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In tablet 11 of the epic of Gilgamesh, after Utnapishtim's ark lodges on a rock, he releases a dove, a swallow, and a raven, in that order. The first two birds return when they fail to find a resting place. He releases the raven, which does not return, after which Utnapishtim opens the ark.

The NASB translation of Genesis 8:7, which of the commonly available English translations appears to me to be closest to the original in this case, reads:

And he sent out a raven, and it flew here and there until the water was dried up from the earth.

I think that the translation should be: "And he sent the raven, which did go out but returned to wait until the waters dried". The reasoning is that the original uses the the "heh ha'yidiah", the definite article "the" before "raven" (not "a raven", but "the raven", or possibly "the Raven" meaning the raven as a representative of it's species), and a double form of the verb to go out, "vayetse yatsu", meaning that it indeed did go out but implying a reluctance to go out. I read the clause break after "did go out" so that "v'shuv" ("then returned") applies to the "until the waters dried". The NASB reads reads the clause break after "v'shuv" so they translate "flew [went out] here and there". The NASB and similar readings are problematic in that they make it look as if the raven went out but did not come back, leaving us to ask why Noah didn't see this as a sign to open the ark.

In any event, the raven's mission is clearly a failure. The entire episode is dismissed in one verse of eleven Hebrew words.

Following the raven's mission, Noah sends the dove. The dove goes out and returns "to him", to Noah, whereas the raven just returns, but not "to him". Noah sends the dove on a second mission. Again, she returns "to him", this time with an olive twig. She is clearly a willing participant in these missions. Noah sends the dove a third time, and she does not return - she has a mission of her own now. The dove's missions take up five verses with a total of seventy-five Hebrew words.

What does the raven symbolize in the Biblical story?

It is clear that Genesis has reversed the story of birds in the flood episodes with respect to the Gilgamesh text. What is Genesis trying to tell us by this reversal?

Given that we know that in Israelite culture the raven is an "unclean" bird and the dove is a "pure" bird, what is the meaning of the failure of the raven's mission?

Finally, what was Noah thinking when he sent a raven on this mission?

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When asking about symbolism you're toeing the line between theology and hermeneutics. Symbolism will invite greater subjectivity (which is acceptable to a certain degree) that may not comport well with either your base question (title) or the sites objectives. –  swasheck Apr 18 '13 at 2:29
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I think as a question this post would benefit from having the second and third to last paragraphs removed. Those seem like assertions that would be better suited to being forwarded in an answer. –  Caleb Dec 9 '13 at 10:23

8 Answers 8

I can't comment on the Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient poem from Mesopotamia, but interestingly your observation about the Hebrew is identical to Luther's.

the carelessness of a translator has given rise to a question in connection with this passage. The Hebrew does not say that the raven did not return, as Jerome renders it. There was, therefore, no need to invent a reason why he did not return; for it is alleged that he found everything full of dead bodies and that this delightful and abundant fare kept him from returning. Moses states the opposite, namely, that the raven which had been sent out returned, although it did not allow itself to be caught and shut up in the ark again, as the dove did. Moses reveals that Noah sent out the raven in order to learn through him whether the animals could now find a footing and have food. The raven did not carry out this mission carefully; but, as though he were glad to be set free from the prison of the ark, he flew to and fro as he rejoiced in the open sky and now paid no attention to Noah. (Luther's Works, Volume 2, P109)

I think Luther has it right. Noah either sent out the raven and the dove around the same time as two witnesses regarding the status of the receding waters, winged spies as it were, or upon the poor performance of the raven only then chose the meek and cooperative dove as a replacement.

In either case, the dove proves faithful and is miraculously guided by God to deliver the hopeful message about the receding waters.

It would seem than that these two birds symbolize the kind of new creation out of the death of the flood, this will be no utopia now that the world has been cleansed from sinners, rather both ravens (impure) and doves (pure) will repopulate the world.

The raven is a predator that feeds on dead flesh and makes irritating sounds, these are like the wicked that seek no comfort in the protection of an Ark, or the hopeful faith of Noah. The dove is a likable sweet and peaceful bird representing the pure and faithful spirit.


Christians find it of no surprise that when Jesus underwent his own baptism as the Ark to save sinners, the Spirit from heaven came upon him as a 'dove'. (Matt 3:16) So we may add under the Christian view that the dove represents the heavenly guidance of the Spirit upon the salvation afforded to Noah and those in the Ark. The raven does not seem to be included in this poetic picture.

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+1 for finding this in Luther. –  Eli Rosencruft Nov 2 '12 at 13:22
    
I wonder why Luther seems to accuse Jerome of being the origin of the supposed mistake. After all, the LXX (which was translated by Jewish interpreters) translated it as ἐξελθὼν οὐχ ὑπέστρεψεν, meaning "and after it went forth, it did not return." So, this pre-dated Jerome. –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Jan 13 at 5:47

First, the translation on Wikisource:

And he sent the crow; and it went back and forth, until the waters dried above the land.

This is using the exact same definite article, which can be because there is only one (male) crow on the ark, or because it is a representative, both readings are allowed. The "going back and forth" is probably as Luther said, resting and eating floating corpses, but there is no implication that it came back to the ark. But there is no reason that Noah would have interpreted this as the waters abating, perhaps because the crow has plenty of food, perhaps because the author didn't think of this very minor inconsistency.

The crow is an impure bird, it is a carrion eater, while the dove is pure. So Noah is simply relying on a species of bird which is more godly in the Hebrew version of the tale. There is no need to iron out minor inconsistencies, like whether Noah knew the crow found dry land, anymore than you have to know where the hero in a western goes to the bathroom. It's just a story.

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Attempting to interpret and isolated chapter from a book or an isolated scene from a movie is not a recipe for success. Events viewed out of context are events without meaning. We are forced to read purpose into them based upon our own presuppositions, our own context.

What was going through Noah's mind when he sent out the raven? Did the raven return? Was the raven sent first because it was unclean and therefore a less valuable animal to preserve for the new world? Or was it sent first because it was a stronger bird? Does the phrase "to and fro" suggest a single outward journey and return? Or did the bird not return, eating and resting upon floating corpses, as Luther suggests? All sorts of Jewish and Christian sources have been quoted, but it seems to me that everybody has missed the point.

If we are open to the idea of one story being told over and over again in different ways, using different "raw materials," we are not left helpless in pondering Noah's possible thoughts. If the Spirit of God was work, it is likely Noah was thinking God's thoughts. How can we know God's thoughts? We can see the same action taking place in other places in the Bible, and the clue is not so much the raw materials as the structure, the "process" of God's work in the world.

The chain of events in the Garden of Eden prefigures the annual feasts of Israel. This sevenfold pattern then becomes the first cycle in a history of seven cycles, taking us from Adam to Noah, from the beginning of the first world to the beginning of a new one.

In Eden, the Day of Atonement was the Spirit of the Lord "moving to and fro" searching for Adam and Eve "in the Spirit of the Day." Blood was shed and the Land was rendered clean. Man moved from the Garden into the Land and began farming. In the greater pattern, the Day of Atonement is the flood. Once again blood was shed and the Land was rendered clean. This connection between eyes, ravens, obedience to God (Father) and in a Christian reading the Church (Mother), and His subsequent blessing upon the Land turns up in some strange places. Here's one that puts a Noahic spin on one of the Ten Commandments:

The eye that mocks a father and scorns to obey a mother will be picked out by the ravens of the valley and eaten by the vultures. (Proverbs 30:17)

The High Priestly rite of atonement, introduced many centuries later, is the same process in miniature. The urim and thummim, a white stone and a black stone hidden in the ephod, communicated the mind of the Lord concerning the offering. A white stone meant that the offering had been accepted and the Land was once again considered clean by the Lord for another year. (It is interesting that the Talmud records that a black stone was drawn every year after the death of Jesus until the destruction of the Temple. [1])

In Hebrew, the word "redeemer" is two fold. It means both avenger and redeemer. The Lord destroys His enemies and rescues His people. So, the black bird is the eyes and mouth of the destroyer. He is unclean because he has the job of cleaning up the mess, eating death just like the serpent eats (Adamic) dust. The Covenant curse included being left unburied, left exposed to be eaten by birds and beasts. (Note that similar words from the mouth of Goliath were what filled David with righteous indignation. Goliath was cursing the children of Abraham.) As the black bird moved "to and fro" like the eyes of God, scanning the face of the waters, so the white bird searched for a holy remnant of the old world to save and carry into the new: "The Branch."

To a Christian, not only can we read this dual act of blessing and cursing back into the history of Noah, we can read it forward in the book of Revelation, which takes just about every Covenant/festal cycle in the Bible and rolls them all together into an amazing tapestry of Israel's history, one shaped like a wheel full of eyes.

Of course, the raven did return to his mate eventually. We still have ravens. And the Word of the Lord never returns to Him empty, even when that Word is a curse.


[1] See A White Stone - 3.

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Another interesting answer, but could you perhaps tease out more the narrative's correspondence to the festal calendar? –  Soldarnal Feb 14 '13 at 20:49
    
Sure. The 3fold Creation of Man (Physical, Social, Ethical) ends with Day 7, Sabbath, the first feast in Lev. 23, which sets the 7fold pattern for the year (Genesis). Passover is the slaughter of Abel (waters divided/Exodus). Firstfruits begins a new priesthood and ascension of Enoch (Land, grain&fruits/Leviticus). Pentecost: "mighty men" from the intermarriage of the priesthood with idolatry (Governing Lights/Numbers). Trumpets: witness of Noah and mustering of animals (Swarms/Deut.). Atonement: the flood. Waters UN-divided. Booths: A new land, with Noah as shelter, a tree of righteousness –  Mike Bull Feb 14 '13 at 21:22
    
@Soldarnal Here's an expanded answer (rewritten). Hope this helps. –  Mike Bull Jun 3 '13 at 14:19
    
Thanks, Mike. I'd read through The Bible Matrix and that helped me understand your position as well, and I already upvoted your answer from before, but I appreciate you taking the time to update it. –  Soldarnal Jun 4 '13 at 2:59

As noted by Luther quoted in this answer, and also rabbinic literature I've seen but can't now find, when the raven flew "to and fro" it was feeding on the bodies floating in the receding floodwaters. The raven is a carrion-eater and the flood had provided it an endless buffet. The raven therefore had no need to return to the ark.

Another interpretation of "to and fro" is offered in the midrash B'reishit Rabbah 33:5 (quoting from the Soncino translation):

AND IT WENT FORTH TO AND FRO (YAZO WA SHOB). R. Judan said in the name of R. Judah b. R. Simon: It began arguing with him: 'Of all the birds that thou hast here thou sendest none but me!’ ‘What need then has the world of thee?' he retorted; 'for food? for a sacrifice?' R. Berekiah said in R. Abba's name: The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him [Noah]: ‘Take it back, because the world will need it in the future.’ 'When?' he asked. ’When the waters dry off from on the earth' He replied: ‘A righteous man will arise and dry up the world, and I will cause him to have need of them [the ravens],’ as it is written, And the ravens (‘orbim) brought him bread and flesh, etc. (I Kings XVII, 6).

This argument is also recorded in the Babylonian talmud, Sanhedrin 108b, where the raven argues that it is being picked on because there are fewer ravens (unclean) than clean birds, so sending it puts the entire species at risk should the raven die.

According to these rabbinic interpretations, "going to and fro" was a verbal back-and-forth, not necessarily a physical one. Why did Noah choose to send the raven? He was willing to risk a lower-value scout on the mission before endangering one he actually valued, a clean bird.

It's not clear to me that, if the raven did go out "to and fro", its mission failed. If even the raven couldn't find food, then sending an herbivore would clearly be premature. Sending the more-versatile scout first, before sending the one with limited options, makes sense tactically.

As for Gilgamesh, asking about the reversal presupposes that Gilgamesh (a) came first and (b) was known to the biblical author. For all we know, even if we assume human authorship, it is possible that the two stories have a common third source. This is pure speculation.


Please note: This answer was written for a neutral, academic audience and is not intended to be interpreted in the context of a religious belief or doctrine.

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This is the best answer –  swasheck Apr 18 '13 at 2:27

The overarching theme of the flood narrative is of 'un-creation' and 're-creation'. This is seen not least in the explicit textual parallels with Genesis 1, for example:

  • And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” Genesis 1:22, ESV

  • And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Genesis 1:28, ESV

  • Bring out with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh—birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth—that they may swarm on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth.” Genesis 8:17, ESV

Noah has been told by God that apart from him and the few with him, every living thing is to be blotted out, and whether or not he understands the parallel with the darkness that was over the face of the deep, he knows he is in the dark at this point: unable to see whether the cleansed world is ready for him to enter, and cautious about removing the covering of the ark and looking out for himself at this stage1.

At this point the narrative begs the question whether the new act of creation will be better than the first: has it solved the problems of sin and subsequent alienation from God of his creatures. Will Noah and the birds and beasts from the ark please God by fulfilling their intended roles in the created order?

I don't want to make too much of the symbolic importance of ravens versus doves, as in scripture ravens are not universally agents of evil2, nor doves of intelligence and helpfulness. However the role of birds in general in creation is very much in view here: they were to 'be fruitful...and multiply on the earth' and submit to man's 'dominion' over them, that is the created order. In that context, it is important to interpret whether the first bird's actions, these first acts3 in the new creation, are acts in keeping with a creation that is now fixed. They are not. Of course one bird helps Noah in contrast to first that doesn't, and there is symbolism there, but it is symbolizes the brokenness as much as the hope in God's world just as Noah did in his generation, and it the contrast seems to be 'first v second' rather than especially 'raven v dove'.

Any lingering doubts that we might have misinterpreted the first bird's rebellion are banished when God speaks in verse 21. God is not here expressing optimism that He has now fixed the problems evident earlier. Though he is responding to a good sacrifice and a 'pleasing aroma', it is clear that future evil and rebellion is the expectation in His heart4:

And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man's heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. ESV

So,

What was Noah thinking when he sent a raven from the ark?

Noah understood the events unfolding outside the ark as a profound 'reboot' of creation. He wanted to know when when the birds would be able to begin again to multiply on the earth knowing that would signify the time had come for man to leave his giant coffin-shaped ark and do the same.


1 We're not told why he can't just look out of the window, but the assumption has to be that it wasn't suitable for some reason

2 Neither are serpents for that matter

3 It is interesting to note the parallel between the windows of the heavens, out of which issue the first act of 'cleansing' judgement, and the window of the ark, out of which issues the first act of fresh rebellion (and the first act of obedience and hint of future hope)

4 I posit that God's promise here is not just a gracious act: it's also an acknowledgment that even destroying everything and re-creating does not reach the heart of the problem. Later scripture makes clear that it is the human heart itself that needs to be un-created and re-created: nothing from the outside can fix this problem

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There is another possible explanation for Noah's use of a raven, regardless of its spiritual significance. Sending out ravens was an early maritime method of identifying if a ship was close to land and in which direction the land was. The Landnamabok manuscript, for example, recounts the story of Floki Vilgeroarson, who in the 9th century was the first Norseman to deliberately sail to Iceland. He carried with him several ravens. He let them go at intervals of several days, noting whether they flew back in the direction of where he had come, simply circled the ship, or headed onward. The one that headed onward, he knew, had spied land ahead, and so he followed it. We assume, of course, that the ark could not be steered, but it appears that Noah observed the raven's behavior--that at first it simply flew back and forth (indicating it could not find land) and then when it did disappear and not return, Noah knew land was visible. This might also explain the cryptic wording of the passage (which to us seems unclear and vague). Assuming that the writer and readers of Genesis understood the role of ravens on ships, such a brief reference would make perfect sense and be clearly understood.

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That's very interesting! –  maj nem ɪz dæn Jan 12 at 22:22
    
I'd like to see a citation before I upvote this, but I find it fascinating and a compelling addition to the conversation. Please cite this and reply to my comment and I'll come back with an upvote. –  swasheck Jan 15 at 21:02

Doves are small birds with little stamina and seem to lack the aerodynamics of long gliding flight unlike the bigger winged ravens so they would only search a little way around the Ark. Doves eat d/vegetation, ravens carrion will explain their behaviour. Doves have great homing instincts while ravens are wanderers. Raven would find plenty of food in water or the first visible mud but dove would not find food until the first olive had sent forth shoots? I was recently taken to task by someone who angrily claimed how could olive trees survive being drowned in salt water? I said the water was probably very dilute with all the fresh rain water. The drying and draining of he water may be the source of the great salt deposits and salt lakes as when salt water is concentrated salt falls out of suspension

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Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange! Thank you for taking the time to share your insights. Be sure to visit the tour to learn more about this site. Due to the nature of this site, a reference may be required to support your conclusions. –  Paul Vargas Nov 13 at 17:01

Noah's ark, the raven, the dove are all metaphorical mystery extensions of Jesus' Parable of the Sower (POTS) in the Gospels. The key to understanding the mysteries of the kingdom is first to understand the significance of the 3 good seeds and the 3 bad seeds. The bad seeds represent those that hear the Word but reject it; they go down to the pit. The good seeds, the 30-60-100 is a metaphor for rewards, or blessings. One crucial key to understanding the threefold paradigms is to not underestimate the meaning and significance of numbers whether literal or quantitatively figurative.

In Gen 8:6-12 the dove goes out two times but does not return the THIRD time. This 'three' paradigm is a metaphor for the three kingdom ages (KA); this present 6000 year KA (30), the 1000 year MK (60) and the Eternal Kingdom (100). As you can see the blessings progressively escalate as we spiritually progress in time. The dove in this Genesis account is Messiah. Messiah was from the beginning so He was present in Spirit for the first 4000 years. The first 4000 years represents the Spiritual presence of the Word which God revealed to Moses. The first release of the Messiah Dove was to make manifest Messiah in the flesh. The second release is of course His return in the MK. Now that we have two releases, why does the dove not return? Because at the end of the 1000 year MK we are spiritually perfected and we are His Bride.

This spiritual maturity paradigm was repeated earlier in the Noah account in verses 6:15-17; it is actually implicated twice. Again this is a threefold paradigm in the length, the width, and the height. The length is the larger number and represents the 30 fold which is the voluminous sands of the sea 'multitude.' The width is a metaphor for the 60 fold which will be called prophets in the MK. The height is represents the priests of the MK, the 100 fold. Notice that the 100 fold is attributed to height; this is hierarchy. The MK is a governmental structure of hierarchy. This is confirmed in the lower 30 fold deck, the middle 60 fold deck and the upper 100 fold deck. How many decks? Three! Do we have more proof? Yes, it never ends but you will enjoy this one.

The ark is a metaphor for a tabernacle or temple. Watch what happens when we go to Revelation 21:16-17. All the mentions of 12 in that entire text represent us, all twelve tribes of Israel which means the two sticks of the Ezekiel 37 prophesy is complete. The amazing thing about our New Jerusalem home, tabernacle, temple is that all the measurements are equal; the length, the height, and the width are the same! Why? Because after 1000 years of spiritual sanctification, purification, redemption, restoration, etc, we are a PERFECTED BRIDE! This is what the parable of the mustard seed teaches: we enter the MK with spiritual knowledge equating to a tiny seed; after 1000 years our spiritual maturity is such that a bird may rest in it's branches.

Going back to the ark, note the window that is hierarchically "one cubit above." Why, what does this metaphor represent? It is the Messiah!!! How do we know? This is strong 6672, Zohar. This is the only time 6672 is translated window; every other time it is noon or noonday. Look up every instance of use and you will notice some very peculiar language and contextual use. It is too complicated to explain the nuances here but I want to point to exegetical proof that this is the Messiah.

Paul had his conversion on the road to Damascus. At what time does he specify his conversion in Acts 22:6 and 26:13? NOON!!! This bears proof that 6672 is a word that means the Messiah but it is also proof that Paul was visited by Messiah, chosen, and anointed for his role!

I just realized that I did not indicate that the raven is Satan; note that the raven only appears in the first 6000 year kingdom age.

One last paradigm of tremendous importance; the Parable of the Talents. I always reference Matthew in most of these parables. Note the same 'three' paradigm and the outcome of blessings that correlates precisely to the several paradigms we have noted so far. This is quintessentially repeated in Ezekiel 44:4-15. These are just a few; I have observed this pattern repeat untold thousands of times but that will have to be for another time.

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