Thursday, August 18, 2011

Nature Notes from the Psalms: Ravens

picture source: Wikipedia

There's one thing I love about the psalms is the lovely nature imagery and in particular, the mentions of animals. I haven't blogged much about this before, but today's Morning Prayer (which I didn't crack open until noon, unfortunately) includes Psalm 147. Speaking of God's providence towards all of creation,it includes this verse:
He provides the beasts with their food,
and young ravens that call upon him.
Why ravens? Why does the psalmist mention ravens in particular? They are hardly well-loved birds, being carrion pickers, and of somewhat ominous  appearance. Why not mention doves, eagles, swallows, or something else of more attractive reputation and appearance?
Perhaps  the psalmist himself might not have been consciously trying to tell us anything deeply symbolic with his bird choice. Likely he had been observing, with enjoyment,  a nearby nest of ravens. (Ravens typically nest on rock ledges, although treetops and rooftops are also chosen.)  So he picks ravens as his example in this psalm.
I'm even more intrigued that the verse says the ravens "call upon him", that is, God.  In what sense does an irrational animal do that?  I'm sure I don't know.
But back to the choice of ravens. Maybe the psalmist was just a birdwatcher, remarking on his recent siting of a raven's nest. But did God, who inspired him, have any particular reason for the raven to be the examplar of creation relying on providence?
My thorough research of amateur biblical commentators  turned up this thoughtful post from Grevillea, a Christian bird watcher writing on Wiki answers.
 "Ravens symbolize that even what appears to be base, commonplace or repulsive can be holy.
Despite their seemingly unsavory habits ("The eye that mocketh at his father...the ravens...shall pick it out" Proverbs 30:17), and despite the fact that ravens are unclean food for Israelites according to the dietary prohibitions of Leviticus, ravens are fundamentally part of God's plan and therefore good ("every winged bird according to its kind...was good" Genesis 1:21). God's grace(Coffee&Canticles' note: I'd change the word grace to providence to avoid theological confusion, although I doubt the author was thinking of grace in a salvific sense here) extends to ravens, and God " the young ravens which cry" (Psalm 147:9). In fact, ravens are used by some of the heroes in the Bible--the raven is the first bird sent out by Noah to check if the flood has receded (Genesis), and God commands ravens to feed Elijah in the wilderness (1 Kings 17:4-6). "
 Grevillea's main idea (the commonplace or repulsive can be holy), might help us out with the "call upon him" problem. Ravens don't consciously call upon God, but we commonplace and (thanks to sin) repulsive creatures certainly can. In total trust and confidence.
And I will add that the Order of Helpful Ravens continued their tradition of helping God's saints beyond Noah and Elijah. There are legends of several of the Desert Fathers being fed by ravens at their hermit caves. Better still, a raven famously came to the aid of St. Benedict of Nursia. Benedicts efforts to reform lax monasteries were not always met with joy by the lax monks. In fact, several of these plotted to poison Benedict's bread. A raven flew down and snatched the bread away before Benedict  could eat it, and has been rewarded by appearing at the side of the saint in icons and on the St. Benedict medal.

And let this suffice for ravens.