No, No, Bad Dog: Dogs in the Bible

Israelite attitudes toward dogs

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2015. It has been updated.—Ed.


Dogs in the Bible were not well loved. To be called a dog was to be associated with evil and low status. Therefore it is surprising that Caleb, one of the great Hebrew spies, means “dog” in Hebrew. Pictured is a stone relief created in 1958 by sculptor Ferdinand Heseding. The relief, which appears on a fountain in Dusseldorf, Germany, depicts the Biblical spies Joshua and Caleb carrying a cluster of grapes back from the Promised Land (Numbers 13:1-33).

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).

The free eBook Life in the Ancient World guides you through craft centers in ancient Jerusalem, family structure across Israel and ancient practices—from dining to makeup—throughout the Mediterranean world.

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).

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on January 26, 2015.

ellen-whiteEllen 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.


Further reading in the BAS Library:

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.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Bible Animals: From Hyenas to Hippos

Canaan Canine Faces Threat in Israel

Millions of Mummified Dogs Uncovered at Saqqara

Camel Domestication History Challenges Biblical Narrative

Cats in Ancient Egypt


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  • Philip says

    Actually, 12000 years is pretty impossible for any gene pool to survive (per genetic load). I hypothesize that dogs were bread but over a few 100 years (some more or less than others). These monstrous creatures from hell were created, to instinctively tolerate our vicious sin-curse, and to become man’s gothic companion, hunter, protector, and faithful help. God does not create accidents. Jesus, who called a woman a “dog”, recognized that woman’s great faith and blessed her request. IOWs, we gentiles are dogs in need of Salvation and LOVE.

    Scriptures, OTOH, are God’s terrible Word. I named my son Caleb (dog) due to the fearful friendliness and boldness of dogs … which glorify God by their monstrous FAITH & LOVE.

  • Katsia says

    Thank you so much for this explanation. I used to love our dog who died in our hands and whose last look I still remember and cannot take another one.

  • Billy says

    All you need is (love) and a dog…….

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