5/29/08

Was Jesus An Animal Lover? Studies in Mark, Pt. 61

To read Mark’s Gospel is, in some ways, to meet an interesting cast of creaturely characters. In chapter one there is mention of camels, locusts, wild beasts, snakes and fish (which are mentioned at a few other points in the narrative). In chapter four birds are focused on. In chapter five, the reader encounters pigs and one chapter later there is mention of sheep. The seventh chapter claims mention of a dog, the ninth a worm, the eleventh both a colt and a dove and the thirteenth a rooster. In chapter 14, a lamb is spoken of and once again a rooster. In chapter 16, we find the last mention of an animal, which is a snake.

Perhaps PETA could try to make some kind of case from all of this that Jesus was an animal lover (although he did send some pigs over the cliff—but then again, some pigs can swim!). Anyway, this has all led me to ponder a bit more deeply, Jesus’ statement to the Syro-Phoenician woman in 7.27 who interrupted Jesus (probably while eating) and begged Him to drive a demon out of her child. There, Jesus remarks: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” She replies, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

Now, I must admit, the portrayal of the dog in this episode seems quite negative; it is under the table, it only gets fed scraps, it is below even the children, etc. The interesting thing to me, however, is that the dog is in the house and under the table in the first place. Is it possible, then, that this is something positive rather than negative?

Every scholar I’ve read is in consensus on this passage: Jesus’ negative portrayal of the dog, a lower-class being, is representative of the Gentiles who, in Jewish thought, were lower-class beings as well. But is there reason to pause and look again? I think so. In the end, Jesus fulfills the woman’s request and even more, in a most miraculous way—from a distance (how far, we do not know). Further, given the very fact that Jesus let His meal be interrupted for this woman seems to suggest that He Himself considered her to be just as human as anyone else (see also Mk. 2 where Jesus eats with Levi and the “sinners”—probably Gentiles).

It could be that Jesus is just testing the woman to see if she will stick up for herself. Or, it could be that He is engaging her in a sort of joking manner (e.g. “You dog you, you’re interrupting my meal”…“I know it but you’re letting that dog eat with you…so, I don’t want to hear it Mr.”). I think tone-of-voice could influence one’s interpretation here. But I also think that owning up to the fact that in antiquity, as G. Miller has pointed out, dogs were not really seen as the parasites they have typically been made out to be.

In the ancient world, there are pottery chards that have children playing with dogs, riding dogs and dogs pulling carts. There were also guard dogs. In the Phoenician city of Ashkelon, a massive canine burial site has been uncovered (it is believed to contain over 1,000 dogs). Some dogs were even used in healing rituals (recall the passage in the NT about licking sores!); they are not mentioned in the laundry list of unclean animals in Dt. 14 either!. If such things do not show an affinity for dogs, I’m not sure what does! Of course, there are some OT passages that speak badly of dogs (I’m thinking Jezebel’s death here and/or the psalmists characterization of evildoers as dogs). Job, on the other hand, seemed to like dogs for their sheep-herding abilities (something I repeatedly saw firsthand as I traveled all over the Mediterranean last year).

The image of Jesus rounding up the “sheep without a shepherd” in Mk. 8 might even portray Jesus Himself as a dog (although, if we’re looking for a metaphor there, it is probably more correct to think of a commander). Taking into consideration that dogs weren’t seen as scoundrels and parasites throughout the Mediterranean, I propose that when we read Mk. 7, we read the “dog” analogy as a positive one. I think that it is possible that the Syro-Phoenician woman was one who remained a follower of Jesus throughout the rest of His ministry (see: Mk. 15.41).

As I pointed out, it is worth noting that the dog is 1) in the house, 2) under the table, 3) getting scraps and 4) in close proximity to Jesus and others during mealtime. I don’t know that we should read everything in the dialogue as metaphorical here (e.g. the reference to “food” as a reference to “the Gospel” or the mention of “dogs” as representative of the Gentiles and the same with the “children” and “Israel”). Perhaps scholars have reached too far here.

I wonder if, when the woman came up to the door, the dog got up to come see who was there and that’s how she saw it? Or, what if Jesus was looking at the dog that, during the conversation, had recovered a scrap? Or, what if one of the kids threw it a scrap and Jesus saw it? Did He try to use that to make a point? Was He teasing or being funny? Maybe Jesus thought it rude to leave the place where He had been invited to eat, before everyone finished. So, He implores the woman, “Let’s let the children eat all they want and then I’ll come.” Just then, He sees the child throw a scrap down. He looks at the lady again, her having seen it too, and says: “That’s not right what that child just did; he’s wasting food that his parents worked hard for.” The lady responds, “And while they’re wasting food feeding the dogs, I’m wasting time waiting on them because my child is sick. So, could you please come now; they’re not going to eat anyway.” And in the end, Jesus takes her point well and heals the child from a distance.

Was Jesus an animal lover? I have no idea. He doesn’t seem adverse to animals though. In the Markan story I focused on above, it appears to me that dogs aren’t viewed negative (although many people read the story that way!). It appears that Jesus sees children feeding the dog, concedes to the woman’s point and then fulfils her request. Thus, she could return home to “find her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone” (7.30).

2 comments:

  1. I love animals...they taste great!

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  2. I'll second that.

    I love animals too...when someone finally picks them up off the side of the road so I don't have to keep running over them.

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