From the Book of Psalms:
Each evening they come back, howling like dogs and prowling about the city.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalm 59:6 (NRSV) – May 15, 2014)
I usually prefer the Prayer Book Psalter to the NRSV translation of the Psalms, but in today’s readings I find the latter rather more compelling. The NRSV makes it clear who the “they” is in this verse (which is repeated again at verse 14). “They” are “the nations,” which in the Hebrew bible always refers to ethnic groups other than the tribes of Israel. The BCP version refers to “the ungodly,” which is decidedly unclear; it could refer to individuals and, further, could refer even to persons from within the Jewish people, neither of which understandings would be accurate.
With regard to this specific verse (which is numbered 7 or 16 in the BCP), the notion of returning late in the day from some unspecified and perhaps unknown other location is lost: “They go to and fro in the evening; they snarl like dogs and run about the city.” They (whoever they are) could have been at rest within the city during the day, but the Hebrew shuwb ‘ereb is clear: “They return at sunset.” The nations have been somewhere else during the light of day, but where is unknown (at least, it is not stated in the psalm).
The NRSV text is also much more poetic than the BCP version (which is something of a surprise, frankly). The evocative rhyming of “howling . . . and prowling” is so much more effective than “snarl . . . and run about.” It casts a disturbing vision of a dog pack roaming, possibly hunting, through the darkened city streets.
Dogs, of course, are considered unclean in Judaism. They are scavengers which will eat any sort of refuse and carrion, even excrement. Although mothers do tenderly care for their young, dogs do not pair bond and have no sexual loyalty. They urinate and defecate wherever they wish. Left on their own and untrained, dogs are pretty unsavory characters!
They also have a social order that is decidedly not a human one. 21st Century research into the organization of packs of both canis lupus (wolves) and canis familiaris (dogs) has demonstrated that the “alpha male” aggression-dominance model of pack behavior is nothing more than a human projection. Dog packs are (I use the word very loosely) organized in a much more fluid and changing way, a way not easily appreciated by human observers. For all intents and purposes, dog packs mostly appear to us to be disorganized mobs.
So these are the ungodly (to use the BCP’s word): gone when it is light, showing up in the darkness, decidedly unclean in their habits, leaderless, disorganized, and dangerous. They are like feral, untamed dogs. And, yet, dogs have shown themselves not only willing but eager to give up these ways! Dogs are more than happy to associate with humans, to acknowledge humans as their leaders, to behave in ways humans deem acceptable. And we have been happy to accept them on those terms as pets, as friends, and as co-workers.
Last Sunday’s Gospel lesson was from John — Jesus declaring himself to be the good shepherd. Shepherds are nearly always assisted by dogs to whom none of the negative characteristics implicit in this psalm could be ascribed. My pastoral theology instructor (as I told my congregation in my extemporaneous children’s sermon) objected to the word pastor as a descriptor of clergy; pastor, he pointed out, means “shepherd” and there is only one shepherd. Clergy, he insisted, should be thought of as sheepdogs.
The good shepherd made a few other claims for himself. “I am the light of the world,” for example, and “I am the way.” (Jn 9:5, 14:6) For those who are leaderless, living in darkness, howling and prowling the night-time streets, Jesus offers an alternative of light and direction.
Years ago, when I was a college student in southern California, my friends and I would visit the border towns of northern Mexico. There always seemed to be plenty of ownerless, feral dogs running about. From time to time, I would notice that a feral dog would gingerly approach and befriend (possibly another human projection) a domesticated dog and, with and through that dog, would approach its owner. More often than not they were kicked and shooed away, but occasionally the human would be willing to share some food; perhaps this was the beginning of a longer relationship — I don’t know; I never stuck around or went back to find out.
Remembering those wild dogs seeking, through a domestic dog, the friendship and protection of a human being . . . thinking about the picture of dogs set out in the psalm today . . . and putting meat on the bones of my theology professor’s objection to pastor, I think there is a lesson for me and my fellow sheepdogs here. Or, more correctly, there is a question: are we in the right place?
Are we (and the flocks we are tending) in the places where the howling and prowling, the wild and feral, the leaderless, those in darkness and hunger, can gingerly approach and possibly, through us, meet the good shepherd?
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.