Dogs in the Ancient World

I’ve changed my mind concerning the place of the dog in the ancient world. I no longer view allusioins to dogs as having exclusively negative connotation. Consequently, I have slightly updated my previous thoughts on Sunday’s gosepl reading from Matthew 15:21-28: When Dogs Eat at the Family Table.

The online Ancient History Encyclopedia includes this exceprt fro Wolfram von Soden’s The Ancient Orient, published in 1994:

The dog (Sumerian name, ur-gi; Semitic name, Kalbu) was one of the earliest domestic animals and served primarily to protect herds and dwellings against enemies. Despite the fact that dogs roamed freely in the cities, the dog in the ancient Orient was at all times generally bound to a single master and was cared for by him. Of course, the dog was also a carrion eater, and in the villages it provided the same service as hyenas and jackals. As far as we can tell, there were only two main breeds of dog: large greyhounds which were used primarily in hunting, and very strong dogs (on the order of Danes and mastiffs), which in the ancient Orient were more than a match for the generally smaller wolves and, for that reason, were especially suitable as herd dogs. The sources distinguish numerous sub-breeds, but we can only partially identify these. The dog was often the companion of gods of therapeutics. Although the expression `vicious dog’ occurred, `dog’ as a derogatory term was little used (91). [Emphasis added]

The dog-as-carrion-eater is a image that occurs at several places in the Old Testament. The picture that emerges from Egypt to Mesopotamia, however, includes the broader view of dogs as members of the household.

Dogs were featured prominently in Mesopotamian art as hunters but also as companions. Dogs were kept in the home and were treated in much the same way by caring families as they are today. Inscriptions and inlaid plaques depict dogs waiting for their masters . . .

Dogs were highly valued in Egypt as part of the family and, when a dog would die, the family, if they could afford to, would have the dog mummified with as much care as they would pay for a human member of the family. Great grief was displayed over the death of a family dog and the family would shave their eyebrows as a sign of this grief (as they also did with their cats). Tomb paintings of the pharaoh Rameses the Great depict him with his hunting dogs (presumably in the Field of Reeds) and dogs were often buried with their masters to provide this kind of companionship in the afterlife. The intimate relationship between dogs and their masters in Egypt is made clear through inscriptions which have been preserved . . .

Related: The Diminutive Dog in Matthew 15:26


2 thoughts on “Dogs in the Ancient World”

  1. M. Eugene Boring’s commentary on Mark’s use of the pericope suggests that it is exactly because dogs were more common among the Gentiles that canine imagery became an insult in 1st century Judaean culture. So while Jesus speaks from the Jewish perspective of dog as outsider, the Syro-Phoenician/Canaanite woman replies from her own cultural perspective.


  2. Maybe. Isaiah 66:3 appears to allude to the sacrifice of dogs in non-Israelite worship, so that’s pretty much an association of dogs with pagan society.

    Packs of garbage- and carrion-eating dogs (like I saw in Iraq) would be unwelcome, I’m sure, especially given the laws of clean and unclean and the physical danger they would pose. Several OT passages allude to this kind of dog presence or use it as a symbol of violence.

    Really, there’s no “good” use of “dog” in the OT. In Deuteronomy 23:18, the word is a euphemism of some sort (which many translations render as “male prostitute”).

    According to the 1906 Jewish Enclyclopedia, however, the situation changes somewhat in the rabbinical literature. There are still negative things said about dogs. They are shamelessly randy. They will bite humans, and when they are hungry they will kill a lamb. However, there is also evidence that Jews kept and raised dogs.

    Second century sage Rabbi Meir counted dogs among the domestic animals. One reference in the Mishnah prohibits the keeping of dogs unless they are chained (presumably for the safety of others in the village). Another reference prohibits the raising of bad dogs, while still another warns that an outside dog keeps neighbors from visiting. Yet another reference permits the raising of small dogs. Anyway, the regulation of the practice reveals the existence of the practice.

    And, unsurprisingly, there are references to shepherds using and feeding dogs (with bread, no less).

    Admittedly, this data come from a period 100 years or more after the time of Jesus – and in the case of the Babylonian Talmud, by way of a geographically separated population.

    I guess I still have an open mind about this.


Comments are closed.