November 3rd, 2013
06:42 AM ET

The surprisingly badass birds of the Bible

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.

1. Pigeon

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?

2. Vulture

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.

3. Raven

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.

5. Chicken

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.

Debbie Blue is the author of "Consider the Birds," and a founding pastor of House of Mercy, a church in St. Paul, Minnesota.

- CNN Religion Editor

Filed under: Belief • Bible • Christianity • Faith

soundoff (723 Responses)
  1. Pig in a Poke

    Aw,,,horse feathers

    December 15, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
    • cbtx67

      Is that why everything tastes like chicken? I got a craving for Churches fried chicken now...thanks for ruining my diet author...hehehe

      December 17, 2013 at 2:13 pm |
  2. brad1001

    Prior to his arrest and being taken away, Jesus told Peter that Peter would deny Him (Jesus) three times before the the rooster crowed the next morning.

    December 14, 2013 at 9:20 pm |
  3. Bird Feeder

    Luke 12:6

    Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God.

    December 14, 2013 at 10:54 am |
  4. Kevin

    Wait, Peter's betrayal?

    December 13, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
  5. Kevin

    Wait, Peter's betrayal? You mean Judas?

    December 13, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
    • LookielouE1705

      No, she means Peter. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denial_of_Peter

      December 13, 2013 at 3:20 pm |
  6. Glenn

    The T. Rex was vegetarian. If it was to eat meat it teeth would rip out because their teeth were only 1inch in their gums. Hollywood has deceived a lot of people with the movie Jurassic park. Is your reality based on the idiot box. Today we have bigger tvs. The bigger the tv the bigger the idiot

    December 12, 2013 at 11:32 pm |
    • mick

      And the internet has produced another generation of idiots.

      December 14, 2013 at 11:40 am |
      • Pig in a Poke

        HA HA HA HA

        December 15, 2013 at 12:16 pm |
  7. Glenn

    YouTube. Last day events of Bible Prophecy by Dough Bachelor. Also cosmic conflict, also discover prophecy, how near is the end, by David Asscheric

    December 12, 2013 at 11:26 pm |
  8. Peter

    It has been scientifically verified that the chicken is the closest descendant of the T-Rex. Isn't that funny? They guy who used to eat everyone is now the same one who gets eaten by everyone! Now, I'm sorry, what were you saying about Jesus?

    December 9, 2013 at 5:28 pm |
  9. Birds of a feather

    Matthew7: 13 “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. 14 Because[a] narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.

    Broader is the way that attracts many to it; many choose this path because– it is easier, it is a path that really does not require a person to adhere to God's laws, it seems like fun, it is a way that says that a person can do what is right in their own eyes and are not accountable for their actions.

    Narrow is the path for those who follow the word of God and few find it, it is the only path that leads to heaven!

    December 9, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
    • Spuds Mackenzie

      You know, quoting this badly written book called the Bible is no different that quoting any other work of fiction. Especially ones with no verifiable credited author. I am totally astonished that so many people think this book truthfully describes a real God. Even more astonished that people will worship it. If people would actually read the Bible there would be a lot more Atheists.

      December 9, 2013 at 3:28 pm |
      • Peter

        Hear, hear!

        December 9, 2013 at 5:29 pm |
      • dave

        We are supposed to listen to a typing dog

        December 13, 2013 at 10:33 pm |
      • dave

        Spuds, how can we take you seriously; you lick yourself and eat your own poop

        December 13, 2013 at 10:35 pm |
        • Spuds Mackenzie

          And you don't?

          December 16, 2013 at 8:23 am |
    • Snyder

      Speaking of paths: Not all paths lead to heaven, there is only one path and that is the path through Jesus Christ, as Jesus said, I am the way, the truth and the life.No man comes to the Father but by me. One life, one choice that has eternal consequences-choose wisely!

      December 10, 2013 at 8:12 am |
      • Keith Peterson

        And you believe this fictional character from parchments written almost 2 thousand years ago by an unknown author that was intended to control a bunch of illiterate sheep herders. Amazing.

        Question: How do you know this supposed Jesus said this?

        December 10, 2013 at 8:30 am |
        • Mke

          Firstly, the Bible was not written by goat herders. Moses grew up in the palace and would have received an education on par with Pharaoh's children.

          Secondly, during Biblical times a person's wealth was measured by gold and the livestock they owned. If you lived during biblical times and was wealthy, you most likely would have been a goat herder.

          Last but not the least, satan approached Eve and asked her-Did God really say that? So, give up being a pawn for satan.

          December 10, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
        • Spuds Mackenzie

          The Bible was not written by Moses. Really? The books of the Bible were written in the 1st century or later. Just like the New Testament was written well after the deaths of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John. Do you people really believe this stuff?

          December 10, 2013 at 3:03 pm |
        • Spuds Mackenzie

          And Satan doesn't exist either.

          December 10, 2013 at 3:04 pm |
        • Mike

          "The Bible was not written by Moses. Really?"

          The Torah was written by Moses.

          Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John respectively. Luke was a doctor and Matthew was a tax collector.

          December 10, 2013 at 4:01 pm |
        • Christina

          Ever heard of Josephus or Tacitus? Both also wrote about Jesus. Just because you do not believe in the philosophy, that does not automatically mean he and his disciples did not exist. By your logic, Buddha, Mohammed, Plato, and Socrates also did not exist. If Jesus and his early followers were just figments of imagination, then the Romans had a lot of blood on their hands for nothing. LOL Wow...

          December 13, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
        • Spuds Mackenzie

          But if it was real. Notice that Josephus didn't write about the resurrection? Only his death. Don't you think that would have been a big deal? Same with Tacitus, I think.

          December 13, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
        • Christina

          If what was real? We were discussing whether or not the "character" of the Bible actually said the things quoted in the letters that make up the New Testament? That was Keith's comment, wasn't it? My argument was that if we are to discount what several men wrote that claims Jesus said these things, which was also written about by other people, some of which had nothing to do with the political and religious movement started by Christ, then by that logic we should also discount the writings of other historical figures. But we don't. There are more writings about Jesus by different people during the time he lived and shortly after than any other figure of that time. But people who disagree with the philosophy are so quick to discount his existence. Whether or not you believe in the miracles, to deny his existence is ignorance, or anti bias to say the least.

          December 13, 2013 at 2:43 pm |
  10. Cory

    What did Jesus say about the birds of the air?

    Jesus said, Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?

    There is a great lesson to be learnt from Jesus teaching when he points people to the birds of the air and assures people that the Heavenly Fathers knows all needs is the source of all provision to all that trust in Him.

    December 4, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
    • Harvest


      December 4, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
    • Bird Watch

      You can a learn a lot by studying about the birds of the Bible, specifically you can study about,
      1) Reliance on God
      2) Strength of God
      3) God's presence
      4) Reminder to look to God.
      Next time the bird chirps, don't forget the badass birds of the Bible!

      December 4, 2013 at 8:23 pm |
      • Keith Peterson

        The only thing I'll remember is the millions and millions and millions of men, women and children murdered by or in the name of this "God" of yours. How many has Satan killed? 10. And that was on a bet with this "God" who allowed him/it/her to do it!!!  Your source of morality is inherently evil.  Maybe you should repent to a different God.  I suggest the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  It's as real as any other one out there, but most importantly is not EVIL.

        December 5, 2013 at 8:40 am |
  11. sally

    So sad see the articles so called journalists write to make some money!

    December 3, 2013 at 10:11 pm |
    • liz48

      There is a lot of substance if you study how the Word of God teaches, very strongly held in Judaism...it is very interesting about the raven for example – the unclean bird which is similar to unholy people feeds those like Elijah the prophet...

      Yes, the greatest help often comes through those who the world may not consider great...and they are blessed for what they do...

      December 3, 2013 at 10:51 pm |
      • fintastic

        This "word os god" you speak of is really the word of man since god is an obvious invention of man.

        December 16, 2013 at 12:38 pm |
  12. Honey Badger Don't Care

    One of the birds that they forgot to mention is the BAT. Yes, the bible says that bats are birds. Just one more scientificly innacurate claim from the bible.

    December 3, 2013 at 9:58 am |
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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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.