Bo: The Dog in the Night

January 14, 2013 at 10:14 pm | Posted in Bo, Passover/Pesach | 1 Comment

To me, dogs are pets. Most dogs have appealing personalities, and the love between dog and human is real. I rarely cry, but I cried when our dog died.

In the Torah, dogs are bad news. The ancient Israelites did not domesticate dogs until late in the First Temple period, even though their neighbors had long been training dogs for hunting, herding, and guarding. So most of the 24 references to dogs in the Hebrew Bible view them as disgusting feral scavengers. Calling a man a dog (or worse, a dead dog) means that he is the lowest of the low.

The first appearance of the Hebrew word for dog, kelev, is in this week’s Torah portion, Bo (“Come”).

Moses said: Thus said God: In the middle of the night, I Myself will go out in the midst of Egypt. And every firstborn in the land of Egypt will die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh sitting on his throne, to the firstborn of the slave-woman who is behind the millstones, and every firstborn beast. Then there will be loud wailing in all the land of Egypt, the like of which has never happened, and the like of which will not happen again. But as for all the children of Israel, not a dog yecheratz its tongue against man or beast; in order that you shall know that God makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel. (Exodus/Shemot 11:4-7)

yecheratz = will cut, will use a sharp instrument, will decide

On the night of the tenth plague, the death of the firstborn, not a dog will use its tongue as a sharp instrument against the Israelites. In other words, while God is killing Egyptians, not even a dog will growl or bark to threaten the Israelites.

The verses translated above include two contrasts between the highest and the lowest. First, God says all the firstborn of Egypt will die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh sitting on his throne, to the firstborn of the slave-woman who is behind the millstones. The phrase “slave-woman behind the millstones” is a translation of a phrase that an Egyptian document uses to indicate someone of the lowest possible social class. In other words, God will make no exceptions; everyone belonging to Egypt will suffer, regardless of social position, and regardless of guilt or innocence.

Next, the Torah says that everyone belonging to Israel will be safe from all threats: from the highest power possible–God Itself–to the lowest danger–dogs. In the middle of the night, while God is killing the Egyptian firstborn, and the Israelites are eating their Passover lamb, roaming dogs  will not bite any Israelite humans or beasts. They will not even bark.

This reminds me of the dog that did not bark in the night in “Silver Blaze”, a Sherlock Holmes story by Arthur Conan Doyle. Inspector Gregory asks Holmes, “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That was the curious incident.”

Sherlock Holmes has deduced that the guard-dog was silent in the middle of the night because the intruder was not a stranger, but the dog’s owner.

The passage in Exodus/Shemot contrasts the loud wailing of the Egyptians with the silence of the dogs. Dogs get agitated when their owners start screaming and wailing, and they respond by whimpering and barking. The dogs who will not growl or bark during the night of the death of the firstborn clearly do not have Egyptian owners. The Israelites who wrote down the Torah thought of dogs as ownerless wanderers, so the silent dogs do not belong to the children of Israel, either. Whose dogs are they?

And it was at midnight when God struck every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh sitting on this throne, to the firstborn of the captive in the dungeon, and every firstborn beast. (Exodus 12:29)

God goes from house to house in Egypt that night, skipping over only the houses of the Israelites. But the dogs roaming in the streets are silent, like the dog in “Silver Blaze”–because they recognize their owner.

I want to be like a dog. I don’t want to be the lowest of the low. But I do want to recognize my owner.

I have often wondered why the scout in the book of Numbers/Bamidbar who argues that the Israelites should go ahead and enter Canaan, and trust God to give them the land, is named Caleb, Kaleiv in Hebrew. His name comes from the same root as kelev, “dog”. Yet Caleb’s actions are all virtuous, not base and low, the way most dogs in the Torah behave. Perhaps Caleb is named after the dogs in Egypt—because he, too, recognized God.

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  1. […] previous posts on Bo: Heard-Hearted Habit, Clouds and East Wind, Serving God with Possessions, and The Dog in the Night. And watch for my post two weeks from now, on Beshallach (“And he sent”), when the Israelites […]


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