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. Rational Thought

    Adults arguing about the nuance of fiction make me laugh.

    December 3, 2013 at 9:45 am |
  2. valeria joseph

    Foe God everything is good except sin , it is man who discriminates it and he makes it a law to be observed by others, all the rituals have come up like that and we are blind to the reality .it is the same of the birds too¡

    December 1, 2013 at 12:19 pm |
  3. billy vidal

    if the birds and animal have a serve to the planet,, this is not bad,,, wrtten in the bibble as a predator as a example of bad doing of human

    November 30, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
  4. New Mexico Man

    Poorly written article. Most of it ascribes modern views of animals that potentially differ from the views of the animals
    that the people of Bible times had.

    November 27, 2013 at 6:44 pm |
    • Andrew

      Only #5 lifts up the modern view as much as the ancient. Read it again, slowly. 1-4 are talking about the perspective during Biblical times. #1 is explicit in how different that was.

      December 1, 2013 at 2:42 pm |
  5. Riverliffey

    Enough here for a dozen sermons! Nice article.
    The raven deserved more in a paragraph or two, though.. Like its cousin, the crow, it is very, very smart; much more so than, say, Athena's silly owl.
    In Scandinavian mythology, it is the wisest of birds; indeed it is the personification of wisdom.
    Odin, chief of the gods, even gave his eye for wisdom, allowing a raven to pluck out his eye.
    Ravens work harder than doves in the Bible: "And the ravens brought him bread and flesh in the morning, and bread and flesh in the evening" (I Kings, xvii.5) Catch a dove doing that, when it can't even find rest for the sole of its foot (Gen. viii,9)

    November 27, 2013 at 9:57 am |
  6. Angela

    I admire the originality of the article.
    She had an idea and turned it into words.

    November 26, 2013 at 7:55 pm |
  7. Jim S

    Reading the Bible shallowly always leads to misconceptions. For example, Jesus never compared himself to a chicken; instead He used a simple word picture that the people of an agrarian society could understand. Another example is Jesus' Bapitsm, where the Bible describes the Holy Spirit descending "like a dove". When humans see something transcendent, they normally try to relate it to something within their culture or experiences, so the image is that of the Holy Spirit settling on Jesus in a way that is something like a small bird landing. I can't find any place in the Bible where, as the author claims, the Holy Spirit is described as a common bird. The Bible had to make sense to the people of a culture and time that is foreign to us, so it isn't surprising that much of its language is couched in the language and the perceptual world of those people. As in any piece of fine literature, deep study is required before any kind of expert commentary can be made.

    November 26, 2013 at 5:15 pm |
    • Phillip

      Ok get over yourself. It was a nice article.

      November 26, 2013 at 7:56 pm |
    • Chad

      The Bible is HARDLY "fine literature." The vast majority of it is nonsensical babbling. LOL but thanks for a good laugh. Hahahaha. Oh my god. "Fine literature."

      November 28, 2013 at 2:18 am |
      • Andrew

        Yes, the most popular, influential, and best selling book of all time is babbling.
        The book regarded to some degree as an authority among more than half of the world... is babbling.

        You are literally smarter than everyone who has ever lived. So smart that when you read what others takes seriously, you see nonsense. That's surely a sign of intelligence, when you can't make sense out of what others can.

        It's so unfortunate that you had to learn to read! The extension of your reasoning, of course, is that you were in fact smarter before you could read. What a shame...

        December 1, 2013 at 2:46 pm |
  8. Third Eagle of the apocalypse.

    Almost all of the Bible’s stories are actually ‘borrowed’ from older religions that Christians would call pagan.

    November 26, 2013 at 4:10 pm |
    • Andrew

      It's true that several stories are found in other religions of the time. The story of Noah, the 1st creation account, several Psalms. However, in some of these the Jewish renditions actually precede the "Pagan" versions.

      The real reason I'm commenting is you may want to curb your extremism. There's less than a dozen extra-Biblical texts that correlate with a Biblical one. That's including where the Biblical text came first. Less than a dozen is not even close to 'almost all.' If you were to chart it out, you're talking about less than 2%.

      December 1, 2013 at 2:49 pm |
    • Dr. Ben Witherington

      As a generalization this statement, though frequently repeated these days, is historically false. There were no pagan religions which talked about a virginally conceived, crucified savior who was both God and human and who would be raised from dead. Pagan religion was inherently polytheistic, not monotheistic, and its myths are not the basis of Judaeo-Christian thinking about Jesus, or Moses, or the Exodus, or the Second Coming. The real myth is that there some sort of connection between Egyptian or Greco-Roman religion and Judaism or Christianity. This is simply historically false, if we are talking about the main ideas, persons, concepts which were the central tenets of the Biblical religions. BW3

      December 3, 2013 at 2:42 pm |
      • Spuds Mackenzie

        "There were no pagan religions which talked about a virginally conceived, crucified savior who was both God and human and who would be raised from dead."

        Well, of course not! Just like the rest of the Christian religion it is a conglomeration of a bunch of Pagan beliefs. There was a God that was born of a Virgin. I believe there have been multiple "saviors"

        December 4, 2013 at 8:31 am |
      • Spuds Mackenzie

        "There were no pagan religions which talked about a virginally conceived, crucified savior who was both God and human and who would be raised from dead."

        Well, of course not! Just like the rest of the Christian religion it is a conglomeration of a bunch of Pagan beliefs. There was a God that was born of a Virgin. I believe there have been multiple "saviors" that have been crucified or martyred. And there have been multiple God/Human hybrids. And there has been a resurrection. Heck, even a resurrection on the 3rd day! Imagine that.

        But, I guess your argument holds true, I don't think there has been all at once!

        To add to that. Easter isn't even a Christian idea. Neither was Christmas. Nor the Christmas Tree. Nor the flood or Genesis. List probably can go on and on. Remember, you are worshiping a God of a bunch of semi-literate sheep herders. Probably created and propagated by a fairly successful local war-lord. As you can tell by recent history, these people are very stubborn and hard to convince them away from their belief. So much so that Constantine had to adopt and help create this religion to control them and found out it was so successful that he pushed it on everybody. Thus creating one of the biggest killing machines of all times, the Catholic religion.

        December 4, 2013 at 8:37 am |
        • Christina

          LOL, Where in the Bible are "Easter" "Christmas" or "Christmas Tree" written? Those are traditions that started MUCH later in places where there were multiple religious groups of people living in the same area. I'm starting to believe that you have never actually read the Bible cover to cover. The Bible was not written by sheep herders. Not a single person that wrote the Torah or the letters in the New Testament herded sheep. Maybe some of the stories were passed down by word of mouth from father to son in nomadic family settings, and maybe some of the people the authors wrote about were... like, uh, King David. And the bit about Constantine? LMBO He was influential in promoting the Edict of Milan which was to promote religious tolerance, not to shove down his people's throats a singular religion. Pick up a book, any book, and read it. I beg you!

          December 13, 2013 at 2:31 pm |
        • Spuds Mackenzie

          I have read the Bible cover to cover. Have you.

          Then, honestly, how can you continue to worship such an Evil being? There is nothing really good about this God. He claims to love you. But if your not the way he wants you to be, you will burn in hell for an eternity.

          How can you be comfortable worshiping a God that will likely torture people you know and probably care for while you THINK you will be sitting comfortable in this imaginary heaven?

          If this God did exist. I would choose not to worship it. I cannot worship anything that does nothing. A promise of an afterlife. Please. Why don't we just skip this life then. A test? Screw that, I don't have to prove myself to anybody but me.

          December 13, 2013 at 2:59 pm |
  9. Herewe Goagain

    The person who wrote the headline "Surprisingly Badass Birds of the Bible" should be let go.

    November 26, 2013 at 3:54 pm |
  10. Dacio

    There are over three hundred bird references in the Bible and one of the most significant references to the birds was made by Jesus in the 'Sermon on the Mount'.

    Nice article on the birds of the Bible.

    November 22, 2013 at 9:21 am |
  11. children of Israel

    Do you keep the holy sabbath, percepts, statutes, the laws & commandments? Galatians 5:19-21 these cannot enter the kingdom of God (Revelation 21:8) The name Jesus is a pagan god. Can you answer Proverbs 30:4 The God of the Hebrews, our God his name is AHAYAH and his son name YASHAYA / YASHIYA

    November 21, 2013 at 2:58 am |
    • Herewe Goagain

      Thanks for playing. Your meds are obviously expired.

      November 26, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
      • Third Eagle of the apocalypse.

        He is right actually. Not that I’m surprised you don’t know.

        November 26, 2013 at 4:07 pm |
  12. Religion and the news 1

    Blue's likening the Holy Spirit to the common and often detested pigeon is quite thought provoking. It is easy to understand how this analogy makes sense in the modern society we inhabit, where the religious and religion itself is often seen as a nuisance. Like the pigeons that crowd the streets of almost all urban areas known to man, can it not be said that religion plays the same role in government? A constant issue, even in today's "secularized" government?

    Blue herself says that pigeons are "detested", and constantly "underfoot." Can the same not have been said before about the religious politics behind the Tea Party movement in the past few years?

    November 18, 2013 at 11:45 pm |
  13. jj

    Slow news day filler

    November 18, 2013 at 4:38 pm |
  14. Mojo Jo

    The bible scared me when I first read it as a child, due to said birds. I wish the scariness had stopped right there.

    November 17, 2013 at 9:07 pm |
    • DRJJ

      The truth is scary much of the time-we're all sinners!

      November 18, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
      • Third Eagle of the apocalypse.

        What is scary is that you’re most likely an adult and still believe this nonsense.

        November 26, 2013 at 4:08 pm |
        • Andrew

          No... what's scary is you're taking time out of your weekend to taunt strangers. Trust me, son, no one with a strong sense of their world view, religious or otherwise, cares what you have to say.

          There's a good chance no one in your life cares what you have to say about anything. It's time to move on.

          December 1, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
        • fintastic

          Says Andrew who as an adult (we think) confuses mythology with reality. Har Har har

          December 16, 2013 at 12:45 pm |
  15. Rob

    Raven mission was great he didn't fail he is still working on it.

    November 16, 2013 at 12:01 am |
  16. Interesting

    Ms. Blue seems to be overlooking something critical in her 'chicken' analysis. That hen who has gathered her brood under her wings will stay there to protect them even if it costs the hen her life.

    November 15, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
  17. Winston


    November 14, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
    • Bethany

      Ick! Ick to the max! what uber cheesy music. Greg Howlett just STINKS!

      November 19, 2013 at 6:18 pm |
      • newdouglitas


        My question is...why aren't His eyes on the swallow?

        November 19, 2013 at 6:26 pm |
    • Trevor Hollier

      The dirt god worshippers can't appreciate music, beating drums ain't music.


      November 22, 2013 at 9:10 am |
  18. Elisha

    Of all the badass birds the dove and the eagle stand out!

    November 14, 2013 at 4:07 pm |
  19. Lord Haw Haw

    Why in heaven's name would anybody put any stock in a book that calls a bat a bird? :^D

    November 14, 2013 at 11:38 am |
  20. Meshach

    Psalm 84:1-4 How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God. Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God. Blessed are those who dwell in your house, ever singing your praise! Selah

    November 12, 2013 at 11:30 am |
    • Abednego

      Matthew 6:26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?

      November 12, 2013 at 11:31 am |
    • Shadrach

      Psalm 91:1-16 He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.

      November 12, 2013 at 11:35 am |
    • Belteshazzar


      November 12, 2013 at 11:43 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.