THE BLOG
11/05/2013 10:13 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Most Common Birds of the Bible

As long as humans have been breathing they've been investing birds with meaning. They are not just bones and feathers -- they are strength or hope, omen or oracle. You find birds in the ancient mythologies of almost every culture. They are all over the Bible -- from start to finish.

When I tell people this, they often look at me with a puzzled expression, as if I am exaggerating. But it's true -- if you look you will find them. God hovers over the face of the water in Genesis, the Talmud suggests, like a dove. Birds gorge on the flesh of the defeated "beast" in Revelation. They are the currency of mercy -- the birds of sacrifice. They bring bread to the prophets. They are food for the wanderers. Abraham has to shoo them away from his offering, and a pigeon goes with Jesus on his first visit to the temple. God is a bird who carries the Israelites on her wings -- a bird under whose feathers we will find refuge. Jesus compares himself to a hen. He asks his hearers to "consider the birds." I love this about him. He says this could keep us from being anxious. Maybe we don't need medication after all, maybe we could just slow down, pay attention, and watch birds.

As a preacher charged with finding the good news in the strange and beautiful ancient scripture, I am always looking for new angles into the text -- something that might reveal deeper layers of meaning. I thought taking the birds seriously as characters (minor as they might be) could lead down some interesting and unusual paths.

It's worked pretty well for me -- following the raven, for example. Before Noah sends out the well-known dove from the ark, he releases a raven. If the raven's purpose was meant to be the same as the dove's, then it must have failed in its mission. Because of this the raven is often condemned. Philo, the Jewish commentator, said it was a symbol of Satan. Augustine said it personified impure men and procrastinators.

Raven's don't sing. They croak. They look a little menacing. They have represented war and destruction, doom, the void, annihilation, death. They are also highly intelligent. One study determined that they fall in love. In the Bible, they haunt the ruins of cities laid waste by the wrath of God. But it is also the bird that flies in to feed Elijah when he is stranded in the desert.

In Matthew, Jesus says "Consider the birds of the air." In Luke, he says, more specifically, "Consider the raven." The raven isn't pure or innocent -- it fails, it blunders, it's noble, it's shifty -- much like us. Jesus says consider it and don't be anxious. God feeds the carrion eating procrastinator. God will care for you. Innocence is not a prerequisite.

Considering the birds is different than considering rocket science or technology; it gets you thinking different thoughts about creatures, creation, and the creator. A bird's flight is amazing. It can grow a new feather in two weeks -- it can also be wiped out so easily. Many birds are on the brink of extinction. Without human influence (habitat destruction, climate change), the expected rate of extinction for birds would be around one species per century. Some reports say we are losing ten species a year. Considering the birds might motivate us to press for more responsible human behavior. If, as Emily Dickinson wrote, "Hope is the thing with feathers," you'd think we'd be passionate about keeping it alive.