pets in the Bible” at all is to impose an anachronism on the text.

There certainly are modern distinctions to pet ownership. The most considerable are its popularity (more households have pets than don’t)2 and the enormous financial expenses owners are willing to take on for their “fur babies.” But from these distinctions it does not follow that pet ownership was non-existent in the ancient world, nor does it follow that the relation between domesticated animals and their human owners was purely utilitarian, lacking any affection.

We’ll get into the examples later, but domesticated animals that a modern person would recognize as “pets” do exist in the Bible. A pet in antiquity was a domesticated animal that was considered a member of the wider household (along with children, servants, extended family, etc.). The strongest indication of household membership is if the animal is said to have lived indoors or been raised alongside other household members, a status which further implies it enjoyed some affection or special treatment.

My interest here is not to lay out a history of pets in the Bible. Rather, it is to argue that the category of “pet” has exegetical import and should be preserved. It is a key that helps unlock Bible passages that otherwise might be obscure.

Pets feature most prominently in Scripture in two passages: the allegory of the rich man told by the prophet Nathan to King David (2 Sam 12:1–13), and the exchange between the Canaanite Woman and Jesus (Matt 15:21–28).

1. The subtle storycraft of the prophet Nathan

If we suppose that ancient people did not harbor affection for their animals, the story of the unjust rich man told to King David by the prophet Nathan would make little sense. As the story goes, the poor man bought a ewe lamb,

And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his morsel, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. (2 Sam 12:3 RSV)

This narrative portrait raises the lamb to the level of a member of the household, resembling an adoption. The ewe lamb is, we infer, an indoor animal, for it is raised alongside the poor man’s family and shares their table.

The subtle prophet crafted this allegory to produce the strongest possible reaction. This was necessary. Nathan could not not appeal directly to David’s sense of justice. Based on what the narrative has revealed thus far, David did not feel guilt for murdering the loyal Uriah and taking his wife, Bathsheba, for himself. What’s more, Nathan was in a precarious position. He was approaching a man with absolute power whose commitment to righteousness was jeopardized: a murderer who may murder again. Nathan holds his own life in his hands by obeying God’s commission to rebuke his own king.

Consider Nathan’s narrative, particularly how it manages to revitalize David’s sense of justice before turning it around on him in rebuke: “Thou art the man” (2 Sam 12:7 KJV). The power of Nathan’s allegory lies in mistaken identities. Nathan devotes most of the story to the poor man and his tender relationship with his lamb, with whom the powerful King David sympathizes so deeply that he flies into a fury and pronounces a death sentence on the rich man, not realizing he is condemning himself.

Why this reaction? David naturally identifies himself with the character who is, as he once was, a shepherd, and the shock consists in unmasking hidden identities. Not only does David see that he was wrong to identify with the poor man, but he is in truth the rich man.

The allegory stops here

Another credit to Nathan’s storycraft is the limitations of the allegory: there is nothing in the text requiring us to extend the allegory any further to include other persons.

For example, we need not speculate on the true identity of the poor man (is it Uriah?) or the ewe lamb (Bathsheba?), since this is not demanded by the text and poses problems. We might assume that Bathsheba is the ewe lamb because both were taken away; but one could argue the ewe lamb is Uriah, since both were killed; or that the ewe lamb stands for both somehow. At any rate, the analogy of the rich man’s misdeeds to David’s is salient enough to be effective, but it need not follow that Nathan’s story is a comprehensive, point-for-point allegory.

There is only one person’s identity that concerns Nathan: King David’s. And what is critical for the allegory to be effective is David’s confusion of identities between the rich man and the poor man. Nathan is not attempting to recap David’s recent history: he is leveraging a limited allegory to awaken his king to his sin. It is his purpose, moreover, to keep the rich man’s identity initially obscure: a comprehensive (or total) allegory would be too obvious to accomplish this.

In addition to demonstrating the pastoral power of story, particularly as a vessel for conveying truths into the soul we are in no condition to accept otherwise, Nathan suggests to us something about ancient husbandry. At the center of the limited allegory is a poor shepherd’s parent-like affection for a lamb. Observe that such a strong relationship between a shepherd and a lamb does not strike David as odd. David was a good shepherd who risked his life for his flock battling lions and bears (1 Sam 17:34–37) and venturing into hazardous terrain to retrieve wandering sheep. The sheep were David’s livelihood as well as his constant companions; any shepherd would have come to know his charges well, identifying the distinct mannerisms of each and which were more likely to wander off or get themselves into trouble. David during his shepherding days might have made a pet out of at least one or two members of his flock. It would explain his powerful empathy for the poor man if David himself felt similar affection for a ewe lamb at some point. Though a work of fiction, Nathan’s allegory could suggest such “pet adoptions” were common among poor shepherds in Israel. These latter considerations are speculative and are not stated in Scripture, but Nathan suggests much.

The New Testament connection

These reflections should enrich our understanding of shepherd imagery in the New Testament. When Christ said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11), he was alluding to standard shepherding practices familiar to everyone in his audience. The power of the analogy is Christ is unexceptional in this respect; rather, he is like all good shepherds by laying down his life. A bad shepherd abandons his flock to be devoured by the wilderness. The takeaway is if a shepherd does indeed care so much for his sheep, how much more does Christ care for us.

But in Nathan’s allegory as in Christ’s shepherd imagery, can we separate the analogy from its affecting tone? If shepherds in the ancient world viewed their sheep with total indifference, as commodities, then the analogy has no substance. Rather, the analogy imports a level of caring that goes beyond the utilitarian or commercial. If Nathan’s allegory is any indication, then when we refer to Christ as our shepherd, or when he refers to us as his sheep, this can denote a range of caring relationships of which adoption is one possibility. This might begin to make sense of the fluid way Christ alternates referring to his followers as “sheep” and then as “children,” as it were in the same breath (e.g., Matt 15:24–25). (Perhaps it is appropriate to see the poor man in Nathan’s allegory as a “type” of Christ, who himself was poor, and we are the ewe lambs he brings with him to dine in his house, as though his children.) At they very least, the category of “pet” helps show us that shepherd imagery in Scripture has a wider emotional range than we might otherwise suppose.

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2. A dog’s place at the table

What does the Bible say of more conventional modern pets, like dogs or cats? Of the latter, virtually nothing.3 Dogs, however, recur frequently, usually metaphorically, and seldom positively.

It is an insult to be a “dog” (1 Sam 17:43; 2 Kgs 8:13), a “dog’s head” (on account of being speechless; 2 Sam 3:8), or worst of all, a “dead dog” (1 Sam 24:15; 2 Sam 9:8; 16:9; Eccl 9:4). Dogs are usually portrayed as street animals, not domestic pets; they are filthy, devouring what is unclean (Isa 66:3; Exod 22:30), including human flesh, which is considered a particularly shameful fate for the body after death (1 Kgs 14:1; 16:4; 21:19, 23–24; 22:18; 2 Kgs 9:10, 35–36; Ps 68:24). Vulgar, the Bible analogizes the person who sins repeatedly (Prov 26:11) or wantonly (Phil 3:2) to a dog. (For a thorough exploration of the appearances and symbolism of dogs in Scripture, check out the Bible Word Study guide in Logos [Logos > Guides > Bible Word Study].)

For these reasons, it was long assumed in scholarship that dogs were viewed as “unclean” by ancient Jews, and thus had little share in ancient Jewish domestic life. However, dogs are never included in lists of (ritually) unclean animals, and passages elsewhere indicate they did serve more positive roles. Job, for example, mentions in passing the dogs tending his flocks (30:1), and Isaiah refers to both sheep dogs and guard dogs (56:10–11).

More importantly, we should not expect the Old Testament to represent ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern life or attitudes comprehensively. Exploring the wider non-biblical literature shows that dogs were widely prized and even cherished.4 Yet if we limit ourselves to the biblical literature, then dogs have an overwhelmingly poor reputation.

Hellenization = pet dogs?

By the first century, the century of Jesus Christ, most Jewish families were Hellenized—that is, Greek-speaking—and many were imitating the customs of their Greco-Roman neighbors. There is evidence that some Jews were influenced by the Greek and Roman penchant for pet dogs, although it never became as common for Jews as for the Greeks and Romans.5

A potential early witness to this hellenization is the book of Tobit. Considered apocryphal by Protestants and deuterocanonical by Catholics, Tobit was written in the second century BC (though the story itself is set in the eighth), so it stands mid-way between the completion of the last book of the Old Testament and the earliest book of the New Testament, which makes it a key witness for intervening changes in Jewish culture. Scholar Joshua Schwartz argues Tobit is the earliest Jewish source “to relate to the dog as a companion or almost as a pet.”6 The dog is mentioned only twice (Tob 5:16; 11:4); in both instances it is depicted as the protagonist’s travel companion (along with the angel Raphael). Though this hardly meets our definition of a “pet” since the animal is never seen indoors, the fact that it is referred to in a manner other than negatively marks a departure from standard Jewish literature and could indicate a growing positive outlook on dogs.

For Greco-Romans, dogs were valued companions for journeys and hunts, and at dinner could be seen waiting beneath the table for a morsel—a recurring domestic scene in Greco-Roman art and a clear example of what we call a “pet.”7 Even if this culture of pet ownership was less common among Jews, it would have been a scene with which they were familiar.

A dog at Jesus’s table

This brings a historical light to an otherwise perplexing exchange between Jesus and a Canaanite woman (Matt 15:21–28). She approaches Jesus and begs his mercy. He at first ignores her, but as she persists, he turns to say, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. … It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Matt 15:24, 25 RSV). At this, she breaks the cycle of pleas and says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (15:27). Jesus praises her faithfulness and grants her request to heal her daughter.

The woman is not only a Gentile but a Canaanite, and thus a member of one of Israel’s ancient enemies (cf., Josh 1:1—12:24). Jesus is speaking in a familiar, even scriptural way to one from whom he, as a Jew, ought to expect no goodwill, deploying dog imagery in a disparaging sense we might call “Old Testament-y.”

When I heard this passage taught in church or Sunday school, I was told the woman’s response was a form of extreme self-abasement, and this is what won Christ over. But if we can reconstruct the respective intents of the speakers according to their historic contexts, this is not what’s occurring. She accepts the dog image, but only to a point: she simultaneously adapts it—she modernizes it, we could say—by recontextualizing it under the dinner table. In this new domestic context, “dog” has a different meaning: it is no longer a slur, but refers to a pet. In this way, the Canaanite woman has exploited Jesus’s dog analogy to bring herself into his graces. Not only is she demonstrating her willingness to be “fed,” but by identifying herself as a “pet,” she is declaring Christ is her lord, and he is responsible for feeding all members of the household, both children and dogs. It is as though she were saying, “If I am a dog, at least I am not a homeless street animal. I am a member of the household, and I know who my lord is. I do not beg for a handout like a stranger, but wait with expectation at my master’s table.” This puts the onus back on the Savior: Will he send her away empty, whose presence at the table is fitting and falls under his jurisdiction? Christ rewards her “comeback” and calls it faithfulness.

We at last understand why Christ ignored her at first and did not immediately answer her pleas. Had he done so, he would merely have acted charitably to a person in need. This would have made him a fine moral exemplar, but a moral exemplar merely. By giving her occasion to arrive at a greater profession of his lordship, he has begun to mend the ancient antagonism between Israel and Canaan. In this narrative, we see Christ acting as the one who reconciles all peoples to himself.

Conclusion

The category of “pet” remains exegetically useful. It gives us a clearer look into the context and associations of biblical language, and enriches our appreciation of Christ as the Good Shepherd and Benevolent Host who won’t deny even the dogs under the table.

***

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  1. For a recent example, see Matthew Wills, “The Invention of Pets,” JSTOR Daily, January 28, 2017. https://daily.jstor.org/the-invention-of-pets/.
  2. Sarah Strochak, Laure Goodman, and Jun Zhu, “A housing survey reveals five trends about American pet owners,” Urban Institute, October 3, 2018. https://www.urban.org/urban-wire/housing-survey-reveals-five-trends-about-american-pet-owners.
  3. Cat owners like me must wait until the monastic movement before cats are acknowledged as the ideal companions of Christians—see, for example, the ninth-century poem, “Pangur Ban,” scribbled by an Irish Benedictine monk in honor of his white cat.
  4. For a brief survey of this literature, see Justin David Strong, “From Pets to Physicians: Dogs in the Biblical World,” Biblical Archaeology Review 45.3 (May/June 2019): 46–50.
  5. See Joshua Schwartz, “Dogs in Jewish Society in the Second Temple Period and in the Time of the Mishnah and Talmud,” Journal of Jewish Studies 55.2 (Autumn 2004): 247–77.
  6. See Schwartz, “Dogs in Jewish Society,” 262.
  7. For Greek pottery depictions of dogs underneath the dinner table, see Strong, “From Pets to Physicians.”
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Written by
Blake Adams

Blake Adams (MA, Wheaton College) is an editor, writer, and trained historian. His research interests include early Christian literature and biblical exegesis. He serves as Lead Sacristan at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, IL. Visit him at his website: https://blaketheobscure.wordpress.com/.

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Written by Blake Adams