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Dead Dog: Motifs in Samuel

Dead Dog: Motifs in Samuel

dead dogWe live in a dog lover’s world and so it should come as no surprise that we use many idioms related to our four-legged friends. The positive use of an idiom involving dogs is usually related to puppies. We talk about having “puppy dog eyes,” or when speaking of teenagers we say they have a case of “puppy love.” Of course there’s also the colloquial expression, “What’s up dog?,” or “Yo dawg!” As much as we love our dogs, it’s surprising how often we use them in idioms with a negative meaning. “It’s a dog-eat- dog world,” “I’m sick as a dog,” “I’m dog-tired,” “You work like a dog,” and many more (see How friendly are these 29 dog idioms–disclaimer, some of these aren’t the nicest of expressions!). When a woman is called “a dog,” or worse, a female version of a dog, it’s not a compliment! If someone pranks me, I might threaten them good-naturedly by saying, “You’re a dead dog!” When someone is wasting time we might say, “You’re beating a dead dog,” although admittedly I’ve heard “horse” used in this idiom more frequently.  Although we are talking about dead dogs in this post, hopefully we won’t be beating any (i.e., I hope you think the article is worth your time)!

“Dog” in Scripture

vicious dog
Enemies in Scripture can be pictured as menacing dogs.

While current idiom’s can use “dog” positively or negatively,  dog language in Scripture is always negative. “The psalmist’s enemies are presented as menacing dogs (Ps. 22:16 [17]), and dogs represent a fool in Prov. 26:11, where the folly or sins of the fool are compared to the filth of dog vomit. Israel’s sentinels are called ‘silent dogs’ who sleep rather than bark, while Israel’s enemy is described as a voracious, devouring dog (Isa. 56:10–11)” (M.E. Taylor, Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p. 352). “Dogs were scavengers and kept towns clean by consuming garbage and unburied corpses (Ps. 59:14–15 [MT 15–16])” (Ibid.). The NT, like the OT, considers dogs to be an unclean animal (Matt. 15:26-27). In fact, in Revelation’s picture of the heavenly city, dogs are said to be on the outside along with other unsavory characters (Rev. 22:15).

“Dog” and “Dead Dog” in Samuel

There are 5 occurrences of dog language in Samuel with a possible sixth occurrence (which will be explained below). Three verses specifically use the words “dead dog” (1 Sam. 24:14 {MT 15]; 2 Sam. 9:8; 16:9). In the other two occurrences the speakers refer to themselves as “dogs” and later end up dead (1 Sam. 17:43; 2 Sam. 3:8). So it seems that we can legitimately label these as “dead dog” passages as well. These passages use the word “dog” in one of two ways: 1) When someone is called a “dead dog,” the person using the expression is speaking disparagingly of another. 2) When a person refers to themselves as a “dead dog,” it is usually a statement of humility, unless the context makes it clear that they do not see themselves as a “dog.”

Goliath and Abner: Dogs Who End Up Dead

Goliath becomes a dead dog
Goliath denies that he is a dog, nevertheless, he winds up eating the dust like a dead dog.

When David goes out to engage Goliath in battle, Goliath says, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” (1 Sam. 17:43). Goliath’s question is clearly rhetorical. He does not believe that he is a dog, and therefore, this is a derogatory use of the word. In other words, Goliath is not expressing humility by referring to himself as a dog. Ironically, a few verses later, Goliath winds up dead, proving he is, in fact, a “dead dog!”

When Ishbosheth accuses Abner of sleeping with Rizpah, his father’s concubine, Abner angrily retorts, “Am I a dog’s head of Judah?” (2 Sam. 3:8). Once again, we have a rhetorical question. Clearly Abner does not think that he is a “dog’s head.” There are several interesting observations that can be made about this response. Anderson observes, “Since sexual promiscuity of dogs is nearly proverbial, Abner’s exclamation is fairly apposite” (A.A. Anderson, WBC, 2 Samuel, p. 56). It is also noted by some scholars that “dog’s head” may, in fact, be a euphemistic reference that actually refer’s to a dog’s backside! (See e.g., Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Old Testament): Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel–Vol. 2, p. 424). Finally, the word for dog in Hebrew is keleb. The name Caleb comes from this word. It’s possible that Abner was making a wordplay here. Recall that at this time David was reigning over Judah from Hebron (2 Sam. 2:1-4). Hebron was the city given by Joshua to Caleb (Josh. 15:13). When Abner says, “Am I a dog’s head of Judah?,” some scholars take this to mean “Am I the chief of Caleb of Judah?” “Head” here would mean “leader” (see my post on the head motif in Samuel). The reference to Caleb (which means “dog”) would be a way of referencing Hebron. Therefore, Abner would be saying, “Do you think I’m loyal to David who rules over Caleb’s territory in Hebron?” (On this interpretation see, McCarter, 2 Samuel, Yale Anchor Bible, p. 106). At the same time, the expression carries the idea of being a dog’s head and thus it would have a double meaning. If this is the case, then this would be a clever retort indeed! By the end of the chapter (2 Sam. 3:27), the man who sarcastically referred to himself as a “dog’s head,” is dead.

Shimei, the Dead Dog

Shimei, the dead dog
Shimei’s cursing of David leads to his appellation as a “dead dog” by Abishai.

The clearest case of “dead dog” having a derogatory meaning is found in 2 Samuel 16:9. The context is a report of David’s flight from Jerusalem during the revolt of Absalom. As David is fleeing, Shimei throws rocks and dirt his way, while cursing him. Abishai, one of David’s commanders, gets fed up with this insulting behavior and says, “Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? Let me go over and take off his head.” David refuses to allow him and later, following Absalom’s defeat, when Shimei begs for his life, David pardons him (2 Sam. 19:16-23). However, David never forgets Shimei’s treachery and on his death bed he tells Solomon to deal wisely with him and see that he does not go to the grave peacefully (1 Kgs. 2:8-9). Eventually, Shimei breaks an agreement that he had made with Solomon. The result is his execution (1 Kgs. 2:39-46). In the end, Shimei truly winds up as a “dead dog.”

David & Mephibosheth: Dead Dogs

David spares Saul
David spares Saul. Image courtesy of St-Takla.org

The final two occurrences of this expression in the books of Samuel are found on the lips of David and Mephibosheth respectively. On one occasion when Saul is pursuing David in the Wilderness, David spares his life. Later, David confronts Saul by showing a piece of Saul’s robe in his hand, demonstrating that he might have killed him. After pleading with Saul he states, “After whom has the king of Israel come out? After whom do you pursue? After a dead dog! After a flea! (1 Sam. 24:14). David’s reference to himself as a “dead dog” is a statement of humility. He is claiming to be insignificant. This is also backed up by his reference to himself as a “flea.”

Mephibosheth the dead dog
Mephibosheth approaches King David with humility.

When Mephibosheth, Jonathan’s crippled son, is summoned to appear before David, he comes in fear. As he approaches the king, he falls on his face in reverence. David tells him not to fear, and promises that he will restore all of Saul’s land to him and have him eat at the king’s table as one of his sons. Mephibosheth responds by saying, “What is your servant, that you should show regard for a dead dog such as I?” (2 Sam. 9:8). This statement certainly expresses Mephibosheth’s humility, but in most circumstances, these words would also be literally true. It was very common in the ancient world when a new dynasty was established, the new king would kill all of the remaining descendants of the former king.  This is why Mephibosheth was hiding out in a place called Lo-Debar (2 Sam. 9:4), and why David was unaware of whether Saul had any surviving descendants (2 Sam. 9:1). However, David proves to be true to his word to both Jonathan (1 Sam. 20:14-15) and Saul (1 Sam. 24:21-22) and does not destroy all of their descendants, but instead blesses Mephibosheth.

Is Nabal a Dog?

Is Nabal a dead dog?
Abigail pleads for David to forgive he foolish husband’s harsh words.

Having covered the 5 passages which clearly speak of a dead dog, we come to a sixth, questionable passage. The question has to do with how to translate the Hebrew. In 1 Samuel 25 we are introduced to a despicable man named Nabal, and his wise and beautiful wife, Abigail. Nabal is described in v. 3, along with his wife. Most English translations at the end of v. 3 read, “He was a Calebite.” We have already noted that the name Caleb means “dog.” Nabal, whose name means “fool” is introduced in a less than complimentary way–“the man was harsh and badly behaved.” This introduction looks especially bad when contrasted with his wife. Nabal lives in the area around Hebron. As we noted above, this is Calebite territory. The text could simply be telling us that Nabal was a descendant of Caleb. If so, he has failed to live up to his ancestor’s reputation! Some scholars, however, think that the designation, “he was a Calebite,” is meant to communicate, “he was dog-like.” This would certainly fit the negative description he is given, not to mention, the way he is depicted in the coming story.   To muddy the waters a bit, the Hebrew text, literally reads, “he was like his heart.” The difference between “he was like his heart,” and “he was a Calebite,” is one small letter. Also, although the text was written as “he was like his heart,” it was read as, “he was a Calebite.” For those who know Hebrew, this is the difference between the Kethib (what is written) and the Qere (what is read). This textual issue is why it is difficult to be sure that Nabal is being described as “dog-like.” Regardless, the rest of the story shows him to be a despised individual, and he dies in the end. Therefore, it is a strong possibility that Nabal should also be viewed as a “dead dog.”

Dog Language in the Ancient Near East

The Amarna Letters
There is a lot of “dog” language in the Amarna letters.

The discovery of ancient documents by archaeologists demonstrates that the dog language of 1&2 Samuel (as well as the rest of the OT) has a clear ancient Near Eastern (ANE) background. For example, among the Amarna letters (documents from the 14th century B.C. describing an invasion into Canaan) we find a number of expressions using dog language. The dog language is used either to speak derogatorily of an enemy, or in a self-deprecating manner evidencing humility. In other words, dog expressions in ANE literature are used the same way as they are in the books of Samuel. Here are two examples from the Amarna letters, showing the two meanings.

  1. “Who are the sons of ʿAbdi-Aširta, the servant and dog? Are they the king of Kaššu or the king of Mittani that they take the land of the king for themselves?” (EA 104:26). Moran, W. L. (1992). The Amarna letters (English-language ed., p. 177). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  2. “As I am a servant of the king and a dog of his house, I guard all Amurru for the king, my lord.” (EA 60:6-EA 60:9). Moran, W. L. (1992). The Amarna letters (English-language ed., p. 132). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Another example comes from Judah’s final days as they attempted to fight off the Babylonians. From the city of Lachish come some letters of desperation from the commander there, seeking help against the Babylonians. These letters, written on pieces of broken pottery, are known as the Lachish ostraca (see the link to the left, or my post on Tel Lachish). The dog language used in these letters is all of the humble variety since the commander is writing and addressing his superior. Because of the similarities, I have just listed one example below.

“To my lord Yaosh: May Yahweh cause my lord to hear tidings of peace this very day, this very day! Who is thy servant (but) a dog that my lord hath remembered his servant? May Yahweh afflict those who re[port] an (evil) rumor about which thou art not informed!” (Pritchard, J. B. (Ed.). (1969). The Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament  (3rd ed. with Supplement, p. 322 Princeton: Princeton University Press.)

Conclusion: Dead Dogs Do Tell Tales (or is it “Tails?)

dog's tailAs we have learned in earlier posts, the purpose of a motif is to accentuate one of the messages that the inspired author is seeking to communicate. The dead dog motif contributes to the theme of humility and pride, so prominent in Samuel. We saw this theme also emphasized in the motif of tallness (see last week’s post). One who is a dog, but doesn’t know it, like Goliath and Abner, are an example of pride. Pride always results in a fall in the books of Samuel. Shimei, who is correctly identified as a “dead dog,” is eventually executed. While there is some uncertainty as to whether Nabal is described as a dog, he certainly is dog-like in his words and actions. In the end, he succumbs to the Lord’s judgment and, therefore, might be regarded as yet another “dead dog” in Samuel. On the other hand, those who confess that they are a “dead dog” are an example of humility in the books of Samuel. In David’s case he is exalted to the kingship. In Mephibosheth’s case, he is lifted up to sit at the king’s table (1 Sam. 2:8; 2 Sam. 9:11-13). In the end, every dog has his day in the books of Samuel and gets his just desserts.

If you are interested in a more in-depth look at the various characters in the Book of Samuel, like those mentioned in this study (Abner, Shimei, or Abigail), please check out my book:

Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel. Available at the following sites: Amazon USA / UK, and WestBow Press as well as other internet outlets.

Family Portraits