Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten loreâ€” While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door . . . Quoth the Raven "Nevermore." (Edgar Allen Poe, "The Raven")
One shudders in delight at the tone of Poeâ€™s macabre poem, which carries on the literary tradition of war, death, and mystical power as symbolized by the genus corvus (including ravens, rooks, jackdaws, crows . . .). Aesop, Shakespeare, Dickens, and others went on about this ubiquitous black fowl. Of course, corvids form only a sliver of the worldâ€™s bird population, and stories throughout humanity abound with references to them:
- In ancient Greece, the crane was sacred to Hermes and Hestia, the eagle to Zeus.
- The pelican, legend says, pierced its breast bloody to feed its young in a show of piety.
- The Victorian culture picked up the Greek Aphroditeâ€™s and Jewish King Solomon’s association of love with the swooping swallow to popularize jewellery that spoke of romantic faithfulness.
- No one could forget Rowlings’s owl Hagrid (Harry Potter), and Narnian skies flutter with many winged creatures including the hummingbird, albatross, and flamingo.
- The Beatles (â€śBlackbird Singing in the Dead of Nightâ€ť) also employed the trope of the bird to say something or other philosophical.
Scriptural writers, too, mentioned a great variety of birdsâ€“some quite exotic, such as storks (Jer. 8:7) and ostriches and peacocks (Job 39:13). Our feathered friends appear in many Bible stories; for example:
- God fashioned the birds of the air on the fifth day of Creation (Gen. 1:21)â€“some considered unfit to eat or offer as sacrifice such as the heron, hawk, stork, cormorant (Lev. 11:13-19).
- “Cleanâ€ť bird flesh was edible and offered by the poor in Temple sacrifice to the Lord (Gen. 15:9; Lev. 12:8).
- Elijah was fed bread and meat brought to him on God’s command by an “unclean” flock (1 Kings 17:5-6). The Lord is greater than religion, His grace superseding law.
- God used bird imagery to describe His peopleâ€™s flight from and return to His presence, physically and spiritually (Exod. 19:4; Deut. 32:11-12; Hos. 11:11; Ps. 55:6-8, 124:7). We cannot escape Him (Ps. 139:9-10).
- Noah took birds (both unclean and clean) into the Ark, using the raven and the dove to determine when the waters had receded sufficiently for disembarkment (Gen. 8:6-8).
- Jonah, whose name in Hebrew means dove or pigeon, fled his God-ordained task as prophet (Jon. 1:3).
- Eagles symbolized punishing war (Deut. 28:49; Hab. 1:8).
- Goliath cursed David, threatening to feed his flesh to carrion birds (1 Sam. 17:44); similarly, vultures picked the bones of corpses (Matt. 24:28).
- God, like a bird Himself, offers us protection and healing (Isa. 31:5, 40:31; Ps. 17:8, 91:4; Ruth 2:12; Mal. 4:2).
- But the Lord also uses birds to inflict holy judgment upon evil people as a general principle (Prov. 30:17) and at the end of the Great Tribulation (Rev. 19:17-18).
- The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove as a symbol of Godâ€™s presence (Luke 3:22; John 1:32), perhaps an echo of His birdlike hovering over the waters of creation (Gen. 1:2).
- Jesus compared the value of birds to humans in showing the providential care of the Father for the birds themselves, and for humans through the birds (Matt. 6:26; Luke 12:7).
- In preaching and parable, Jesus used bird imagery to teach His followers about the nature of the Kingdom (Matt. 13: 4, 19; Mark 4:30-32).
It’s amazing how God uses humble, physical items to allude to exalted, spiritual realities.
NOTE: In these short articles tying literature and culture to the Bible, I explore what God might have been saying in His pattern of usage for each symbol. English rendition of the original Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek varies with translations (e.g., â€śscrollâ€ť is sometimes interchangeable with â€śbookâ€ť); however, the quality and underlying meaning of the selected emblem remain consistent across Bible versions. I’ve used two excellent resources for much of my research: A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature (David Lyle Jeffrey) and Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, Tremper Longman III).