Two of the most prominent birds in biblical tradition are very different in nature: the dove and the eagle.

The gentle dove that dwells close to earth is an important symbol in Jewish and other ancient Near Easter religious traditions. After the Great Flood recorded in Genesis, Noah (like many an ancient sailor) sends forth a dove to look for land; it returns with an olive branch in its beak, an image which become a traditional symbol of peace.

The Torah presents the Divine Spirit (the Hebrew word Ruach רוח can also mean Wind)  “hovering over the face of the waters” at the dawn of creation (Genesis 1:2). The Talmud goes on to describes God’s spirit as hovering like a dove above its young in the nest, and the divine voice (the Bat Kol) echoing through time and space like the murmering call of a dove. The dove is also a symbol of beauty and love, and it has become a symbol of the Jewish people as well as the divine. (That’s the nature of symbols: a sign points to just one thing but a symbol is multifaceted and can have many meanings.)

A legend from the Talmud: Rabbah son of Bar Hannah was journeying with a caravan. He ate but forgot to say Grace After Meals. He wondered what to do. If he told his companions that he needed to return to the spot to say his prayer, they would disagree and hold him back. Instead he told that the he had lost a golden dove and must go back to find it.

He went back, said Grace and found a golden dove! And why a dove ? Because the Community of Israel is likened to a dove.

–Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 53b

Golden Eagle in flight , UK, Tom HIsgett, via Wikimedia CommonsBy contrast, the eagle is powerful and its flight is lofty, giving it a magnificent view of the world. Its wings symbolize divine power and protection: “I bore you on eagle’s wings and brought you to me.” (Exodus 19:4). Like an eagle that is mighty yet hovers gently and bears its young tenderly to safety on its wings, God has cared for the people of Israel since their desert wanderings (Deuteronomy 32:11 and Rashi’s commentary thereon). The Psalms offer blessings to the faithful, to find shelter under those Godly wings.

Just as the dove is a symbol of divinity and also of humanity, so too the eagle both a symbol of divine power and mercy, and a model for faith. “Those who trust in God will renew their strength, soaring high with wings like eagles” (alternate translation: “growing new plumes like eagles” (Isaiah 40:31).

Yehudah ben Teimah says: Be bold like the leopard, light like the eagle, swift like the deer, and mighty like the lion to do the Will of your Heavenly Parent.

Pirke Avot, 5:20

The dove stays close to home, recalling the immanent (indwelling, near) experience of God’s presence; the eagle soars to the heights, pointing to the transcendence of the Divine.

It’s not surprising then, that that joining the Jewish people has been described as coming “under the wings of the Divine Presence.” Those wings of Spirit may feel gentle like the dove or powerful like the eagle, depending on the moment and the need.



Featured Image: Dove by Cycling Man via Flickr:

Listen to a favorite song, “Wings of Peace,” or return to the Gateway of Wings.