We Americans treat our dogs as well as family. But dogs weren’t family members in ancient Israel.
I love dogs! My grand-dog, Cora, holds the top spot. But I also love Dora, Penny next door, London, my brother’s dogs Suzy and Prissy… I can’t name them all. Canine meet-and-greets add delight to my walks. Pups who know me lean in for some good lovin’. Adorable, silly, and talented dog reels litter my social media feed.
Dogs weren’t family members in ancient Israel.
While some dogs were used to guard the flocks, dogs are most often portrayed negatively throughout the Bible. In the days before Purina, dogs scavenged for scraps in the garbage heap. Enemy bodies and those who died dishonorably were left for the dogs. You may remember Ahab and Jezebel whose blood the dogs licked up (1 Kings 21:23-24, 1 Kings 22:38, 2 Kings 9:10).
Imagine how repulsive the Jews’ opinion of dogs given their laws for clean and unclean foods and rituals for purification after touching a dead body or blood.
“Dogs” is the derogatory name the Jews called the Gentiles to insult them as disgusting, unclean scrap pickers.
My childhood include some back and forth name calling
“You’re a dummy!”
“No, you’re a dummy!”
“You’re a dummy!” ended a failed attempt to prove a point.
As we’ve seen, the Jews called the Gentiles dogs. Would it surprise you to know our famous Christian Apostle Paul also engaged in name calling?
Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh!
The dogs are the religious Jewish believers forcing Gentile Christians to first become Jews. They’re misleading Paul’s Philippian converts. The Jerusalem Council debated and resolved the issue of circumcision years earlier, yet these dogs refuse to fully accept the freedom of the gospel.
The dogs are interested in themselves, not Jesus.
Sit with Paul in his damp, cold prison cell as he learns of false teachers undermining his ministry in Philippi. Frustrated in his inability to respond in person and limited to pen and paper, he expresses intense disgust with the insult.
“You’re a dog!”
“No, you’re a dog!”
Paul turns the Jews’ derision of the Gentiles back on the Jews. The Gentiles are not the filthy scavengers, but the Jews insisting on circumcision. They “prowl round the Christian congregations, seeking to win Gentile converts over to Judaism”.
Incensed, Paul resorts to name calling because the practice violates Paul’s core message: right standing before God comes through faith in Jesus alone. Nothing more and nothing less.
I regard [my status and works as a Jew] as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.
Phil 3:8b-9 NRSV
We hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. Romans 3:28 NRSV
It’s easy to become self-confident in our standing before God through religious traditions and personal effort, but God values the attitude of our hearts above all else. Believers are those with circumcised hearts.
The LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live.
Deut 30:6 NIV
Real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God.
Romans 2:29 NIV
Refuting the dogs, Paul says:
- Believing Jesus’ death alone puts you in right standing with God; nothing you have done or can do will accomplish this.
- Receive God’s gift of grace that has no prerequisites.
- Circumcise your heart.
Internalize this believing and receiving to know Jesus personally, beyond head knowledge. As Paul writes, gaining Christ, being found in Him, knowing Him as your Lord is the highest goal.
This is the first in a series of posts about Paul’s letter to the Philippians. We’ll feel Paul’s passion as he goes beyond name calling to swearing. Learn how to avoid being compared to self-interested dogs, and discover a unique intimacy with Christ because of our difficulties.
Learn more about the grace and love of God here, or continue in the series:
When Strong Language is Holy
Resources: Francis Foulkes, “Philippians,” in New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, ed. D. A. Carson et al., 4th ed. (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994).
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