Monday, April 28, 2008

Birds in Scripture

My soul longed, even yearned
For the courts of Yahweh.
My mind* and my flesh
Cry out to the Living God.
Even the songbird** has found a house,
And the swallow a nest for herself
Where she may lay her young---
Your altars, Oh Yahweh of Armies,
My King and my God! (Psalm 84:2-3)

(Yahweh says)
"I know every bird in the mountains,
And the wild beasts of the forest are Mine." (Ps. 50:11)

In Yahweh have I trusted:
How do you [plural: "y'all"] say to my soul,
"Flee as a bird to your [plural] mountain"?? (Ps. 11:1)

(O, Yahweh),
Keep me as the apple of Your eye:
In the shadow of Your wings hide me. (Ps. 17:8)

"As birds flying around,
Thus will Yahweh of Armies protect Jerusalem.
Defending, he will deliver.
He will 'pass over' and protect." (Isaiah 31:5)

Mighty Yahweh,
You have made yourself known in your Son, Jesus.
Through His crucifixion,
You have established for us a "New Passover"
Where You "pass over" the wrongs we do
And the failures to do right.

As Jesus said, make us to trust
The way the ravens do
"Which niether sow (grain) nor reap
Nor gather (food) into barns"
And are yet fed by our Heavenly Father.
(Matthew 6:25-27 & Luke 12:22-24)

We are worth so much more to You
And, yet, we fill up our lives
With things that are worthless.
Forgive us, love us, and keep working in us
To give us the simple trust of your little birds.

[original Bible translations & explanatory verses]

*Literally "heart", which ancient Hebrews considered the seat of the intellect.
**"Sparrow" in some translations


Jim Swindle said...

In Psalm 84, I've never been sure I understood the reference to the bird. Do you believe it's speaking of a bird making a nest in an altar? If so, that seems a bit odd, since the altars were used for fire. Still, it's possible. Or is it speaking of the bird (or its young) being sacrificed on the altar of the Lord? That seems to be a bit of a stretch, since the bird probably doesn't delight in the idea. Or is it speaking of the human soul/self as a bird that can find contentment in trusting in the Lord, confident in the effectiveness of his altar? I lean toward that last option as the best interpretation.

C. Marie Byars said...

The "shorter" answer relies on the context of Psalm 84 itself--it's all about finding refuge and contentment in the House of the LORD (Yahweh). Of course, a bird wouldn't really be allowed to set up its nest in the Holy of Holies---if it could even have gotten in in the first place. It nests near the altar, not on it. The altar, in being a place of sacrifice, is also a place of mercy!! Also, Yahweh made His presence to be known in a special way in the Holy of Holies---the glowing cloud, just as it had been in leading them out of Israel.

In a wider scope, birds as object lessons or metaphors in the Bible are either protectors (less common; the ideal of shelter under wings, the hen who gathers chicks under its wings, etc.) or the protected (as in this case). Birds' very smallness, their seeming lack of importance, and the small brains they have which don't reason things out make them perfect to teach us this lesson.

Finally, in the broader scope, good hermeutics say that there is only one intended meaning for a text. But I think you have to be careful not being too narrow on this idea with Old Testament poetry. First, the Old Testament Hebrews were more "holistic" than "analytic." Second, poetry of all cultures intentionally "bends language" somewhat. There may be one intended meaning with several other ideas intentionally left hovering around as reminders. (This being said, you still want to be careful not to get into the medieval idea of several unfolding, allergorical meanings for any text.)
I believe this is the figurative language of poetry teaching us a real truth: who or what wouldn't want to dwell always in the presence of the LORD? Well, only foolish people who reject Him wouldn't. But Nature never rejects Him--it's only subject to "futility" because of humanity's sin. But if even a relatively unintelligent bird knows its True Master, that's a lesson for us.
BTW---for more on the idea of nature not rejecting it's master, if you closely re-read a passage from John 1 in Greek, it makes this point: "He [Jesus] came unto His own things (Greek neuter plural), But His own people (Greek masculine plural) received Him not." Because the whole area of God's relationship with Nature (beyond the six-day creation) is little examined in western theology, we miss these things. Only a few western Biblical thinkers have had much "use" for Nature: Martin Luther, Gerard Manley Hopkins (Catholic) & Francis Schaeffer. The Greek Orthodox are much more tuned into this, although I disagree with their conclusions---they see a hierarchy whereby nature is saved through humanity's salvation. Luther (and I) see God as having a relationship with nature independent of us because Nature doesn't sin & doesn't need salvation---the things that seem wrong in it are driven by broken instincts which came when it was subjected to futility. As always,thanks for visiting!

Jim Swindle said...

Thanks, Marie, for your long, thought-filled reply.

I'll do some pondering about nature and the Lord. I've not thought deeply about that. My quick thought is that nature is deeply damaged but not evil...and that nature will be restored by the Lord in the end.