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Only a Dog
Examination of the enduring bonds.
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You didn’t know how much you cared. Hell, she was only a dog. Nothing special. A Heinzey-57 varieties. Just a mutt.

But she …

Six months after your dog died, you still can’t talk about her. You turn your face away, embarrassed and perhaps ashamed of your tears.

Only a dog.

On one particularly bleak morning, Anne told me, “I wake up and Zippy’s gone and I wish I was dead too.”

“Only a dog”: that stupid, heartless diminutive comes straight from the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Koran.

Why did the ancient Semites seek to disrupt the profound, ancient connection between man and dogs?

In legends of other native peoples, the dog is a benign and helpful creature; sometimes he’s God’s companion, sometimes the guardian spirit of the underworld. Maria Leach’s wonderful God Had a Dog lists 70 native gods who had or used a dog.

Early nomadic Semitic peoples needed dogs for hunting, watchdogs, war and to defend their all-important flocks. The Midrash counts Abraham’s sheep-guarding dogs as part of his wealth.

But Semitic writers never once praise the dog’s virtues. The dog’s fidelity and courage go unremarked. He is absent from the 23rd Psalm, and at Christ’s nativity, when those terrifying angels brighten the night sky, the shepherd’s dogs don’t bark.

I tuned into an Evangelical radio broadcast whose preacher instructed children, “Sure, you like old Spot and you must be kind to him, but remember, children, you have a soul and old Spot doesn’t.”

This doctrine troubles some devout Christians who hope to see their dog in an afterlife and, scripture to the contrary, presume they will. Some trust that since theirs is a loving God, He will slip their pets past Saint Peter. More consistent Christians assume they will be so busy worshipping God in the afterlife that they won’t miss their dogs—that their love for Spot is merely an earthly love, no more important than their affection for their Chevy Impala.

Early Semites worshiped gods of fertility and gods of war: Dagon and Hadad, and Baal, “the rider on the clouds.” Often cruel, these gods required propitiation, but you could do business with them.

These capricious, somewhat manipulable gods might make the barren wife fertile, bring rain, or cause an enemy’s spear to miss its mark, but they never shared with human worshippers their god-attributes, neither their power nor their all knowingness nor their ability to live forever.

Aspiring to a god’s powers was a bad idea; see Icarus.

Belly full, protected by the watchful dog lying beside him, man began to dream of the impossible. We can trace the painfully slow, irresistible progress of this dream through the years of the Old Testament’s creation.

Although they hedged their bets with Dagon, Baal and the occasional golden calf, some Semites began to dream of a single god. One can read the Pentateuch as the history of how Jews became monotheists. They swapped out a host of familiar, approachable gods for one remote, powerful, all knowing, loving but extremely cranky Deity.

Why did God love a species that often denied Him, defied Him and sometimes ranked Him second after that golden calf?

God loved weak, sinful, forgetful, rebellious man because, “And God said: Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth …” (Genesis 1:26).

 “After our likeness”—that brilliant link made monotheism possible. Just as there is one man, so there is one God. The worshipper is commanded to become “like” God (imitatio Dei). And surely, if we are “like” God, can’t we share some of his attributes, even His immortality?

Emphatically, God did not make dog in His own image. Monotheism asserted an extreme human singularity that has engaged philosophers ever since: “Man, the featherless biped.” “Man, the rational animal.” “Homo faber.” “Man the animal that makes promises.” Our determination to distance ourselves from other animals—indeed, from nature itself—has powered eco-catastrophes that endanger all life on Earth.

When God made man in his own image and gave him dominion over all other creatures, he simultaneously banished the dog from his special place at man’s side.

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