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.


 
heseding-joshua-caleb

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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  • Yadir says

    In revelations 22:15 it says dogs are not allowed in heaven. The dogs will stay outside with murderers and idolaters sinners.

  • ilan says

    How funny that dogs are the most loyal of Gods animal servants and seemed to have been created in order to guard the house, the family, the children. I cant think of any animal that shows such selflessness to its master except the dog. Maybe they were dealing with the native Canaan dog only. But how many people owe their lives to dogs intervening between them and hoodlums or dragging them from a burning building.

    And how many videos have I seen where a dog visiting the grave of its master starts weeping and sniffling, and laying its body down in a surrendered pose as though the dog itself was injured? More then my share.

  • donald says

    Ard dogs good or bad? You can know by their fruit.

  • Tre says

    In the movie Omen, Damien was protected by a wat?…Dog! Hades, Greek god of the underworld, companion was a 3-headed wat?… Dog! In Egypt, Anubis, god of the underworld had the head of a wat?…Jackal/ Dog! Make no mistake. The bible always compared men to animals in terms of their character. Doves,serpents, lions,and lambs. To be called anything unclean, meant that that which u r being compared to is also unclean. So dogs are unclean to have as PETS but not as a guard outside the house

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