The biblical dove & the divine feminine
First Testament writers employed a multitude of images in describing God. These ranged from inanimate objects like rocks and fortresses to living creatures like eagles and lions, and human titles of patriarchal power like king, warrior, father, and husband. God is even depicted by mention of human body parts, like God’s face shining upon us (Num 6:25), or the finger of God that writes on Moses’ tablets (Exod 31:18). A great many of these images tend to be masculinized, but there are numerous allusions to a motherly God, and to Wisdom depicted in the feminine. One of my favorite images is found among the winged creatures that bear God’s image: the dove. In fact, the logo I designed for this blog bears the image of a dove tattooed over my heart — a symbol of loyalty, compassion, and freedom from violence in Torah and the psalms.
The first scriptural reference to a dove appears in Genesis 8, when Noah sends out a dove to seek land. This happens following a long period of silence (in math-challenged times, or else I am math challenged) after God spoke his last words to Noah, telling him to enter the ark with his household and all the pairs of animals (7:1–4). With no reported communications from God in months and hundreds of days, or patterns of 40 days and 10th months, Noah appears to seek his own answers in God’s silence. The text says that God “remembered Noah… and made a wind blow over the earth and the waters subsided” (8:1), but it doesn’t hint that God explains any of his plans to Noah. So Noah sends out first a raven, and then a dove in search of dry land. The raven never returns; instead, it “went to and fro until the waters dried up from the earth” (8:7). The dove, by contrast, returns twice to Noah. The first time, the dove returns because it finds “no place to set its foot” upon dry land (8:9). By this, Noah knows that their time of freedom had not yet come. The second time, the dove returns with an olive branch, offering proof that the waters were drying up and life was beginning to blossom upon land (8:11). This appears to be an act of loyalty. Why else would the dove return, having found life beyond the ark? Having fulfilled it’s part as a messenger of hope, the dove sets off when released a third time by Noah, never to return again. This is not a message of divine abandonment, however. Instead, it is the precursor to God’s message to Noah that it is finally safe to reenter the world. The dove is a divine harbinger of peace and good news: a symbol of a new stage of life.
Now, we cannot know truly the gender of the dove — nor should it truly matter. Even while I am actively engaged in pursuit of feminine alternatives to the predominant masculine set of images that cloud our theologies, I’m reminded that I don’t particularly enjoy my value being qualified by my genitalia. How rude to suppose the dove — or God herself — needs to be so defined. So I am almost willing to let the dove be mysteriously non-gendered, as I imagine God far beyond gender. However, she is a source of divine hope for me — a winged embodiment of what I recognize as the feminine spirit. She bears a message of hope, loyalty, wisdom, and resilience.
The dove in Genesis 8 is wise because she knows her place and time; she knows how far to fly, when to return, what gifts to bear, and what messages to bring, and she knows when it is time for her depart and move beyond. She is in touch with the people she cares for as well as her own needs, and she has a sense of adventure to go out far beyond the realm of what is known. She is independent. And yes, she is a bird; but she is a divine messenger, even if she often only recognized as a modern symbolic cliche of peace. Adaptive and versatile as she is, she will find her way into my future posts, too — with at least one focusing on victimhood (the preferred animal of sacrifice!) and liberation from violence. Wings are handy for that, too.