Genesis 08-The Raven and the Dove

Is the raven also a symbol of the Holy Spirit?

But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded. Now the springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens had been closed, and the rain had stopped falling from the sky. The water receded steadily from the earth. At the end of the hundred and fifty days the water had gone down, and on the seventeenth day of the seventh month the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. The waters continued to recede until the tenth month, and on the first day of the tenth month the tops of the mountains became visible.

After forty days Noah opened a window he had made in the ark and sent out a raven, and it kept flying back and forth until the water had dried up from the earth. Then he sent out a dove to see if the water had receded from the surface of the ground. But the dove could find nowhere to perch because there was water over all the surface of the earth; so it returned to Noah in the ark. He reached out his hand and took the dove and brought it back to himself in the ark. 10 He waited seven more days and again sent out the dove from the ark. 11 When the dove returned to him in the evening, there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the water had receded from the earth. 12 He waited seven more days and sent the dove out again, but this time it did not return to him.

13 By the first day of the first month of Noah’s six hundred and first year,the water had dried up from the earth. Noah then removed the covering from the ark and saw that the surface of the ground was dry. 14 By the twenty-seventh day of the second month the earth was completely dry.

15 Then God said to Noah, 16 “Come out of the ark, you and your wife and your sons and their wives. 17 Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you—the birds, the animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground—so they can multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number on it.”

18 So Noah came out, together with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. 19 All the animals and all the creatures that move along the ground and all the birds—everything that moves on land—came out of the ark, one kind after another.

20 Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. 21 The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.

22 “As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest,
cold and heat,
summer and winter,
day and night
will never cease.”

I went down a research rabbit-hole during naptime yesterday!  I mean, I went deep into this one without meaning to, but I just got caught up. I’ll tell you all about it, but first let me just give a shout out to local libraries, which made yesterday’s research possible.  Getting a library card was one of the first things I did when we moved here.  Our little tiny local library is part of a larger group of libraries, so I have access to tons of books, plus they have a fun little children’s corner with toys and stuffed animals, lots of activities (including a play-time focused on sensory issues, which we will be attending in the future), and access to academic research tools, like JSTOR, right from my own computer, I just log in through the library website.  So, have you checked out your local library lately?

Okay, with that plug out of the way, let’s talk about what I found!  Actually, first, let’s talk about why I was searching.  I remembered Noah had sent out the dove twice, but I did not remember the raven at all.  So I wondered, “why the two birds?”  And apparently a lot of other people have wondered about it, too.  There are lots of writings out there, but the two I found most interesting and helpful were Miriam Gedwiser’s 2016 article on the website Lehrhaus, which explores diversity in Jewish thought.  The second I found on JSTOR, so I can’t link to it, but it’s “Why Did Noah Send Out a Raven?” by R.W.L. Moberly in the July 2000 issue of Vetus Testamentum, a scholarly journal for Old Testament studies. I’ve noted where I’ve paraphrased these two.

Some see it symbolically: That the raven represents carnal/sinful/sexual desires, and by sending the raven out first, Noah was symbolically purging the ark of sin. (Gedwiser) Others are less allegorical, and say that the raven is a common land sighting bird, meaning it will fly towards land even if it can’t see any, and was used in navigation before compasses. (Moberly)  Here the analysis diverge.  The first school of thought says that the raven was just too wild of a bird to bring Noah any good information.  But the dove is a gentle, people-friendly bird who would allow Noah to hold it in his hand to see not only the olive branch but examine it’s feet for evidence of clay or other solid ground. The second school of thought reminds us that ravens are carrion eaters, and therefore could live off any bloated corpses floating around on the receding flood. Some say the raven was a harbinger of death and not a good choice or good omen for leaving the ark, so Noah then sent out the dove, which is also a land-sighting bird but not a carrion eater, so would have to return if it didn’t find enough food (aka dry enough land with things growing).

There’s some interesting ideas, maybe even a little truth, in all of those, but I find all of them lacking a bit.  As for the raven being symbolic of sin, I have trouble swallowing that one.  The raven is revered in many cultures as a wise bird, if a little cunning-Native American and Norse mythology are just two examples that come to mind of the raven being “good.”  Also, in a contemporary flood legend, Gilgamesh had a helpful raven. And, as the Moberly article pointed out, Elijah is sustained by the bread and meat brought to him by the raven God sends him while hiding in the Kerith Ravine, later in the Old Testament (Kings chapter 17, if you’re interested).  So, if the raven is leaving the ark to purge sin, it seems to me like it is doing so out of helpfulness, almost like volunteering to take out the trash.

As for the raven being too wild to bring Noah any good information, I just wonder why Noah would have picked the raven if that were the case, considering the dove (and literally any other bird) was right there to chose from.  The added layer of information, that ravens are carrion eaters, helps a little bit.  Perhaps Noah sent out the raven, and then when it flew back and forth he realized that maybe there wasn’t enough dry land yet, but enough of whatever (mucky flotsam, dead bodies…) to keep a crow fed but not to nest.  So perhaps the raven was informative where the dove wouldn’t have been.  It’s almost a biblical “are we there yet/are we done yet?” kind of question.  Basically, the raven’s back and forth flights say to Noah,”Yes, the flood waters are receding, but it’s not safe for you yet.  Wait a bit.”  Whereas if the dove had been sent out, it’s answer would have been a flat “NO” with no added information.

Moberly ends their article suggesting that the raven might be an imitation on Noah’s part of God sending out the Holy Spirit to quell the flood.  Normally, the dove is used as a symbol of the Holy Spirit – remember Matthew 3:16 where “the Spirit of God descend[ed] like a dove and alight[ed] on” Jesus?  And that is good and true. But perhaps Moberly is onto something, and the raven is also a symbol of the Holy Spirit that we’ve just forgotten about.  Surely God instilled the Holy Spirit in the raven that fed Elijah.  I like the yin/yang completeness of having a dark and light bird both be symbols of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps the “black” bird has just been falsely demonized by earlier generations intent on separating themselves from the “godless heathens” around them, denying any symbolism Christianity and other religions might share through the raven and focusing only on the dove.

Whatever the explanation, I identify with the raven.  The poor raven gets no credit.  I completely forgot he was part of the story – did you?  In the raven, I see every menial task, every thankless job that I have to do.  The Holy Spirit is not only with us in times of great spiritual revelation, such as the baptism of Jesus, but with us always, like when we’re changing diapers and doing our taxes.  The dove might bring us a message of hope from above, but the raven is in the weeds here with us, keeping our spirits up.