“Consider the birds of the air,” Jesus instructed his disciples. Well, when you consider that the Bible (NRSV) mentions “birds” at least 108 times, you realise that this is quite a consideration! But the holy text goes beyond generics, mentioning some species of birds individually by name. Pelicans, ostriches, herons and woodpeckers are found by name. However, translations may vary. For example, whereas the King James Version mentions the “pelican” in Psalm 102.6, it is rendered as “owl” in the New Revised Standard Version.
With this in mind, let us take some specific examples and examine the symbolic meaning attached to these feathered friends in the Old and New Testaments.
The most obvious one to start with is the dove. With no fewer than 49 “hits”, this is by far the most commonly named bird in the Bible, noting that the turtle-dove is the same bird as the dove – the “turtle” is only mentioned in some translations, and should probably be read as “dove”. The dove is arguably the most symbolic bird in Christianity. Indeed, after the cross it is probably the second most important symbol of all since it is used to represent the Holy Spirit; for example, at Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3.16):
“And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.”
On a lesser level, the dove is also the bird of peace, purity and innocence. The Bible only represents the dove in a positive light.
Additionally, in rabbinical literature the dove is also the symbol of the nation of Israel (Song of Songs 2.14).
Equipped with this fact, we can read some of Jesus sayings in a new light. For example, Matthew 10.16, “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” can be read as “be wise, while remembering you are Jews and must keep as innocent as your mystic symbol”.
Close behind the dove, and named 44 times in the Bible, is the eagle. This majestic bird normally represents strength, protection and defence. Hence, when the Israelites were complaining about being brought into the desert, God reminded them that they hadn’t suffered the same fate as the Egyptians, but were borne aloft “on eagles’ wings” (Exodus 19.4). This symbolism would have been very compelling because the eagle would have be seen swooping about the Arabian wastelands, and then soaring high above to obtain the best view of potential prey over all the land. Small wonder that it also became symbolic of God watching from on high and hence is also the symbol of St John the Evangelist, whose Gospel is said to be loftier than the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke (whose Gospels provide a synopsis of Jesus life, rather than a theological discourse on what his life meant).
However, it is not all good news for the eagle since it is also listed as “unclean”; mere contact with it, or its prey, would make someone “unclean” and unable to partake in full Jewish worship, along with other birds such as “the vulture, the osprey, the buzzard, the kite of any kind; every raven of any kind; the ostrich, the nighthawk, the seagull, the hawk of any kind; the little owl, the cormorant, the great owl, the water-hen, the desert-owl [sometimes translated as “the pelican”], the carrion vulture, the stork, the heron of any kind, the hoopoe, and the bat” (Leviticus 11.13-19). Though the bat is not actually a bird, it flies and its classification as a mammal was not identified till much later. All of these birds are carnivorous or scavengers and hence consume the blood of other animals. They are all, therefore, rendered “unclean” in Leviticus.
This brings us to the raven. Although it is often used in horror films to symbolise evil, with its reaper-like plumage and horrific cry, it is actually the raven who is seen as a provider to God’s people. When Elijah was a fugitive, it was the raven that brought him food and drink (1 Kings 17.4-6):
“‘You shall drink from the wadi, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.’ So he went and did according to the word of the Lord; he went and lived by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening; and he drank from the wadi.”
Furthermore, the raven is a smart bird – it engages in a practice called “caching”. Some of its food is eaten straight away and the rest is buried or hidden in a particular spot for it to return to later (some other birds and animals try this, but often forget where their food is hidden.) Hence the raven is seen as a symbol for God’s continuing care for the creation, assisting and finding provision in times of great need.
We could go on for some time.
The hen is seen as a protector since it jealously guards its young. In Matthew 23.37 Jesus remarked that he wished to protect Jerusalem as a hen protects her brood:
“‘How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…’”
The sparrow is usually meant to represent something of seemingly little value – yet is still precious in God’s eyes (Matthew 10.29).
And, in the book of Job (39.13-18) the ostrich is linked to the winter solstice and new life. Perhaps this is also why the ostrich feather is an ancient symbol of immortality.
In the hands of the Biblical authors, the seemingly ordinary, like birds, takes on greater meaning when you consider the rich symbolism. Researching this symbolism goes beyond partaking in idle academic curiosity, for it is only by understanding the Bible’s symbolism that we can really hope to engage with it and have any contextual understanding of what the Bible authors were trying to tell us.