Doves, Lambs, Serpents, Hens: Divine Animality in the Gospels

While Revelation offers extraordinary examples of divinanimality (and demonanimality for that matter), in the gospels the primary exemplar is the (Holy) Spirit descending as a dove at Jesus’ baptism.  This occurs in all three synoptic gospels – and some extra-canonical gospels as well.  I quote Mark 1:10: “And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him (ὡς περιστερὰν καταβαῖνον εἰς αὐτόν).” Interestingly, this Spirit then immediately drives Jesus out into the wilderness (εἰς τὴν ἔρεμον; a place of the wild, non-civilized area): “he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts (καὶ ἦν μετὰ τῶν θηρίων); and the angels waited on him” (Mark 1:13).  Matthew and Luke are quick to add that this was the “Spirit of God” (Matthew) or “Holy Spirit” (Luke).  They greatly expand the account of temptation but drop Mark’s references to the wild beasts and the angels attending to Jesus. 

            I will return to this wilderness scene of undomesticated, wild, and feral animals, angels, and demons in a later post.  For now, I will focus on the Spirit / Dove.  The image is quite familiar to Christians today that we often forget that, in this case, the divine spirit takes the form of an animal.  It is perhaps an appropriate animal, since it flies and flying things can – though are not always – associated with heavenly things.  Most Christians portray this dove as white, but doves are not always or even primarily white.  It is difficult to know what the gospel authors envisioned at this point or if it matters.  It is not clear either what it means “descending like a dove” (ὡς περιστερὰν καταβαῖνον).  Is it the way that descends that is reminiscent of a dove or did the Spirit appear in dove-form?  That is, how literal is the analogy of spirit and dove?  Matthew adds that the Spirit-Dove alighted on Jesus (καταβαῖνον ὡσεὶ περστερὰν καὶ ἐρχόμενον ἐπ᾽ αὐτόν; Matt 3:16).  Luke removes all doubt in Mark’s ambiguity (and perhaps Matthew’s as well if following the Farrer hypothesis), saying “and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove” (καταβῆναι τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιον σωματικῷ εἴδει ὡς περιστερὰν ἐπ᾽ αὐτόν; Luke 3:22).  Whether the spirit merely kind of looked like a dove or moved like a dove in Mark, here in Luke it is embodied as a dove: “in bodily form.”

            Two of the three birds Noah sent out from the ark were doves – the other was a raven (Gen. 8:6-12; cf. Gilgamesh Epic, where hero sends out a dove, swallow, and a raven, the last of which did not return).  Other than the doves that Noah used (Gen. 8:10-12), it is unclear what existing significance that dove would have had at this point.  Unlike a raven, the dove is a clean animal, and can be used in sacrifice.

The rest of the “divinanimality” in the gospels refers to Jesus himself.  Whether or not the gospel has a “low” Christology or a “high” Christology, they see Jesus as some way entangled with the divine.  Most of these instances occur in the Gospel of John, but Matthew has one somewhat oblique reference.  All of these are more metaphorical than the dove reference.  While in most animalistic metaphors, Jesus is a shepherd and his disciples the sheep, sometimes Jesus takes animal form.

 In Matthew, it appears in the long screed against the Pharisees, which includes several other animalistic references.  Here Jesus laments: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing” (Matt. 23:37).  Here the metaphor does not only jump species (Jesus as poultry) but also gender (Jesus as mother hen).  The Jesus-hen seeks to gather these children-chicks, perhaps shifting from the “lost sheep,” but the chicks will not listen, so they are lost. 

            Of the canonical gospels, the Gospel of John presents Jesus as animal the most.  Much of this has already been analyzed by Stephen Moore, who does not stop at animality, but looks into Jesus as inanimate object and vegetation.  Our focus, however, remains animality.  The first instance is what Moore calls, in a different context, the “quadrupedal Christ” (Untold Tales from the Book of Revelation, 201-223).  In fact, the Gospel of John entwines Jesus with animality right from the start when John the Baptist proclaims: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).  And again, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” (1:36).  This ultimately is a reference to the Passover lamb as 19:36 makes explicit: “None of his bones shall be broken.”  This takes the rules of the Passover lamb in Exod. 12:46 and makes them a prophecy about Jesus’ own death (though cf. Ps. 34:20).  Jesus’ death is entwined with the Passover lamb’s death.  Jesus is the substitute for the lamb, or the lamb was a substitute that foreshadowed Jesus’ sacrifice.  While John the Baptist, at first blush, appeared to be speaking metaphorically, here Jesus’ death moves beyond metaphor; it is equivalent to and surpasses the Passover lamb’s sacrifice.  Jesus is the ultimate lamb.  The lamb and Jesus mutually signify one another.  This also accounts for the shifts in the death account from the synoptics to having Jesus die on the Day of Preparation, along with all the lambs (19:14).

            This combines with Jesus as the “bread of life” (6:35, 48) like the manna of the wilderness to something that is consumed.  In a complex passage that begins with the miracle of bread and fish, and then proceeds to bread from heaven to the proclamation that Jesus himself is the bread of life, Jesus brings the reader to the edge of cannibalism:

I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh….  Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.  Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.  Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.

John 6:51, 53-57

Jesus basically says: “Eat me! Drink me!”  Jesus is bread, but he is more: he is the Passover lamb and one is called to drink his blood – something that one is not even supposed to do with the Passover lamb, since, to be kosher, meat must be drained of blood, for “the blood is mine” (cite).  The consumption of the blood of an animal is a divine prerogative, because the blood is its life and life belongs to God (Gen. 9:4-6; Deut. 12:23).  But consuming Jesus’ blood – and flesh – one gains his life, the divine life, recycled back to the human meat-bags.  The divine animal (Jesus) transfers the divine prerogative to anyone who consumes Jesus’ blood.  If this passage does not make you feel uncomfortable – that you are eating the meat of Jesus and drinking his blood – then you are not reading it correctly.  Indeed, as the commentator to the New Oxford Annotated Bible for the NRSV – Jerome Neyrey – notes, “Ordinarily, taking Jesus literally is folly, but here Jesus intends to be both literal and outrageous.” This may be the height of divine animality: eating the God as an animal. 

Elsewhere Jesus resorts mostly to metaphorical references.  Interestingly, he associates himself with the serpent: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (3:14-15; cf. Num. 21:9).  Again, we tend to expect serpents to be associated with evil or bad qualities; but here and elsewhere Jesus refers to serpents to refer to the quality of wisdom or prudence, and here a foreshadowing of his own crucifixion, but also to healing and life.  In Numbers story, the people spoke against God, and so the LORD sent poisonous (or fiery) serpents (seraphim) that bit the people and many died.  They ask Moses to intercede, and the LORD has Moses make a poisonous (or fiery) serpent out of bronze, set it on a pole, and whenever anyone who has been bitten looks at it, that person will live.  Jesus, here, associates himself with the bronze serpent.  The serpent renews life – even as it can take it away.  This is an interesting case, since here Jesus identifies with a simulacrum of a serpent rather than the serpent itself.  There is a subtle shift, however, since in Numbers one looks upon the serpent and lives; here one believes in the serpent and lives.


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