Cats and Dogs in the Old Testament

In Isaiah 1:3, God accuses his people of being unfaithful to the obligations required by the covenant, obligations which the people of Israel had willingly agreed to obey. The stubbornness of Israel to obey the demands of the covenant is emphasized by comparing the people’s ingratitude and rebellion with the obedience of the ox and the donkey toward their masters. Isaiah wrote:

“The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand” (Isaiah 1:3).

In a previous post, What Was the Donkey Doing in Its Master’s Crib?, I discussed how the English versions have translated the word “crib” in Isaiah 1:3. In that post, I also discussed how the early church understood Isaiah 1:3 as a prophecy of the Christ child being placed in a crib.

In the present post, I want to discuss Joel Hoffman’s post on Isaiah 1:3 at God Didn’t Say That.

In his post Joel wrote:

The NLT paraphrases as, “Even the animals — the donkey and the ox — know their owner and appreciate his care, but not my people Israel. No matter what I do for them, they still do not understand.” That’s what the poetry means, but it’s no longer poetry.

What’s more important, retaining the technical word eivus — variously “crib” or “manger” — or conveying the point? What’s more important, the point or the poetry?

And if we want to reach the modern reader, maybe we should do away with “ox” and “donkey” (”ass” is surely wrong these days) — animals that most readers no longer own — and translate “dog” and “cat.”

What do you think?

Joel asked readers what they think about using “dog” and “cat” instead of “ox” and “donkey.” My answer to his question is an emphatic rejection of his proposal. In other words, the change he proposed is not good. There are several reasons why the use of cat and dog in Isaiah 1:3 is not good, better yet, not acceptable.

One reason Joel’s proposal is not acceptable is because of ancient Israel’s attitude towards cats. Cats do not appear in the Old Testament because of their association with pagan gods.

The domestication of cats probably had its beginning in Mesopotamia 10,000 years ago. In a study of the domestication of cats, Nicholas Wade wrote that early farmers domesticated wild cats in order to protect their granaries from rodents. The domestication of cats occurred at “the beginnings of agriculture in the Near East, and probably in the villages of the Fertile Crescent, the belt of land that stretches up through the countries of the eastern Mediterranean and down through what is now Iraq.”

Cats are only mentioned once in the Apocryphal book of Baruch (Baruch 6:21), a text that is ridiculing the gods of Babylon:

18 They light candles to them, and in great number, of which they cannot see one: but they are like beams in the house. 19 And they say that the creeping things which are of the earth, gnaw their hearts, while they eat them and their garments, and they feel it not. 20 Their faces are black with the smoke that is made in the house. 21 Owls, and swallows, and other birds fly upon their bodies, and upon their heads, and cats in like manner. 22 Whereby you may know that they are no gods. Therefore fear them not (Baruch 6:18-22).

In this text, cats are associated with the pagan gods of Babylon. The text purports to be a letter that Jeremiah wrote to the exiles in Babylon. Thus, it is possible that the reason cats are not mentioned in the Bible was because the Babylonians kept them in their temples and probably used them in their rituals.

Cats were also worshiped in Egypt. The Egyptians worshiped the cat goddess Mafdet and the cat goddess Bastet. Bastet was often depicted as having the body of a woman and the head of a domestic cat. Thus, since Israel was oppressed by the Egyptians, it is possible that the reason cats are not mentioned in the Bible is because of their association with the pagan gods of Egypt.

As for dogs, they were known in ancient Israel. In fact, dogs are referred to forty-one times in the Bible. However, most times, the word “dog” is used as a word of contempt. One of the few exceptions where dogs are presented as a useful animal was when they were used to protect the flock. Job said: “But now they laugh at me, men who are younger than I, whose fathers I would have disdained to set with the dogs of my flock” (Job 30:1).

In general, however, Israelites used the word “dog” as a word to express contempt. “You shall not bring the fee of a prostitute or the wages of a dog into the house of the LORD your God in payment for any vow, for both of these are an abomination to the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 23:18). The mention of the dog in this Deuteronomic legislation is a reference to the male temple prostitutes who served in the cult of Baal.

Isaiah scorns the leaders of the nation by calling them “dumb dogs” (Isaiah 56:10) and “greedy dogs” (Isaiah 56:11). The psalmist calls an evil man a “dog” (Psalm 22:20). Dogs were considered unclean animals because they ate the flesh of unclean animals (Exodus 22:31) and because they ate human flesh (1 Kings 14:11). The breaking of a dog’s neck was a pagan religious practice condemned by the prophet (Isaiah 66:3).

Thus, the use of cat and dog instead of ox and donkey in Isaiah 1:3 would be completely out of place in light of the way cats and dogs were viewed in ancient Israelite society. Since cats were associated with pagan gods and dogs were seen with disfavor by people in Israel and because the book of Isaiah used the word “dog” to insult some of the leaders of Israel, it is doubtful that the prophet would use the obedience of a cat and a dog to contrast with the disobedience of Israel.

However, the most important reason not to use cat and dog in Isaiah 1:3 is because “God Didn’t Say That.” To remove the ox and the donkey from the text in order to add cat and dog would give readers who are unfamiliar with the original language an idea that is not present in the text.

The introduction of cat and dog in Isaiah 1:3 would help modern readers understand the text because of the popularity of cats and dogs in today’s society (even though cat owners know that cats are not that obedient). However, a cat and a dog would not express what Isaiah said. To use cat and dog would not only undermine the prophet’s message but would also contradict the way the word “dog” is used in the book of Isaiah (Isaiah 56:10, 11; 66:3).

So, what do I think about Joel’s proposal? I will stay with “ox” and “donkey.”

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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6 Responses to Cats and Dogs in the Old Testament

  1. >we should stay with "ox" and "donkey", Dr. Mariottini. You have pointed out very concrete reasons why we should not change the scriptures themselves. It did bring up a question for me how ever: Who says cats are obedient?

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  2. mattdabbs says:

    >They were able to domesticate cats 10,000 years ago? I didn't think that even possible today!I think it is good to stick with ox and donkey. Otherwise you might have Jesus hoping on a jet ski, standing atop a skyscraper, etc. Where does it end before it gets silly and as you pointed out…this could actually get all kinds of unintended interpretations just to help people see the "familiarity" aspect of the animal. Before you know someone studying this passage realizes the pagan connotations and you end up with a sermon about how pagan they were for having cats when that is not what the passage is saying at all. Why even go there?

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  3. >Marcus,I believe it is wrong to change the true reading of the Bible just for the sake of culture. In translations of the Bible, we must honor the intent of the original writers.Claude Mariottini

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  4. >Matt,I agree with you: cats have not been domesticated yet.I believe that this actualization of biblical texts can be very dangerous because it can convey the wrong message to those who read it without the proper understanding of the cultural background of the writer.Claude Mariottini

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  5. Anonymous says:

    >How about what the Bible says in Revelation 22:18 & 19 . I would think that upon reading this some of the translators of some of the newer versions of the Bible would fear what they will loose or gain,and anyone would fear changing even one little word.

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  6. >Dear Anonymous,I agree with you. But, it is not only the translators of newer versions of the Bible. The translators of the King James Version of the Bible are also guilty of adding words to their translation that were not in the original text.Thank you for visiting my blog.Claude Mariottini

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