Reading Dogs in the Texts of the Bible with Derrida

The notion of the human gets its content by opposing it with the notion of the animal. This contrasting of the human with the animal assists us to present a homogenous representation of ‘the human’. It makes us assume and take for granted what is thought to be properly human. This framing of what is properly human then leads us to think of what is beastly and even relegate some humans as uncivilized and wild. Such thinking makes it possible to think of humanized humans and set them apart from animalized humans. This distinction then takes several shapes based on racism, castes, religion, tribes, nationalism, gender etc. This means the binarization of the two notions generates hegemony for the humanized humans and marks the rest for treatment like animals. This is why several critical thinkers have interrogated what we deem as the proper human that is operating as normative and thus normalises exclusion and domination of other humans and animals.

This is why we have to complicate and critically question the use of this homogeneous sign, the human. We cannot homogenize our heterogeneous ways of being humans in the world. Besides, we cannot imprison the diverse lives of animals into a homogenous concept of the animal and then oppose it with the black-boxed homogenous notion of the Human. Derrida rightly tells us that there are several oppositions between humans and animals and invites us to put the opposition between the two categories under erasure and keep it fluid and undecidable. This means Derrida is interested in multiplying the figures of the two categories, complicating, delinearizing, thickening, folding and dividing the life of their difference.

Maybe we have to turn to the Bible to make sense of this operation of multiplication. Just as God, in Genesis, calls on both animals and humans to “increase and multiply” upon the earth (1:22, 28), so also Derrida calls on his audience to “increase and multiply” our awareness or acknowledgement of the many differential relations that structure both the distinctions between humans and other animals and the distinctions among innumerable species of animals, across that same earth. Can we, therefore, make use of this Derridian intervention to reread the Bible? Such an opportunity does not consist in doing a survey like an examination of animals in the Bible, although it may have its own value. The opportunity that Derrida provides consists of reading the Bible without the human and the animal binary. Such a reading is important because Bible was born when this binary which is the product of modernity did not exist.

To do this rereading of the Bible, lets us begin with the reading done by Emanuel Levinas about the dogs of Exodus. Exodus 22 makes a distinction between the meat that can be eaten by the Israelites and the meat that is given to dogs. This attention to the dogs is quite novel. Usually, dogs have not been the subjects of biblical research. Besides, the dogs of Exodus 11 and the dogs of Exodus 22 are seldom placed in relation to one another as they are juxtaposed by Levinas. Levinas brings the dogs of Exodus 11 and the dogs of Exodus 22 although, they do not have anything in common. He does it to bring them to relate to the dog in the Nazi camp and show how the tormentors of the Jews saw them as a gang of apes and animalized them while the dog in the camp recognized their humanity with the joy and excitement with which he greeted them at their assemblies. Levinas calls the dog the last Kantian universalist in Nazi Germany who exposes how the Nazi tormentors have stooped down to the status of a dog in Genesis 22 while the dog in the camp reminds them of the dogs in Genesis 11. Hence, Levinas thinks that the dog in the camp has Egyptian ancestors.

In all this, we can notice that the binary of the animal and the man is not in operation although the differences between dog and man are clearly marked. Often one can see the differential relations between the two also become interchangeable to manifest how man degrades himself. We can also see how the lines between human and animal are obscured in Biblical passages where provision is made for the substitution of animals in place of firstborn humans as objects of sacrifice. We have the instance of the sacrifice of Isaac.

Many biblical texts, therefore, use canine references rhetorically to ‘insult’ human beings by comparing them to dogs or, in some cases, dead dogs (e.g., 1 Sam. 23:14; 2 Sam. 3:8, 9:8, 16:9; Pss. 22:16, 20; 59:6; Prov. 26:11; Isa. 56:10–11). Moreover, Biblical characters also refer to themselves as dogs in a self-deprecating fashion (2 Kings 8:13). The same continues in the New Testament Matt. 15: 26 where Jesus says it is not right to take food from the children and throw it at the dogs. In a different way dogs in Luk. 16:21 suggest that the fate of Lazarus was less than the dog while he was suffering and longing for the crumbs of bread from the table of the rich man.

We can see how the Biblical dogs multiply their signification and resist being trapped in the human/ the animal binary. This de-semiotization or expulsion of the human and the animal binary in our reading of the Bible free us to interpret from interpreting it to legitimize animalization of some humans to maintain the exclusive status of the humanized humans. It also frees us from lending our support to the ill-treatment of animals. This is why a growing body of contemporary literature suggests, for a range of ethical, ecological, ethological, and philosophical reasons, challenge us to rethink the traditional Western ways of drawing lines between human and animal. This does not mean that we do not have to do that rethinking in India. We can see how the dog in the Mahabharata stands as a signifier of the outcaste be it in the story of Ekalavya or be it in the story of Yudhishthira. The challenge is to embrace the dog as Yudisthira did.

2 Comments

  1. arun
    February 1, 2022

    That is an interesting take Fr Victor. Thanks for opening it up; hoping to see the continued reflection on the theme on the specific passages..

    Reply
    1. jnanamrit
      February 3, 2022

      Many thanks…

      Reply

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