Noah’s surviving an apocalyptic flood in an ark is one of the Bible’s most well known stories (Genesis 6:13-9:17). God famously saves the patriarch and seven of his relatives from the perilous waters. After the rains subside and the water recedes, Noah releases a raven from the ark (Genesis 8:7).
Then it came about at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made; and he sent out a raven, and it flew here and there until the water was dried up from the earth. (Genesis 8:6-7 NASB)Though the raven does not return, a dove that is dicharged a week later famously retrieves an olive branch which has survived as an everlasting image of peace (Genesis 8:8-12).
Though not as well remembered the first bird that Noah dispatches is a raven (Genesis 8:7). The Hebrew literally reads “the raven”. Umberto Cassuto (1883-1951) specifies:
The definite article indicates here only what is termed a general definition: he sent forth the raven that he sent; similarly in Genesis 8:8: one of the doves that were with him in the ark, the dove that he put forth. (Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis: Part Two, From Noah to Abraham, 109)Claus Westermann (1909-2000) agrees:
The definite article with the raven is an indication of the species, like “the” fox or “the” hare in the tale; other examples in the Old Testament are I Samuel 17:35; I Kings 20:36; Amos 5:19. For the construction cf. Johann Baptist Göttsberger [1868-1958]. (Westermann, Genesis 1-11 (A Continental Commentary), 447)There is little debate as to the bird in question as the Hebrew ôrêb is almost universally translated “raven” (ASV, CEV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, MSG, NASB, NKJV, NIV, NLT, NRSV, RSV). Nahum M. Sarna (1923-2005) describes:
The raven is a wild bird that is not discriminating in its diet. It feeds on carrion as well as vegetation and could thus obtain its food from among the floating carcasses. That is why it made repeated forays from the ark. Noah could observe its movements over several days. (Sarna, Genesis (JPS Torah Commentary), 57)Gordon J. Wenham (b. 1943) opines:
The raven is not only black but unclean (Leviticus 11:15; Deuteronomy 14:14), so it is little surprise that it brought Noah no consolation...Since they were unclean, there were only two ravens on the ark, so both had to live if the species was to survive. Note that the raven kept on flying till the earth “dried out.” Only then did Noah disembark (Genesis 8:14). (Wenham, Genesis 1-15 (Word Biblical Commentary), 186)J. Vernon McGee (1904-1988) envisions:
Noah is engaged here in “birdwatching.” He sends out the raven, and the raven does not come back. Why didn’t that raven come back? You must recognize what that raven eats—it feeds on carrion. There was a whole lot of flesh of dead animals floating around after the Flood, and that was the kind of thing this old crow ate. He did not return to the Ark because he was really going to a feast, and he was having a very wonderful time. (McGee, Genesis, Chapters 1-15, 138)The appearance of the raven has striking similarities to the Babylonian flood narrative, the Gilgamesh epic. Tremper Longman III (b.1952) declares:
Perhaps the most striking similarity between the two accounts is the use of birds to determine whether or not the floodwaters have receded. (Longman, How to Read Genesis, 85)Ronald Hendel (b. 1958) contrasts:
Noah sends a single raven and then a dove three times [Genesis 8:6-12]—which differs from Utnapishtim’s sequence of dove, swallow, and raven—but the motif of sending birds to see if the waters have abated is the same. It derives from a trick of ancient mariners to see if a ship is close to land. But in this case, from the top of a mountain, Utnapishtim and Noah could have simply looked out the window: the birds are not strictly necessary. The sending of the birds is a colorful motif that slows down the action—thereby creating suspense—and vividly depicts the passage of time. The returning dove in Genesis, a “plucked olive leaf” in its beak [Genesis 8:11], offers a miniature vision of life reborn, just as Utnapishtim’s raven, who “saw the waters receding...eating, bobbing up and down,” shows that life will go on. (Hendel, The Book of Genesis: A Biography, 28)Victor P. Hamilton (b. 1952) critiques:
The scriptural account has Noah send out first a raven and then a dove. The Gilgamesh Epic reverses that order—first the dove and then the raven. The biblical sequence has more of the ring of truth about it. The raven is a carrion eater and did not return because it found food on the mountain peaks. (Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament Series), 304)There are also correlations to other flood myths. Nahum M. Sarna (1923-2005) chronicles:
Noah releases a raven and a dove, and the latter twice more, at seven-day intervals [Genesis 8:6-12]...Utnapishtim waits seven days after grounding before releasing a dove, then a swallow, and then a raven. Berossus [third century BCE], too, tells of three separate dispatches of birds, but there are no details about them. It is not known whether the practice was part of the Atrahasis story. (Sarna, Genesis (JPS Torah Commentary), 57)Noah “sent out (or forth)” (ASV, CEV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, MSG, NASB, NKJV, NIV, NRSV, RSV) or “released” (NLT) the raven (Genesis 8:7). Victor P. Hamilton (b. 1952) analyzes:
Every time Noah sends forth one of these birds the Hebrew uses the Piel of šālah (e.g, Genesis 8:7, wayyešallah). This use contrasts with the Qal šālah used in Genesis 8:9 to refer to Noah’s “stretching out” his hand to retrieve the dove. Now, at many places in the Old Testament the Qal and Piel of this verb seem to be interchangeable. But sometimes the Qal means to send forth on a mission, with the expectation that those sent will return. Thus Moses (Numbers 13:3) and Joshua (Joshua 2:1) “sent” (šālah, Qal) the spies who will return with the needed information. The Piel of šālah may mean to send away, to banish with no possibility of returning, as in Genesis 3:23: “Yahweh sent him forth [wayyešallehēhû from the garden of Eden.” Applied to Genesis 8:7-12 the meaning would be that Noah does not send these birds forth on a trial run. He does not expect them to return to their nest in the ark. (Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament Series), 303)No reason is stated as to why Noah releases the bird. This omission has generated much conjecture. John L. Thompson (b. 1952) introduces:
The...account of how Noah released first a raven and then a dove in order to test whether the earth had sufficiently dried was mined by traditional commentators for all sorts of reasons. Some assumed that Noah must have chosen these two particular birds on the basis of his special wisdom, revelation or insight. The Bible thus functioned for some interpreters much like a medieval bestiary here, definitively disclosing the special characteristics of these animals for all time. For others, the story was a rich source for allegorical readings. In both cases, speculative impulses were sometimes fueled by inside information or other lore gleaned from the writings of the rabbis. (Thompson, Genesis 1-11 (Reformation Commentary on Scripture), 272)Many interpreters have viewed the raven as performing a reconnaissance mission due to the insufficiency of the ark’s window. This is the reason supplied by the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament.
Gordon J. Wenham (b. 1943) deduces:
Apparently the window must have been in the roof of the ark; at least it did not allow Noah to see the waters receding, which is why he resorts to sending out the birds. Willem Hendrik Gispen [1900-1986] notes that before the electronic era sailors used to use birds in this way to discover if land was close. (Wenham, Genesis 1-15 (Word Biblical Commentary), 186)J.G. Vos (1903-1983) expounds:
After the peaks of the mountains became visible, Noah waited forty days and then released the raven. Evidently, the window Noah opened did not afford a sufficiently wide view. H.C. Leupold [1892-1972] suggests that the window may have been rather high up under projecting eaves, which would limit the view. The raven, once released, did not return to the ark. Of course, the meaning is not that the raven flew hither and yon without any rest until the earth was dry. We must remember that the mountain peaks were already exposed, and these would afford rest for the raven when not in flight. (Vos, Genesis, 153)Bill T. Arnold (b. 1955) determines:
The episode of the birds (Genesis 8:6-12) – the raven and the dove – is one of the best known elements of the flood story. The assumption is that the birds can reveal something to humans locked up in the ark that the humans cannot discern for themselves. The use of birds by ancient sailors to find land was a common practice. Here, of course, Noah is not locating land, since his ark has been grounded by the mountains of Ararat. Rather the text emphasizes Noah’s care for his family and the animals in his charge by determining the readiness of the land for habitation. (Arnold, Genesis (New Cambridge Bible Commentary), 105)Enlisting birds was a standard procedure for sailors of the era. John H. Walton (b. 1952) explains:
Ancient navigators used birds to find land, but Noah is not navigating, and he is on land. His use of the birds is not in order to find direction, but to determine the readiness of the land for habitation. In the ancient Near East the flight patterns of birds sometimes served as omens, but neither Noah nor Utnapishtim make observations from the flight of the birds sent out. A raven, by habit, lives on carrion and would therefore have sufficient food available. The dove and the pigeon have a limited ability for sustained flight, live at lower elevations, and require plants for food. The olive leaf retrieved by the dove suggests the amount of time it takes for an olive tree to leaf out after being submerged—a clue to the current depth of the floodwaters [Genesis 8:11]. It is also symbolic of new life and fertility to come after the Flood. It is a difficult tree to kill, even if cut down. This freshly plucked shoot shows Noah that recovery from the Flood had begun. (Walton, Genesis (NIV Application Commentary), 314-15)The view that the raven is sent for this purpose is problematic. Umberto Cassuto (1883-1951) rejects:
The purpose for which Noah sent the raven is not expressly stated as in the case of the dove in Genesis 8:8, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground. One may suppose, as most commentators do, that the object was the same; but this is difficult, for if the two birds had been put forth for the identical reason, it should have been indicated in connection with the first bird rather than the second. More probably Noah sent forth the raven without any specific intention; he let it go to see how it would act so that he might learn something from its behaviour—whatever there was to actually learn from it. Actually, however, it taught him nothing. The Septuagint adds also here the words, to see if the waters had subsided (with slight variations in the manuscripts) in order to harmonize, in accordance with its usual practice, this verse with Genesis 8:8. The Biblical text should not, therefore, be emended on the basis of the Septuagint as many contemporary expositors have suggested. (Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis: Part Two, From Noah to Abraham, 109-10)If the raven is sent to unearth information, it remains to be seen what it uncovers. Bill T. Arnold (b. 1955) denounces:
The view from this skylight apparently did not allow an accurate assessment of the condition of earth (implied also by Genesis 8:13), and thus Noah relies on birds to help. But in the first case, he receives no help at all! The raven is a scavenger, feeding on carrion, and was therefore independent of both the food in the ark or fresh meat on the ground. In the flood’s aftermath, the raven has plenty of floating corpses to feed upon, and needs no “place to set its foot” upon, as the dove will need (Genesis 8:9). NRSV’s “went to and fro” until the waters were dried up may instead indicate “took off, flying thither and back,” indicating in fact that the raven kept combing back to the ark and leaving it until the earth was dry. Thus the raven was of no value in determining whether the earth was now hospitable to human life! On the other hand, the three trips of the dove illustrate the degrees of readiness of earth. (Arnold, Genesis (New Cambridge Bible Commentary), 105)Gordon J. Wenham (b. 1943) concurs:
The whole scene is dominated by Noah’s concern to discover whether the waters have retreated. The raven episode is then essentially an unsuccessful experiment: it brings back no evidence of any change in the situation. The dove brings back some evidence, the fresh olive leaves, so that Noah concludes that the waters had lessened. But only when he removes the cover of the ark does he himself see that the surface of the soil is dry (Genesis 8:13). (Wenham, Genesis 1-15 (Word Biblical Commentary), 185)Others have seen the raven and dove as working in tandem. The dove’s data collection is enhanced by the raven’s. Stuart Briscoe (b. 1930) reasons:
Noah dispatched the raven “which kept going to and fro until the waters had dried up from the earth” (Genesis 8:8). With all the death around the raven found plenty to occupy itself so “He also sent out from himself a dove...but the dove found no resting place...and she returned...So he put out his hand and took her, and drew her into the ark to himself” (Genesis 8:8-9). He now knew that a raven could survive outside the ark and a dove could not so he drew his conclusions from that data. (Briscoe, Genesis (Mastering the Old Testament)Claus Westermann (1909-2000) concludes:
Franz Delitzsch [1813-1890] comments on the result of sending out of the raven: “It was a good sign that it did not come back.” This holds also for Gilgamesh XI 153-54 where the raven is the third bird that is sent out, and the disembarkation from the ship follows at once. It can only be meant as an attempt which did not succeed in the present state of the text of Genesis 8:6-12. “It told him (Noah) nothing,” Umberto Cassuto [1883-1951]. (Westermann, Genesis 1-11 (A Continental Commentary), 447)Outside of the ark the raven flies “to and fro” (ASV, ESV, KJV, NKJV, NRSV, RSV), “back and forth” (HCSB, MSG, NIV, NLT), “here and there” (NASB) or is simply “flying around” (CEV). As such, Genesis leaves the raven perpetually suspended flying to and fro evermore.
Umberto Cassuto (1883-1951) comments:
True to its nature, the raven is concerned only with itself and pays no heed to the man’s needs. It goes forth and comes back, goes and returns, and Noah can draw no inference from its going and coming. Instead of to and fro [literally, ‘going and returning’] the Septuagint reads: and did not return. Actually this clause does not fit in well with the rest of the verse. But it is interesting to note that it corresponds to what is related in the Epic of Gilgameš. (Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis: Part Two, From Noah to Abraham, 110)As Cassuto alludes, the neglect of the raven’s fate is amended in the Septuagint. Susan Brayford (b. 1950) informs:
Unlike its Masoretic Text counterpart that went back and forth, the Septuagint raven does not return until it can positively report that the earth had dried out. Presumably tired of waiting for the raven’s return and report, Noah sends a dove out after it, whose mission is to see if the water had abated. Unlike the raven, the dove returns to Noah because it, like its Mesopotamian counterpart, could not find a dry resting place. (Brayford, Genesis (Septuagint Commentary), 269)Laurence A. Turner questions:
Baffling is the fate of the raven (Genesis 8:7). It would appear that it never returned but simply ‘went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth.’ If it survived (by eating carrion), then why did it need to be taken into the ark? If it died, then being ‘saved’ on the ark has a bitter irony...Perhaps Noah’s actions are simply confused, serving no useful purpose other than to satisfy his curiosity, for even when he knows that the earth is dry (Genesis 8:11), he stays put. (Turner, Genesis (Readings: A New Biblical Commentary), 43)Because the raven seemingly provides little information, many interpreters have seen it as a later addition to the text. Gerhard Von Rad (1909-1971) posits:
After the mountain peak became visible, Noah sent out a raven. The passage, received from tradition by the Priestly document, is without charm and is inserted into the narrative without proper vividness. Is the meaning of the statement really that the raven did not return to the ark? How different is the Yahwist at this point! (Von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 129)W. Sibley Towner (b. 1933) dissects:
When they combined their version of the deluge with that of the older epic source...the Priestly writers allowed discrepancies to remain. In P, for example, the bird sent out by Noah was a raven. This raven apparently went in and out of the ark over many days, perhaps feeding, as ravens do, on vegetation and carrion alike (Genesis 8:6-7). In contrast, the older tradition had a dove go forth, return once with an empty beak, return a second time with an olive branch, and then not return at all from its third outing (Genesis 8:8-12). These differences in detail are insignificant, really; they probably simply reflect different streams of tradition...In a case like this, one can always be literal and say that Noah sent out both a raven and a dove, and that the raven was the less faithful of the two birds. (Towner, Genesis (Westminster Bible Companion), 89)If the text represents a compilation, the contrast enriches both stories as the two strands work well together. Even so, the belief that the raven has been inserted into a preexisting tradition is not universal.
Gordon J. Wenham (b. 1943) notes:
Commentators from August Dillmann [1823-1894] to Claus Westermann [1909-2000] have suggested that since the raven episode spoils the neat arrangement of three journeys by the dove alone, it is a later insertion from a variant tradition. It is impossible to be sure, but in that the Gilgamesh Epic also mentions a raven among the reconnoitering birds, the episode is unlikely to have been added to the story later. (Wenham, Genesis 1-15 (Word Biblical Commentary), 186)John Van Seters (b. 1935) resolves:
The episode with the birds in Genesis 8:6b-12 is entirely the work of the Yahwist, with no additions by P. It presents few problems except that one should probably assume an additional wait of seven days between the sending of the raven and the dove. This is indicated by the statement in Genesis 8:10: “Again he waited seven more days.” (Van Seters, Prologue to History: The Yahwist As Historian in Genesis, 164)Assuming that enlisting the raven is an attempt at discernment, this marks a new means of revelation for Noah. Victor P. Hamilton (b. 1952) compares:
It is interesting to note that Noah sends forth birds in order to determine the conditions on the earth [Genesis 8:6-12]. Up until this point Noah has received all his information from God. God informed him about the corruption in the earth [Genesis 6:13]. God told him to build an ark and what to take into that ark [Genesis 6:14-16]. God briefed him about the impending storm [Genesis 6:17]...But God does not tell Noah when the ground is habitable again. Indeed, all revelation from God to Noah is halted once Noah is locked inside the ark—until the atonement in Genesis 8:15. He who had received direct revelation from God must now resort to ornithology (or augury) for further data. The Creator speaks to Noah, but so does the creature. Moses receives direct revelations from God, but it is his father-in-law who gives him the information about the best and most efficient way to administer juridical matters (Exodus 18:18-23). Joshua receives a direct promise from God that he will be given all the land (Joshua 1:2-4), yet he still sends spies to reconnoiter Jericho and then to report back to him (Joshua 2:1-24). (Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament Series), 303)Noah’s use of birds indicates that both creator and creature are avenues through which the divine can communicate.
Of all of the animals at his disposal, why does Noah select a raven to release first (Genesis 8:7)? Is this a poor choice? Are there any conditions whereby the raven does not survive the mission? If not, why is it in the ark? Should the raven return to the ark? When have you interpreted a natural phenomena as an omen? What can one learn from watching birds? What is meant by the raven flying to and fro; does it indicate uncertainty? What, if anything, does the raven tell Noah?
The tendency to juxtapose the raven and the dove is almost as enduring as the olive branch is as a sign of peace (Genesis 8:6-12). It is a natural comparison and one in which the raven does not fare well.
R. Kent Hughes (b. 1942) typifies:
Noah...learned as he went. He released the raven first because as an unclean bird it was expendable since it was good for neither food nor sacrifice (cf. Leviticus 11:15; Deuteronomy 14:14). But the dove was an altogether different bird. It was white and clean and often used for sacrifice (cf. Leviticus 1:14, 12:6). Because it was from among the clean animals, a dove would be sacrificed in Noah’s post-flood burnt offerings (cf. Genesis 8:20). (Hughes, Genesis: Beginning & Blessing (Preaching the Word), 143)Martin Kessler (b. 1927) and Karel Deurloo (b. 1936) measure:
Raven and dove, colored dark and light, unclean and clean, reported according to their nature. The raven, a predator of the field, kept flying back and forth until the Earth fell dry (Genesis 8:14). At that point it was safe. After all, God had named the Earth in creation (Genesis 1:10). The dove, which lives in the vicinity of man, was sent out to ascertain whether the field was visible. Noah was most interested in that since he would function as a man of the field, a tiller of the soil (Genesis 9:2), for that was the basis of human existence. (Kessler and Deurloo, A Commentary on Genesis: The Book of Beginnings, 83)The raven has been historically maligned. Pat Munday (b. 1955) indicates:
In modern Western civilization, ravens acquired a decidedly bad rap as an untrustworthy and evil bird. This can be traced to early Christian and Jewish interpretations of the raven’s role in helping Noah find land after the flood. Despite the way that later scholars demonized ravens, Genesis 8:7 is ambiguous on this point, stating only that Noah “sent out the raven; it went to and fro until the waters had dried up from the earth”...Nonetheless, theologians from the fourth century on generally wrote that the raven had failed Noah in its mission and characterized it as “an unclean bird”; “a symbol of evil”; and “the enemy,” representing those destroyed by the flood (David Marcus [b. 1941] 71-80; Sylvia Huntley Horowitz 504-05). (Emily Plec [b. 1974], “Thinking through Ravens: Human Hunters, Wolf-Birds and Embodied Communication” Perspectives on Human-Animal Communication: Internatural Communication, 208)In many rabbinic sources, the raven’s failure is depicted prior to its release. Gershon Winkler (b. 1949) apprises:
The ancient rabbis explain that the raven had declined the mission, circled the ark, and returned (Genesis 8:7) because he didn’t trust Noah alone with his mate (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 108b). Consequently, Noah had to send a less paranoid and more faithful kind of bird, a dove, who ultimately returned with a twig in her beak (Genesis 8:11). (Winkler, Travels with the Evil Inclination: A Rabble-rousing Renegade Rebel Rabbi’s Story, 98)The raven is also presented as an unruly passenger. Emmanouela Grypeou and Helen Spurling relay:
Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 108b describes Noah’s rebuke to the raven, who stated that Noah desired to dispense with the species of ravens by sending away one of only two aboard the ark. Noah points out that he also is forbidden relations with his wife, and on a qal wa-homer argument this should apply even more to the raven. (Grypeou and Spurling, The Book of Genesis in Late Antiquity: Encounters between Jewish and Christian Exegesis, 164)Norman Cohn (1915-2007) remarks:
Inside the ark life was difficult. There was general agreement amongst the rabbis that sexual intercourse was forbidden; the raven, dog and Noah’s son Ham were all punished for failing to observe this prohibition...The raven caused Noah much embarrassment. When the ark came to rest on Ararat, and Noah got ready to send the raven out, the cantankerous bird argued back. Noah, he said, must hate him; for if he suffered a mishap, there would be no more ravens. Also, he suspected that Noah had designs on his mate, the female raven. Noah tried to reassure hm by pointing out that he had been able to stay chaste throughout the time in the ark – but according to one famous rabbi the raven was unconvinced: it remained so anxious on its mate’s behalf that it refused to fly off and continued to circle the ark. (Cohn, Noah’s Flood: The Genesis Story in Western Thought, 35-36)Jack P. Lewis (b. 1919) annotates:
When Noah was ready to send the raven forth, according to R. Judan (PA. 4) in the name of R. Judah b. R. Simon (PA. 4), the raven argued back (deduced from a supposed relation of ושוב with הש׳ב), that God hated him since only a few unclean animals were taken into the ark. Noah also hated him, for if he sent him out and an accident should occur, there would be one less species. He also suggested that perhaps Noah was lewdly interested in the female raven. Noah replied with kal we-homer that he had been continent in the ark...Elsewhere he had insisted that the raven was good for nothing, but God has commanded him to take the raven back because it was needed to feed Elijah [I Kings 17:2-6]...In Pirke de R. Eliezer the raven never returns to the ark, but feeds on dead bodies. (Lewis, A Study of the Interpretation of Noah and the Flood in Jewish and Christian Literature, 146)The generally negative characterization of the raven is captured by the playwright André Obey (1892-1975):
Ham: Why the raven?The dove and raven have often been compared typologically and allegorically. Norman Cohn (1915-2007) submits:
Noah: Because’s he’s a great traveller and because when he goes we’ll be rid of his black wings and his nasty voice. (Obey, Noah: A Play, Act III, 53)
No feature of the biblical story escaped typological interpretation. For Jerome [347-420], the raven which Noah sent forth from the ark, and which did not return, was ‘the foul bird of wickedness’ which is expelled by baptism. Augustine [354-430] detected in the unfortunate bird a ‘type’ of impure men who crave for things outside the Church. (Cohn, Noah’s Flood: The Genesis Story in Western Thought, 31)Andrew Louth (b. 1944) reviews:
The raven, which is sent forth by Noah, is held captive by gluttony and does not return to the ark (Prudentius [d. 413], John Chrysostom [347-407]). The raven symbolizes those Christians who have gone astray (Augustine [354-430], Bede [673-735]). The dove, which Noah sends after the raven, brings an olive branch back to the ark. This branch not only reveals that the deluge has abated but also is a symbol of the promised everlasting peace (Augustine). The dove is a symbol of the Holy Spirit (Augustine, Bede), of the anointing by oil in chrismation (Bede) and of Christ (Maximus of Turin [380–465]). The end of the deluge can be can be compared with the end of the persecutions that those who live in Christ have to suffer in the world (Augustine). (Louth, Genesis 1-11 (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, 144)Jack P. Lewis (b. 1919) divides:
The typology of the sending forth of the raven presents two currents in the church, one of which expanded soteriological secrets, and the other ecclesiastical. The former of these followed the symbolism of Philo [20 BCE-50 CE] in which Noah was expelling whatever residue of folly there might be in his mind...The action illustrates the expelling of sin from life “which goes forth and does not return”...Jerome [347-420] explained that “the unclean bird, the devil,” or “the foul bird of wickedness” was expelled by baptism. Those who sought ecclesiastical typology saw the raven as a type of impure men and of apostates who are sent forth from the church and cannot return. A presbyter of the third century, in order to make this point, linked the raven with the command: “Everything leprous and impure, cast abroad outside the camp.”...The tradition is further developed by Gregory of Elvira [d. 392]...and by Augustine [354-430] who found in the raven a type of men who are defiled with impure desire and are eager for things outside the church...The raven may also be a type of the procrastinator. (Lewis, A Study of the Interpretation of Noah and the Flood in Jewish and Christian Literature, 173-74)If the dove is a symbol of resurrection, the raven is a reminder of death. The raven represents the old nature, the dove the new and improved product.
Perhaps worst of all, the raven is seen as disrupting the new paradiscal life inside the ark. David J. Atkinson (b. 1943) presents:
Here is a picture that is pointing beyond this age. Here shut up in this ark is a foretaste of what could be. A haven of security when this broken world order ceases. Here there are doves and ravens, expressive of a harmony between man and the animal world. Here the wolf dwells with the lamb, the leopard lies down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together. Here all animal life is preserved to sing the praises of the Creator. For surely, a new creation is pictured here. (Atkinson, The Message of Genesis 1–11 (Bible Speaks Today), 148)The raven’s regression to its original nature is seen as an end to this brief era. Leon R. Kass (b. 1939) discusses:
As far as we know, while on the ark the lion and the lamb broke straw together, and no species practiced war anymore. Rehabilitation of the entire living world seemed possible—or almost possible. Only one small clue gives the reader pause: Noah’s first scout for dry land was the raven. Remembering the raven’s carnivorousness, Noah must have hoped the bird would return with rotting flesh, but the ravenous scout “went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth” (Genesis 8:7). The herbivorous dove, sent second, returned, because she “found no rest for the sole of her foot”; sent seven days later, she brought back an olive leaf freshly plucked (Genesis 8:8-11). Yet while redemption was celebrated aboard the ship, the spirit of the hungry raven, no doubt fed up with seeds and looking for meat, still hovered over the face of the deep. As the sequel shows, Noah himself, for all his virtue, turns out to harbor some of the wildness of antediluvian man [Genesis 9:20-27].” (Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis 170)Still, there is hope. Thomas L. Brodie (b. 1940) considers:
During the original creation (Genesis 1:1-31) the emphasis was on goodness. Only on two days—days 2 and 5—was there a suggestion that perhaps something was less than good (day 2 omitted the usual “it was good,” and day 5 did not maintain the usual increase in narrative quantity). During the remaking (Genesis 8:6-9:7), however, there is a greater awareness of evil. In the first part (Genesis 8:6-14), for instance, when Noah, seeking the dry land, sends out the birds, the first bird out is the raven (Genesis 8:7)—an ominous creature...Yet the remaking account does not lack hope and goodness. On the contrary, the sense of goodness, if anything, is greater. The raven comes from within the ark—as though evil, somehow, is encompassed in God’s providence. And the image of the raven is more than balanced by the drama, gentle and extensive, surrounding the dove (Genesis 8:8-12). (Brodie, Genesis As Dialogue : A Literary, Historical, and Theological Commentary, 180)In spite of all of the negativity towards the raven, there are many practical advantages to its selection. Its natural ability to thrive in adverse circumstances make its mission a low risk proposition. The raven, perhaps more so than the ark’s other residents, no longer needs the nest the ark provides. Its discharge frees up space and food.
R. Mark Gaffney (b. 1969) approves:
In selecting the raven first, Noah made a wise choice, for he knew the instinctual behavior of the raven. The raven’s wingspan is only four feet across, but ravens are designed with great strength and endurance, being able to fly long distances without rest. Fierce storms and winds do not frighten them; they are able to fly into opposing gales with great ease. Ravens are highly developed and are thought to be one of the most intelligent birds known to man. They not only survive, but thrive in areas where smaller and weaker birds perish. As Noah’s raven circled high above the ocean floor, her keen eyesight enabled her to see for miles. (Gaffney, Where The Birds Make Their Nests)Perhaps the raven represents the first fruits of new life on earth. The planet is habitable for the raven and will soon be for humanity. Its reversion to its nature is a sign that all creation can return to its true nature as well. In spite of the ark’s success, creation was not intended to be cooped up in a floating box. The raven’s leaving the nest could be interpreted as a sign of great hope.
Why doesn’t the raven return to the ark? Why would the raven return to the ark? Given the raven’s nature, is its behavior a self-fulfilling prophecy; does the raven meet Noah’s expectations? Is the raven’s return to its natural state a bad thing? Is the criticism directed at the raven justified? Is the raven expendable? Is any creature expendable? When have you reverted back to a default setting? Is the dove better appreciated in contrast to the raven? Is the dove’s “success” an example of Plan B trumping Plan A? Does the raven need be bad for the dove to be good? Who do you know of who is unjustly maligned? Is the raven’s flight pattern an omen of hope or doom?
“The raven spread out its glossy wings and departed like hope.” - Cecilia Dart-Thornton, The Battle of Evernight