search
Stephen Stern
Dr. Stephen Stern PhD

Beagles, Beasts and the Bible: From Bondage to Nazi Europe to Baltimore Alleys

Peanut & Edie
Peanut & Edie. (Photo is the property of Stephen Stern.)

“You shall be [people] consecrated to me; therefore you shall not eat any flesh that is torn by beasts in the field; you shall cast it to the dogs.”

Exodus 22:31.

While talking to a friend on the street, my beagle (Edie) is sniffing a car wheel well, just a wheel well from what I see, but she is as fixated on that wheel well as a three-year-old child hyper-fixates on a bowl of chocolate pudding. I have never gotten on all fours to sniff the empty sidewalk, Edie’s mate, Peanut, sniffs. Edie and Peanut’s immovable determination to figure things out has nothing to do with me figuring out my world. But once I work out my world, we move forward. Every so often I pull the leash, giving them no choice but to move with me. I wonder when doing this. Would it be like me being ripped out of an absorbing movie, such as when I yank them away from dead alley rat meat, or the decomposing squirrel scraps in the field? Or when interrupted from reading the newspaper?

Animal chronicler Ed Yong compares a dog walk to Facebook for a dog. Dogs see with their nose and catch up on the news, sniffing out who is around, what others are eating, who is hanging with whom, etc. It sounds adorable, but there are unmooring moments: when on lawns, such as that of a Saturday morning at a bucolic college, one occasionally must avoid a puke puddle. My dogs want that vomit. They pull hard for the buffet filled with treats. It gets worse. Edie will roll in dog poop, but only if it smells good to her. Cat poop, if discovered, will always be eaten. Edie likes the protein. Peanut, just a few weeks ago, smuggled the head of a rat into our abode. I found him chewing on it with joy. We may inhabit the same spaces, but we live in very different worlds. Ed Yong’s “An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden world Around Us,” makes this clear.

One of the first books to mention dogs, the Hebrew Bible, doesn’t always speak well of them. It characterized dogs as filthy, sometimes vicious, dead human consuming, blood slurping, disgusting puke dining, poop-rolling animals. For example, Proverbs 26.11 notes that “Like a dog that returns to his vomit, is a fool that repeats his folly.” Deuteronomy 23.18 sums it up: “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.”

The Bible reflects the worldview of the ancient Israelites and Judeans. Indeed, those who adhere to it today don’t adhere to everything. We don’t prosecute people for wearing mixed-blended clothes, e.g., socks. Civilized people today do not call prostitutes abominable, even those who find paying for sex sinful. As for dogs? Many of us cherish them. My neighbors’ dog barks non-stop. I don’t mind. The dog has concerns. There are cafés, restaurants, even bars that welcome them. Dogs come trotting in for love and scraps. Dogs prefer scraps.

Perhaps the most important biblical passage for a dog is when God commands in Exodus 22:31 “You shall be [people] consecrated to me; therefore you shall not eat any flesh that is torn by beasts in the field; you shall cast it to the dogs.” Exodus 22:31. This may be the biggest moment for biblical dogs.

Dogs most influential biblical moment is when no dog barked “against any of the sons of Israel” as the angel of death came to clear the way for the Israelite Exodus from Egyptian bondage.

French-Lithuanian Jewish Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1905-1995) suggests the command in Exodus 22:31, to leave the torn flesh in the field for the dogs, is a reward for dogs having restrained themselves from barking in Exodus 11:7. We wouldn’t be here without them.

In “The Name of a Dog, or Natural Rights” Levinas traces a brief moment while enslaved by the Nazis; there were a few weeks when a dog befriended him. His name was Bobby. Levinas notes that Bobby wasn’t like the German humans. He knew nothing of their history of culture, theology, literature, music, philosophy, logic, ethics, or science. Germany was and still is the home of Philosophy’s greatest Christian, philosophical ethicist, Immanuel Kant. Sadly, Jews in the clutches of Nazism did not encounter Kant’s ethics.

Levinas penned: “the other men, called free, who had dealings with us… and the children and women who passed by and sometimes raised their eyes—stripped us of our human skin. We were subhuman, a gang of apes… [Bobby] was the last Kantian in Nazi Germany, without the brain needed to universalize maxims and drives” to recognize humans. In other words, Bobby didn’t need concepts, propositions, logic, or theology to contest Nazism’s exercise that Jews weren’t humans. He knew upon smelling them that they were humans, not vermin, and Bobby treated them with the joy only a dog can give. “He was a descendant of the dogs of Egypt. And [Bobby’s] friendly growling, his animal faith, was born from the silence of his forefathers on the banks of the Nile.”

About the Author
Dr. Stephen Stern has authored Reclaiming the Wicked Son: Finding Judaism in Secular Jewish Philosophers, and The Unbinding of Isaac: A Phenomenological Midrash of Genesis 22. His forthcoming book, The Chailight Zone will be out later this year, 2024. Stern is an Associate Professor of Jewish Studies & Interdisciplinary Studies, and Chair of Jewish Studies at Gettysburg College