The language of the Bible uses the imagery of animals to make its message more profound and relatable. For instance, Jesus is referred to as the lamb of God (John 1:29) as well as the lion of Judah (Rev. 5:5). Lots of animals are mentioned throughout the Bible, and in almost all of these instances, the animals are used as metaphors. The dog appears in several instances in both the Old and New Testaments. Let us have a look at what it symbolizes in the scriptures.
In Bible times, dogs were not kept as pets. They were predominantly wild and would scavenge for food in the wilderness. As such, dogs were considered unclean and they symbolized uncleanliness or sin. Dogs were also used as a metaphor to describe gentiles.
Let us look at these symbolisms in more detail below.
Dogs as Unclean Animals
Dogs are often used to symbolize uncleanliness in the Bible. This stems from the book of Leviticus which mentions that any animal that walks on its paws should be considered unclean.
Of all the animals that walk on all fours, those that walk on their paws are unclean for you; whoever touches their carcasses will be unclean till evening. Lev. 11:27
It might sound strange to the modern mind to think of dogs as unclean. However, during Bible times, dogs were not kept as pets – at least not in Israel. They were predominantly wild and they often scavenged for food in the wilderness which is why they were considered unclean.
The poor, like stray dogs and cats, scavenge for food in back alleys. (Job 24:5)
And at evening let them return, And let them make a noise like a dog, and go round about the city. Let them wander up and down for meat, And grudge if they be not satisfied. (Psalms 59:14-15)
Any animal that was a scavenger was considered unclean and the Jewish people were forbidden from coming not only touching it but even coming close to one. If one were to touch a dead dog, they were considered ceremonially unclean and had to go through the recommended procedure of cleansing.
Because dogs were considered unclean animals, they were often used to symbolize sin or sinners. A good illustration of this is found in the book of Revelation 22. Check it out:
Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the Tree of Life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. Revelation 22:14-15
In verse 14, John describes the people who will make it into the kingdom of God. He describes them as having white robes which symbolize righteousness. These, as John says, will go through the gates into the city of God. However, those who do not qualify will remain outside the gates, or as John puts it, “outside are the dogs.” In this context, dogs refer to unclean (unrighteous) people who will not get into heaven because of their sins.
Dogs as Symbols of Gentiles
As we have seen, dogs were considered unclean and were often used to represent sinners. It therefore comes as no surprise that dogs would also be used to symbolize Gentiles, whom the Israelites considered unclean. A good example of this is recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. Check it out:
He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Mathew 15:26-27
A Canaanite woman had come to Jesus for help. She pleaded with him to come to heal her daughter who was demon-possessed and was “suffering terribly.” Jesus responded to her request by telling her that it was not right to give the children’s bread to the dogs. By so doing, he was referring to the woman as a dog. The woman’s response, expressing faith and humility, suggests that even the Gentiles, symbolized as “dogs” in this context, can partake in the blessings or teachings that come from the children of God. This shift in symbolism illustrates the theme of faith and the inclusive nature of Jesus’ ministry, emphasizing that faith and humility transcend cultural and religious boundaries.
This reference also confirms how dogs were treated in Bible times. Unlike today, dogs are not considered “man’s best friend.” They were so despised that they were only fed leftovers – if the children had already eaten to their full and had some leftovers. And that is why gentiles were considered dogs.
Dogs as Symbols of Backsliding
Dogs are also used to paint the picture of backsliding. This is because dogs are described as animals that vomit and then eat their vomit.
As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly. Do you see a person wise in their own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for them. Proverbs 26:11-12
A normal person would never return to his vomit. This is why the scripture above says only a fool does that. Going back to one’s vomit can be likened to backsliding because when one repents and leaves their old ways, they should make a complete turnaround. In the words of scripture, when a man is in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things have become new (2 Cor. 5:17).
However, some people come to the Lord and then backslide and go back to their old ways. And some keep going back and forth. Such can be likened to a dog that keeps returning to his vomit which in the words of Solomon is foolishness.
To sum it up, dogs have been used to symbolize several things but all of these symbolisms have one thing in common – uncleanliness. Unlike modern days where dogs are celebrated as an important member of the family, dogs were not treated so kindly in the olden days. For the most part, they were wild and stray and looked at with scorn. This is why dogs in the bible are mostly associated with sin and bad things.