Thursday, October 6, 2011

But Even the Dogs Eat the Crumbs that Fall from the Master's Table

It has become popular for some churches to celebrate the Feast Day of St. Francis (it was on Tuesday) with pet blessings.  I have never been to one, but have always wanted to.  For some people, this may be kind of a controversial ceremony.  It makes for great publicity for the church.  The church need not be some stuffy, rigid haven of orthodoxy.  What a wonderful opportunity to present the church as an inviting community, by posting pictures on the church website of parishioners with their "fur babies" being blessed by their pastor!

Several years ago, Janka and I were adopted by our own creature, a now 100 lb Rottweiler mix who decided one morning he was going to be part of our family.  After greeting Janka at the car as she was leaving for work and giving her a kiss on her hand, he followed me to our front porch where I proceeded to slam the door in his face, hoping he would get the message and go away.  Later, after I had gotten ready for the day and was pulling around the house from our garage, I saw him still sitting on our front porch.  Lo and behold, he was still around when I got back later that evening.  The neighbors said he stayed by the door the whole day, waiting for me to come and let him in.  We took him in that night and "Bear" has been with us ever since.  He has been a great and loving companion for us, a huge and humorous presence in our home, a loyal protector, a gentle giant.

It is strange to me that there are so few dog stories in the Bible.  As I understand it, the ancient Israelites were a herding folk.  Other symbols of their herding life, such as the staff and harp, continue to have great meaning, even in the Christian tradition.  Dogs did apparently play a role in Israel's herding life (Job 30:1) and were likely used as watchdogs (Exod 11:7?; Is 56:10-11).  They may have even played a role inside the family home; although I'm thinking the rhetoric in Matt 15:27 indicates that having dogs in the house would have been considered ritually impure and a practice among Gentiles (it is the Syro-Phoenecian woman talking here).  I'd love to know whether archaeologists have found any evidence of dogs in the home as part of an ancient Canaanite herding culture.  In most cases in which dogs are mentioned in the Bible, they are associated either with violence (consider the stories of Naboth, Jezebel, and Ahab), ritual impurity, and/or slurs of one sort or another.   There does not seem to be the association of dogs with loyalty and protection.  This is a cultural difference.  As Janka and I have witnessed, we have seen a growing acceptance of dogs in the home over the past decade or two in Slovakia.   We think it has something to do with growing affluence and the influence of Western culture.  Anyway, the evidence, at least with regards to dogs, would mean that dear St. Francis would not have thrived so well in biblical times.

So are there any good pet stories in the Bible?  I can really only think of one, Balaam's ass.  Of course any story where there's a talking donkey is bound to be good.  But the cool thing about this story is that God reprimands Balaam for unnecessarily beating his donkey with his staff; and then commends the donkey as being more spiritually acute than the seer himself (Num 22:32-33).  Of course, this probably is a piece of irony poking fun at this foreign prophet.  Still, I suspect the conversation between Balaam and his donkey would have been perceived by ancient audiences as a kind of magical realism, qualitatively different from other theophanies and miracles that are so much a part of the biblical world.  In any case, Balaam's ass makes the short list of characters in the Bible who are given a vision of the divine.   When we come to think of pet blessings and the like, perhaps we should recall this story and at least consider that our pets, in some ways, may be more spiritually acute and less stubborn than we ourselves.

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