February 2nd is a day celebrated in both Christian and secular calendars. In the secular calendar, it is called Ground Hog Day. On this day, a sleepy and oversized rodent in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, named Phil, is brought out of his slumber and paraded before individuals and cameras in order to observe whether Phil will see his shadow. This rodent exhibitionism lets us know if six more weeks of winter are on the horizon—a strange custom for auguring the future weather.
In the Christian calendar, February 2nd is the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, which occurs forty days after the birth of Jesus. The scriptural focus is Luke 2:25-38 where baby Jesus is brought to the Temple. It is also known as Candlemas Day, a day for the blessing of candles and a procession of candles. These symbols recall Simeon’s words that Jesus will be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32).
In our own family tradition, however, Pam and I established a very different type of celebration on February 2nd. February 2nd was Thecla Day. Fifteen years ago Pam and I traveled to a foster home in Kansas and picked up Thecla as a twelve-week old rat terrier puppy who had been rescued from a puppy mill. Each February 2nd we would acknowledge this day as the day we gained a “riddle wrapped in a hairball,” as Pam liked to call Thecla. Thecla never seemed to pay much attention to the day; she assumed every day was Thecla Day. The world revolved around her. We would acknowledge the day sometimes with gifts or special treats. This is the first time in fifteen years there is nothing to celebrate.
Since Thecla’s death, I have been thinking a lot about her and about how she fits into God’s creation and especially about life after death for animals. One of the questions journalists throw out as a bone to theologians is, “Do dogs go to heaven?” Even Pope Francis was caught up in this question recently when individuals misattributed to him the statement that animals have a place in Paradise. Instead of “Do all dogs go to heaven?,” I would pose the question in a little different way, “Will there be dogs under the messianic table?”
In the biblical tradition, of course, no definitive answer exists to the question. Just as Moses was only able to see God partially from his sheltered cleft in the cliff (Exodus 33:18-23), we understand the Bible only partially because it is in its own cultural cleft and because we are also in ours. There are, however, tantalizing hints.
Sniffing Around Tobit
I have always been drawn to the quirky and engaging work called Tobit that resides in those rarely read Jewish writings between the time of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. In this Jewish narrative of rewarded piety, there is a brief reference to a dog. As Tobit’s son, Tobias, is preparing to set off on a journey to Media to retrieve money his father left in safekeeping with a kinsperson, he is joined by a stranger, who is the angel Raphael incognito. Also, as the text notes, a “dog came out with him and went along with them” (Tobit 6:2). Some early manuscripts even have a scribal addition to make it explicit that the dog was the “young man’s dog.” (1) Interestingly, a dog is a typical part of the iconography of artistic depicts of Tobit story.
This dog is mentioned one last time in Tobit 11:4 as Raphael and Tobias start back home: “and the dog went along behind them.” The two dog references form a bookend around the incredible adventures of Tobias, during which he encounters a fiancé-killing demon named Asmodeus, eventually marries his kinswoman Sarah, and arrives home to successfully cure his father’s blindness. Enough material exists here for a short mini-series. Through it all, evidently, the dog is faithfully hovering around as loyal companion.(2)
If Tobit reveals, indirectly and only briefly, a positive view of dogs, could this view carry over to some New Testament writers?
Luke: The Dog Lover
In the Gospel of Luke, we have a brief reference to dogs. It occurs in the narrative of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. Here the dogs lick Lazarus’ sores. Joel Green’s assessment is typical on this passage, “These curs have not come to ‘lick his wounds,’ . . . but to abuse him further and, in the story, to add one more reason for us to regard him [Lazarus] as less than human, unclean, through-and-through an outcast.” (3) Some scholars acknowledge a possible positive allusion to these dogs, but they do it grudgingly. John Nolland, for example, places his comments in parentheses: “(It would be possible to take the dogs’ action as an expression of the compassion that Lazarus’ fellow human beings have failed to provide, but this fits the syntax and flow less well).” (4)
In my own reading, I think the evidence illustrates Luke’s subtle, yet positive, allusion to the canine family, perhaps even drawing his inspiration from the book of Tobit. The author of Luke is the one New Testament writer who seems to have the most literary affinity with Tobit. (5) Luke organizes his Gospel around a travel/journey motif, which certainly is a key narrative feature in Tobit. But even more, in Luke’s account of the rich man and Lazarus is found angels and dogs, elements also in the Tobit narrative. While dogs could be a sign of the level to which Lazarus has fallen, these canine companions were the only ones to approach and touch Lazarus—and salvific touches are important in this narrative (as they are throughout Luke’s Gospel). The rich man desperately sought a touch from the tip of Lazarus’ finger dipped in water (Luke 16:24), which the rich man did not and could not experience. Lazarus, however, even as a throw away of society, still had the salvific touch or lick from the dogs.
Also of interest is that negative references to dogs are missing from Luke’s Gospel. While Matthew and Luke follow the same Saying Source (Q) in many areas, the author of Luke choses to omit this saying of Jesus preserved in Matthew, “Do not give dogs what is holy . . .” (Matt. 7:6a). The author of Luke also choses to omit the story found in Mark and Matthew regarding the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30; Matthew 15:21-28), the one whom Jesus labels a dog. Perhaps the author of Luke was a dog lover. (6)
While the between-the-lines hints of positive allusions about dogs exist in some biblical writers, actually little is known about the souls of animals after death? Is the end of Thecla, whose graves lies only 30 feet from my study window, only to be dust-to-dust? As the writer of Ecclesiastes says,
“For the fate of humans and the fate of animals are the same: As one dies, so dies the other; both have the same breath. There is no advantage for humans over animals, for both are fleeting” (3:19 NET).
Yet if the same breath of God is breathed into animals as into humanity, could we have an eschatological hope that the creatures who grace our world (and those who intimately grace our lives) will also have a place at the messianic banquet? Will the peaceable kingdom (Isaiah 11:1-10) that allows for reconciliation between wolf and lamb, calf and lion, cow and bear, and also between humanity and animals, include a place at the table for animals? How large is the apocalyptic power of Christ’s resurrection in God?
Cosmic Canines: Conclusion
Apocalyptic writers encourage the greatest eschatological hope for Thecla and her kind. Apocalyptic writers are a strange group–not exactly the type of folks who easily fit into our theological neighborhoods. They are the ones with wild-welded metal sculptures on their front lawns and with houses painted bright greens, reds and yellows. They see the world “slant.” By pulling back the arbitrary veil we so confidently call reality, they reveal a truth that is bigger and more hopefully.
The anonymous writer of 2 Enoch (late first century C.E.) reveals that as God is concerned with every human soul, so also God is concerned with animal souls after death. At the end of the age, it will be animals that bring a judgment against humanity: “And not a single soul which the Lord has created will perish until the great judgment. And every kind of animal soul will accuse human beings who have fed them badly.” (7) While this writer’s focus is how abuse in this age will not be forgotten in the age to come, it illustrates that for at least for one Jewish writer animals do find their way to the messianic banquet. A New Testament writer also affirms this vision.
In the great worship scene of chapter 4 in Revelation, John on the island of Patmos see in the heavens four living creatures surrounding the one who sits upon the throne. They have a (1) face of a lion, (2) face of an ox, (3) face of a human, and (4) the face of an eagle (Rev. 4:6b-8). This is the author’s vivid flannel graph that presents a theological truth-picture. It is a picture that portrays all creation, i.e., humanity, wild animals, domesticated animals and birds of the air, in unity and harmony giving praise to God. The eschatological vision is of God who not only revels in the praise of humanity but also in the cacophony of animal voices. And I believe one of those praises is the bark of Thecla.
1. See the 4th century Codex Vaticanus versus 4th century Codex Sinaiticus.
2. There has been a reassessment of how dogs were perceived in Hebrew society; see Geoffrey David Miller, “Attitudes Toward Dogs in Ancient Israel: A Reassessment,” JSOT, 32, no. 4 (June 2008): 487-500.
3. Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 606.
4. John Nolland, Luke 9:21-18:34, WBC, Vol. 35b (Dallas: Word, 1993), 829.
5. See Camilla Hélena von Heijne, The Messenger of the Lord in Early Jewish Interpretations of Genesis, Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche, Wissenschaft 412 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2010); Richard Buckham, Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002). Buckham suggests Anna and Phanuel are names that owe their background to the eschatological piety of Tobit.
6. I am cognizant of the fact that author of Luke may be eliminating references to dogs because of their correlation with Gentiles. Luke’s positive agenda related to the mission to Gentiles might be partially the reason for excising negative dog references.
7. “2 Enoch 58,” in The Old Testament Pseudepigraph, Vol. 1, ed. James H. Charlesworth (New York: Doubleday, 1983), 184.