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. Praisethelard

    Birds? I'd like to read about the Kangaroos, Koalas, and dinosaurs of the bible...

    November 3, 2013 at 9:41 am |
    • Colin

      Exactly. Odd that the creator of the entire Universe and its billions of galaxies, including the Earth and its five continents and thousands of islands, complete with thousands of cultures, chose to concentrate his entire message on a small group of Greco-Roman Jews.

      It is so obvious to any objective, thinking person, that the Jews made God in their image and note vice-versa.

      November 3, 2013 at 9:45 am |
    • bostontola

      Here comes rationalizations,
      The bible mentions dragons, that is a misinterpretation of dinosaurs, ...

      November 3, 2013 at 9:49 am |
      • Colin

        That's actually one of my all time favorites. It is a high water mark in how far Biblical literalists can bury their heads in the sand to maintain their simplistic worldview.

        November 3, 2013 at 9:55 am |
        • bostontola

          Below are some good ones. E.g. the bible doesn't say bats are birds. The word for bird really means "flying things". Except every other example is a bird, and there is no mention of a flying insect.

          November 3, 2013 at 10:13 am |
        • Rocky the Flying Squirel

          I didn't pick up any credits in that crappy bible book either. Discrimination of what!

          November 3, 2013 at 10:44 am |
        • Pi

          If it wasn't for flying fish I could never have told the story of my life.

          November 3, 2013 at 10:49 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      The questions about those animals, and any other, really, that God chose to answer was whether it is ok to eat them or have sex with them. God is so down-to-earth when it wants to be.

      November 3, 2013 at 9:50 am |
      • ?

        Jesus always mounted his ass from the rear. Donkey from Shrek told me so.

        November 3, 2013 at 10:47 am |
    • Noah

      All the animals that needed wings to get to the far reaches of the earth after the flood had them and subsequently lost them over time. Sorry, I forgot to mention that in the original story, trust me.

      November 3, 2013 at 11:09 am |
  2. tom LI

    The author tells us we miss the deeper story about the Rooster...so what is it?!?!

    Since this piece was a PR generated one, likely by the authors Editor/publisher – they failed ! It in no way attracted me to her book! You have to give a potential audience some substance of the book, not just a few wispy bullet points that say pretty much nothing.

    November 3, 2013 at 9:36 am |
  3. Dyslexic doG

    if the bible is the word of god then every single word and punctuation mark must be followed and revered! If even one word is proven incorrect, contradictory, foolish or made up by man, then the whole book is worthless and unless you are god himself, you cannot judge which parts of the bible can be disregarded and which should be followed, which are truth and which are allegories. You must follow it ALL or discount it ALL.

    I have never met a Christian who follows the bible even close to completely. You are all frauds!

    November 3, 2013 at 9:32 am |
    • tom LI

      Punctuation is a major problem since there was none in the earliest manuscripts, especially among the Greek and Latin. The "sentences" just ran into each other making in some cases one long and confusing section/paragraph...that caused the copyists to frequently lose their places, and have to add their own meanings...

      November 3, 2013 at 9:38 am |
      • Patrick White

        Ya right you have to take your time after all I won a Nobel Prize for my lack of punctuation in the Eye of the Storm and it was well deserved if I have to say so myself and many agree

        November 3, 2013 at 10:56 am |
    • Right brain

      Bwa ha ha ha ha ha ha...!!!


      November 3, 2013 at 9:40 am |
    • Evan


      Wiseman: This is a legendary book that has the cure for EVERY ailment to mankind, its called "the cure for medicine." Unfortunately about 2% of its material has been adulterated over the years. Other than that every cure a man gets will be healed according to this book

      Guy: Then that means it it ISNT the cure. *GUY throws book away, humanity suffers.

      November 3, 2013 at 3:22 pm |
      • Evan

        *every ill

        November 3, 2013 at 3:22 pm |
  4. Dyslexic doG

    Science is dumb. It classifies animals that are warm-blooded, and have fur, and their babies are born alive, and a baby lives on its mother’s milk, as mammals. Bats do all those things, but bats are clearly birds as the bible instructs us. The bible is never wrong.

    November 3, 2013 at 9:29 am |
    • bostontola

      The Declaration of Independence is also dumb. Imagine that it says all men are created equal when that is defined as not so in the bible.

      November 3, 2013 at 9:38 am |
    • Right brain

      The first one was funny but this is just sad. What actually happened to the right half of both of your brains? Is it on vacation?

      November 3, 2013 at 9:42 am |
      • bostontola

        Please, demonstrate the statements are wrong.

        November 3, 2013 at 9:47 am |
        • wow

          Ok let me try and help you boston in the right hemisphere of the mind the obsession with what is "wrong' is less important. Lets start there.

          November 3, 2013 at 6:28 pm |
        • wow

          The Right Brain

          According to the left-brain, right-brain dominance theory, the right side of the brain is best at expressive and creative tasks. Some of the abilities that are popularly associated with the right side of the brain include:
          •Recognizing faces
          •Expressing emotions
          •Reading emotions

          The Left Brain

          The left-side of the brain is considered to be adept at tasks that involve logic, language and analytical thinking. The left-brain is often described as being better at:
          •Critical thinking

          November 3, 2013 at 6:29 pm |
    • Hyperion

      Yeah, science is dumb! I broke my toe all thanks to stupid gravity, I had to study all night for a physics test, and my biology got me sick! I say we rebel. We need to break the laws of physics destroy the classification of animals that, for the sake of convenience, scientists have used for hundreds of years, all because it is our duty to God and the Bible!!!

      November 4, 2013 at 12:23 am |
  5. Reality # 2

    From the topic:

    "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."

    For modern Christians looking for Truth, it has arrived:

    Jesus was an illiterate Jewish peasant/carpenter/simple preacher man who suffered from hallucinations (or “mythicizing” from P, M, M, L and J) and who has been characterized anywhere from the Messiah from Nazareth to a mythical character from mythical Nazareth to a ma-mzer from Nazareth (Professor Bruce Chilton, in his book Rabbi Jesus). An-alyses of Jesus’ life by many contemporary NT scholars (e.g. Professors Ludemann, Crossan, Borg and Fredriksen, ) via the NT and related doc-uments have concluded that only about 30% of Jesus' sayings and ways noted in the NT were authentic. The rest being embellishments (e.g. miracles)/hallucinations made/had by the NT authors to impress various Christian, Jewish and Pagan sects.

    The 30% of the NT that is "authentic Jesus" like everything in life was borrowed/plagiarized and/or improved from those who came before. In Jesus' case, it was the ways and sayings of the Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, Hitt-ites, Canaanites, OT, John the Baptizer and possibly the ways and sayings of traveling Greek Cynics.


    For added "pizzazz", Catholic theologians divided god the singularity into three persons and invented atonement as an added guilt trip for the "pew people" to go along with this trinity of overseers. By doing so, they made god the padre into god the "filicider".

    Current RCC problems:

    Pedophiliac priests, an all-male, mostly white hierarchy, atonement theology and original sin!!!!

    2 b., Luther, Calvin, Joe Smith, Henry VIII, Wesley, Roger Williams, the Great “Babs” et al, founders of Christian-based religions or combination religions also suffered from the belief in/hallucinations of "pretty wingie thingie" visits and "prophecies" for profits analogous to the myths of Catholicism (resurrections, apparitions, ascensions and immacu-late co-nceptions).

    Current problems:
    Adulterous preachers, pedophiliac clerics, "propheteering/ profiteering" evangelicals and atonement theology,

    November 3, 2013 at 9:18 am |
    • tom LI

      Not JUST problems of the RCC – but all Xtian sects. All of them are plagued by abusers, prone to economic abuses and shysters of all stripes.

      November 3, 2013 at 9:30 am |
  6. Tea Party Patriot

    A growing number of us are convinced that Sarah Palin is the only one who can heal and re-unify our country. But first she must return to her motorhome and resume her cross country tour. She will have to visit cities both large and small, being careful to speak only to real Americans, dispensing her sage advice and folksy, homespun common sense solutions. We can be a great nation again if we all follow the "Palin Path".

    November 3, 2013 at 9:18 am |
    • Dyslexic doG


      November 3, 2013 at 9:28 am |
    • tom LI

      I do hope this was sarcasm...but somehow I dont think it is...

      This sort of thinking scares REAL AMERICANS, it doesnt inspire us, it enrages us!

      November 3, 2013 at 9:31 am |
  7. bostontola

    Is the bible the word of God?

    Then why are there different versions?
    Because man is fallible and God spoke through man? Then its not the word of God.

    Please explain.

    November 3, 2013 at 9:14 am |
    • Tali3

      It is the word of God, but people like to tell things in different ways, not changing the meaning of anything, but in a different way. There may be different versions, but the meanings are all the same.

      November 3, 2013 at 9:37 am |
      • bostontola

        So there is dragons and satyrs?

        November 3, 2013 at 9:39 am |
      • tom LI

        Prove its the exact word of this or any God! Your claims are nothing but a tradition – and last I checked Protys – Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Protys dont follow traditions...!

        The BIble is a work of men thru and thru – and as such has been subject to the same mistakes, and foibles of all things man-made. The Bible is an errant work because man, humankind is mistake prone!

        November 3, 2013 at 9:42 am |
  8. vlaughlin

    Reblogged this on The Druid's Cosmos and commented:
    Obvious Christian slant, but considering bird's hidden meanings is a form of augury, or divination by the appearance of certain animals. Augury specifically with birds is called orinthomancy, i believe..

    November 3, 2013 at 8:59 am |
  9. IslandAtheist

    The BAT is also a bird of the Bible.

    November 3, 2013 at 8:57 am |
    • DaMeglet

      The bat is a mammal. So you don't read the Good Book - I'm okay with that; it's not my place to judge.
      But do you read ANY books??

      November 3, 2013 at 9:15 am |
      • tom LI

        You miss the nuance, its a bird IN THE Bible, but we know its not really a bird. The Bible gets it wrong.

        But thats okay, reading comprehension is not a Xtian strong point.

        November 3, 2013 at 9:32 am |
  10. Margaret

    Perhaps too obvious for this particular piece, as it's so often quoted, but Matthew 10:29-31 tells the parable of the sparrow, letting us know that God is in the details, and that we are important in His eyes.

    November 3, 2013 at 8:45 am |
    • m0osis

      Sparrows can only reveal aspects of sparrow biology. They are wonderful birds but they reveal nothing about a god or grand designer bc none - other than natural selection - exists.

      November 3, 2013 at 9:20 am |
  11. snowboarder

    what a bizarre article.

    November 3, 2013 at 8:39 am |
    • m0osis

      Bizarre is just the word. Next up: salamanders of the Pentateuch

      November 3, 2013 at 9:15 am |
      • Dennis

        That is funny!

        November 3, 2013 at 9:40 am |
  12. kyzaadrao

    Really, CNN?

    November 3, 2013 at 8:38 am |
  13. blinky

    It's interesting to me when pastors feel the need to swear to seem cool. I guess she felt if she repeated it 3 times, she'd be REALLY cool.

    November 3, 2013 at 8:30 am |
  14. Leif

    Peter Boghossian has just published "A Manual for creating Atheist "

    Watch a review of the book here:

    November 3, 2013 at 8:27 am |
  15. elliott carlin

    CNN comes to the table, about once or twice a year, with a back-handed positive piece on the Bible ('badass').
    Thanks people. You are the class of journalism. (sarcasm off)

    November 3, 2013 at 8:16 am |
    • JJ

      They were probably snickering as they were writing this piece. I hope they do one on birds in Harry Potter.

      November 3, 2013 at 8:24 am |
    • Rational Scientist

      If you are dense enough to believe the flood story then you deserve to be disappointed.

      November 3, 2013 at 8:28 am |
  16. JJ

    "Before Noah sends out the dove from the ark, he releases a raven. Which apparently never comes back." We still have Ravens today. Does that mean that when Noah later releases the other Raven, they eventually meet up? I know someone, otherwise intelligent, who actually believes this flood myth.

    November 3, 2013 at 8:15 am |
    • ktisis

      Just apply critical thinking. (1), several species were gathered by more than just 2. (2) Since the scripture records that the Lord brought many of the species to Noah, is it a stretch that an intelligent designer that could create DNA, cellular mitosis, etc, etc, would have a difficult time in reuniting 2 birds? (3) The birds were on the ark about a year, plenty of time for mating and reproduction of many, many ravens. Investigation into past events always requires critical analysis, probabilities, and comparisons. If you apply these tools to your "problem", it is easily dissolved. It is a common question though, and one that SEEMS to be a difficulty, if only at first glance.

      November 3, 2013 at 9:03 am |
      • snowboarder

        if you are willing to believe all that religious mumbo jumbo.

        November 3, 2013 at 9:07 am |
      • JJ

        Lol...apply critical thinking? If one does that then it all dissipates as a whiff of smoke in the wind as all myths do.

        November 3, 2013 at 9:17 am |
  17. ?

    I believe you have conjured up an open invitation for dodo to have a free for all.

    November 3, 2013 at 7:18 am |
  18. Paul & Silas

    A very interesting perspective about the birds.

    Very nicely written!

    November 3, 2013 at 7:10 am |
  19. saggyroy

    They forgot the bat. What about the bat?

    November 3, 2013 at 6:59 am |
    • saggyroy

      Lev. 11:13, 19 And these are they which ye shall have in abomination among the fowls...And the stork, the heron after her kind, and the lapwing, and the bat.

      November 3, 2013 at 7:00 am |
      • Rational Scientist

        So "god" created the abominations too. Nice.

        November 3, 2013 at 8:31 am |
    • newdouglitas

      Bats aren't birds.

      November 3, 2013 at 8:13 am |
      • taildragon


        November 3, 2013 at 8:30 am |
      • Anonymous

        That is a mistranslation from the original Hebrew word "Owph". It originally said the bat was of the "flying things" category if memory serves correct. And before anyone says it, the Bible is not the word of god, Yeshua(Jesus) is. The Bible never calls itself infallible and it never calls itself the word of god. Putting all ones faith in a book, even the bible, is a form of idolatry

        November 3, 2013 at 8:40 am |
        • JJ

          Since you know the original text of the bible perhaps you should write your own version and make the corrections since the KJV and all others are wrong. Should we all throw out these obviously flawed versions?

          November 3, 2013 at 9:13 am |
        • a knower

          Wow, someone else that finally gets it. I can not tell you how many times I have argued this point and been rejected and blown off as "faithless", or I get the "You do not believe in the bible!" of course I do not believe in the bible its a collection of books written way after the fact by MAN.

          November 3, 2013 at 9:22 am |
        • newdouglitas

          That was an interesting comment that you made. I would like to follow up on what you said. In all seriousness, would you mind answering these questions?
          How do you know of Yeshua (Jesus) except through the Bible?
          If the Bible isn't infallible, how are we supposed to believe what it says of Yeshua (Jesus)?
          If the Bible is wrong about some things, could it also be wrong about any or all parts of the Yeshua (Jesus) story?

          I hope you are interested in continuing this dialog.

          November 19, 2013 at 3:42 pm |
      • taildragon

        I stand corrected. Maybe you can straighten me out about another thing. Are the talking serpents part of the snake kind, or the salamander kind? As I don't have access to the original Hebrew and such.

        November 3, 2013 at 8:50 am |
  20. The Dove


    November 3, 2013 at 6:52 am |
    • The Eagle

      🙂 Isaiah 40

      November 3, 2013 at 6:55 am |
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