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. Wall Post

    Even if one is not a Christian, much can be taken from this article.

    November 5, 2013 at 6:53 pm |
  2. Lionly Lamb


    November 5, 2013 at 4:00 pm |
  3. the birds and the bees

    Song of Solomon 2:12

    The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.

    November 5, 2013 at 2:44 pm |
    • Bob

      Don't forget those talking snakes and mustard trees and bat-birds and all too...

      November 5, 2013 at 3:46 pm |
      • Wall Post

        Nobody who believes in God forgets those, as their existence in the Bible is one thing to use in denying Him. But you need not waste your time with those symbols, as a God who exists would find talking snakes, etc., a cakewalk to create. So for you it's God.

        November 5, 2013 at 7:05 pm |
        • Fan2C

          Isn't fantasy grand? Anything is possible there.

          November 5, 2013 at 7:12 pm |
    • Birds and the bees part deux

      Ezekiel 23

      19 Yet she increased her wh.oring, remembering the days of her youth, when she played the wh.ore in the land of Egypt
      20 and lusted after her lovers there, whose members were like those of donkeys, and whose issue was like that of horses.
      21 Thus you longed for the lewdness of your youth, when the Egyptians handled your bosom and pressed your young breasts."

      November 5, 2013 at 3:54 pm |
      • Maddy


        November 5, 2013 at 9:14 pm |
  4. no religion

    C? I am not god and yet I control our athies quite easily. Love to take credit. And I do, but it isn't all that tough. Wanna c?

    Let's discuss Jesus, shall we?

    There is no possibility they will engage me in any in depth analysis of him. Just saying his name is jolting. His name is powerful. They fear him. They run from him. Just watch. I promise, they will not be able to probe into his life deeply. They will however mock, make crass statements and run away.

    Wanna bet? I love to prove how much greater I am than they r. That's y they hate me. I love it.

    November 5, 2013 at 2:41 pm |
    • o susie q

      They are deceitful little cowards and claim to be independent scholars. Independent means no one believes for a second she's a scholar so she calls herself that. No one else does.

      November 5, 2013 at 5:08 pm |
      • Observer

        The only way she gets her kicks is by hacking this dump. It is her entire life.

        U don't think for a moment that CNN or WordPress monitors this cesspool, do u? They should, they are responsible and will pay dearly

        November 5, 2013 at 5:12 pm |
        • Observer

          fake Observer,

          Once again you show that there are LYING Christians without honesty, morals and integrity.

          Well done. You are a great role model for Christians. And a great example for nonbelievers to point out.

          November 5, 2013 at 5:17 pm |
        • Youtube - Neil DeGrasse Tyson - The Perimeter of Ignorance

          who r u calling a christian?

          November 5, 2013 at 7:23 pm |
    • Observer


      November 5, 2013 at 6:55 pm |
      • Observer

        fake Observer

        November 5, 2013 at 7:01 pm |
        • Youtube - Neil DeGrasse Tyson - The Perimeter of Ignorance


          November 5, 2013 at 7:21 pm |
    • bananas

      I gave up looking for intelligent athies. They don't post, apparently

      November 5, 2013 at 8:13 pm |
      • .

        You gave up because you get pwned every time. Stealing names is your only course of attack. Idiot. Lying twit.

        November 5, 2013 at 9:00 pm |
  5. KarmaBurns

    The birds don't feast on the "beast's" flesh but on those who fight with the beast against God. The Beast is sent to the Lake of Fire after the battle is over along with the False Prophet while Satan is chained in Hell.

    November 5, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
  6. meifumado

    Fun fact! All bird eggs are edible.

    November 5, 2013 at 11:58 am |
    • forgot my alias

      I think all birds are edible too probably.

      November 5, 2013 at 1:17 pm |
  7. A. Reasoner

    Isn't it wonderful that each time another part of the bible has to dismissed as "not to be taken literally" (i.e. BS), the other favored parts are still TRUE, no matter how outrageous.

    November 5, 2013 at 11:26 am |
    • no religion

      Feel free to explain in great detail what in the bible u can prove isn't literal

      November 5, 2013 at 11:52 am |
      • Look

        @no religion, bethfaithany, etc.

        I'm afraid you'll have to read about it in other posts. Nobody is going to spend time with long explanations to you only to have them removed (by you, or whomever).

        November 5, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
      • Doc Vestibule

        The entire book of Genesis.
        For "great detail" as to why, I refer you to any junior high level text-book on biology, geology, and/or physics.

        November 5, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
  8. Gordo

    Birds are just one badass aspect. The god of the bible is actually pretty badass itself, having murdered so many people and even threatening to torture those that don't kiss his feet. He could fairly be called an ass hole and should be thrown in jail if he existed. Good thing he doesn't exist.

    November 5, 2013 at 10:06 am |
  9. Ten Minas

    Fantastic exposition of the birds of the Bible.

    A great read!

    November 5, 2013 at 8:31 am |
  10. Woody

    "badass birds of the Bible"

    This sounds like the ti-tle of another really bad movie on the Syfy Channel.

    November 5, 2013 at 3:46 am |
    • saggyroy

      "Badass Birds of the Bible-nado"

      November 5, 2013 at 5:40 am |
    • Akira

      Nothing could match the cheesiness of "Ghost Shark". If MST3000 were still on, (I miss that show!) it would be right at home there.

      November 5, 2013 at 10:38 am |
      • no religion

        U love the snake. Shut up u friggin terrorist

        November 5, 2013 at 11:58 am |
        • Akira

          I do no such thing.
          I realize that MST3000 might be a bit above your head, as the "S" stands for "science".

          Carry on with your lies, j.

          November 5, 2013 at 2:39 pm |
  11. children of Israel

    Exodus 3:14 And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you. *Psalm 46:10 Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth. *Psalm 59:13 and let them know that God ruleth in Jacob unto the ends of the earth. Selah. *Hebrews 12:29 For our God is a consuming fire. (Obadiah 1:18)

    November 5, 2013 at 12:44 am |
    • Reality # 2

      And for those of us who live in the 21st century:

      origin: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F20E1EFE35540C7A8CDDAA0894DA404482 NY Times review and important enough to reiterate.

      New Torah For Modern Minds

      “Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. (prob•a•bly
      Adverb: Almost certainly; as far as one knows or can tell).

      The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation.

      Such startling propositions - the product of findings by archaeologists digging in Israel and its environs over the last 25 years - have gained wide acceptance among non-Orthodox rabbis. But there has been no attempt to disseminate these ideas or to discuss them with the laity - until now.

      The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the 1.5 million Conservative Jews in the United States, has just issued a new Torah and commentary, the first for Conservatives in more than 60 years. Called "Etz Hayim" ("Tree of Life" in Hebrew), it offers an interpretation that incorporates the latest findings from archaeology, philology, anthropology and the study of ancient cultures. To the editors who worked on the book, it represents one of the boldest efforts ever to introduce into the religious mainstream a view of the Bible as a human rather than divine doc-ument.

      The notion that the Bible is not literally true "is more or less settled and understood among most Conservative rabbis," observed David Wolpe, a rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and a contributor to "Etz Hayim." But some congregants, he said, "may not like the stark airing of it." Last Passover, in a sermon to 2,200 congregants at his synagogue, Rabbi Wolpe frankly said that "virtually every modern archaeologist" agrees "that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way that it happened, if it happened at all." The rabbi offered what he called a "LITANY OF DISILLUSION”' about the narrative, including contradictions, improbabilities, chronological lapses and the absence of corroborating evidence. In fact, he said, archaeologists digging in the Sinai have "found no trace of the tribes of Israel - not one shard of pottery."

      November 5, 2013 at 7:47 am |
      • no religion

        That's funny

        November 5, 2013 at 11:54 am |
      • Eric Roberts

        It was found that the incident that the bible describes at Jericho could not have happened because, using the other battles described in the bible to form a timeline...and archaeologists have found some of these other battles and events...occurred during a over 1000 year period of no inhabitation at the site of the city So even if archaeologists have the timeline wrong, the period is so large, there is no way that there was a city there for Joshua to make the walls tumble down...

        November 5, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
        • KarmaBurns

          Really? You were there? Those archeologists know all? Now who believes in "fairy tales or myths"?

          November 5, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
    • no religion

      One of a number of great idiots

      November 5, 2013 at 11:49 am |
  12. bostontola

    Based on a statistical analysis of NASA's Kepler space telescope observations, University of California, Berkeley, and University of Hawaii, Manoa astronomers estimate that one in five stars like the sun have planets about the size of Earth and a surface temperature conducive to life. Given that about 20 percent of stars are sun-like, the researchers say, that amounts to several tens of billions of potentially habitable, Earth-size planets in the Milky Way Galaxy. Not as interesting as bad ass birds, but pretty cool just the same.

    November 5, 2013 at 12:26 am |
    • Charm Quark

      Passing strange that the braggadocious god of the bible would not have mentioned all those other worlds he created at the same time as earth, he took credit for everything else. Perhaps the ignorant bible writers just made the story up based on their limited knowledge of that time and no god was involved. Yup, no god required, I think that is the truth.

      November 5, 2013 at 6:25 am |
      • bostontola

        Certainly not a god associated with a creation myth so distant from reality.

        November 5, 2013 at 7:33 am |
      • Science Works

        It was on CBS evening news also.

        No gods required is the truth .

        November 5, 2013 at 7:41 am |
        • KarmaBurns

          God is truth. If you choose not to acknowledge it, then so much the less you know truth then.

          November 5, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
        • Science Works

          And a seed from long ago a HEAVY ELEMENT.

          We all have it in our blood.

          How the Universe's Violent Youth Seeded Cosmos With Iron

          Oct. 30, 2013 — By detecting an even distribution of iron throughout a massive galaxy cluster, astrophysicists can tell the 10-billion-year-old story of how exploding stars and black holes sowed the early cosmos with heavy elements.


          November 5, 2013 at 5:36 pm |
      • Sara

        Maybe the Christian god is linked to this solar system and just doesn't know about the other gods for other planets.

        November 5, 2013 at 7:51 am |
        • Charm Quark

          Perhaps, but since mankind is so adept at making up so many creation myths and gods and that are alien neighbours may have evolved to a similar or higher intelligence level than us they could have their own set of gods. Jesus, gods all over the place, scary.

          November 5, 2013 at 8:08 am |
        • Science Works

          And maybe Brittany Spears is teaming up with Jesus Christ to do a musical sara

          November 5, 2013 at 8:25 am |
        • Numbers


          November 5, 2013 at 10:12 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Those planets didn't exist until just recently.
      After all, Joseph Smith wasn't able to teach people about how they'll inherit their own planet over which to rule if they give him 10% of their net worth until the mid 1800s.

      November 5, 2013 at 9:34 am |
  13. children of Israel

    All these scarf wearing satanists. Our women are suppose to have their head covered not your neck, you went backwards worshipping other gods (St. John 18:6) (Revelation 17:4) (*Jeremiah 51:7*)

    November 5, 2013 at 12:19 am |
    • Aviarist

      Well, I guess this has to do with birds. The poster is a cuckoo / magpie mix.

      November 5, 2013 at 12:34 am |
    • KarmaBurns

      Relax,Pharasee. Jesus is the new covenant and he treated women with more respect than those before and after him. Cover your own head if you feel your own shame in His Presence.

      November 5, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
  14. children of Israel

    How did Israel become a state? (Genesis 49:2) *Revelation 19:10 worship God: for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy. *St. Matthew 15:9 But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandents of men. *Acts 5:29 Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men. (Micah 3:11)

    November 4, 2013 at 11:53 pm |
  15. children of Israel

    Who killed Christ? *St. Luke 24:20 And how the chief priests and our rulers delivered him to be condemned to death, and have crucified him. (Psalm 83:4) Christ died and arosed for the nation of Israel only *St. Luke 24:21 But we trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel:

    November 4, 2013 at 11:32 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      It would be much appreciated if in addition to posting multiple instances of drivel you would, if you can, make a coherent point. Thank you.

      November 4, 2013 at 11:45 pm |
      • Sara

        My eyes tend to catch the numbers separated by colons before I ever read any actual word of these posts. If it has a bible quote it just doesn't make the cut for my time.

        November 4, 2013 at 11:49 pm |
        • HotAirAce


          November 4, 2013 at 11:56 pm |
      • sam stone

        he or she is not interested in making a coherent point, he or she is interested in preaching

        November 5, 2013 at 5:42 am |
        • no religion

          Prison for u, punk

          November 5, 2013 at 11:56 am |
        • Jeff Rome NY

          Talking to youself again, no religion?

          November 5, 2013 at 3:10 pm |
    • KarmaBurns

      We ALL killed Christ! It was an effort that included Hebrews AND Gentiles. No one has borne more sin than the other Under the Sun.

      November 5, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
      • Tom, Tom, the Other One

        My ancestors were in Britain at the time your Christ was killed.

        November 5, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
  16. children of Israel

    Genesis 49:2 Gather yourselves together, and hear, ye sons of Jacob; and hearken unto Israel your father. *St. Luke 1:68 Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; (Malachi 3:6)

    November 4, 2013 at 10:58 pm |
  17. children of Israel

    When you plant a seed it produces a root is that a lie? Exodus 3:14 I am is the root of David (Revelation 22:16) Christ comes out of the seed of Jacob (Isaiah 65:9) He is the Star of Jacob our Saviour (Numbers 24:17-19) Jacob son is the tribe of Judah (Hebrews 7:14)

    November 4, 2013 at 10:43 pm |
  18. children of Israel

    Whosoever *James 4:4-5 whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God. Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy? (1st John 2:15-16)

    November 4, 2013 at 10:26 pm |
  19. Grönnnnn

    Birds good to eat. Eggs good to eat. Feathers bad to eat. Bird ass good to eat. Bad ass bad, not good.

    November 4, 2013 at 10:19 pm |
  20. children of Israel

    Whosoever *James 4:4-5 whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God. Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy? (1st John 2:15)

    November 4, 2013 at 10:15 pm |
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