Putting the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in context
What does the Bible say about dogs? What roles did they play in the New Testament?
Justin David Strong explores dogs in the Bible and ancient world in his article “From Pets to Physicians: Dogs in the Biblical World,” published in the May/June 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. He shows how archaeological discoveries clarify the various roles dogs played in the Bible. In particular, understanding how dogs were viewed in the Greco-Roman world illuminates the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus from Luke 16:19–31.
What does the Bible say about dogs?
Throughout the ancient Near East and Mediterranean, domesticated dogs served as companions, hunting dogs, sheep dogs, and guard dogs. Dogs filled similar roles in the Bible (e.g., Job 30:1; Isaiah 56:10–11). Although dogs sometimes appear in negative contexts in the Bible, such as in insults, they are not listed as ritually “unclean” animals. Strong clarifies that at least by the second century B.C.E., Jews viewed dogs positively:
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; 11:4).
In the Greco-Roman world, dogs frequently sat underneath tables and ate scraps of food that fell to the ground. The sixth-century B.C.E. Eurytios Krater depicts a scene with table dogs. Also in the New Testament, the Syro-phoenician woman talks about table dogs: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (Matthew 15:27, NRSV).
Some ancient Greeks and Romans built tombs or erected headstones with eloquent epitaphs for their deceased pets. These show that owners cherished their pets—with several inscriptions even describing the dogs as family members.
Dogs also filled the interesting role of physician in the Greco-Roman world. Strong explains how this developed:
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.
In the role of physician of the animal kingdom, dogs appear in the cult of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine. Sacred dogs, living in the god’s temples, would lick visitors’ wounds. Their tongues reputedly soothed and healed.
This understanding of dogs as physicians proves important for the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19–31. The parable reads:
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”(Luke 16:19–31, NRSV)
In the parable, dogs lick the wounds of Lazarus. Viewing the dogs as healers, we can see this was a benevolent action. Strong explains that this corrects a previous interpretation of the dogs as malevolent characters: “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.”
We also see from the parable that Lazarus wishes to eat the scraps from the rich man’s table—like a table dog. However, the rich man denies him even this.
Thus, the diverse roles of the dog as companion, table dog, guard dog, sheep dog, hunter, and physician inform our understanding of the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. To learn more about dogs in the world of the New Testament, see Justin David Strong’s article “From Pets to Physicians: Dogs in the Biblical World” published in the May/June 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
This article originally appeared in Bible History Daily in May, 2019.
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