One of the ways the New Testament Gospels lend plausibility to what they record is in the ring of authenticity that is found in the teachings and sayings of Jesus. As we would expect from a provincial rabbi of his day, he displays a deep knowledge of the Jewish Scriptures, teaches in ways clearly shaped by the ancient wisdom tradition of the Old Testament, and often refers to things that would commonly surround an itinerant preacher in first century Israel.
One well-known example of referring to things within eyeshot of him and his listeners at the moment is his reference to ravens. He mentioned ravens when telling his followers that he expected the citizens of his kingdom to be different from those whose primary allegiance was directed to the various rulers, realms, gods and ideologies of this world. We are not, he taught, to order our life, thinking and priorities around what “the nations of the world seek” (Luke 12:30, see also Matthew 6:47). Rather, our life, thinking and priorities are to be ordered around seeking his kingdom (12:31). This was a radical idea then, and remains radical today. Perhaps that is why many of the explanations of this text I’ve heard strike me less as an explanation and more as an effort to explain its’ meaning away. Jesus clearly explained what he meant, though his ideas are so countercultural as to seem almost unimaginable in today’s consumerist society. We are, he insisted, to intentionally order our life so that actually trusting him, day by day, for food, clothing and shelter is a reality (12:29).
Exploring what that could look like is both interesting and important, but not my point here. Rather, I am interested in the fact that Jesus pointed to the ravens in giving his followers a sufficient reason to trust God. He put it this way:
Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!
Seems simple enough—so let’s consider them.
The word Jesus used for “raven” in this text appears only here in the New Testament. It refers to ravens, crows, and similar birds, all of which were known for their voracious appetites. Jesus was not being inexact or ambiguous in using this general term that included a variety of species. In his day birds were identified in ordinary speech not according to a classification system based on specific species like we use today, but according to some feature that was commonly seen as characteristic of them. Palestine has at least eight varieties of ravens and they were, and are, as common in the Middle East as they are, along with their close cousins the crows, throughout the world today.
Look at and reflect on these birds, Jesus said. They’re actually hard to miss, with striking black plumage, large flocks, loud, raucous calls, and ease at adapting to urban as well as rural life. The city in which I live as I write this has been forced to consider them. For the last few years, vast flocks of crows have descended on the city center to roost at night. They fill trees along the downtown streets, covering sidewalks and parked cars with sticky white droppings, covering surfaces in ways that are frankly impressive. The city has hired “bird abatement services” to get rid of the pests, but so far the crows seem largely unmoved. The flock does move when the abatement efforts get annoying, but only to other trees in other parts of the city. Each morning they fill the sky leaving the city to feed, and each evening they return. Several neighbors have mentioned that their money is on the birds.
Consider the ravens, Jesus said. They have huge appetites because they are big, active birds but they don’t plant or harvest or set up storage bins, and yet they are fed by the good providence of God. Don’t you know, he asks, we are even more precious to God than ravens?
If we consider the birds as Jesus instructs, it seems to me that we’ll end up making an observation, and come to a conclusion. The observation is this: There is far more going on in God’s world than we can possibly imagine. And our conclusion will be this: Even in a culture of disbelief there are good and sufficient reasons to trust God today, and tomorrow, and the day after that. Trust him not simply for salvation or forgiveness or life after death or anything else like that—though he can be trusted for those things—but so we can intentionally order our life to trust him day by day for practical, everyday, ordinary things like food, clothing, and shelter.
Let me explain how I arrive at this.
The first time I was able to really watch ravens and their close relatives, crows about twenty years ago during deer hunting in the woods in the northern part of Minnesota near the Canadian border. I liked the early morning hunt best. The air would be frigid as I stumbled into the woods in the dark trying to find the ladder leading up to the tree stand where I was supposed to sit and watch for deer.
“It’s straight in about 25 yards—you can’t miss it—just walk straight into the woods and it’ll be right there,” I was always told. It was a lie: I could miss it and usually did. I would get out of the pickup on a dirt road, wade through the deep snow in the ditch, and plunge into the woods. The deer stand was never right there. For one thing, you can’t walk straight into the woods—there’s something called trees in the way. So I’d wander around in the dark for a while and finally sit down on a log and wait for the sun to come up. Then I’d find the deer stand, climb up into it and sit down, and as the light grew something almost magical would happen.
Slowly the woods woke up. The chickadees always appeared first. Their little calls would announce their arrival, and I would watch little flocks of them flitting through the branches of the trees searching for food. They did not seem to notice me as they moved through the woods from tree to tree, but would land on nearby branches or on my mitten, cock their head to look at me with a pitch black eye, apparently decide I wasn’t edible and flit casually on to the next perch.
Another early riser was the ravens and crows. Ravens are the larger of the two, but it can be difficult to tell them apart. Both species belong to the same genus, Corvus. I would spot them flying lazily just above the tips of the trees, always glancing around at everything as they went.
Until I spent time in the woods I didn’t realize the wide range of calls they make. Most of us know the loud, abrasive, harsh caw they are famous for. I usually didn’t hear that in the woods as the sun slowly rose. Instead I heard almost musical warbles, deep murmurs, gurgling croaks, and on still days I could hear the steady, gentle flapping of their wings as they passed overhead. Their black plumage stood out from the snow, the overcast sky, and the white bark of the birch and poplar trees. Unlike the chickadees that seemed to ignore me I always sensed the ravens knew exactly where I was and that I didn’t belong there.
The first mention of ravens in Scripture occurs in the story of one of the oldest events in human history—the great flood that occurred in the days of a man named Noah. Humankind, insisting on autonomy from God, descended into cycles of violence and corruption for which there seemed no end. When no hope for repentance remained, God sent a flood as judgment on the earth he had made. Before the flood began, he commanded Noah to build an ark in which Noah and his family, and a sampling of the creatures of the earth would be saved. The flood wrecked horrible devastation. After the rains stopped and the water started to recede, Noah released a raven from the ark. “At the end of forty days,” the Scriptures record, “Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made and sent forth a raven. It went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth” (Genesis 8:6-7).
There are theories why Noah chose a raven for this task, but we can’t know for certain because the Scriptures do not tell us. We can be content with knowing that a raven was one of the messengers used to assure a saved humanity that God’s judgment had been completed and that they had escaped that judgment by grace.
The story of the great flood is not just one of the oldest stories in human history it is also one of the most influential. People groups the world over have ancient flood myths as part of their religious and cultural heritage. We can’t know for certain, but the ancient story of Noah’s release of a raven might be a reason why ravens have so often been considered to be spiritual harbingers, dark and mysterious messengers that bridge the natural and supernatural realms.
In Greek mythology, for example, ravens were associated with Apollo the god of prophecy. In Norse mythology, the god Odin was imagined as having two ravens as companions that served as his ears and eyes. Each day the birds flew out and later returned, bringing him news of the world. Both the ancient Welsh and Celtic peoples had gods whose names were the words for “raven.” The Hindu god named Shani is often pictured seated on the back of an enormous crow. In the Islamic Qur’an, the story of Cain and Able includes a detail not found in the biblical version, namely, that a raven taught Cain how to bury Able’s body after Cain had murdered him. And the raven appears often in the legends of Native cultures especially in the American northwest and across Siberia.
Edgar Allen Poe’s classic, haunting poem, “The Raven,” first published in 1845 was something a lot of my generation was assigned in English class.
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping…
This is literature that can trigger nightmares.
Given all this, it isn’t surprising that a classic supernatural-thriller film is named, simply, The Crow (1994, dir. Alex Proyas). The script is based on a 1989 comic book of the same name. The film begins with a voiceover, and the narration in those opening moments captures the idea behind the story of the film well:
People once believed that when someone dies, a crow carries their soul to the land of the dead. But sometimes, something so bad happens that a terrible sadness is carried with it and the soul can’t rest. Then sometimes, just sometimes, the crow can bring that soul back to put the wrong things right.
The Crow starred Brandon Lee, son of Bruce Lee, in what turned out to be Brandon’s final film. Lee played Eric Draven, the Crow, a rock musician who returns from the dead to avenge the brutal murder of himself and his fiancée. The film took on special meaning in the world of horror films when, due to a horrible mistake by a prop man on set, Brandon Lee was shot and killed during the filming of a scene.
In J. R. R. Tolkien’s masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings, the massive and intelligent ravens of Ravenhill were friends of the Dwarves. “When Peregrin Took became one of the Guards of the Citadel,” we are told, “his new garments included a ‘high-crowned helm with small raven-wings on either side.’”
And in the enormously popular book and television series, Game of Thrones, the forth novel is titled, A Feast for Crows (George R. R. Martin, 2055). Crows feature prominently in the series, as messengers, symbols of darkness and harbingers of death.
The stench of death was growing stronger, despite the scented candles. The smell reminded Jaime Lannister of the pass below the Golden Tooth, where he had won a glorious victory in the first days of the war. On the morning after the battle, the crows had feasted on victors and vanquished alike, as once they had feasted on Rhaegar Targaryen after the Trident. How much can a crown be worth, when a crow can dine upon on king? (p. 138)
Besides the possible influence of the flood narrative, and the fact that ravens and crows can imitate human speech, they are probably imagined in such mystical terms also because they congregate where death has occurred. Flocks feed on the bodies of the dead, and they can be found in all the empty places where warfare, famine, and plague have blasted the landscape into desolation. The ancient Hebrew prophet Isaiah warned that nations guilty of economic injustice, oppression of the weak, and violence against the innocent would face the judgment of God. The metaphors he used for the warning are strikingly violent:
Draw near, O nations, to hear,
and give attention, O peoples!
For the Lord is enraged…
The [guilty nation’s] slain shall be cast out,
and the stench of their corpses shall rise…
From generation to generation [the land] shall lie waste;
none shall pass through it forever and ever…
the raven shall dwell in it (Isaiah 34:1-3, 10-11).
We must not miss the grace that is found even here. The ravens and crows in these desolate lands clear away the decay just as today we see crows and ravens along the highway eating the remains of road kill. The world would be a far more horrible mess than it already is if the birds did not fulfill this cleansing, renewing role. In so doing a thoroughly disgusting act becomes a gift in a world where death and the stink of putrefaction threaten to overtake the living.
Their association with death and decomposition may have been the reason ravens and crows were listed in the Hebrew law given by Moses as unclean for eating by Israel. The Old Testament people of God were not to eat them—or vultures or cormorants, for that matter. These birds were to be considered unclean.
It was not that God despised these creatures he had made, but rather that his people were not to see anything in a broken world as neutral, as if some corners of creation were beyond the edges of God’s kingdom. Even what they ate was to be considered something that mattered when life is lived before the face of God.
Ravens were to be considered unclean, but the Scriptures insist God did not withdraw his care from them. For example, consider what is recorded about ravens in the book of Job. There we listen in as Job and three friends argue over why suffering occurs. Job had been a prosperous man with a large family when a series of disasters wiped out his wealth, killed his children, and destroyed his health. The four men debated the issue at length, sitting together for days, taking turns giving long speeches that claimed Job must have sinned horribly for such calamity to come upon him. Then a whirlwind appeared and God spoke from its depths. He was not, to say the least, very impressed with the discussion.
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” God demanded. “Dress for action like a man,” he told Job.
I will question you, and you make it known to me.
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding…
Who provides for the raven its prey,
when its young ones cry to God for help,
and wander about for lack of food? (Job 38:2-4, 41).
The Hebrew poet insists in Psalms 147 that the answer to this question is God himself. “He gives to the beasts their food,” the psalmist says, “and to the young ravens that cry” (147:9). Though he designated the ravens as unclean for eating for his people, God sustains them, hears their young call out in hunger, and provides them with sustenance. God has not turned away from his world even though it is broken and bent, and filled with death and decay.
The Scriptures also note the raven’s beauty, their dark plumage so black they seem to set the final standard for the color. In the wonderful wedding song recorded in Scripture, the Song of Solomon, the bride celebrates the attractiveness of her beloved.
My beloved is radiant and ruddy,
distinguished among ten thousand.
His head is the finest gold;
his locks are wavy,
black as a raven. (Song 5:10-11)
One other time in Scripture God used ravens directly as his servants, this time to bring food to a prophet who had spoken truth to power and whose life was threatened as a result. Israel’s king at the time was Ahab, a cruel and greedy man, whose wife Jezebel worshipped a pagan god, Baal, and who set out to slaughter every prophet of Yahweh she could locate. Baal was the Phoenician deity of fertility, thunder, and rain. Even today, in the Arabic spoken along the eastern edge of the Mediterranean the adjective ba’al is applied to farming that uses no irrigation but depends on rainfall alone to water the crops. In any case, in a challenge directed at Jezebel’s false god, Yahweh told the prophet Elijah to inform Ahab that it would not rain until Elijah said it would. Jezebel, as you might guess, was not happy. “‘Depart from here,’ God told Elijah, ‘and hide yourself by the brook Cherith… You shall drink from the brook, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.’ So he did… And the ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening.'” (1 Kings 17:3-6)
The drought went on for three long years.
Imagine what that would have been like. I look forward to meeting Elijah someday, and I look forward to hearing more of the story—what was it like to be fed by ravens twice a day? Did they just drop the bread and meat and fly on, or did they hang around in a huge, noisy flock? By the way, a flock of crows is called a murder, and a flock of ravens is called an unkindness. What an irony: an unkindness of ravens or murder of crows fed Elijah twice a day at God’s command, divine messengers that kept him alive while the queen’s soldiers scoured the land seeking to take his life. Doesn’t it seem that Elijah learned there is far more going on in God’s world than we can possibly imagine? This certainly is one thing this story reveals to me. And if he could do that then, we have a good reason to trust God today, and tomorrow.
One of the people groups that saw the raven as a messenger that bridged the spirit world and human world is a tribe of Native Americans who called themselves the Skitswish, which in their language means, simply, “the people found here.” They still live on their traditional lands. “We are here,” a tribal elder explains on the tribe’s website, “because this is where the Creator put us. This is where we will always be.” The French fur trappers and traders, who were the first whites to make contact with the tribe, called them the Coeur d’Alene, by which they are still known today.
Catherine Elston, who teaches Native American history at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, tells a story the Coeur d’Alene have kept alive in their legends, songs, and oral history for over two centuries. The story is about a great chief who claimed to know and understand the language of the ravens and crows, and told his people what the birds taught him.
The Coeur d’Alene’s tribal territory was in Idaho. In summer they lived high in the mountains and in winter they would come down into the valleys. They hunted elk and deer, and caught fish in the mountain streams. On the plains of Montana were great herds of buffalo but that was Blackfoot territory, a tribe that had long been the enemies of the Coeur d’Alene. In 1740 the Coeur d’Alene numbered about 500 people, and that year about 100 braves and their families followed their chief out of the mountains of Idaho onto the plains of Montana to hunt buffalo.
The Coeur d’Alene established camp, and scouts were sent out to locate buffalo. While they were searching, the chief announced that three ravens were coming to bring them news. Within a few minutes three ravens circled overhead and gave out three harsh calls. The chief said the ravens told him their enemies the Blackfoot had already spotted them and were getting ready to attack. The ravens warned that a battle would occur, and that the Coeur d’Alene needed to be careful that no more than seven Blackfoot braves were injured. If more than seven were wounded, the Coeur d’Alene would suffer terrible losses. If no more than seven fell, the Coeur d’Alene would be victorious. And so it was. After the fighting, the Coeur d’Alene located a huge herd of buffalo and started home to Idaho with 200 packhorses loaded with meat. From that time on, their chief was known as Circling Raven.
During the winter of 1740, as usual, the Coeur d’Alene camped at the fork of two clear rivers in the mountain valleys of Idaho. While they were living there, Circling Raven was visited once again by ravens. They told him that very long ago, in a land very far away, during the winter solstice a savior of the world had been born. The Coeur d’Alene were to remember this savior, and especially at the winter solstice were to mention this savior in their prayers. The birds also told Circling Raven that within 100 years men in long black robes would arrive and tell the Coeur d’Alene the rest of this savior’s story.
For the rest of his life, Circling Raven sent scouts to search for the men in long black robes, but none were found. When Circling Raven died, his son Twisted Earth became chief in his place. He remembered what his father had taught him about the savior, continued the winter solstice celebrations Circling Raven has established in honor of the savior, and made certain the Coeur d’Alene did not forget to honor this one who had been born. Twisted Earth also sent out runners regularly to look for the promised men in black robes. Finally, on June 2, 1842, Jesuit missionaries, wearing their traditional long black robes arrived in the mountains of Idaho and told the Coeur d’Alene the rest of the story about the savior of the world who had been born. In the Coeur d’Alene they found a people who already knew of the savior’s birth and had long believed in him.
This is some of what I have found so far in my attempt to consider the ravens.
Though unclean for eating according to the Old Testament law, they are strikingly beautiful birds as Solomon, the great lover and poet noticed. The Creator himself is on record hearing the cries of their young and providing them the food they need. When Noah needed to know whether the flood had abated he chose a raven to fly out and bring back the answer. Ever since the fall, ravens have congregated in desolate places, battlefields and ruins, helping to erase some of the decay left behind in a world where death haunts our existence. When Elijah had to flee the murderous rage of Jezebel he hid in a seasonal waterbed—what in Palestine is known as a wadi—at the command of God, and was saved from starvation by being fed bread and meat twice each day, delivered on schedule by ravens.
We are trained, in an age where disbelief has become normative, not to believe any story that suggests that reality extends beyond the narrow limits of the here and now that we can measure and submit to scientific study. And yet, when we listen with care we discover that the world over, ravens keep appearing in the myths—the imaginative stories—people tell when they try to make sense of life. In itself, of course, this does not prove anything. It does suggest, however, that deep in the memory of humankind there is a recognition that in nature—including in ravens—there are, for those with eyes to see, glimpses of something that extends farther and deeper than the horizons of time and space. It is, I believe, evidence of the presence and power of God.
Each spring, fledgling ravens in the nest grow quickly and cry out to be fed. The ornithologist can tell us a lot about those cries, how adult ravens respond, how it is that ravens have adapted so well to the modern world of cities, and how ravens and crows fill such a vital niche in the world where death and refuse still leaves an ugly trail of decay in God’s good world. I am glad when modern science tells us these things, and I find their discoveries both fascinating and important. When I am told, however, that this is all that can be known, and that to believe anything more than this is simply implausible, I cannot agree. After all, if nothing but bare facts are meaningful how can we even know that the meaning we assign them has any meaning? To live in such a world is too large a leap of faith for me.
I see no necessary reason to disbelieve Elijah’s story that ravens came twice a day to bring him bread and meat. And believing it provides me with an insight into reality that makes it possible to hope for the future and to trust God today. I don’t hope to be fed by ravens—I prefer my food to arrive in sterile plastic wrap. Instead, I can have hope because even though I don’t know, and can’t know what the future will bring, I can know I’ve been given a reminder, in the ravens that there is far more going on in God’s world than I can possibly imagine. And because of that, even in a culture of disbelief, I am provided a good and sufficient reason to intentionally order my life so that I trust God today, and tomorrow.
Note: the material in this piece was originally given, in slightly different form, by the author as a sermon at Trinity Presbyterian Church (Rochester, MN) on Sunday, December 29, 2013, on the event of ending one calendar year and beginning another.
Ravensong by Catherine Feher Elston (Northland Publishing, 1991)
J.R.R. Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, "The Siege of Gondor"