Domesticated dogs served as companions, hunting dogs, guard dogs, and sheepdogs throughout the ancient East and Mediterranean. Although dogs as ‘man’s best friend’ are a modern novelty, there are historical traces proving that dogs were domesticated before the emergence of early Israel. Dogs have filled similar roles in the Bible (e.g., Job 30:1; Isaiah 56:10-11). However, dogs do sometimes appear in negative contexts in the Bible, such as in insults – but they are not listed as ritually unclean animals.
To learn more of what the Bible says about dogs, we’ll have to dig deeper into religious scripture and the history of the early Christian world concerning dogs.
Dogs In The Bible
The Bible consists of seventy-three ancient books that have been written under the supernatural guidance of the Holy Spirit by laymen, scholars, commoners, and nobility. It comprises the Old Testament, the New Testament, and seven other books known as the Apocrypha.
In its entirety, the Bible mentions the word ‘dog’ over fifty times. Dogs in the biblical text are neither domestic animals nor pets. They are stuck halfway between wild animals and those useful to man. However, most of the time they are used as a metaphor to refer to people of very low status, evil-doers, or malicious people.
It is important to note that dogs were not as domesticated in the ancient world as they are today. They were kept as herd or sheepdogs, and it has been mentioned in the Bible that dogs were used for these purposes (e.g. Job 30:1). However, packs of wild or feral dogs still roamed around the cities in search of food. In the Bible, dogs are mostly mentioned as scavengers (that would even eat the dead) and not as lovable pets which we are used to seeing now.
Like other animals, there is a whole spectrum of phrases that bring dogs into the human world, as symbols of human characteristics or conditions. A hot day is called a ‘dog day’. A complete mess is described as a ‘dog’s breakfast’. Comedians make audiences ‘howl’ with laughter. This is also somewhat how the Bible uses the word ‘dogs’ – in a metaphorical sense. In Psalms 59:12-17, the Bible describes the enemies of the Psalmist and God as dogs that prowl about the city.
Biblical Verses About Dogs
Most of the verses that mention dogs in the Bible are not very flattering. As you will see in the following scriptures, dogs are often grouped with evildoers, pigs, sorcerers, murderers, and other unflattering company:
“For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet.” (Psalms 22:16)
“Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.” (Revelation 22:15)
“The Lord also says this about your wife Jezebel: ‘Dogs will eat the body of Jezebel by the wall of the city of Jezreel. As for the family of Ahab, whoever dies in the city will be eaten by dogs, and whoever dies in the fields will be eaten by birds.’” (Kings 21:22-25)
Apart from using dogs as an example to refer to wild and dangerous scavengers or evildoers and sinners, the Bible also takes into account the historic role of dogs as sheepdogs, guard dogs, and even pets:
“But now they mock me; men who are far younger than I, whose fathers I would have hated to entrust with my own sheepdogs.” (Job 30:1)
“His watchmen are blind: they are all ignorant, they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark; sleeping, lying down, loving to slumber.” (Isaiah 56:10)
“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” (Matthew 15:27)
One rare, rather mysterious reference to a dog as a pet is found in a story narrated in Tobit, a book written around the 2nd or 3rd century BC. Tobit sends his son Tobias on a journey to the land of Media to regain his father’s ten silver coins. Tobias is accompanied by the angel Raphael and his pet dog. Tobit bids farewell to his son and says:
“Prepare what you need for the journey, and set off with your brother. May God in heaven protect you abroad and bring you both back to me safe and sound! May his angel go with you and protect you.’ The boy left with the angel, and the dog followed behind.” (Tobit 5:17-6:1).
Dogs In The Early Christian World
In the Greco-Roman civilization (where Christianity first began flourishing), dogs frequently sat underneath tables and ate scraps of food that fell to the ground. As Christianity developed outside of its Jewish heritage, Christians adopted the Roman fondness for dogs.
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 them as family members.
Dogs also filled the interesting role of a physician in the Greco-Roman world. Ancient authors noted that the dog knows that it should elevate an injured leg, following what Hippocrates prescribed. Alongside other evidence, the ancient observers saw that the dog knows what plants to eat as medicine to induce vomiting if it has eaten something that upsets its stomach and how to remove foreign bodies, such as thorns. It also knows to lick its wounds to ensure that they remain clean, understanding that clean wounds heal more quickly
This understanding of dogs as physicians proves important for the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 in the New Testament. In the parable, dogs lick the wounds of Lazarus, a poor man. Viewing the dogs as healers, we can see how this was a benevolent action. This act would have been perceived by a first-century audience as a sign of sympathy from the dogs, who cared for Lazarus like nurses.
Dogs have historically played a very diverse role in all human civilizations. A major reason why dogs are mentioned negatively in the Bible is that zoolatry (animal worship) was very popular in the region where Christianity originated.
Since cats occupied a very high position in Egyptian civilization, there is no mention of the animal in the Bible. Similarly, the Egyptian god Anubis had a canine head and this may be one reason why dogs in the Bible are rarely mentioned in a good light.