One of the sacred duties of the ancient historian, no less the Biblical scholar or archaeologist, is to remind us just how different the world of the ancient past is from our own and to help us understand the ancient world on its own terms. Every now and then, however, new evidence demonstrates that we are much closer to the ancients than previously thought. The most recent research on dogs in the ancient world—and in the Bible—is one such noteworthy exception.
By the fourth millennium B.C.E., we have solid evidence of human and canine companionship in the ancient Near East. Hunting dogs appear on early Egyptian and Assyrian artwork and already on tablet 6 of the Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 1300–1000 B.C.E.), which refers to sheep dogs tending flocks. In the Levant, domesticated dogs have been uncovered among the earliest destruction layers of Jericho from the Neolithic period, and hundreds of dogs were uncovered at the city of Ashkelon from the Persian period.a
In spite of this evidence from ancient Israel’s predecessors and neighbors, it has long been the common wisdom among scholars that dogs would have been considered unclean animals to the Jews and ancient Israelites. Throughout the Bible, we find that dogs are used in insults and comparisons carrying negative connotations, such as Mephibosheth’s groveling to David: “What is your servant, that you should look upon a dead dog such as I am?” (2 Samuel 9:8). Dogs are also depicted as interacting with dead bodies, for example, “The dogs shall eat Jezebel in the territory of Jezreel, and no one shall bury her” (2 Kings 9:10).
We may first note that such negative epithets can also be found among Israel’s neighbors. Further, 047while such contact with a corpse would indeed communicate impurity, one will search in vain to find dogs among the list of unclean animals in the Biblical legal material. To these negative references, we must add that there are a number of scattered mentions of dogs in the Bible demonstrating that the ancient Israelites interacted with them just as the rest of the Near East. Job, for example, mentions in passing the dogs tending his flocks (Job 30:1), and Isaiah 56:10-11 refers to sheep dogs, as well as guard dogs.
If the dog was ever considered ritually unclean by the Israelites, it had shed this taboo by the time of the second-century B.C.E. Book of Tobit. When the author narrates Tobias setting off on a long journey, he depicts Tobias’s pet dog exiting the Jewish home to tag along on the adventure, presumably as a companion and co-guardian with the angel Raphael (Tobit 6:2; Tobit 11:4). In the New Testament, domestic table dogs are the central metaphor used by the Syro-phoenician woman to persuade Jesus to act: “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the table of their master” (Matthew 15:27; Mark 7:28). Still later, in the Mishnah, we find rules about when a master is culpable for when a pet dog bites someone (Bava Qamma 7.7), about chaining a house dog (Bava Qamma 5.3), and even 048a debate between two rabbis about whether the dog should be considered a wild animal or a kind of cattle (Kil’ayim 8.6).
If the ancient Near Eastern world requires a bit of sleuthing to uncover positive attitudes toward dogs, on the Greek and Roman side of things, we find much more direct evidence and learn some remarkable facts about ancient views of dogs. Already in Homer’s works (eighth century B.C.E.), we find several references to domestic dogs. When Odysseus finally returns home after his decades-long journey, his faithful pet dog, Argos, now advanced in years, dies of joy upon recognizing the scent of his long-lost master.1 This same passage also speaks of table dogs and people who breed them for beauty, presumably the Maltese. What is surely the oldest reference to the “doggy bag” is also found here in the eighth century B.C.E.: “As when dogs fawn around their master as he comes from a feast, for he always brings them bits to delight their hearts.”2
In the first-century Roman world, the many roles played by domestic dogs and the bond shared between master and pet is well summarized by Columella, who praises them: “What human being more clearly or so vociferously gives warning of the presence of a wild beast or of a thief as does the dog by its barking? What servant is more attached to his master than is a dog? What companion more faithful? What guardian more incorruptible? What more wakeful night-watchman can be found? Lastly, what more steadfast avenger or defender?”3
Owners regularly buried their pets in private tombs. Many heartfelt speeches like Columella’s are found on the sorrowful epitaphs written by masters for their pets: “My eyes were wet with tears, our little dog, when I bore you [to the grave]. So, Patricus, never again shall you give me a thousand kisses. Never can you be contentedly in my lap. In sadness, I buried you, as you deserve. In a resting place of marble, I have put you for all time by the side of my shade. In your qualities, you were sagacious, like a human being. Ah, what a loved companion we have lost!” In many of these epitaphs, the pet dog is compared to a member of the family: “To Helena, foster child, soul without comparison and deserving of praise.”
Both Xenophon (fourth century B.C.E.) and Ovid (first century B.C.E.–first century C.E.) provide us with lists of appropriate personal names for dogs, many of them familiar to us today, including Lance, Rover, Crafty, Dash, Woof, and Killer.4
In addition to the familiar roles of hunter, sheep 049dog, guard dog, and house pet, the dog had a particular reputation that is largely foreign to us today: as the physician of the animal kingdom. Ancient authors noted, for example, that the dog knows that it should elevate an injured leg, following what Hippocrates prescribed. Alongside other evidence, the ancient observer saw that the dog knows what plants to eat as medicine to induce vomiting if it has eaten something that upsets its stomach, that the dog knows to remove foreign bodies, such as thorns, and that the dog knows to lick its wounds to ensure that they remain clean, understanding that clean wounds heal more quickly.
This last bit of popular knowledge about the dog’s skill to heal through licking and the medical use of its saliva is attested elsewhere on the porous boundaries between ancient magic and medicine. In the ancient magical papyri, for example, there are several spells that understand the dog’s saliva to be something like a venom, since a dog’s bite produces a burning sensation and swelling. The cure, in turn, requires more dog saliva.5
Dogs also feature in the cult of Asclepius, widely known for the use of sacred snakes that would slither around the temples to represent the deity and cure visitors. Much less commonly known is that, alongside the sacred snakes, the temples housed sacred dogs that would approach the visitors and heal them by licking their wounded areas. One such cure from the fourth-century B.C.E. Epidaurian Tablets reads: “A dog cured a boy from Aegina. He had a growth on the neck. When he had come to the god, one of the sacred dogs healed him—while he was awake—with its tongue and made him well.”6
This reputation as the physicians of the animal kingdom complements evidence showing that Greeks, Romans, and Jews viewed dogs much as we do today—from companions in the hunt to companions at dinner waiting beneath the table for a morsel. Dogs were far from being perceived as “unclean” and scorned animals.
This corrected understanding makes a great difference in the interpretation of the famous Biblical parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31). As the story goes, while Lazarus lies there at the gate, he “longs to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table, and even the dogs would come and lick his lesions.”
The function of the dogs licking Lazarus has traditionally been understood by scholars to be a signal of extreme misery. Lazarus must be so disabled that he cannot drive away these “unclean” dogs who are making a meal of him, so the old interpretation goes. But, as we can see now, this act would have been perceived by a first-century audience as a sign of sympathy from the dogs, who have been caring after Lazarus as though his nurses.
Recognizing that rich Jews would have owned table dogs, just as their Roman neighbors, allows us to see that Lazarus is longing for the place of the rich man’s table dog, to eat the dinner scraps. The status of the dog as an adopted member of the ancient family household additionally helps us better understand the depravity of the rich man, who does not offer to Lazarus even this lowliest dignity.
Perhaps the most powerful insight brought to this parable from our corrected understanding of dogs in the ancient world comes in the peculiar request of the rich man in the afterlife: for Lazarus to give him a drop of water on his tongue to quench his pain. In keeping with the Greek tradition of eternal torments that fit earthly crimes, the last detail we learn about Lazarus before he dies is that he is soothed by the wet tongues of the dogs. The first detail we learn about the rich man in his misery of an afterlife is that he begs for a wet tongue. A delicious irony, indeed.
Although the dog’s role as chief medical officer of the animal kingdom may strike us as something new, the dog’s manifold roles in today’s world have a very ancient pedigree, showing in this instance that we have more in common with our Biblical forebears than we previously thought.7
What roles did dogs play in the Biblical world? A survey of dogs’ portrayals in ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean cultures shows that far from being perceived as “unclean,” dogs served as companions, guard dogs, sheep dogs, hunters, and—surprisingly—physicians. These diverse roles inform our understanding of the famous parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31).