The first bird specifically mentioned in the Bible is the raven. While most people remember that Noah sent out a dove from the ark to find out if dry land was available for the rescued humans and animals after the flood, fewer recall that he first sent out a raven (Gen 8:6-7). The fact that the raven didn’t return provided Noah with only part of the
answer he was seeking: the bird had found some food to scavenge, but Noah still had no way to tell how much land was visible. The dove’s thoughtful return with a branch gave the original ship captain confidence that the earth was returning to normal, but the dove hadn’t found enough vegetation to survive on, and so it returned.
The raven’s distinct all-black plumage led to the bird being used in comparisons. The bride in Song of Solomon calls her lover’s hair “black as a raven” (5:11). And a wise man name Agur, who contributed a chapter to the book of Proverbs in the Old Testament, included this warning to children: “The eye that makes fun of a father and hates to obey a mother will be plucked out by ravens in the valley and eaten by young vultures” (Prov 30:17). This behavior was probably observed by Agur, as ravens have been known to pluck out the eyeballs of their prey, sometimes even before it is dead.
While ravens were considered an unclean bird (Lev 11:15; Deut 14:14), they make an appearance in the Bible not only as examples of God’s provision but also as messengers with God’s provision. God told Job that part of the evidence for God’s care of his creation was that he fed the ravens (Job 38:41), a theme that both a psalmist (Ps 147:9) and Jesus echoed: “Consider the crows. They don’t plant or harvest. They don’t even have a storeroom or a barn. Yet, God feeds them. You are worth much more than birds” (Luke 12:24). Ravens are a particularly good symbol for God’s providential care because they engage in a behavior called “caching.” They eat some food right away, but some they save in a particular spot and come back for later. And they are smart enough to remember where their caches are unlike some animals.
When Elijah was a fugitive in the wilderness, God supplied his basic needs by sending ravens with food (1 Kings 17:4-6). Here the raven that symbolized God’s care for the animal world was the tool God used to care for Elijah in his hour of need. It is similar to the way God cares for us and then expects us to pass that comfort along to others (2 Cor 1:3-6).
Then the Lord spoke his words to Elijah: “Leave here, turn east, and hide beside the Cherith River, which is east of the Jordan River. You can drink from the stram, and I’ve commanded ravens to feed you there.”
Elijah left and did what the word of the LORD had told him. He went to live by the Cherith River, which is east of the Jordan River. Ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and in the evening. And he drank from the stream. (1 Kings 17:2-6)