“Not a Dog Shall Snarl” – What Is the Meaning of Exodus 11:7?
Moses tells Pharaoh that during the plague of the death of the firstborn:
שמות יא:ז וּלְכֹל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא יֶחֱרַץ כֶּלֶב לְשֹׁנוֹ לְמֵאִישׁ וְעַד בְּהֵמָה...
Exod 11:7 Not a dog shall snarl at any of the Israelites, at man or beast…
The verb חֱרַץ usually means “to cut” or “sharpen,” and the phrase can be literally translated “to sharpen the tongue”; in this context, it is an idiom for snarl or growl.
What type of dog is this verse referring to? To answer this, we can turn to what we know about dogs in the ancient Levant from archaeology and other biblical passages.
Dogs in Egypt
Dogs have been part of human society for millennia, although their place and status in human society differed from culture to culture. In Egypt, dogs were associated with the jackal-headed god Anubis, the god of mummification, who helped deceased humans navigate their way to the afterlife. Early in Egypt’s history, and peaking in the Late Period (6th–4th cents. B.C.E.), dogs were even mummified and buried. As Salima Ikram, professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, notes:
Canine cemeteries of different sizes are found throughout Egypt… Millions of dogs of all ages have been interred into these cemeteries, all with varying qualities of mummification.
Dogs were also valued as human companions and buried with their owners or in their own caskets. Strictly speaking, only the wealthy kept dogs as pets, but agricultural villages would have incorporated dogs into households as working animals, to guard or herd livestock. The situation for dogs in the Levant, however, was rather different.
Village Dogs in the Levant: An Archaeological Perspective
Much of our information about dogs in the Levant comes from the Persian and Hellenistic period (6th–4th cent. B.C.E.), when dogs were buried, giving contemporary archaeologists the opportunity to study their skeletons. The Levantine burial of dogs does not suggest they were venerated as they were in Egypt, but derives at least partly from the fact that these dogs lived inside the towns and villages.
The most extensive evidence comes from the Phoenician city of Ashkelon, where more than fourteen hundred complete and/or partial dog burials have been unearthed. In all cases, the characteristics of the burials and the morphology of the dogs suggest that these were village dogs.
The dog burials at Ashkelon were done with care, with each animal placed in its own individual (unmarked) pit. Dogs were buried wherever there was space, in or near roads, abandoned buildings and construction sites. In some select locations there seems to be an emerging preference for interring puppies along the margins or limits of streets and alleyways. The skeletons were not scavenged before burial, suggesting that the dead dogs were buried quickly.
Dog burials from the Persian/Hellenistic period at Ashkelon, adult (left) and puppy (right).
Photos courtesy of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon
In other words, the dogs were not pets, but they did live inside towns and villages, as opposed to roaming free in uninhabited areas like wild animals. Some of these village dogs may have been working dogs, used for guarding or herding livestock. The dogs were unexceptional in size and robustness, suggesting that they were not selected by humans. About two thirds of skeletons were not matured to adult form. Such a mortality profile closely approximates that of a natural population of unmanaged, free-ranging dogs. The skeletons show signs of pathologies in some cases, indicating malnutrition, parasites, bone fracture and breaks, that would indicate stray animals not receiving the care or protection of pets.
Dogs in the Bible
Many biblical verses seem to refer to such village dogs, which came with a host of negative stereotypes.
Dogs Are Scavengers
In Exodus, the Israelites are told to dispose of meat ritually unfit to eat by giving it to dogs:
שמות כב:ל וְאַנְשֵׁי קֹדֶשׁ תִּהְיוּן לִי וּבָשָׂר בַּשָּׂדֶה טְרֵפָה לֹא תֹאכֵלוּ לַכֶּלֶב תַּשְׁלִכוּן אֹתוֹ.
Exod 22:30 You shall be holy people to Me: you must not eat flesh torn by beasts in the field; you shall cast it to the dogs.
This verse implies that dogs were scavengers and likely ate scraps fed to them by humans, as well as garbage and discarded animal carcasses. This is the background for one oft-repeated curse in the Bible, that someone’s body will be eaten by dogs. For example, the prophet Ahiyah says to Jeroboam, the first king of Israel:
מלכים א יד:יא הַמֵּת לְיָרָבְעָם בָּעִיר יֹאכְלוּ הַכְּלָבִים וְהַמֵּת בַּשָּׂדֶה יֹאכְלוּ עוֹף הַשָּׁמָיִם...
1 Kgs 14:11 Anyone belonging to Jeroboam who dies in the town shall be devoured by dogs; and anyone who dies in the open country shall be eaten by the birds of the air…
Here we see the division of labor between scavengers that live among people (dogs) and scavengers that inhabit areas not populated by humans (birds). This curse is repeated for Baasha (1 Kgs 16:4), Jezebel (1 Kgs 21:23, 2 Kgs 9:10, 36), and Ahab’s children (1 Kgs 21:23). A variation on this curse is Elijah’s statement that dogs will lap up (ל.ק.ק) the blood of Ahab (1 Kgs 21:19), a curse that is eventually fulfilled (1 Kgs 22:38).
Dogs Are Lowly
Dogs were a low-status animal. When Abner, formerly Saul’s chief general, believes that he is being treated insultingly by Saul’s son, he says (2 Sam 3:8) הֲרֹאשׁ כֶּלֶב אָנֹכִי “am I a dog’s head?!” So too, when the prophet Elisha predicts to Hazael that he will someday become king of Aram and attack Israel mercilessly, Hazael replies:
מלכים ב ח:יג כִּי מָה עַבְדְּךָ הַכֶּלֶב כִּי יַעֲשֶׂה הַדָּבָר הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה
2 Kgs 8:13 But how can your servant, who is a mere dog, perform such a mighty deed?
Proverbs uses the dog to exemplify stupid, repulsive behavior:
משלי כו:יא כְּכֶלֶב שָׁב עַל קֵאוֹ כְּסִיל שׁוֹנֶה בְאִוַּלְתּוֹ.
Prov 26:11 As a dog returns to his vomit, so a dullard repeats his folly.
The low status of the dog may be why a male prostitute is referred to as a “dog” (Deut 23:19).
The Bible is certainly aware of menacing dogs—Psalm 22, for instance, describes them as dangerous and frightening, in parallel with lions, wild oxen, and war—but the more common image is of lowly village dogs.
Israelite Villages Are Silent while Egyptians Scream
Based on the survey above, Exodus 11 is likely imagining village dogs not barking, thus establishing a contrast between the loud cry of the Egyptians weeping for their dead, and the utter silence of the Israelite villages, where no one was harmed:
שמות יא:ו וְהָיְתָה צְעָקָה גְדֹלָה בְּכָל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם אֲשֶׁר כָּמֹהוּ לֹא נִהְיָתָה וְכָמֹהוּ לֹא תֹסִף. יא:ז וּלְכֹל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא יֶחֱרַץ כֶּלֶב לְשֹׁנוֹ לְמֵאִישׁ וְעַד בְּהֵמָה לְמַעַן תֵּדְעוּן אֲשֶׁר יַפְלֶה יְ־הוָה בֵּין מִצְרַיִם וּבֵין יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Exod 11:6 And there shall be a loud cry in all the land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again; 11:7 but not a dog shall snarl at any of the Israelites, at man or beast, in order that you may know that YHWH makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.
This interpretation was suggested already by R. Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam, 1085–1158) in his gloss on the verse:
המלאך מזיק ומשחית בכורי מצרים, אבל בכורי ישראל אפילו קול ניבוח של מזיקי החיות לא יזיק אותם.
The angel will harm and destroy the firstborn Egyptians but the firstborn Israelites will not experience harm [from any source, not] even from the noise of barking from dangerous animals.
The modern commentator Carol Meyers, professor emerita of Religious Studies in Duke University, writes similarly:
The cry of the afflicted Egyptians (11:6) in hyperbolic fashion will be unprecedented and total… The striking image, in which the Israelites are not disturbed by so much as a growling dog (11:7), epitomizes how God distinguishes between Israel and Egypt.
On a regular night, dogs would be wandering the villages scavenging and barking, an image we find in Psalms, which compares evildoers to growling dogs at night:
תהלים נט:טו וְיָשׁוּבוּ לָעֶרֶב יֶהֱמוּ כַכָּלֶב וִיסוֹבְבוּ עִיר. נט:טז הֵמָּה (ינועון) [יְנִיעוּן] לֶאֱכֹל אִם לֹא יִשְׂבְּעוּ וַיָּלִינוּ.
Ps 59:15 They come each evening growling like dogs, roaming the city. 59:16 They wander in search of food; and whine if they are not satisfied.
A closer look at the context of Exodus 11:7, however, suggests a different meaning.
Egyptian Dogs Not Barking at the Escaping Israelites
As noted by Christoph Berner, verse 7 interrupts the theme of the death of the firstborn in 11:6 and the response of the Egyptians in 11:8:
שמות יא:ד וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה כֹּה אָמַר יְ־הוָה כַּחֲצֹת הַלַּיְלָה אֲנִי יוֹצֵא בְּתוֹךְ מִצְרָיִם. יא:ה וּמֵת כָּל בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבְּכוֹר פַּרְעֹה הַיֹּשֵׁב עַל כִּסְאוֹ עַד בְּכוֹר הַשִּׁפְחָה אֲשֶׁר אַחַר הָרֵחָיִם וְכֹל בְּכוֹר בְּהֵמָה. יא:ו וְהָיְתָה צְעָקָה גְדֹלָה בְּכָל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם אֲשֶׁר כָּמֹהוּ לֹא נִהְיָתָה וְכָמֹהוּ לֹא תֹסִף. // יא:ח וְיָרְדוּ כָל עֲבָדֶיךָ אֵלֶּה אֵלַי וְהִשְׁתַּֽחֲווּ לִי לֵאמֹר צֵא אַתָּה וְכָל הָעָם אֲשֶׁר בְּרַגְלֶיךָ...
Exod 11:4 Moses said, Thus says YHWH: Toward midnight I will go forth among the Egyptians, 11:5 and every first-born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the first-born of the slave girl who is behind the millstones; and all the first-born of the cattle. 11:6 And there shall be a loud cry in all the land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again // 11:8 Then all these courtiers of yours shall come down to me and bow low to me, saying, “Depart, you and all the people who follow you!”
The progression from v. 6 to v. 8 is natural; the Egyptians will be mad with grief, and fearful from the death of their firstborn sons, and will run down to Moses and beg him to take the Israelites and leave. Thus, Berner argues that verse 7 is a later addition. But, while Berner sees the verse as entirely the product of a later scribe, an alternative interpretation is that verse 7 is a misplaced verse, originally part of a unit discussing the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt.
In fact, several traditional Jewish commentators assume that the verse describes not how Israelite village dogs will avoid barking at night, but how the Egyptian dogs will not bark at the Israelites while they are leaving.
In this reading, the dogs are Egyptian, not Israelite, and they would have been snarling and growling as the Israelites marched out of Egypt, but instead, YHWH miraculously made them quiet.
Guard Dogs in Deutero-Isaiah
While not a common image, the Bible does mention guard dogs. Specifically, the Persian Period prophet, Deutero-Isaiah, likens Israel’s leadership to a gluttonous guard dog, that doesn’t bark to warn of an intruder because it is focused on its own gain:
ישעיה נו:י (צפו) [צֹפָיו] עִוְרִים כֻּלָּם לֹא יָדָעוּ כֻּלָּם כְּלָבִים אִלְּמִים לֹא יוּכְלוּ לִנְבֹּחַ הֹזִים שֹׁכְבִים אֹהֲבֵי לָנוּם. נו:יא וְהַכְּלָבִים עַזֵּי נֶפֶשׁ לֹא יָדְעוּ שָׂבְעָה...
Isa 56:10 The watchmen are blind, all of them, they perceive nothing. They are all dumb dogs that cannot bark; they lie sprawling, they love to drowse. 56:11 Moreover, the dogs are greedy; they never know satiety…
In Exodus, however, the dogs are not silent because of gluttony but because YHWH has miraculously silenced them.
Snarling Soldiers and Snarling Dogs: The Joshua 10 Parallel
Evidence that this is the likely meaning here comes from a comparison with the only other time the expression “sharpen the tongue” appears in the Bible, in the story of Joshua and the battle of Gibeon:
יהושע י:כא וַיָּשֻׁבוּ כָל הָעָם אֶל הַמַּחֲנֶה אֶל יְהוֹשֻׁעַ מַקֵּדָה בְּשָׁלוֹם לֹא חָרַץ לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְאִישׁ אֶת לְשֹׁנוֹ.
Josh 10:21 The whole army returned in safety to Joshua in the camp at Makkedah; no one so much as snarled at the Israelites.
In this verse, the reference is to people snarling, and their not snarling here is meant to express their subservience to the conquering Israelites. Not only didn’t they attack the Israelite soldiers, but they didn’t even dare to grunt.
While people holding their tongues is natural, for dogs to do so is miraculous. The silence accompanying the otherwise cacophonous tumult of the Israelites escaping Egypt is a small miracle, a poignant sign of God’s favor for Israel, expressed by one of the Bible’s least favorite animals.
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Prof. Deirdre Fulton is an associate professor of Hebrew Bible at Baylor University. She holds a Ph.D. from The Pennsylvania State University (2011) and has published on topics in both Bible and Archaeology. She is the author of Reconsidering Nehemiah’s Judah: The Case of MT and LXX Nehemiah 11-12 (FAT II 80. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015) and editor [with Gary N. Knoppers and Lester Grabbe] of Exile and Restoration Revisited: Essays in Memory of Peter R. Ackroyd (T & T Clark Continuum, 2009). Fulton has also written several articles in the area of zooarchaeology and has been part of the Leon Levy Excavations to Ashkelon (2008-2016), the Jezreel Valley Regional Project (2011-2015), the Ramat Rahel Excavations (2012-2014), and the Tel Shimron Excavations (2017-present). She has also analyzed faunal remains from several other sites including Al Qisha (Yemen), the Carthage Tophet (Tunisia), and San Giuliano (Italy). Fulton is currently working on a book-length treatment with Paula Hesse on the Persian and Early Hellenistic period dog burials at Ashkelon, Israel.
Dr. Paula Wapnish Hesse holds a Ph.D. from Columbia University (1984) in Ancient Near Eastern Languages and Literatures, but has spent most of her academic career as a zooarchaeologist. She has worked on, and published widely on, animal bone collections from Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, Yemen, and Israel. She was the zooarchaeologist at the Leon Levy Excavations to Ashkelon from 1985 to 2016, and currently serves that position at the Tel Shimron Excavations. Hesse is the editor [with Justin Lev-Tov and Alan Gilbert] of The Wide Lens in Archaeology: Honoring Brian Hesse’s Contributions to Anthropological Archaeology (Lockwood Press, 2017). Her latest publications include a catalog of Worked Ivory and Bone (pp. 651-662) and Faunal Remains (with Deirdre Fulton, pp. 705-726) in Ashkelon 7: The Iron Age I (Lawrence E. Stager, Daniel M. Master, and Adam Aja, editors. Eisenbrauns, University Park, PA, 2020). She is currently working on a comprehensive catalogue of the bone and ivory tools from Ashkelon, Israel and a book-length treatment with Deirdre N. Fulton on the Persian and Early Hellenistic period dog burials.
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