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Ravens in the Bible

by Tim O'Hearn

Raven: a member of any of fifteen species of genus corvidae, noted for black plumage and intelligence. Ravens have been taught to count to six and have been taught to say several English words. (The source at which I read that last fact didn’t say whether they would have been more, or less, intelligent if they had learned French or Russian words.) They have been known to make and use tools. They follow wolves and polar bears to scavenge off their kills. They are naturally monogamous, mating with the same raven for life, which may be up to fifty years. Ravens appear in Norse and American Indian mythologies, as well as such literary works as Poe’s The Raven and Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge. Most importantly, at least for my current purpose, they can be found in the Bible.

Miscellaneous Ravens

Although the raven is featured prominently in only two incidents in the Bible, it is mentioned with more or less importance in several passages. Among the minor references to ravens, mention is made of their color and their habits.

It is not uncommon even today to hear descriptions of “raven-haired beauties.” They say that blondes have more fun, but some people consider the deep black of the raven’s plumage to be more beautiful. This dates back even to one of the great love songs of history, the biblical Song of Songs (also known as the Song of Solomon). “His head is as the most fine gold, his locks are bushy, and black as a raven.” (SOS 5:11)

Perhaps the same biblical writer picked up on their habits as scavengers. A warning is given to those children who would rebel against their parents. “The eye that mocketh at his father, and despiseth to obey his mother, the ravens of the valley shall pick it out, and the young eagles shall eat it.” (Prov 30:17) This description of ravens picking at the corpse of the rebellious child is perhaps a more poetic rendering of one of the Ten Commandments. “Honor thy father and they mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord they God giveth thee.” (Ex 20:12) The rebellious child will not live long, and will not be accorded the honor of burial. Thus, the ravens will feed on him.

Isaiah prophesied against the nation of Edom. He told of their utter destruction. To show the completeness of that destruction, he called upon the example of the solitary raven. “The owl also and the raven shall dwell in it.” (Isa 34:11) The city of Petra would become good for nothing but birds’ nests. And so it remained until it became a tourist destination and the setting for an Indiana Jones movie.

Unclean Ravens

Ravens are among the birds that are unclean for the Jews. “And these are they which ye shall have in abomination among the fowls; they shall not be eaten, they are an abomination: Every raven after his kind.” (Lev 11:13, 15; also Deut 14:12, 14) Some have speculated that they are considered unclean because they are scavengers and carrion eaters. However, other birds on the list, such as the eagle or the owl, eat live prey. Another suggestion is that they are meat eaters. Although all the forbidden birds are carnivores not all insect eating birds are on the list. In fact, chickens are omnivores, eating grubs as readily as grain, and they are obviously not on the prohibited list, not being found in the Bible at all.

Some have contended that the unclean animals are all prohibited for health reasons. They point to the prohibition against carrion eaters among the birds and bottom feeders among the fish. Most rabbis are quick to point out, though, that not all the prohibitions can be traced to health concerns. Some animals appear to be on the list simply because God wanted to put them there. Herman Wouk made the point in his book, This Is My God, that if the requirements of kosher foods were simply for health reasons everyone in the world would have adopted them long ago. Instead, the prohibition on ravens and other animals appears to be simply to set the people of Israel apart as a people. Unclean animals were unclean simply because God said they were unclean.

We do not know why God included the raven in the list of unclean birds. We do not know for certain why God did or said a lot of things. It is not for us, the subordinate creature, to question the superior creator. All we can say is that God included the ravens on the list, and that is that.

Fed Ravens

“Who provides for the raven his food when his young ones cry unto God?” (Job 38:41) A psalmist answered God’s question to Job. “He [God] giveth to the beasts his food, and to the young ravens which cry.” (Psalm 147:9)

Yes, God feeds the young ravens. But what does that mean to us? Jesus put it best in Luke 12:24. “Consider the ravens: for they neither sow nor reap; which neither have storehouse nor barn; and God feedeth them: how much more are ye better than the fowls?” How much more, indeed? The ravens have enough; why do some of us think we don’t? God always gives us everything we need. God sometimes gives us more, and therein lies the problem. We sometimes confuse God’s generosity with our necessity. Often “I need that” is really only “I want that.” God feeds the ravens, and he gives us even more. Let us instead be thankful.

Noah and Elijah and the Ravens

Ravens figure prominently in two incidents in the Bible. Although they are seemingly unrelated, the rabbis have found a link between the two.

Noah was a righteous man in an unrighteous world. God told him to build an ark because he was going to save the world by destroying it with water. Noah was told to build an ark to save man and animal. As soon as the barge was finished, God sent the original of what we in the American Southwest call a “gully-washer.” A month and a half of rain lasted almost a year. After about eleven months on the ark, Noah tested the waters by sending out birds. The first bird he sent out was a raven. Some suppose he did this because the raven was expendable. After all, you can’t eat a raven. You can’t sacrifice a raven on the altar. Unless, as the Midrash (the Jewish explanation of the scriptures) suggests, the ravens were the only animals on the ark to get pregnant, this was the only male raven left in the world. If he didn’t survive, no more ravens. Noah may not have swatted the pesky mosquitoes, but he was willing to risk the only ravens. No wonder the raven never came back. He “went forth to and fro until the waters were dried up from off the earth.” (Gen 8:7) A couple of weeks later Noah left the ark, and apparently released the raven’s mate.

In spite of Noah, God saved the raven. He had a purpose for the ravens, so they had to survive. Some see that purpose in the statement that he went forth until the waters were “dried up” (Hebrew yevoshet). The letters of that Hebrew word, when reversed, form the word “Tishbe,” which brings us to Elijah the Tishbite, or Elijah from Tishbe. God needed the ravens to help Elijah survive, and it had to do with the land drying up.

Because of the wickedness of King Ahab and his wife Isabella (Jezebel), God had told Elijah to prophesy a drought. When God prophesies it comes true, so the land dried up. Elijah hid out by a stream. While there, God sent the ravens to Elijah with food, both morning and evening. (1 Kings 17:4-6) Ravens care for their own, but usually have nothing to do with others. This was an unusual thing.

When God provides an unusual thing, we should take note. Why did God use the ravens? Why had he kept them alive just so they could feed Elijah? Perhaps the answer relates to the attitude earlier attributed to Noah. Many consider ravens worthless birds. What good can come from a scavenger? Yet this is the very attitude Elijah had about the people of Israel to whom he was sent. “And he said, I have been very jealous for the LORD God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.” God needed to show Elijah that this worthless nation had value in itself. If a bird that couldn’t even be used as a sacrifice was useful to God in feeding his prophet, then a nation that couldn’t obey God like those ravens might have good in it.

When Elijah complained that he was the only righteous man left in Israel, God told him there were really seven thousand. Should we not learn that lesson? Can we sit back and say that America (or any other group of people) won’t listen to God, and justify our silence. Or should we see the lesson of the ravens? They went to and fro until the land dried up, and when the land dried up again, they showed that good could come from evil. It may appear that faith has dried up, but God can surprise us with where faith really springs up. It may be the next raven, or raven-haired one you meet.