“Noah’s Birds– The Raven and the Dove”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Noah, as the waters of the Flood subside, Noah sends out two birds from the Ark–a raven and a dove.

There are significant differences between the way Noah relates to, and treats, these two birds. The Torah in Genesis 8:7 states, וַיְשַׁלַּח אֶת הָעֹרֵב, וַיֵּצֵא יָצוֹא וָשׁוֹב עַד יְבֹשֶׁת הַמַּיִם מֵעַל הָאָרֶץ , He [Noah] sent out the raven, and it kept going and returning until the waters dried from upon the earth.

In contrast, when Noah sends out the dove, the Torah, in Genesis 8:8-9, reports, וַיְשַׁלַּח אֶת הַיּוֹנָה מֵאִתּוֹ לִרְאוֹת הֲקַלּוּ הַמַּיִם מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה. וְלֹא מָצְאָה הַיּוֹנָה מָנוֹחַ לְכַף רַגְלָהּ, וַתָּשָׁב אֵלָיו אֶל הַתֵּבָה, כִּי מַיִם עַל פְּנֵי כָל הָאָרֶץ, וַיִּשְׁלַח יָדוֹ וַיִּקָּחֶהָ, וַיָּבֵא אֹתָהּ אֵלָיו אֶל הַתֵּבָה Then he [Noah] sent out the dove from him to see whether the waters had subsided from the face of the ground. But the dove could not find a resting place for the sole of its foot, and it returned to him to the Ark, for water was upon the surface of all the Earth. So he [Noah] put forth his hand and took it, and brought it to him to the Ark.

The difference between Noah dispatching the raven and sending the dove is stark. The raven is given no mission. It is not sent to see whether the waters have subsided over the face of the Earth, as the dove was. Because of that omission, there are commentators who maintain that Noah intended to banish the raven from the Ark because it had violated the decree to not procreate during the time of the Flood. The rabbis say that Noah later had mercy on the raven and allowed it back into the Ark because in the future, in the time of Elijah, the ravens would bring food to the famished prophet (I Kings 17:2-16).

Regarding the raven, we do not see that Noah had any personal or emotional relationship, as we do with the dove. When describing the departure of the dove, the Torah pointedly states that Noah sent out the dove, מֵאִתּוֹ , “may’ee’toh,” from himself, indicating that Noah had a special relationship with the dove, justifying his trust in the dove to bring back valuable information. We also see Noah’s caring relationship with the dove when Noah “puts forth his hand and took” the dove to welcome the dove back to the Ark. The commentators further underscore the closeness of this relationship by noting that the word וַיִּקָּחֶהָ , “Va’yee’ka’cheh’ha,” he took her, is the word often used for marriage between a man and a woman.

There are those who maintain that even though the words are not found in the raven’s narrative, both the raven and the dove were charged with the mission to check on the levels of water. Since pigeons/doves are often used to transmit messages over long distances, the dove was sent to report on conditions at distant locations, whereas the raven remained local. It is also likely that the raven remained near the Ark, since the raven feeds on carrion, and there were undoubtedly the remains of many dead animals and humans for the raven to consume.

While the raven is sent out only once and brings back no information to Noah, the dove is sent out three times. The first time, the dove returns because water still covered the entire face of the earth. The Ha’amek Davar indicates that Noah welcomes the dove back with compassion by extending his hand to take him, even though the dove was unsuccessful in its first mission. The second time, the dove brings back an olive leaf, indicating that the waters had now subsided. Again, underscoring their close relationship, the Torah also specifies that the dove came back “to him,” meaning Noah, and to the Ark. When the dove does not return a third time, Noah concludes that the earth is dry and that he may now remove the cover from the Ark.

It is interesting to note that each time the dove departs, the Torah insinuates a growing distance between Noah and the dove. Thus, we see, in Genesis 8:10, וַיֹּסֶף שַׁלַּח אֶת הַיּוֹנָה מִן הַתֵּבָה , that after waiting another seven days, Noah again sends out the dove from the Ark. This time, however, there’s no indication of a relationship between the dove and Noah, and when the dove returns that evening with the fresh olive leaf, Noah does not extend his hand to welcome her back.

After another seven days, the Torah, in Genesis 8:12, states וַיְשַׁלַּח אֶת הַיּוֹנָה, וְלֹא יָסְפָה שׁוּב אֵלָיו עוֹד , He sent the dove forth, and it did not return to him anymore. There is now a complete break between the dove and Noah–the dove is never to return. Underscoring the distance that had been developed between them, on the third mission, the Torah does not state that the dove is sent out from Noah or from the Ark, just sent out.

Rashi claims that the olive leaf that the dove brought back was bitter. Citing the Midrash, Rashi concludes that the dove symbolically declared: “Better that my food be bitter but from G-d’s hands, than sweet as honey, but dependent upon mortal man.”

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that after a full year of relying on Noah’s kindness because it could not earn its own food, the dove carried a bitter olive leaf back to Noah. Says Rabbi Hirsch, this teaches that even the bitterest food eaten in freedom is better than the sweetest food given in servitude.

As usual, there is much to learn, not only from the text of the Torah, but also from “between-the-lines” of the Torah narratives.

May you be blessed.