Science in Christian Perspective
The Raven Speaks
GEORGE F. HOWE
Chairman of the Department of Sciences,
Los Angeles Baptist College, Newhall, California
From: JASA 21 (March 1969): 22-25.
Previous studies of the ostrich1 and the eagle2 in the Bible have evidenced the absolute authority and inerrancy of Holy Scripture when it speaks of bird natural history. Examination of Bible references to the raven (Corvus corax) also demonstrate that the Bible is in exact accord with science. Since the traits and habits of the raven are correctly described in Scripture and are simultaneously employed to portray lessons of a spiritual character, the Bible goes far beyond that which is required of a good science textbook. The Bible combines accurate science with correct philosophy and spiritual truth in such splendid fashion that an objective student can see it is the Word of God to man.
Biblical and scientific facets of "raven behavior and the flood", "the raven after judgment", "the raven and its young", "ceremonial uncleanness of the raven", and "raven hiding habits" are of interest here.
RAVEN BEHAVIOR AND THE FLOOD
While the waters were retreating from the land (Genesis 8:2-5) possibly Noah found himself enshrouded in the mist and vapor that probably billowed across the waters following the great flood. His famous release of a raven and a dove (Genesis 8:6-12) may have been grounded in good knowledge of bird habits. Although symbolism and theological meaning are surely involved, Noah's action was neither pointless nor totally symbolic but rather seems to have been a skillful experiment in biometeorology. To appreciate such a possible motive, a knowledge of the raven's general habits and table matters is essential.
Ravens normally seek a home territory that is desolate and uninhabited:
"The higher and more inaccessible the cliff and the more barren and deserted the valley below the better suited are the ravens and the more freely do they soar and croak, flying singly or in pairs, us) and down along the face of the cliff with spirited wildness that harmonized well with their background 3
"The common raven, one of the most widely distributed birds in the northern hemisphere, lives in such dissimilar terrain as the waterless Sahara, the coniferous forests of Canada and Siberia, the sea cliffs of Western North America and Scandinavia, the tundra and the islands of the arctic sea. The common denominator, if there is one at all, seems to be wilderness."4
Writing of raven habitat preferences and flight patterns, one author indicated that the raven:
"....is most abundant in rocky districts, near the banks of lakes and rivers, and is generally seen alone or in pairs, but sometimes in small flocks after the breeding season; the flight is rapid, elevated and protracted, often sailing for hours at a time at a great height;"5
Pearson has specified that raven nests:
are all built in trees and never more than one pair of ravens breed on any one island."6 (Pearson here referred to islands off the coast of Maine).
Alice Parmelee reported that ravens do not cower in the face of storms:
"With a wing spread of four feet and great strength and endurance, ravens survive where smaller, weaker birds perish. With their vigorous, steady wingbeats they can fly without rest for long periods of time, covering immense distances. Storms do not frighten them and they seem to enjoy soaring high in the face of an approaching gale and opposing its fury. As they circle higher and higher their keen eyes enable them to sec for miles around."7
Since the raven is a bird of these extreme preferences, Noah wisely chose one to serve as an indicator of landscape after the flood. Perhaps he reasoned that if the raven returned, no land or perching sites were yet available. If it remained outside, then it had obviously discovered some lonely perch on which to alight between its long surveillance flights.
.The .feeding habits of ravens provide still more data on which to understand the actions of Noah:
"They are among the most omnivorous of birds, and being of a very hardy nature, they are able to find a sufficient food supply without migrating .8
"In the desert regions they eat dead jack rabbits and such other flesh, either fresh or putrid, as may be discovered...
One may see Ravens any summer about the garbage piles back of some of the hotels in the Yellowstone and Glacier national parks. Here they come to share with the hears the refuse from the hotel kitchens...
In the North Carolina mountains they are common residents in some sections. Here they come regularly to rural slaughter pens in quest of food."9
"It is truly omnivorous, but by preference carnivorous, eating small animals of all kinds, eggs and young birds, carrion, dead fish, mollusks, crustaceans, insects, nuts and berries. The European raven is reputed to destroy young rabbits and even lambs. It disgorges indigestible substances, as bones, hair and feathers, like birds of prey."10
"During the winter months they usually hand together in large flocks and rove about more or less, visiting seashore, lakes or rivers in search of dead fish, or other food,"11
Perhaps the body raven found itself at home among the carcasses strewn upon the
bleak hillsides which emerged when the flood waters were draining
from the land.
The departing raven told Noah much about the world which lay beyond the cloudy blanket covering the ark. Alice Parmelee paid a w'ell-deserved tribute
to Noah's use of a raven when she wrote:
"In selecting the raven as his first scout Noah made an excellent choice, for this 'black dweller of the mountain crags' is a powerful and unusually astute and resourceful bird, possibly the most highly developed of birds, and it can even be taught to utter a few words . . . As they circle higher and higher their keen eyes enable them to sec for miles around. Because they have heavy beaks and can eat almost anything, including carrion, Noah's raven would have found enough to oat in the floating wreckage of a flooded world - . . Noah undoubtedly understood the habits of ravens and the bird's absence must have indicated to him that the flood was receding."12
But part of Noah's wisdom is seen in the selection of a bird to represent each extreme. The dove which was also released is not particularly carnivorous but usually subsists on seeds and grains, feeding less commonly on insects or snails. Pigeons raised on farms are allowed to fly and return at will. Doves in general prefer clean, dry, and sheltered conditions. The following advice is provided for anyone starting to raise pigeons:
"...but pigeons should have as much liberty as possible with plenty of fresh air, light, clean food and water, and a clean roomy shelter from the extremes of weathen"13
If the raven remained and the dove returned, then the land was partly visible
but not yet drained or thoroughly habitable. The dove's return in two instances
would fit well with the homing pattern presently known among pigeons. The final
departure of the dove would indicate widespread presence of moderate conditions
which would permit other animals to survive. Whether or not this meteorological
explanation of Noah's program is valid, the Scripture references to
both the raven
and the dove in Genesis 8 are completely in keeping with what scientists know
to be true of each bird's behavior.
THE RAVEN AFTER JUDGMENT
The Bible features ravens as birds which inhabit the wilderness of rubble remaining in the wake of battle. As described in Isaiah 34, the "Day of the Lord" is to he a time when the "sword of the Lord" (Vs. 6) will be released against godless nations which have despised Him and opposed His plans (vs. 9). In the bloody aftermath of this event (vs. 3) ravens will feed within the wilderness which was once the center of human strength.
As the raven soared over the land after the judgment of a global flood, so it will descend following the judgments heralded in Isaiah 34, and it is also in Scripture feeding upon the corpses of those who have rejected filial honor and have thereby merited destruction:
"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 eagle shall eat it." Proverbs 30:17.
Although both these Bible passages portray the ghastly aftermath of human rebellion, they refer accurately to the raven's quest for food and its choice of desolate surroundings.
A more comforting allusion to the raven's diet is made by the Lord Jesus Christ in Luke 22:24:
"Consider the ravens: for the' neither sow nor reap; which neither have storehouse nor barn; and God feedeth them: how much more are ye better than the fowls?"
The Heavenly Father who satisfies the ravens' hunger in such a variety of ways will surely provide for those who trust in Him.
THE RAVEN AND IT'S YOUNG
While striving to expose job's own limitations and illustrate His own limitless power, God asked Job about the raven:
"Who provideth for the raven his food? When his young ones cry unto God they wander for lack of meat." Job 38:41.
The passage really answers its own question by implying that God ultimately provides for the adult ravens who feed their own hungry nestlings.
"He giveth to the beast his food, and to the young ravens which cry." Psalm 147:9
The nesting behavior of the raven is quite instructive since it exhibits the means by which God feeds the young birds. Heinroth shows that ravens, like Canada Geese, pair for life.14 The raven:
"... beeds according to latitude, between January and June, making a rude nest on inaccessible cliffs or tall trees, repairing the same for years in succession: the eggs are four to eight, two inches long, light greenish blue with numerous light purple and yellowish brown blotches, especially at tlse larger end; incubation lasts about three weeks, and the young remain in the nest several weeks before they are able to fly, fed at first on the halt digested food disgorged by the parents;..."15
Following these early days, the young bird begins to poll and tear at its food instinctively, before it is really able to handle it alone:
"Most often, when the feet are used, the food is clamped under them and the bird tears off with its beak what it can swallow. Ravens and raptors do it like this A bird holds its food in this way long before it can feed itself and without any example to copy."16
A raven's nest is not a silent spot, as the Heinroths have testified:
"Young ravens are also very noisy in the nest; since the adults are both courageous and well armed, they have no real enemies except man..."17
Miss Parmelee summarized the catering of ravens to their young aptly when she wrote:
"Actually ravens, like ostriches, are devoted parents. The male and female pair for life and generally return to the same nest in some tall tree or high cliff where they share the task of incubating their five or six eggs.. They feed, guard, and care for their nestlings during many weeks, even after the young birds have left the nest. They continue to stay with their young ones throughout the summer, teaching them the ways of ravens. Though raven nestlings cry for food, it is to their parents as God has ordained, who hear their cry and feed their own young. Ravens are hold and fearless in defending their young, and Gilbert White reports that 'a pair of ravens nesting in the rock of Gibraltar would suffer no vulture or eagle to rest near their station ... but would drive them from the bill with an amazing fury."18
The Bible is particularly firm when if faces human
criticism. After quoting the job 38:41 passage, Miss
Parmelee asserted that job was mistaken about the raven's nest:
"Job's poor opinion of birds as parents is further seen when he accuses the ravel) of abandoning its young . . , According to the folklore of Job's time ravens desert their nestlings and it is God, the Psalmist declares, who feeds 'tire young ravens winch cry" (Psalms 147:9). job's spiritual insight here was truer than his natural history. His mistaken notion, however, persisted for hundreds ,,f years and as late as the seventeenth century Izaae Walton wrote: 'When the raven bath hatched her eggs she takes no further care, but leaves her young ones to the care of the God of nature..."19
A painstaking analysis of the job Scripture would have prevented this ornithologist from falling into the error of questioning Bible accuracy. In neither job 38:41 nor Psalm 147:9 did God say that He fed the young ravens directly or miraculously. Nothing in the verses would prevent one from understanding quite naturally that God satisfies the young birds' hunger indirectly by providing food for their devoted parents who pass it faithfully along to the young.
The little ravens are quite noisy and thus "cry unto God" for food which He provides presumably to the parents. There is no conflict whatsoever between God's words and the raven's feeding of its offspring.
CEREMONIAL UNCLEANNESSS OF THE RAVEN
Why was the raven classed with certain other birds as particularly "unclean" and not to be eaten by devout Israelites? Miss Parmelee20 has suggested some possible reasons which stem from the Scripture itself. When Noah and his family disembarked, the Lord delivered an injunction against the eating of blood (Genesis 9:4). The blood was always considered to be God's portion of a sacrifice, as commentators point out. The loss of an animal's blood leads to its death and the ongoing of life is intimately dependent upon the circulation of blood in the body. Several New Testament passages repeat the prohibition and point to reasons why God placed a continuing stricture on the consumption of blood (Acts 14:20, Hebrews 9:22, and I John 1:7.) Birds and animals that feed on the bloody flesh of captured prey are mentioned in this list which includes the raven (Deuteronomy 14:14). In Exodus 22:31 God further ordered that His servants eat nothing "torn of beasts." The arguments against consuming fallen carcasses are obvious in that the animals may have died of disease and they certainly have not had the blood properly drained from the flesh. A raven which eats the blond of its prey and does not hesitate to feast on carrion is quite obviously "unclean" according to Mosaic standards and would likewise be considered unclean in keeping with modern criteria of public health.
Some writers fail to understand that the "uncleanness" of the raven or any other animal is the direct verdict of God through Moses. It may he possible to understand some factors which led God to describe these beasts as unclean, yet there may be other premises which only God understands. It must not be imagined that the Israelites gradually decided to classify some birds unclean because of human knowledge, fear, or superstition, nor must it he thought for a moment that the spiritual-scientific precepts of the Old Testament arose from some variety' of religious evolution!
HIDING HABITS OF RAVENS
Perhaps the most instructive and fascinating Bible insight concerning ravens is found in I Kings 17:1-7. The Lord God bad directed the prophet Elijah to hide himself in a wilderness region near the brook Cherith, tributary to the Jordan, where Elijah was to be provided with both food and water:
"And it shall be, that thou shalt drink of the brook; and I have commanded the ravens to feed thee there.
So he went and did according unto the word of the Lord: for he went and dwelt by the brook Cherith, that is before Jordan. And the ravens brought him bread and flesh in the morning, and bread and flesh in the evening; and he drank of the brook." I Kings 17:4-6
Spiritual lessons abound in this passage. The very bird which must depend upon God for its fond (Job 38:41, Psalms 147:9, and Luke 12:24) is used here as the divine agent of supply for man. The prophet Elijah found that unclean ravens may fulfill God's purpose just as the apostle Peter was later to learn that the sovereign God can use what man knows as "unclean" to perform His will (Acts 10:9-16).
The miracles in Bible history, however, do not contain the bizarre elements of magic that frequently accompany apocryphal records. When the ravens fed Elijah, miraculous components were skillfully blended with natural tendencies to perform God's will quite efficiently.
From the standpoint of science, the conduct of these ravens cannot be explained
entirely by natural means. Although the raven can be tamed, it is usually quite
wary of man in desolate habitats. A tame raven will generally result only when
the particular bird has lived near man (as with a raven that
frequents the slaughter
houses) or when it has been actually raised by humans. It was
probably a miracle
that these apparently wild ravens would approach to Elijah so
casually. It certainly
was a miracle that the raven would deliver his food twice daily.
The miracles in Bible history, however, do not contain the bizarre elements of magic that frequently accompany apocryphal records. When the ravens fed Elijah, miraculous components were skillfully blended with natural tendencies to perform God's will quite efficiently. The raven is known to be a very intelligent bird which is easily tamed:
"They are quick to imitate and have been taught to say words. To many ways they make admirable pets, although nothing that can be carried away is safe from them, their desire to hide things being fully indulged in captivity, often to the discomfiture of the family."21
"The raven is easily domesticated by kindness, and becomes much attached to its master, following him like a dog. Like others of the family it can he taught to imitate the human voice and to pronounce a few words with great distinctness; hot the natural note is a deep, hoarse croak,"22
Of greater significance to the Elijah narrative is the proclivity of ravens to carry bits of food or other small objects to their private hiding grounds.
"But the raven learns very early in life to take its booty secretly to a nook it seldom visits. At a moment when nobody is looking, it flies noiselessly away to its hiding place, and even suppresses the cry it normally gives when it is about to take off."23
"All the crow family instinctively hide bits of food; the youngsters in the nest begin to do without having seen other birds do it..."24
"It has been noted that ravens and other members of the crow family often store surplus food in rocky crevices or beneath a covering of leaves and this habit may explain the action of the ravens in the Elijah story."25
is within the raven's habits normally to carry food and other objects off to a
private place of storage! God's provision for Elijah clearly rested upon both
natural and miraculous activity. God chose an intelligent bird that is equipped
instinctively for the task of carrying food into the wilderness regions.
While it is quite true that individual pet ravens can be taught to utter a few simple words, the records of these birds in the Bible speak a clear message of their own. Spiritual truth and scientific accuracy surrounding the Scriptural reference to the ravens manifest that the Bible is exactly what it claims to be the Word of God to man.
1Howe, George F. 1963. Job and the Ostrich. Jour. Am. Scientific Affiliation 20(4);107-110
2Howe, Frederick B. and George F. Howe. 1968. Moses and the Eagle: An Analysis of Deut. 32:11, Jour Am. Scientific Affiliation 20(l):22-24
3Bailey, Florence M. 1917. Handbook of Birds of The Western United States. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston. p. 280.
4. Peterson, Roger Troy, and Editors of Life. 1963. The Birds. Time Incorporated. N.Y. pp. 8182.
5. Encyclopedia Americana. 1956. Americana Corporation. Vol. 23 "Raven" p. 232.
6. T. Gilbert Pearson. 1940. Birds of America. Book II. Garden City Publishing Co., Inc. N.Y. p. 228.
7. Parmelee, Alice. 1959. All The Birds of The Bible, Harper and Brothers, Publishers, N.Y. pp. 54-55.
8. Myers, Harriet W. 1923. Western Birds. The Macmillan Co., N.Y. pp. 111-112.
9. Pearson, T. Gilbert. Op. Cit. p. 228.
10. Encyclopedia Americana. 1956. Op. Cit., 232.
11. Myers, Harriet \5/, Op. Cit., p. 112.
12. Paemelee, Alice. Op. Cit. pp. 54-55.
13. Amadon, Dean. 1956. Pigeon. Encyclopedia Americana, Americana Corporation. Vol. 22, p. 30.
14. Heinroth, Oskar and Katharina Heiaroth. 1958. The Birds. The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, Mich. p. 58.
15. Encyclopedia Americana. Op. Cit., Vol. 23, p. 232.
16 Ilcinroth, Oskar and Katharina Heinroth Op Cit., p. 113.
17. Ibid., p. 126.
18. Parmelee, Alice. Op. Cit., pp. 225-226.
19. Ibid., p. 225.
20. Ibid., pp. 1-3-105.
21. Myers, Harriet W. Op. Cit., p. 111.
22. Encyclopedia Americana. Op. Cit., Vol. 23, p. 232.
23. Heineoth, Oskar and Katharina Heinroth. Op. Cit., p. 170.
24. Ibid., p. 109.
25. Parmalee, Alice. Op. Cit., p. 140.