Richard Goode takes a closer look at the raven and its appearance both inside and outside Scripture.
I love corvidae, rooks in particular particularly fascinate me, and although they are not very common in my locality I am pleased to discover that their biggest cousins, ravens, are beginning to colonise it. The entire corvid family are masters on the wing. To see them soaring and tumbling on a boisterous and playful wind is a magnificent sight. One autumn afternoon, when a very strong south westerly was blowing across some nearby fields, I watched as a rook swooped below the hedge line, pull up straight into the full force of the wind, hang on it, pinion feathers playing the air, and, stationary, deftly pluck a blackberry from the tangle of brambles that lined the road. It was sheer joy (for me and, I think perhaps, for it). It did it a couple more times before sheering away to climb upon and ride that ragged wind.
Ravens are no less eye catching. Boria Sax’s (2003) beautifully compiled book, Crow, does a superb job in mapping out (charting myth, literature and cultural artefacts) the place of the raven (and crow family) within diverse cultures across the globe and throughout history. Their sheer physicality is impressive. When you add to this their tendency to seek locations that often have a high level of proximity to human activity (Marzluff and Angell, 2005: 281-298), it is therefore not surprising that they should catch the eyes of the biblical writers.
The raven is mentioned just twice in the kashrut (dietary rules) lists (Leviticus 11:15; Deuteronomy 14:14), where it prohibits the eating of “every raven of any kind”, by which we can assume that עֹרֵב (oעֹרֵב (orev) is being used here generically to refer to the corvidae family. It should be noted that in Antiquity classification of birds and animals could be quite elastic compared with the taxonomy and classifications of the modern era.
Leviticus provides us with a little more explanation as they are considered part of a group of birds that are considered a ‘detestation’ (שֶׁ֫קֶץ – sheqets).
‘These you shall regard as detestable [שִׁקֵּץ (shiqqets) ‘to detest’] among the birds. They shall not be eaten; they are an abomination [שִׁקֵּץ (shiqqets)]: the eagle, the vulture, the osprey, 14the buzzard, the kite of any kind; 15every raven of any kind; 16the ostrich, the nighthawk, the seagull, the hawk of any kind; 17the little owl, the cormorant, the great owl, 18the water-hen, the desert-owl, the carrion vulture, 19the stork, the heron of any kind, the hoopoe, and the bat.’
Leviticus 11:13-19 (NRSV) emphasis added
The common factor with all the birds listed in Leviticus 11 (bearing in mind that a number of them are rather insecurely identified) is that they are, to some extent, meat eaters. This is possibly why שִׁקֵּץ (shiqqets) is used to describe them. It is significant that all animals listed as clean and therefore permitted to be eaten are herbivores. Carnivores and omnivores (like the pig) are excluded.* This highlights a growing awareness that despite the injunction of Genesis 9:3, there appears to be a very ambivalent attitude within the Hebrew Bible concerning the human consumption of flesh. Schwartz (2001:11) observes that the Jewish bracha (blessing system) for food, the blessing for meat has the lowest priority. He goes on to cite, Pinchas Peli, a 20th century Orthodox rabbi, who argued:
“Accordingly, the laws of kashrut come to teach us that a Jew’s first preference should be a vegetarian meal. If, however, one cannot control a craving for meat, it should be kosher meat, which would serve as a reminder that the animal being eaten is a creature of God, that the death of such a creature cannot be taken lightly, that hunting for sport is forbidden, that we cannot treat any living thing callously, and that we are responsible for what happens to other beings [human or animal] even if we did not personally come into contact with them.”
Pinchas Peli cited in Schwartz (2001:12)
However, we need to be careful not to confuse ‘uncleanliness’ or ‘impurity’ with morality or ethical behaviour. The Jewish legal codes were designed to provide a structure through which the Israelites could achieve a degree of ritual cleanliness that permitted Yahweh (God of Israel) to live amongst them in the tabernacle/temple. Although there were elements of morality within the law (prohibitions on stealing and violence, etc.), it was often much more prosaic and pragmatic in nature. Often the laws dealt with those parts of life that could bring ritual (rather than ethical) impurity into the land that had little to do with ethical behaviour (menstruation, childbirth, touching of corpses, unwittingly touching a dead animal, mildew, scurf and dandruff, etc. etc). Although, within some cultures, the raven became the figure of ill-omen (see Sax, 2003), this does not seem to be the case within the Hebrew world (despite being listed as ‘unclean’).
In fact, the beautiful and enigmatic collection of love songs, the Song of Songs (that has featured heavily in other posts in this series), the princess describes her lover as:
‘His head is the finest gold;
his locks are wavy,
black as a raven.’
Song of Songs 5:11 (NRSV)
The meaning of word תַּלְתַּלִּים (taltallim), translated in the NRSV as ‘wavy’ is uncertain. However, Goulder (1986:45) suggests it could be related to the Akkadian taltallu which refers to the “black panicle of the date palm.” What is not in doubt, the colour is as “black as a raven” and that this was intended as a compliment, rather than in insult – which references to crows usually are.
Possibly one of the most familiar biblical stories featuring a raven is Noah in the ark. Following, the earlier Sumerian flood story in the Epic of Gilgamesh (tablet XI), where Utnapishtim (the Sumerian version of Noah), first releases a dove, then a swallow and finally a raven in order to find out if the flood has subsided enough for dry land to emerge.
Genesis 8: 6-7 tells us that at the end of forty days Noah opens the window of the ark and sends out a raven to search for dry land. In the Genesis account, the raven is the first bird to be sent (not the last) and, this time, the raven doesn’t return, but we are told that:
‘… it went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth.’
Genesis 8:7 (NRSV)
The biblical narrator does not tell us why the raven does not return, nor does it attach any judgement to its actions. Non-biblical traditions, however, tend to take a much more negative interpretation on these events. Marzluff and Angell (2005:111) note that, according to Jewish folklore, the raven’s failure to return to ark was viewed by some as a dereliction of duty. Sax (2003: 34) also refers to Talmudic traditions explaining the raven’s actions, one of which suggests that the bird’s failure to return was because it was feeding off the bodies of the dead, compounding the dereliction of duty with ritually unclean behaviour of eating carrion. Furthermore, Marzluff and Angell (2005:111), also refer to the belief, within some strands of Jewish tradition, that the “raven’s reputation had already been sullied in Jehovah’s eyes because of its repeated violations of a decree against love-making” (see also, Sax, 2003:34).
An interesting footnote to the story of the raven and the dove is recorded by Peter France (1986) and relates to the rather clumsy hopping gait of the raven. Although unfortunately unattested – if anyone knows the source, I’d love to have it! – France (1986:131) describes how the raven once walked ‘normally’ as other birds:
‘… but [the raven] wanted to step as gracefully as the dove, so he gave up his old way of walking and tried to imitate the dove. He almost broke his bones in the attempt and then, being mocked by the other birds, tried to revert to his original way of walking, but he had forgotten [how to do it], and now hops and steps clumsily.’
One particular feature of the biblical depiction of the raven is very striking and is reflected in two verses:
‘Who provides for the raven its prey,
when its young ones cry to God,
and wander about for lack of food?’
Job 38:41 (NRSV)
‘He [God] gives to the animals their food,
and to the young ravens when they cry.’
Psalm 147:9 (NRSV)
Slifkin (2009: 258-262) observes that within the Torah and Talmudic teaching, the raven is viewed as a ‘disinterested’ and even a ‘heartless’ parent that, only barely manages to raise and care for its young. In order to fill this deficit, these verses argue that it is God who steps in to nourish the young ravens to offset the inadequacies of their parents. France (1986:131) observes that it was believed that the young survived by eating the maggots that sprung from the parents’ dung during this time. Slifkin (2009: 259) asserts that, far from being a bad thing, Jewish tradition views this as a positive parenting model, teaching the young independence and to trust in God.
This Jewish notion that it is God who provides for the neglectful ravens might also be reflected in the only reference to the raven, κόραξ (korax), in the New Testament: Luke 12:24. Interestingly, the parallel text to this, in Matthew 6:26, omits the specific mention of raven for the more generic ‘birds of the air’. Nevertheless, it is entirely plausible that Luke’s reference to ‘raven’ is deliberate and draws upon the notion of the divine parenting of the young ravens.
‘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!’
Luke 12:24 (NRSV)
The idea that ravens might be bad (or at least inadequate) parents is interesting and it is not clear how this view arose. Recent corvid research actually indicates a parenting model that is anything but inadequate or neglectful. Marzluff and Angell (2005: 161-169) discuss research among social-groups of crows identifies that, although the percentage ranges between each geographical group, often a corvid adolescent male, instead of leaving the family group to breed, will stay with the initial family group for a year or two and help with the parenting of the new nestlings and fledglings. They further (2005: 163) note that this type of cooperative behaviour provides extra security, as it “provide[s] extra sets of eyes to spot predators, and increase[s] raucous energy in mobbing and driving off invaders to home territory.” Crucially, this helper also provides extra support in the feeding and nurturing of the newly hatched and infant crows.
The association between ravens and food also appears with one other famous biblical story; the prophet Elijah in the desert. 1 Kings 17: 1-7 tells us how Elijah, on instructions from Yahweh, lived in hiding from King Ahab, in the desert lands to the east of the Jordan. Although, a rather inhospitable and unpromising location, Yahweh sends food to Elijah carried by ravens. In this way:
‘The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening; and he drank from the wadi.’
1 Kings 17:6 (NRSV)
The practicalities (rational or midrashic) of this aside – and even the 1st century CE Jewish historian Josephus appears to have a little problem with it (Antiquities 8.319) – this presents the raven in a very different light to its other appearances within biblical literature and hints at a more convivial relationship between the raven, humans and the divine.
Perhaps the best way to finish this post is to mention one further Jewish tradition. Sax (2003: 36) states that Yalkut Shimoni, a collection of aggadah (ancient stories associated with the Hebrew scriptures), explains the special bond of love between God and ravens.
“After [Adam and Eve’s] son Abel had died, the first man and woman did not know what to do. A raven killed a companion, dug a hole in the ground, and buried the body, and the human couple buried their son in imitation. Out of gratitude for their help to Adam and Eve, God feeds baby ravens until their black feathers have grown, at which point their parents take over.”
Boria Sax (2003: 36)
To celebrate the close affinity ravens (and, in fact, all corvidae) have with humans, this glorious poem by Edward Mackay (2015) is a fitting way to acknowledge their place within our (global) cultural histories.
Of, or Pertaining to, a Raven, by Edward Mackay
My throat’s a fist that drips a coarse sandpaper song.
I quoth, forever, Nevermore! Am something like a writing desk.
DC comic vixen in the mix with Lou Reed concept album
(gone preposterously wrong). Pebble-eyed, face grotesque;
Black-haired sirens go by my name nonetheless. After rain,
Noah sent me out to take the air, but I took fright mid-flight,
And off I flew. To the Cynic Rabbi, pondering, I brought grain;
He crushed it, on Shabbat. Consider, he said, between bites.
How they do not reap or sow. (Leviticus 11: to eat me is sin.)
To keep old England safe my black-face caws off all invaders
From the Tower’s high white walls – I’m nationalism on the wing.
They call me Huginn, Muninn perched on Odin’s shoulders,
I cawed from John Peel’s real name and sat on Cnut’s soggy throne
To watch the waves was flightless royal feet. One cry
From, the gulls all scattered into sky. In Bhutan,
I’m God Mahakala and long before he rode on fire and sky
I fed Elijah meat and bread. I’m trickster and creator god of Haida.
300lbs of heavy tattooed wrestler. Battle standards bore my face
At Stamford Bridge when, at an arrow’s point, history was made,
Harold Hardrada fell. In Kamchatka, the know my place:
Divine Kutkh. Wings that splay with claws that flay; my hook
Of beak will tear your flesh – Carrion King – eat eyes out of your head.
I watch your meagre slice of life with a blinking side-ways look –
Make history with a flap of wing. Outlast all. I peck and time runs red.
*The question of clean versus unclean is once more being investigated with some very interesting research beginning to emerge. For a brief, but informative overview of some of the recent thinking, as well as his own views, see Chapter 4 of Person’s (2014) Deuteronomy of Environmental Amnesia.
Borowski, O (1998) Every Living Thing: Daily use of animals in ancient Israel. Walnut Creak: Altamira Sage Press.
France, P. (1986) An Encyclopedia of Biblical Animals. London: Croom Helm.
Goulder, M.D. (1986) The Song of Fourteen Songs. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Suppement Series 36. Sheffield: JSOT Press.
Mackay, E. (2015) ‘Of, or Pertaining to, a Raven’. in. Irving, K. and Stone, J. (eds.) (2015) Bird Book: Farmland, heathland, mountain, moorland. London: Sidekick Books. pp.112-113.
Marzluff, J.M. and Angell, T. (2005) In the Company of Crows and Ravens. New Haven: Yale University.
Person, R.F. (2014) Deuteronomy and Environmental Amnesia. Earth Bible Commentary 3. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press.
Sax, B. (2003) Crow. Animal Series. London: Reakton Books.
Schwartz, R.H. (2001) Judaism and Vegetarianism. New York: Lantern Books.
Slifkin, N. (2009) Perek Shirah: Nature’s Song. 2nd edn. New York: Zoo Torah.
This article was originally posted here as part of Richard’s ‘Biblically Wild’ blog series on Newman University website.