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The Dramatic Meaning of “Dove” by Elizabeth Avallone

This study explores the word “dove” to find out if the dove that left Noah’s ark in the Genesis flood story was related to the dove that came upon Jesus at His baptism. Because the account of the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus as a dove sounds more like a child’s fairy tale than a real event, we need to uncover deeper meaning that will provide an example of the infinite richness of the Holy Scriptures.

In the first century (C.E.), teaching by scribes and rabbis was largely through exposition of the Old Testament only (there was no New Testament yet), and current events were interpreted by means of the Old Testament. The first Christians, who were Jews, learned their Hebrew Scriptures by listening rather than reading. Most had memorized the Torah, and many had memorized the Writings and the Prophets (the rest of the Old Testament). When these first century Christians heard about or saw the ‘dove’ at Jesus’ baptism, certain “dove passages from the Hebrew Scriptures would have immediately come to their minds.

Three Old Testament passages probably stimulated the thoughts of these early Christians: (1) the dove that Noah sent out from the ark (Gen 8), (2) the two doves used in ritual sacrifices (Lev 5), and (3) the ‘dove’ that was sent to preach repentance to Nineveh (Jonah). As we consider these passages a clear and exciting pattern emerges which, among other things, demonstrates the inseparability and divine inspiration of the two testaments.

Dove is first mentioned in Scripture in the account of the world-wide flood and Noah’s saving ark. When the rain finally ceased, Noah wanted to know if it was safe to exit the ark. To do this, he first “sent out a raven, and it flew here and there until the water was dried up from the earth” (Gen 8:7). The raven is an ‘unclean’ animal. Noah then “sent out a dove from him, to see if the water was abated from the face of the land” (Gen 8:8). The dove is a ‘clean’ animal. Scripture says the raven flew over the earth, whereas the dove flew over the ‘face of the land’, implying the ‘face’ of humanity.

This dove made a total of three flights. These three flights represent a broad, general picture of the Holy Spirit’s activity in the earth. The first time Noah sent the dove out from the ark she found “no rest for the sole of her foot so she returned to Noah and he brought her back into the ark” (Gen 8:9). This relates to Gen 1:2b, “The Spirit of God was moving [or hovering like a bird] over the face of the waters”.

The second and third flights were more successful. The dove returned from the second flight with an olive branch in her beak. “Olive branch” is mentioned only one other time in Scripture, when it refers to Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside (Neh 8:15). The dove had found rest for the sole of her foot in an olive tree. God told the Hebrews as they were about to enter the Promised Land, “every place on which the sole of your foot treads shall be yours” (Deut 11:24). Thus, we see the connection between “sole of your foot” and the Promised Land, so apparently in this second flight the dove visits the Promised Land.

The dove did not return to Noah after the third and final flight. Where did she go? Did she return to the olive branch or did she fly all over the “face of the land”? If these dove flights represent the historic activity of the Holy Spirit in the earth, perhaps this third flight refers to the promise that “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea” (Hab 2:14), a promise yet to be fulfilled.

The next important mention of “dove” regards the offerings for ritual cleansing designated by the Lord for His covenant people. Doves were brought as offerings only if the worshiper was too poor to bring a more expensive animal. Doves were always offered in sets of two. One offering was called the sin offering, and another was the burnt offering. The dove for the sin offering symbolically cleansed the one who was offering the sacrifice, but only if the sin was unintentional, thus restoring fellowship with God. The second dove, the burnt offering, was brought as an act of worship and devotion. It is interesting to note that after childbirth this order was reversed. “Children are a gift of the Lord, the fruit of the womb is a reward” (Ps 127:3); therefore one would worship God (the burnt offering) for being blessed with such a gift, and then offer the second dove for ritual cleansing. These ritual offerings, in which the dove was a substitutionary sacrifice, allowed the worshiper to be reconciled  to God and draw near to Him.

As we progress through the Scriptures we next see Jonah the prophet. “Jonah” is the Hebrew word for “dove” and he was the son of Amittai, which means ‘my truth’. Jonah was the ‘Dove, son of my truth’. God called him to confront King Jeroboam. He exhorted the King to restore Israel’s borders, a metaphorical way of saying restore the true worship and erect barriers to idolatry.

Jonah’s claim to fame, however, was his mission to the Ninevites. God called him to Nineveh in Babylon to warn these pagan people of impending judgment and to call them to repentance. Jonah “despised” his assignment so he boarded a ship to get as far away from Nineveh as possible. He was thrown overboard and disappeared inside a huge fish for three days, everyone assuming that he was dead. He miraculously reappeared and went on to complete the second part of his mission. The Ninevites responded to his powerful testimony because they knew that his God controlled the sea and had allowed him to survive inside a huge fish. The entire city of Nineveh repented as the result of part two of Jonah’s mission. Thus, Jonah is a picture of the Holy Spirit because, “When He comes, He will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (Jn 16:8). God’s final words to Jonah were these: “Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?” These 120,000 souls in Nineveh correspond to the 120 souls who received the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Acts 1:15.

Moving into the New Testament we see in Jesus the dramatic convergence of dove, prophet, man and messiah. First, Jesus’ parents offer two doves for Mary’s ritual cleansing. Thus, we know they were devout, but poor (Lev 12). Thirty years later, Jesus and dove come together at Jesus’ baptism. When John baptized Him, the Holy Spirit, appearing as a dove and came upon Him. This event is recorded in all four gospels. John’s account says that he (John) was not even sure he was baptizing the Messiah until he saw the ‘dove’ come on Him.

As soon as the dove came on Him, Jesus left for His wilderness training. Once that was complete, He began His public ministry. As a prophet, Jesus condemned commercialized religion at the Temple. He violently challenged the ‘dove-sellers’ in the Temple courts saying, “Take these things away; stop making my Father’s house a house of business” (Mat 21:12, Mar 11:15, Jn 2:14, 16). God had provided these doves to be used as offerings, and the merchants profited from their sales. Simon the magician shows us another example of corrupt, carnal religion. He wanted to purchase Holy Spirit power from the apostles and Peter strongly rebuked him.

Jesus trained His disciples, then sent them out to spread the Good News of the Kingdom. He instructed them saying, “I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents but innocent as doves” (Mat 10:16). Jesus described doves as innocent. The Hebrew word for “innocent” means unmixed, pure. Jesus admonished His disciples not to mix worldly with spiritual. Years later, James repeated this warning:”a double-minded man is unstable in all his ways” (James 1:8).

Scribes and Pharisees challenged Jesus by demanding to see another miracle. He soundly rebuked them saying that the only sign left for them was the ‘sign of Jonah’ (Mt 12:39, 16:4, Lk 11:29-30). He told them that He was greater than Jonah (the dove-man), then He said He was greater than Solomon. Jonah was a prophet, Solomon was a king. So what could be greater than a prophet and a king?

By saying He was greater than Jonah, and by connecting Himself with the ‘sign of Jonah’, Jesus raised the Jonah story to a higher level. Jonah the prophet was swallowed by a fish; Jesus was swallowed by the earth. Just as Jonah despised the job that God had given him, Scripture tells us that Jesus despised the shame of the cross (Heb 12:2). Peter was the first disciple to realize he was seeing something greater than a prophet or king, and here we see the final use of “dove” in Scripture.

Jesus asked His disciples what the people were saying about Him. Peter replied, “You are the Christ [Messiah], the Son of the living God.” To this Jesus responded, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven” (Mat 16:17). Jesus called him Simon Barjona for a reason! The name ‘Simon’ comes from the Hebrew ‘Shimon’, which means to hear and obey. Barjona means ‘son of Jonah’. When Peter understood that Jesus was the Messiah he became an ‘obedient son of the Dove’.

Scripture refers to the Holy Spirit as a dove (Luke 3:22). Scripture also likens the Holy Spirit to wind (Jn 3:8). Think about the attributes of doves and wind. A dove can fly about freely, does not make much noise, and is gentle. Wind moves in the same environment as the dove, makes no sound of its own, is very powerful, yet invisible. These attributes help us grasp, however feebly, the mysterious nature of the Holy Spirit. We saw that one dove made two visits on the earth but did not interact with men. She first visited the Holy Land, and then she visited all the earth. In the second account, two doves were used by worshipers as offerings to restore fellowship between themselves and God. In the third account, one man, whose name was ‘dove’, was used to restore fellowship between God and men. Lastly, the intensity of the intimacy climaxed when all these dove incidents combined in the person of Messiah Jesus. This increasing intimacy between “dove” and men which we saw as we worked our way through the Scriptures helps us see God’s care for us, His concern, and His involvement from the beginning of time down to the present.

Finally, I present you, dear reader, with a challenge.  Another pattern emerged from this study, a pattern concerning the number two. Two doves visited the earth. Two doves were required for cleansing.   Jonah had to be sent out two times. Jesus raised the two-dove offering to a higher level by replacing the two dove offerings with Himself. Though He raised Jonah’s mission to a higher level, we still wait for Him to complete ‘part two’. The challenge is this: there are many passages in Scripture that confirm the fact of Jesus’ and the Holy Spirit’s two-part mission in the earth. How many can you find?