I was recently sent some material in preparation for attending a conference. We were encouraged to familiarize ourselves with the main speaker’s writing, so I dutifully read those papers. In one of them, the speaker wrote about Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman. The difficult part of that story is that Jesus tells the woman that it is not good to take bread from the table and give it to dogs (meaning that God has ordained specific blessings for the Jews, not the Gentiles). But the Syrophoenician woman tells Jesus that even the dogs get fed by the crumbs that fall from the table.
It is easy to get upset by this story, and every interpretation is controversial. In his paper, the speaker argued that many marginalized people in American society are treated worse than dogs. The problem with his argument is that the position of dogs in 21st century American is very different than it was in biblical times. When I grew up in Eastern Europe, I had a dog that was given to me by my parents and that dog was my friend. However, the dog was never inside the house, it had work to do on our farm, and we never had special food or toys for it. When my wife and I got a dog for our children, it took me a while to adjust to the fact that she would live in the house. In fact, all the dogs and other friendly creatures that my children have had lived in the house (with the exception of a bunny that lived outside).
Sheep are familiar to both Christians and Jews because we find them all throughout Scripture—the sons of Israel are shepherds, David is a shepherd, and Jesus is a shepherd. Pastors are called to imitate Jesus and be good shepherds. However, if you talk with shepherds, they will tell you that they love their sheep, but they are not the smartest animals. When Joseph’s family hoped to move to Goshen, Joseph instructed them to say that they are shepherds because shepherds were detestable to the Egyptians and the family would be sent to live in the outskirts of Egypt (Genesis 46:34). Joseph and his family were undesirable to the Egyptians twice over because they were shepherds and Hebrews. (Gen. 43:32)
As I was writing this article, my wife told me that she was preparing pork for lunch because I like pork. This made me think of the distinction that God makes in the Bible between clean and unclean animals. The pig is an unclean animal; based on that distinction, I am breaking the Old Testament laws by eating my lunch. However, in the New Testament book of Acts, God declared all animals clean. He also declared that all people are clean.
When Jacob blesses his sons, he compares them to lions, donkeys, serpents, vipers, does, vines, and wolves. I served a church in Chicago where a deacon was trying to show his appreciation for a fellow deacon who was retiring. He read a passage from Genesis about Jacob’s son Issachar, who is a described as a rawboned donkey lying down between two saddlebags. Every farmer wants to have a strong donkey and every church wants to have hard-working deacons, but the wife of the deacon (who had lived all her life in the city) thought that this man was comparing her husband to a dumb donkey and became very upset. Welcome to an international congregation with people from the small farm and the big city!
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Over time, our perception of animals has changed from utilitarian or negative to fond. In 21st century America, we love to read all the biblical imagery about the lion lying down with the lamb and the story of Jesus riding the donkey into Jerusalem. But we should always be careful about creating our theology from the animal kingdom!