The Raven and the Dove
5 And the water diminished continually until the tenth month. In the tenth [month], on the first day of the month, the tops of the mountains were seen.
6 And so it was after forty days that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made.
7 And he sent out the raven, and he went away, going away and returning, until the waters dried up from off the earth.
8 Then he sent out the dove from him to see whether the water had become low from above the surface of the ground.
9 But the dove did not find a resting-place for a sole of her foot, and she turned to him to the ark, because the waters [were] upon the surface of all the earth. So he stretched out his hand and took her, and he brought her to himself into the ark.
10 And he waited still another seven days, and again he sent out the dove from the ark.
11 And the dove came to him at the time of evening, and behold, [there was] a fresh leaf of the olive [tree] in her mouth. So Noah knew that the waters had become low from above the ground.
12 Then he waited still another seven days, and he let free the dove, and she did not return to him anymore.
— Genesis 8:5-12 (my translation)
Noah, his family, and the animals survived on the ark through a seven day waiting period, followed by the forty days of intense global destruction. Then there were 150 days of God slowly lowering the water table.[E1] The ark comes to rest on a mountain in "the mountains of Ararat". Noah waits several more months until the top parts of the mountain range became visible.[H4] And then "after forty days" Noah opened the window of the ark.[E2]
This must have been the window that God told Noah to make, in Genesis 6:16, which was at the top of the boat and went around it. I cannot imagine this was the first time the window was opened, but that it was often opened for light, ventilation, and to observe the progress of the situation.
A Practical Experiment, Done in Faith
As I emphasized in a previous post, God's promises to Noah implied not simply that God would prevent them from being drowned in the ruin of the flood, but that somehow God would heal and restore the ruined earth. Noah, having endured the total ruin of the world, does not despair or become overwhelmed. Rather, in faith he watches for the promised restoration, and he engages in a practical experiment to see how close the earth is to becoming habitable again.
He has seen the water table lower beneath the mountain tops, but an important question is how dry is the inhabitable land. It would be undesirable to leave the ark, only to find lakes and bogs and marshes; rather, the ground needed to be dry enough to support wholesome vegetation and farming.[H5]
Noah sends out two birds, to probe the question from two slightly different angles. The raven was a scavenger bird: if the land had become sufficiently dry, the raven would be satisfied to find the bodies of the dead to feast on, and would not return.
The dove, on the other hand, was a more wholesome creature, interested in vegetation. If it found vegetation suitable for lodging and for food, then it would either not return, or it would perhaps bring back some sign of what it had found.
Noah sends out the raven, but repeatedly observes it flying back toward the ark. Some translations give the impression that the raven wandered about and was never seen again by Noah, but the Hebrew is literally "going away and returning".[H6]
The raven is a dark-colored bird. Also it was classified among the unclean animals, being a scavenger that is not unwilling to feast on things that are dirty and long-dead. As such, the raven makes a helpful picture of the unbelieving, fallen man, whose entire being has been darkened by the stain of sin. He can never rest until he has found evil, delighting in things that are perverse and wicked.
The raven also can be a symbol of the Law, referring to the Biblical themes of Law and Grace. Due to the our spiritual weakness and depravity, fallen men will never be able to measure up to the righteous demands of the Law by their own good works. As such, the Law by itself can offer no life or hope to fallen humanity. As the scavenging raven was a grim reminder of the effects of the flood, so the Law is a messenger of death, and a reminder of God's judgment against sin.
The dove, in contrast, is a wholesome creature, classified among the clean animals. As such, it pictures the believer in Christ, having been cleansed inwardly, having a spirit-given longing for things that are good and pleasing to God. The dove is a weak and gentle creature. Likewise, true Christians confess their own inherent weakness, and find strength and confidence only in their relationship with the Christ.
The dove is sent out, but at first it finds no place to rest, and so returns to the ark. The dove eagerly comes back into the ark, pulled in by the hand of Noah. So it is with true believers in Christ. Though we have a mission to do in this fallen, wicked world, it will never afford us true rest, and so we are ever eager to find rest and refuge in Christ. This rest is experienced in the things that draw us close to the Christ: our times of prayer, and of meditation in God's Word; our gathering together with other believers, and singing praises to God.
Noah waits another seven days, and again sends out the dove. This time the dove finds vegetation. The dove seems to have some understanding of the mission, and returns back to Noah with a torn-off leaf from an olive tree. This would have been a great encouragement to Noah.
The dove here illustrates Grace, which offers hope and life to those willing to receive the message. The gospel of Grace, or "good news" offers restoration and eternal life to all, though what we receive in this life will seem like a mere token of the promise, compared to the never-ending blessedness and joy of the life to come.
Noah waits still another seven days, and the dove is released again, never to return. So it with believers in the Christ, who are weary and worn down by the tasks we have been given to do on earth. One day we will be released by death, and will fly away, as it were, to eternal joy and bliss and rest in the presence of our Savior.
There is a lot of waiting in Noah's story. The Hebrew word translated "wait" is יחל (Piel form וַיָּחֶל, wa-YĀ-ḥel), which means, well, "to wait". In some Bible passages, however, the word is translated "to hope", with the idea of waiting in expectation for something.[H7] I am not sure if that would be the best translation in this passage, but certainly Noah was waiting patiently in the hope-filled expection of God fulfilling his promises.
It is clear from the later verses in this chapter than Noah was not planning to leave the ark until God told him to leave it. Nevertheless, for his own encouragement at least, he watched in hopefully expectation for signs that the fulfillment of the promise was getting close. Likewise we Christians, as those that are trusting in God's Word, should keep alive in our hearts an eager ancipation and longing for the fulfillment of God's glorious promises to us.
[H1] still another seven days (ע֔וֹד שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִ֖ים): or, "again another seven days". ESV simplifies this phrase to "another seven days".
[H2] diminished continually (הָיוּ֙ הָל֣וֹךְ וְחָס֔וֹר): lit., "was going (kal inf abs, הלך) and diminishing (kal inf abs, חסר)".
[H3] ark (הַתֵּבָה, hat-TĒ-voh): the Hebrew word means "chest or casket" (see HALOT). The english word "ark" is from the latin Vulgate, meaning "chest, box, or cupboard".
[H4] tops of the mountains (רָאשֵׁ֥י הֶֽהָרִֽים): lit. "heads of the mountains".
[H5] The described purpose of sending out the dove is "to see whether the water had become low from above the surface of the ground" (verse 8). "Ground" here is the Hebrew word אֲדָמָֽה (˒a-dā-MOH), meaning the arable ground, the material that can be used for farming (see HALOT)
[H6] וַיֵּצֵ֤א יָצוֹא֙ וָשׁ֔וֹב: ESV interlinear gives "and-he-went-out to-go-out and-to-return". Mansoor gives "and he went out to and fro" and states "this is a special construction used to express duration (see Vv. 3,5)". Many translations give something like "here and there" to imply aimless wandering, but that is not clear to me from the original. There is an idea represented in some translations, mainly Catholic translations and translations from the LXX or Aramaic, that the raven did not return to the ark, but that seems to contradict a literal reading of the Hebrew text.
[H7] וַיָּ֣חֶל: HALOT has יחל as its own root entry, with all senses "wait" and "hope". The older BD lexicon, however, sees it as a form of הול, with various senses sharing the basic idea of to twist, turn, writhe, or tremble, with only sense Qal VII being "to wait, stay, delay". Interlinear ESV seems to follow BD with "and he caused to tremble", but using "he waited" in the translation. HALOT lists 8:10 as absolute usage sense 1.a., and with it Gn 8:12, Ps 71:14, Job 13:15, 14:14. Interestingly, ESV interlinear and ESV translates those Ps and Job passages as "hope" or "wait".
[E1] Possibly understood as the 40 days of the flood destruction plus 110 days.
[E2] I suppose this was forty days after the tops of the mountain range becomes visible.