Israelite attitudes toward dogs
Everyone loves dogs—don’t they? Dogs—or celeb in Hebrew—are humanity’s best friends. We welcome them into our homes, we walk them, feed them, clean up after them and excuse their bad behavior. But in ancient Israel, people had an entirely different view of dogs.
Of the more than 400 breeds of dogs around today, all came from the same ancestor—ancient wolves. Dogs were first domesticated perhaps as far back as 12,000 years ago. Because dogs are the only animals with the ability to bark, they became useful for hunting and herding. Dogs in the Bible were used for these purposes (Isaiah 56:11; Job 30:1).
There is evidence in the Bible that physical violence toward dogs was considered acceptable (1 Samuel 17:43; Proverbs 26:17). To compare a human to a dog or to call them a dog was to imply that they were of very low status (2 Kings 8:13; Exodus 22:31; Deuteronomy 23:18; 2 Samuel 3:8; Proverbs 26:11; Ecclesiastes 9:4; 2 Samuel 9:8; 1 Samuel 24:14). In the New Testament, calling a human a dog meant that the person was considered evil (Philemon 3:2; Revelation 22:15).
Some scholars hypothesize that the negative feelings expressed in the ancient Near East toward dogs was because in those days, dogs often ran wild and usually in packs. Dogs in the Bible exhibited predatory behavior in their quest for survival, which included the eating of dead bodies (1 Kings 14:11; 16:4; 21:19, 23-24; 22:38; 2 Kings 9:10, 36; 1 Kings 21:23).
There is archaeological evidence, such as figurines, pictures and even collars, that demonstrates that Israel’s neighbors kept dogs as pets, but from the skeletal remains found within the Levant, the domestication of dogs did not happen until the Persian and Hellenistic periods within Israel.
The word for dog in Hebrew is celeb, from which the name Caleb derives. Due to the negative attribution of dogs for the ancient Israelites, it is surprising that one of the great Hebrew spies bears this name. As the Israelites were preparing to enter the land of Canaan, Moses called a chieftain from each tribe to go before them and scout the land. Caleb was the representative of the tribe of Judah. When these spies returned, they reported that the land surpassed expectation but that the people who live there would be mighty foes. The Israelites did not want to go and face the peoples of Canaan, but Caleb stepped forward and urged them to proceed. After more exhortation from Moses, Aaron and Joshua, the people relented. Caleb was rewarded for his faith: Joshua gave him Hebron as an inheritance (Numbers 14:24; Joshua 14:14).
Ellen White, Ph.D. (Hebrew Bible, University of St. Michael’s College), was the senior editor at the Biblical Archaeology Society. She has taught at five universities across the U.S. and Canada and spent research leaves in Germany and Romania. She has also been actively involved in digs at various sites in Israel.
John S. Crawford, “Caleb the Dog,” Bible Review, April 2004.
Lawrence E. Stager, “Why Were Hundreds of Dogs Buried at Ashkelon?” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 1991.
Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on January 26, 2015.
The BAS Library includes online access to more than 9,000 articles by world-renowned experts and 22,000 gorgeous color photos from…
Plus, you get access to so much more from your All-Access pass:
Biblical Archaeology Review print edition:
Enjoy the same current issues in glorious, traditional, full-color print …
Biblical Archaeology Review tablet edition:
Stay on top of the latest research! You get …
All of this rich and detailed scholarship is available to you—right now—by buying a special All-Access pass.
That’s right: when you purchase your All-Access pass, you get a ticket to four decades of study, insight and discovery. Why not join us right now and start your own exploration?
Whether you’re researching a paper, preparing a sermon, deepening your understanding of Scripture or history, or simply marveling at the complexity of the Bible – the most important book in history—the BAS All-Access pass is an invaluable tool that cannot be matched anywhere else.
You'll get to experience all the discoveries and debate in beautiful clarity with Biblical Archaeology Review, anytime, anywhere! And the Library is fully searchable by topic, author, title and keyword, as well as the Special Collections like this one.
The All-Access pass is the way to explore Bible history and biblical archaeology.
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update.
Send this to a friend