November 3rd, 2013
06:42 AM ET
Opinion by Debbie Blue, special to CNN
(CNN) – As long as humans have been breathing, they've invested birds with meaning.
They fly all over the Bible - from beginning to end - and they have a prominent place in the founding narratives of almost every culture and religion. They are not just bones and feathers. They are strength or hope, omen and oracle.
In the Bible's first book, Genesis, God hovers over the face of the water like a dove, the Jewish sages suggest in the Talmud. In its final book, birds gorge on the flesh of the defeated "beast" in Book of Revelation.
Birds are the currency of mercy, sacrificed to God in the hopes of winning blessings or forgiveness. They bring bread to the prophets. Abraham has to shoo them away from his offering, and a pigeon accompanies Jesus on his first visit to the temple.
Jesus told us to "consider the birds." I love this about him, and I've taken his advice to heart.
In doing so, I've found paying attention to these wild, awesome animals reveals hidden layers of meaning in the Bible and new lessons for modern Christians looking for grace in unexpected places.
Here are a few of the surprising things I've learned about Bible birds.
Take the one bird everyone thinks they know: the dove.
In each of the four gospels, the Spirit of God shows up at Jesus' baptism in the form of a dove. In the popular imagination this Holy Spirit dove is snow white.
But the bird at the baptism was more likely a rock dove, a species much more prevalent in Palestine. These birds are grey with an iridescent green and violet neck. They're more commonly known as the pigeon.
Though most of us have separate categories for pigeons (dirty) and doves (pure), ornithologists will tell you the names are interchangeable.
That means the symbol for the Holy Spirit is just a hair's breadth away from the symbol of urban trashiness.
The dove has come to seem a bit bland as far as Christian symbols go. Maybe it would be helpful to imagine the Holy Spirit as a pigeon instead of a dainty white dove.
Pigeons are ubiquitous, on the streets. They are forever leaving droppings on our sidewalks and windowsills. What if the spirit of God descends like a pigeon, somehow - always underfoot, routinely ignored, often disdained?
The Hebrew word "nesher" is often translated in English versions of the Bible as eagle, but most scholars agree that "griffon vulture" is at least an alternate, if not a more fitting, translation.
When God reminds Moses how He bore the Israelites on "nesher's" wings, and when the prophet Isaiah promises that the faithful will rise up with wings like "neshers'" - think vulture instead of eagle.
Vultures may be loathsome to the average westerner, but they are some pretty badass creatures.
They are remarkable purifying machines. They take care of rotting remains that could otherwise spread diseases. They have uniquely strong digestive juices that kill bacteria and nasty pathogens.
The Mayans referred to the vultures as death eaters. This struck them as a good, godlike thing. It makes sense. We need something to eat death (digest it, rid it of its toxicity). Vultures stare death in the face and fear it not at all.
Before Noah sends out the dove from the ark, he releases a raven. Which apparently never comes back.
Commentators have often come to the conclusion that the raven must have failed in its mission. Maybe it got distracted while eating the corpses of the people drowned in the flood.
Philo, the Jewish commentator, called the raven a symbol of Satan. Augustine said it personified impure men and procrastinators.
In the book of Proverbs, we meet ravens plucking out the eyes of disobedient children. But it is also the raven that flies to feed the prophet Elijah when he is stranded in the desert.
In Luke, Jesus asks his hearers to consider the raven. He says this might free them from anxiety.
This takes on more meaning when you've followed the bird through the text. The raven fails, it blunders; it is noble, it is voracious; occasionally its succeeds in doing the right thing - much like us.
Jesus says, consider the raven, and don't be anxious: God feeds the carrion-eating procrastinator, which means God will care for you as well.
4. The Rooster
The rooster announces Peter's betrayal on the night before Jesus dies.
Other than that, the bird usually doesn't get much attention. It announces the dawn. Yawn.
But the rooster is symbolically loaded.
The cock has long been associated with masculine virility (the slang term for the male body part is not an accident).
The rooster was believed to be so potent that if a man smeared himself with a broth of boiled cock, the fiercest of beasts could not harm him. Rabid lions cowered before it. Even the most terrible monster would be so struck with fear at the sound of a cockcrow that it would simply die of fear.
We miss something in the story of Peter's betrayal if we don't consider this barrel-chested badass.
Of all the birds Jesus might have compared himself to, he chose ... a chicken.
"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem ... how often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings," Jesus says in the Gospel of Luke.
It's a loving image, but there's a certain fragility in it as well.
The chicken was domesticated from the wild red jungle fowl nearly 6,000 years ago. They've been caged, stuffed with garlic, wrapped in bacon, Kentucky fried.
In other words, it is vastly different, in the cultural vernacular, to be a chicken than it is to be the slang term for rooster.
That makes me think that God's power may be different than how we're used to imagining it.
It's quieter, slower.
More like a mother hen than a strutting, crowing rooster.
If considering the birds can change our ideas about what holy means, what God is like, then maybe we can begin to see grace in wild places where we’d never noticed it before.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.