Vipers, Wolves, Foxes, and Dogs: Out-Group Animalizations in the Gospels

Out-group animalizations are common in all societies.  Calling others, whether rivals or people of a different race, ethnicity, class, or gender, the name of an animal is often thought to degrade, to dehumanize.  There are four – to my knowledge – clear instances of “out-group” animalizations that occur in the gospels to refer to an “other.”  Other, less clear instances will be examined in a later post. 

Perhaps the most well-known out-group animalization in the gospels is when John the Baptist calls someone a “brood of vipers.”  This occurs in Matthew and Luke, being part of the “double tradition,” but there are some important variations of whom John the Baptist calls this and how it fits within the texture of the rest of the gospel. 

Let’s start with Matthew’s version:

But when he [John] saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

Matthew 3:7-10

There is a major tension here. The Pharisees and Sadducees have come to be baptized – not to criticize and poke fun at John and his followers.  That is, they have come to be part of the “in” group.  John’s comment, however, reinforces their “out-group” status: they are a brood of vipers.  His language is full of eschatological judgment at which they cannot rely upon their status as physical heirs of Abraham, since God can create new heirs of Abraham from stones.  This fits, in general, quite well with the use of “vipers” in Matthew’s gospel as well as Matthew’s very negative – but sometimes surprisingly ambivalent – attitude towards Pharisees (see, for example, the screed in Matthew 23). 

In Matthew, Jesus takes up this venomous name-calling elsewhere.  In 12:34, after responding to the accusation to cast out demons by Beelzebul – here by the Pharisees – Jesus expounds upon a long discourse against them.  In it, he says, “Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit.  You brood of vipers!  How can you speak good things, when you are evil?  For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (12:33-34).  The passage continues in the language of judgment.  Jesus’ language here strongly resembles John the Baptist’s.  Both call Pharisees a “brood of vipers,” both speak of trees and fruit, and both speak of judgment.  In this case, Jesus is flipping the tables on the Pharisees.  They have accused him of being in league with the prince of demons; he, in turn, has called them vipers and suggests that they bear bad fruit and speak evil from the abundance of evil that is within them. 

The final place in Matthew that mentions vipers is 23:33, when, again, Jesus speaks against the Pharisees (and scribes).  This comes in a long screed against the hypocrisy of Pharisees that basically makes up the entirety of chapter 23.  The particular serpentine name-calling comes in the context of saying that the ancestors of the Pharisees shed the blood of the prophets.  In the midst of it, Jesus says, “You snakes, you brood of vipers!” 

Luke’s version of John the Baptist also includes the name-calling of “brood of vipers!” The difference is that it is not directed at the Pharisees, but at the “crowds.” While the pericope continues the same way with judgment and bearing good fruit, the next segment changes the general tenor of the passage, as the crowd then asks what they need to do – that is, they earnestly seek to “bear good fruit.”  There we learn that among the crowd are tax collectors and soldiers.  In this case, the accusation of “brood of vipers” may seem to create distance as it does in Matthew, but, unlike Matthew, that distance is overcome by the crowd seeking to what they need to do.  It does not as easily fit within the texture of Luke’s gospel.  Luke does not bring up the “brood of serpents” again.  Yet there are some adaptations here, since Luke does not have the same level of antipathy towards Pharisees.  Moreover, the passage introduces some of Luke’s themes of economic justice (3:10-14) as well as setting up redemption of tax collectors (and other sinners) as well as soldiers (e.g., the Centurion), though, to be sure, both of latter these elements can be found later in Matthew’s gospel as well.

So why the serpent, and, not just a serpent, but a “brood of vipers.”  Brood indicates a grouping – it is about a group of people rather than individuals. Vipers are, however, poisonous.  So perhaps this refers to the “poison” of the Pharisees (for Matthew) or the crowd (for Luke).  For Matthew it clearly has a ring of hypocrisy, and so the forked tongue may be of interest here.  For Luke, however, it does not develop this connotation.  Finally, it is possibly an allusion to the other serpent in Genesis 2-3. If that is the case, deceit – as well as potential judgment – could be in the background.

 A less involved case of name-calling occurs in the Sermon on the Mount: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matt. 7:15).  False prophets probably are people who claim to be “in-group” – thus the sheep (see below) – but are really “out-group” (wolves).  They claim to be peaceful or docile or harmless, but they are really predatory, harmful.  

A passing out-group reference occurs in Luke 13:32.  A bit like the third viper reference in Matthew, this one occurs in the context of the killing of the prophets.  In this case, however, the Pharisees come to warn Jesus that Herod is out to kill him.  Jesus responds, “Go and tell that fox [for me], ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.  Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem’” (Luke 13:31-33).  Fox is clearly a slur, but it is unclear what kind of slur it is.  Today we associate a fox with being sly – is it the same for the ancient world? 

The final “out-group” animalization is a bit more involved: it is the story of the Syro-Phoenician / Canaanite woman in Mark 7:24-30 and Matthew 15:22-28.  In Mark’s version, a Gentile Syrophoenician woman, whose daughter has an unclean spirit comes to Jesus, bows at his feet, and asks him to cast out the demon.  Jesus retorts harshly, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  The woman responds cleverly, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  Jesus then, for that saying, says to her that the demon has left her daughter.  Matthew’s version has some minor changes, including the woman is a Canaanite and she refers to Jesus as “Son of David.”  Matthew’s dialogue is more involved.  The woman begs for help, but Jesus does not answer her.  Jesus then says that he has only come for “the lost sheep of Israel.”  Finally, he calls her a dog.  Her retort is the same, but his final response is a little different, exclaiming on her great faith rather than her cleverness. 

 Refusing the miracle and calling the woman a dog is quite harsh here.  “Dog” continues to be a major negative slur today in the Middle East.  To get the degree of insult across, one could perhaps translate this “bitch,” though “dog” could refer to both men and women in a way that the modern “bitch” does not. 

One could look at the usage and portrayal of dogs in the Elijah-Elisha story to get a sense of the views of dogs in ancient Israel.  Dogs lick the blood off dead bodies and eat the dead bodies Jezebel and those belonging to Ahab who die in the city (1 Kings 21:19, 23-24; 22:38; cf. 2 Kings 9:35-37).  A guy named Hazael refers to himself as a servant, a “mere dog,” to Elisha in what is clearly a form of self-abasement (2 Kings 2:13).

Moreover, in Revelation 22:15, dogs are listed alongside sorcerers, fornicators, murderers, and idolators as those who will remain outside the gates of the new Jerusalem.  Dogs are associated with the greatest of sinners and the lowest of the low.

Who does the name-calling?  It is a bit surprising to discover in all cases that either Jesus or one of the “good guys,” like John the Baptist, does the name-calling in every instance.  Of course, the story is told from that perspective, and it does not record any animal slurs against John the Baptist, Jesus, or his disciples.  Nonetheless, there are “in-group” animalizations that do occur, though for different reasons.  Jesus – usually – calls his followers names of animals (a subject for another post).


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