Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Don’t Grab a Dog By the Ears (Prov. 26:17)

Complete: “He who meddles in a quarrel not his own _____________________________________________.” Is like one who takes a passing dog by the ears (Proverbs 26:17)

Conflict has seemingly always been part of the human experience. Proverbs 26:17-22 marks the chapter’s third series of sayings and speaks to the general topic of strife. In advising readers not to meddle in someone else’s quarrel, the sage returns to the familiar imagery of a dog for the second time in the chapter (Proverbs 26:11, 17). Proverbs equates meddling into another’s affairs to yanking a dog by its ears. This practice ensures pain and injury. And the dog will not like it either. (President Lyndon Johnson [1908-1973] learned after grabbing his beagle “Him” by his ears [pictured with his sister “Her”, in this May 4, 1964 photo op] that animal lovers do not like it either.)

Like one who takes a dog by the ears Is he who passes by and meddles with strife not belonging to him. (Proverbs 26:17 NASB)
Dave L. Bland (b. 1953) paraphrases, “According to Proverbs 26:17, those who get involved in quarrels that are none of their business provoke retaliation and will suffer injury (Bland, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes & Song of Solomon (College Press NIV Commentary), 239).”

Alyce M. McKenzie (b. 1955) assumes:

The sages of Israel, observing recurring stories of individuals in verbal combat with one another, devised the proverbs...These proverbs have obviously arisen out of anonymous sages’ observation of narrative patterns in life around them. Far from being static statements of universal truth, proverbs make themselves available as wisdom tools for interpreting present and future stories. (McKenzie, Preaching Proverbs: Wisdom for the Pulpit, xv-xvi)
Like many modern aphorisms that incorporate canine imagery, the sage draws upon a dog’s life. Proverbs 26:17 paints a humorous word picture to remind the reader to mind her own business. Unlike many proverbs, the analogy is timeless, holding true as much today as it did at the time it was written.

Naturally, dogs do not like being grabbed by their ears. Tova L. Forti (b. 1921) writes:

The proverb describes an episode of picking a quarrel: the picturesque image of someone who provokes a dog by pulling its ears (LXX: “tail”)—considered to be a very sensitive organ—represents the quarrel-monger. (Forti, Animal Imagery in the Book of Proverbs (Supplements to Vetus Testamentum), 99)
The Hebrew for “dog” (keleb) does not indicate a breed. The more general term is apropos as the unpleasant condition transcends classification. Most translations reflect this by speaking simply of a “dog” (ASV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, NASB, NKJV, NLT) though some add adjectives to capture the saying’s setting: “mad dog” (CEV, MSG), “passing dog” (NRSV, RSV), and “stray dog” (NIV). Though these descriptors are not found explicitly in the original text, they capture its meaning.

Michael A. Zigarelli (b. 1965) explains:

If we read this verse in cultural context...the admonition is far more compelling. Dogs were not pets in the ancient Near East, but rather wild animals, like jackals. If we were to grab such a beast by the ears, we would be in mortal danger indeed. In this light, the warning takes on a much greater urgency than if we mentally transport Fifi to 900 B.C. Proverbs 26:17 implies that we could in fact be seriously harmed by entering the fray. (Zigarelli, Management by Proverbs: Applying Timeless Wisdom in the Workplace, xxiii)
Tremper Longman III (b. 1952) adds:
It is obviously stupid to pull the ears of a dog. To make sense of the proverb, however, the dog must be understood to be mean, so that such behavior would certainly cause it to bite. The comparison suggests that those who butt into a fight that they have no part in are asking for the same consequence. Both parties may well turn against the person who tries to step in to help or take one of the two sides. The comparison is an observation, but it certainly functions as a warning. (Longman, Proverbs (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms), 469)
Bruce K. Waltke (b. 1930) analyzes:
The least dangerous of the antisocial troublemakers is the busybody, for he hurts only himself...The confrontational and outspoken busybody unnecessarily experiences the negative emotions of becoming furious about someone or something and runs the danger of getting hurt...The dispute...is likened to a semiwild dog. Because of the Hebrews’ prejudice that dogs were unclean, most dogs in Palestine were semiwild, like the pariah dogs that sill haunt some countries. Its dynamic equivalent would be a jackal. Grabbing it by its sensitive ears connotes the inevitability of getting hurt in the needless dispute. Not even Samson grabbed the foxes by their ears. (Waltke, The Book of Proverbs, Chapters 15-31 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 358)
Duane A. Garrett (b. 1953) summarizes: “Busybodies cannot resist the temptation to inject themselves into private disputes, and they have no excuse for being surprised at the violent outbursts that are sure to follow (Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (New American Commentary), 214).”

What modern proverbs have you heard which reference dogs? Have you ever interfered in someone else’s quarrel? How does yanking a dog by the ears correlate to meddling in a dispute? What examples can you think of where the sage’s advice should have been followed? For whose benefit is this proverb written, the busybody or the combatants? Why should one not intervene in a quarrel?

Michael V. Fox (b. 1940) sees the text as referencing a fight amongst strangers:

Butting into others’ quarrels is a good way to get hurt...It is seizing the ears of a passing dog—that is, a strange one—that can get one bitten. (To be sure, there were, so far as we know, no domesticated dogs in ancient Israel, but one who lives near one’s house might be less hostile.) Likewise it is the danger of interfering in strangers’ quarrels (rather than, say, the squabbling of two family members) that is the object of this particular warning. (Fox, Proverbs 10-31: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Anchor Bible),799)
John W. Nieder (b. 1952) and Thomas M. Thompson (b. 1926) concur, advising:
In many cases confrontation may be called for, but you are not the person who should do the confronting. The most obvious case is where the problem or dispute is simply none of your business...Often it seems noble and virtuous to intervene in someone else’s quarrel. But unless you have specific authority to do so, God’s Word says your involvement is folly. (Nieder and Thompson, Forgive and Love Again: Healing Wounded Relationships, 156)
Why would someone interfere in another’s fracas? When is a quarrel your business? When would you want someone meddling in your affairs? Is it ever blessed to be the peacemaker in someone else’s argument (Matthew 5:9)? Does this advice apply to a nation’s foreign policy?

“Justice means minding one’s own business and not meddling with other men’s concerns.” - Plato (427–347 BCE), Republic 4.433a, translated by Francis MacDonald Cornford (1874-1943)

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