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From the well-known image of the dove to the birds that gorge on the flesh of the defeated “beast” in Revelation, birds play a dynamic part in Scripture. They bring bread to the prophets. They...
From the well-known image of the dove to the birds that gorge on the flesh of the defeated “beast” in Revelation, birds play a dynamic part in Scripture. They bring bread to the prophets. They are food for the wanderers. As sacrifices, they are the currency of mercy. They also challenge, offend, devour, and fight.
Highlighting 10 birds throughout Scripture, author Debbie Blue explores their significance in both familiar and unfamiliar biblical stories and illustrates how and why they have represented humanity across culture, Christian tradition, art, and contemporary psyche. With these (usually) minor characters at the forefront of human imaginations, poignant life lessons illuminate such qualities as desire and gratitude, power and vulnerability, insignificance and importance—and provide us with profound lessons about humanity, faith, and God's mysterious grace.
PURITY and IMPURITY
The very first story in the Bible includes birds. In Genesis 1, God says, "Let birds fly," and "Let the birds multiply." But even before God creates the birds, the spirit of God hovers over the face of the deep—the ancient rabbis suggest—like a bird. The Talmud even specifies what kind of bird—a dove: "The Spirit of God hovered over the surface of the waters—like a dove." Not a pterodactyl or the humongous forbidding birds found in many creation myths, but a gentle, quiet, friendly thing. It's surprising. Of course the rabbis might have been wrong about the attributes of the spirit of God at creation; a giant powerful bird is a more likely character to take on the void. What chance would a dove have with the deep and the dark? It has a small brain, stubby little legs—it is easy picking for predators.
It is not difficult information to uncover; nevertheless, I was surprised to find that a dove is, in fact, a pigeon by another name. Pigeon is from the French pijon, and dove is an English word. There are a great variety of birds English speakers call either pigeons or doves—all in the Columbidae family. We tend to call the more delicate and smaller members of the family "doves," but the names are interchangeable. This information is hard to absorb. How could a pigeon command creation? The rabbis have wild imaginations. Still, I like the image quite a bit—the spirit of God—like a pigeon.
In the beginning of the Gospel of Luke, the spirit of God hovers over Mary. The Spirit hovered over the deep in Genesis and made it pregnant so that the deep birthed creation; now it hovers over Mary and makes her pregnant. Christian art through the centuries has depicted this hovering presence, in the spirit of the rabbis, as a dove. I hope to show that this image is both stranger and richer than we normally think.
Once we get to the baptism of Jesus, the text is explicit. Here the spirit of God shows up, and this time each of the Gospel writers is clear: LIKE A DOVE. The heavens open and the spirit of God comes down, alighting on Jesus' shoulder, and a voice from heaven says, "This is my Son ... with whom I am well pleased." I have always thought that the voice seemed like a bit much: farfetched, B movie-ish. And the dove here has never moved me. Maybe because it is such a familiar scene or because I've seen too many bad illustrations of it, or because the white dove has been overused as a symbol in commercial Christianity. It is shorthand for "purity and innocence." When the church we rent puts up doves at Pentecost, we take them down before we proceed with our worship. It doesn't have the right vibe. They seem trite and sentimental—Styrofoam birds and white felt cutout doves glued on a red background. What good news could they possibly bring?
John the Baptist says, "I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him." This, says John, is how he knows he should believe in Jesus. Somehow that has always seemed a little thin to me: something that happens in fairy tales, not something that could hold much weight. I have hardly stopped to consider the bird. I think, Oh—it's a sign, like something written on cardboard, or illuminated at the airport, or advertising a restaurant: Exit. Stop. Go. Eat here. This is the Messiah, flash flash. The Spirit descends like a dove, but I have often thought "like a dove" is extraneous information. It's the message, not the messenger, that's important here.
The dove is merely a conveyor of information, nothing more. And the message is flat—like black-and-white letters on a piece of paper. Something you could roll up and put into a small tube and attach to the bird's leg: This is the messiah period believe in him period. Homing doves have, in fact, been used precisely this way for thousands of years. Their unique (and still somewhat mysterious) homing ability means you can bring them with you, say, on a military campaign and then send them home bearing news of the battle. Or use them like the Greeks did, to inform the populace who the winners were at the Olympic games. You fold up a piece of papyrus and fit it in a tube and the bird will deliver it remarkably reliably. Is this all there is to the bird in this story?
Pigeons/doves have served every empire from the Egyptian to the Roman to the United States of America. They were used as spies in World Wars I and II. They were fitted with cameras, trained by soldiers, sent out in balloons. Although the white dove became the symbol for peace, many other pigeons are celebrated for their military service. The bird is not simply one thing. The most famous pigeon warrior was Cher Ami, who saved an American troop that was being fired on by both sides. He flew through enemy fire to deliver a message to the allied command that they were shooting at their own men. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre medal for his heroic flight. When he died he was stuffed. You can see him on display at the Smithsonian. Reflecting on this little hero in 1926, Harry Webb Farrington, a poet and preacher, described the pigeon: "Little scrawny blue and white, messenger for men who fight."
Messenger for men who make money, too. Stockbrokers and bankers relied on pigeons to carry news of the markets before there were telephones and the Internet. It hasn't always been pure sweet love that is sent down by the dove. They have been used in the service of the empire, for money, power, and war.
Pigeons were employed (though probably not paid) by the Great Barrier Pigeon Gram Service and Mr. Howie's Pigeon Post, a form of airmail between mainland New Zealand and the Great Barrier Island. Pigeons can carry up to 2.5 ounces on their backs. I don't know how much the message "This is the Messiah" would have weighed --probably less than that. I suppose it's possible that the dove at the baptism carried a papyrus prepared by God the Father. But it doesn't seem quite like God, somehow, to employ the pigeon post to send a message. It seems a little too obvious, straightforward, unequivocal --as if God is sitting somewhere on a cloud with a pen in hand.
The writers of Scripture, though a varied group, usually seem to have more imagination than that. More artists, often, than exactly historians, they choose rich, thick symbols that resonate throughout the text—sometimes subtly, sometimes not (lamb, lion, grapevine). Like the iconography of painters, the images resound on levels far deeper than the surface. The appearance of the spirit of God as a dove at Jesus' baptism can surely be read as something more profound than the pigeon post. The spirit of God appeared in bodily form like a pigeon. I don't think we'd be wrong to consider that.
THE SPIRIT OF LIFE
The author of John says he didn't include everything in his book (of course not—it's twenty-one chapters; and Jesus, so the story goes, lived for thirty-three years—that's less than a chapter a year), but he wrote what he wrote so that we may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, "and that believing you may have life." Jesus comes so that we may have life, and have it abundantly—eternal life, actually, is what John calls it. Whatever that means, it doesn't sound like the kind of belief that would come from a can or a tube tied to a pigeon's leg. God's "message" in Christ isn't something you "get" by reading words on a piece of paper. It is God's spirit that will give us life (great big abundant overflowing life like a spring forever welling up, according to John). The Spirit hovers over the water in Genesis and creates life—lots of it; plants yielding seeds of every kind, trees bearing fruit of every kind, swarms of living creatures, sea monsters, everything that moves, every winged creature—swarms, swarming and creeping, fruitful and multiplying, fungi, membranes, bowels. Bulbs, suckers, and buds sending out runners and tubers splicing and crossbreeding. And God says this is good, very good—resoundingly good.
The dove has come to seem banal and bland and cutesy as far as Christian symbols go. It has come to represent something polite and petite and pure. Maybe this has worked to deprive us of a more robust view of the Holy Spirit. Isn't it sort of limiting to imagine the spirit of God as something dainty and white? We are made of dirt, according to the creation account in Genesis. We are full of bacteria. We each carry two to five pounds of bacteria in our bodies—two to five POUNDS. We could kill a dove with one or two blows from the back of our hand. We need a spirit that can handle us.
In The Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin marvels at the "extreme tameness" of the doves he encounters on Charles Island. They are so easily killed by buccaneers and whalers and sailors who, he says, "always take cruel delight in knocking down the little birds." He describes a little boy he saw sitting at a well with a big pile of dead birds beside him. The boy sat at the well all day, says Darwin, with a switch in his hand, waiting to kill the birds when they came to take a drink.
Surely we need God's spirit to be less easily done away with --something that can handle the fungi, membranes, and bowels. Not some fragile naive princess dressed in white, unaware or untainted by the ways of the world.
GODDESSES OF LOVE
The dove in the lore of ancient civilizations wasn't, actually, quite so pure. The bird has a complicated past when you dig a little deeper. Ishtar, a sexy, promiscuous, violent Babylonian goddess, was often depicted as a dove. Pure and naive and delicate would not be good words to describe her. She's more of everything that pulls at humanity all rolled up into one: passion and jealousy and anger and sex. She's goddess of war, fertility, and love. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, which predates the biblical text, Ishtar pushes Gilgamesh to marry her. Although he may find her attractive, he declines because she's proved to be a bit much for her previous lovers, leaving them dead or maimed.
Gilgamesh says, "Listen to me while I tell the tale of your lovers." Then he goes on to describe how she broke the wing of one, dug pits for another, rustled up a whip and spur and thong for her stallion lover, struck her shepherd lover and turned him into a wolf, and "now his own herd-boys chase him away, his own hounds worry his flanks."
The ancient goddess dove was not a bird easily knocked down by whalers, sailors, and buccaneers, or a little boy with a stick.
In another story, Ishtar descends to the underworld looking for her lover. She's very threatening—knocking on the door to the underworld, screaming that she'll break, smash, wrench, force the doors if she isn't let in; and she will "bring up the dead to eat the living." When she does, finally, get in, leaving the face of the earth, all sexual activity ceases everywhere. Fertility dies. It's like she's necessary to life at the same time she threatens it. It's always interesting to see, when you start looking around at other gods and the founding narratives of other cultures, how different the Hebrew stories are. The God who hovers over the deep in Genesis speaks a word—no screaming, threatening, breaking, and smashing—no violence at all. There are no monsters slain, no battles fought. The spirit of God hovers and coos and the world is born, grows fertile, with hardly a bang. The spirit of God at creation is not violent, but God may not be a naive princess either.
Astarte, a Semitic goddess (representing fertility, sexuality, war); Aphrodite (love, beauty, pleasure, procreation); and Venus (same as Aphrodite) are all associated with doves. These goddesses all have many lovers—promiscuity being more their thing than purity. The dove was considered sacred to Adonis and Bacchus. In all these myths the dove was invested with erotic meaning. It became the symbol of love between humans and between the deity and its worshipers.
Pigeons are known for their sexual appetite. In order to get their pigeons to fly home fast and furious, competitive pigeon racers will sometimes make use of their tendency to be powerfully aroused. Some pigeon racers will place a couple together, allow them a certain amount of foreplay, and then pack one of the desirous pigeons up and drive it away. When released, the pigeon flies back home fast.
When pigeons mate they appear to kiss. They are actually exchanging food, but it looks like they are making out (without lips of course—which does make it different). When they copulate, it is gentle and consensual (compared to, say, watching the geese at the park); and they make love frequently, any season of the year, and have many babies—sometimes as many as twelve batches a year. With all their zeal for sex, they are usually true to one love—mating for life.
They can also be quite the fighters. Of course they aren't predators, but they do pick fights with one another, sometimes their own mates. Anyone who watches them long enough in confined quarters might begin to wonder how they came to represent peace. They are not one simple thing—like humans, like the spirit of God. Maybe peace isn't one simple thing either.
It's a wonder, with its colorful mythological history and randy nature, that the dove has become the symbol of purity.
A dove is a pigeon. That seems worth saying repeatedly. We may have imagined the dove at the baptism was white, but it was more likely gray, with an iridescent green-and-violet neck—a rock dove, which is very common in Palestine and which is considered to be the ancestor of our common domestic pigeon. The common domestic pigeon—the kind that gathers in our parks, nests in our eaves, poops all over our buildings and sidewalks.
Archaeological evidence suggests that the dove was domesticated very early in the history of humans. People have been raising them to eat and race and sacrifice and carry messages for a very long time (three thousand years at least, perhaps more). Archaeologists have dug up ancient underground pigeon coops all across Israel; some apparently held thousands and thousands of birds. Ruins of old coops have been found all across the world. The Romans sacrificed them to Venus. The Hindus fed them. The Europeans ate them by droves.
The rock pigeons found in our cities and barns are probably from populations established by escaped domestic pigeons. They are often referred to as feral pigeons. How is that for a symbol of the Holy Spirit? I believe it's a good one. I like it. It's ubiquitous, on the streets. The white dove is overused. How about pigeons for Pentecost, on banners and bulletin covers? There are lots of birds that want to avoid us, who are too wild for us, who need their space. You could call them unfriendly. Pigeons want to be close to us. They are where we are—in some of the worst places we have made (our neglected projects and abandoned buildings) and some of the best (art museums, parks, Rome's piazzas). They won't leave us alone.
Yet there's hardly a bird that people are more likely to want to shoot and exterminate. People are very often not fond of pigeons. They call them "rats with wings." They are considered pests who "infest" urban areas. Cities have tried countless ways of exterminating them, usually unsuccessfully. What if the spirit of God descends like a pigeon, somehow—always underfoot, routinely ignored, often despised?
We celebrate Thanksgiving at the dairy farm where my husband's grandparents lived out their entire lives. His sister lives there now. The cows are gone, but the pigeons remain. After dinner this year, Jim took me up to the hayloft. Pigeons were everywhere. It's always a little frightening to have a bird flap by your head in an enclosed space, but I have been reading so much about them, I am just happy to be among these birds. We sit and watch and listen. It sounds like hundreds of lovers have just been satisfied—the way they coo and moan. It is sweet and peaceful and animal. After a while, Jim tells me a story about the Christmas he and his brother got BB guns. They crawled up the ladder to this loft and shot pigeons. Jim says, "I still feel guilty. It's one of the few things I have ever killed." Later, my colleague the Reverend Russell (also a generally nonviolent man), confesses to fantasies of hauling out his grandpa's gun to shoot the pigeons that relieve their bowels all over his back porch.
The passenger pigeon used to be so prolific in North America that Audubon described flocks so large that they took three days to pass by, blocking out the sun. I learned this from Tom Waits when he called in to Bob Dylan's radio show. Early explorers describe "infinite multitudes," "countless numbers." It's estimated that they made up more than 45 percent of the total bird population in North America. This is hard to even imagine: the skies bursting with profligate life (like an ever-flowing spring, like eternal life, almost).
Excerpted from Consider the Birds by DEBBIE BLUE. Copyright © 2013 Debbie Blue. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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Posted December 15, 2013