Click here to watch the 2014 Nevin Lectures
« Back to Blog

Raven of the Gospel

There’s a common theme that arises in the study of theologians James B. Jordan and Peter Leithart. It is this: Context matters. Details matter. This is God’s Word. The details are not arbitrary “filler” hiding the kernel of truth in the husk of the text.  The husk and the kernel together are the “double-edged sword” that is “living and active” and “piercing to the division of soul and spirit (Hebrews 4:12). But there’s a problem. The details of the Scriptures are weird, and the context is often hard to discern. James Jordan has said that you can’t read the bible without quickly running into a “weird.” God blocks Adam from the Tree of Life? Weird. God doesn’t accept Cain’s sacrifice? Weird. Jacob is dividing Laban’s spotted and unspotted sheep? Weird. Zipporah circumcises Moses’ son? Weird. And on and on we could go. This is where the work of Jordan and Leithart comes in.  They will not be satisfied with “quickly moving on to the next verse.” Seeking to understand the “weird” is a must. Take, for example, Noah’s ark.  It has been commonly pointed out by scholars that the two birds, the raven and the dove, released from the window of the ark correspond to unclean and clean animals later mentioned in the Law of Moses (Leviticus 11:15). The raven is a scavenger bird. This allows for him to travel “to and fro” never returning to the ark because he feeds upon the dead carcasses floating at sea or washed up on the mountaintops.  The raven is released and never returns. In contrast, the dove is released three times.  The second time, the dove returns with an “olive leaf,” and it returns “in the evening.” Why? Here again we find a “weird.” We see that Noah releases these birds, but few can give reasons why Noah does this, yet the majority of the chapter is focused upon these details. Jordan and Leithart’s attention to detail, how they study the Word, and draw out common themes gives us examples to follow to better understand the bible.  In following their example, can we make sense of the raven and the dove? This is not the only time in the bible we see animals and birds feeding upon dead carcasses.  In Genesis, Abram sacrifices animals. When the animals are cut in half, it says that “birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away” (Genesis 15:11). In Deuteronomy, Israel is warned by Moses that if they are unfaithful to Yahweh they will be defeated by their enemies and “your dead body shall be food for all birds of the air and for the beasts of the earth, and there shall be no one to frighten them away” (Deuteronomy 28:26). In the Israelite mind, because God is sovereign, if a body is exposed and eaten by the unclean birds, it not just an unfortunate accident; it’s likely they have fallen under the curse of Yahweh.   The Law says, “Cursed is anyone who hangs upon a tree.”  In light of the Law, Jesus isn’t just some unfortunate victim crushed under the might and power of Rome as he hangs upon a tree; he’s a man that iscursed by Yahweh (2 Corinthians 5:21) Like the curse of hanging upon a tree there’s a curse tied to a body eaten by the birds. It’s in light of this curse, we can see why Rizpah, the concubine of Saul, stands by the bodies of murdered Saul and Jonathan and “she did not allow the birds of the air to come upon them by day, or the beasts of the field by night” (2 Samuel 21:10). She righteously refuses to allow for Israel to interpret the deaths of these men as receiving the curse of God. King David accepts her plea and grants them a proper burial. Looking back through the Bible, we see that the chief baker of Pharaoh in the prison with Joseph is not so fortunate. He receives a dream of birds “eating…out of the basket on my head.” His unrighteousness is exposed by Joseph’s interpretation: “In three days Pharaoh will lift up your head—from you!—and hang you on a tree. And the birds will eat the flesh from you” (Genesis 40:19). Goliath believes he will deliver the body of David to the birds, but David delivers the Word of the Lord: “And I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel” (1 Samuel 17:46). Anyone aligned with the unrighteous King Jeroboam who dies in the open country the birds of the heavens shall eat, for the Lord has spoken it” (1 Kings 14:11).  Anyone aligned with unrighteous Baasha receives the same curse (1 Kings 16:4). When Jerusalem is sacked the Psalmist notices the same fate fall upon its inhabitants (Psalm 79:2). Isaiah prophesies over Cush saying, “They shall all of them be left to the birds of prey of the mountains and to the beasts of the earth. And the birds of prey will summer on them, and all the beasts of the earth will winter on them” (Isaiah 18:6). I would argue that none of these actions make sense apart from the first feeding that we see with the raven released from the ark. All of these events that follow in the bible not only shed meaning back upon Noah’s actions, but also are only understood because of what Noah does. Noah has preached a hundred and twenty years before the apocalyptic flood destroys the world. After years of faithful labor, the fruit of repentance is seen only in a total of eight people, his family members, who are led safely into the ark.  The generation of Noah’s day is a condemned generation.  They fall under the wrath of God.  Instead of receiving the gospel Noah preached to them, they drank the waters of God’s wrath. But that does not mean Noah’s gospel returns void. As Paul says, the gospel is “life to life to those who are being saved” or “death to death to those who are perishing” (2 Corinthians 2:16). In Noah’s case, the gospel sealed their condemnation. The raven is not arbitrarily chosen to see “what will happen if I release this out of the window.” The raven carries the gospel. The raven is Noah’s way of participating in the wrath of God poured out upon a faithless generation. It’s the first in a series of flesh eating events publicly displaying the wicked under the wrath of God. In the action of releasing the raven, Noah is communicating, “Go and eat your fill out of this unrepentant and dead generation. I stand with Yahweh and his righteous condemnation over you.” The raven is “death to death.” Cursed is anyone who has their dead body…be food for all birds of the air… with no one to frighten them away. What Noah displays in action, is clearly articulated by the angel of the Lord’s army waging war against the unrighteous nations in Revelation 19:17 with a loud voice he called to all the birds that fly directly overhead, “Come, gather for the great supper of God, to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all men, both free and slave, both small and great.” The birds sent from the ark are winged messengers. They carry to the world messages of judgment and grace from the ark—the baptized church, the bride of Jesus (1 Pet. 3:20). The raven carries the gospel’s judgment over sin. The gospel judges the sinful flesh of man because “the flesh profits nothing” (John 6:63).  The raven removes the unrighteous, sinful flesh of wicked men to make room for a new world free from sin and death. “We know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:22). The raven works upon us as well. We long for our sinful flesh to be removed so we can be more fully clothed with resurrected bodies (2 Corinthians 5:4). “Those who live according to the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:8).The raven is a cleansing agent eating our sinful flesh preparing us to receive new, resurrected, and incorruptible flesh not burdened with the weakness of sin.  The raven is the Spirit of God, received during the flood of baptism, eating away our sin.  It is the guarantee to us that the flesh will be consumed.  The raven is at work in us and in the world. Yet, the raven is not the only bird in the story. The dove is sent out. Grace is sent out. The gospel is not only carried by the raven, but also by the dove. The dove will not find any place to remain until it’s sent out the third time. It will not remain until it descends upon the head of Jesus Christ at his baptism. But that’s another story, for another day. Troy Greene is Pastor of The King’s Chapel in Brooklyn, New York.