Debbie Blue, author and founding pastor of the House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minn., likes to help readers see the Bible in new ways. Her last book, From Stone to Living Word (Brazos Press), examined how the Bible can be turned into an idol. In her new book, Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible (Abingdon Press, Aug.), Blue explores the nature of scripture’s feathered creatures and their symbolism, illuminating how the Bible's birds can provide fresh spiritual lessons.
Much has been made of biblical imagery of sheep, but birds seem an unusual choice. What was it that intrigued you about them and shaped your thoughts about their spiritual meanings?
I’ve been interested in birds for quite awhile, but I didn’t really start birding until I was in my late twenties. As I started looking up [references to them] in the lectionary, I found myself fascinated by the symbolism, and then birds became fascinating to me as minor characters in the text. We’ve all seen the imagery of a lamb a million times, but some people barely even know birds are in the text. Studying them brings out different layers of meaning. That’s my hope for readers--that they’ll start thinking about other things they’ve never seen before [in scripture].
Why do you think birds are used so much in the Bible?
For one thing they are just so prevalent. We see much in the text about vineyards, probably because there were vineyards all over Israel; they were common parts of the people’s lives. We also see lots of shepherds. And birds play major roles in the mythology of every culture. People have long told stories of the origins of human kind, and in them, birds are incredibly symbolic creatures. Birds are in the Bible for the same reason; they are so invested with meaning.
Which of your observations about birds made the most impact on you personally?
I had really never considered the vulture as anything other than horrific and ugly. Culturally, they represent doom and gloom, and that’s how I felt about them too. When I studied them I found they really are beautiful creatures--they take in what’s dead and toxic to everything else, and it gets purified and made nontoxic. The word “nesher” in the Old Testament is often translated as “eagle,” but it’s just as likely to mean “vulture.” Think about the words of Isaiah and imagine them in that light: “The weary will rise up with wings like vultures” and “God bears us up on his wings like vultures.” Vultures rise with the currents. They might even be my favorite bird now.
I also loved learning about pigeons. I can’t believe I didn’t know this, but the dove is the same as the pigeon. We think of the Holy Spirit as a dove, but imagine a pigeon at Pentecost. Pigeons are routinely ignored and yet always among us. If we were attentive to that, we’d see so much more about how the Holy Spirit is with us.