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The Friendly Ravens: Sunday Morning Bible Bird Study V

September 11, 2016

This Week’s LessonThe Friendly Ravens

Ravens weren’t discussed extensively in the bible – no bird was, for that matter – but they do appear in unexpected locations for interesting reasons. We begin with the citation from Genesis, briefly mentioned in Lesson I.

After forty days Noah opened the trap-door that he had made in the ark, and released a raven (הָֽעֹרֵ֑בha-oreb “a raven” to see whether the water had subsided, but the bird continued flying to and fro until the water on the earth had dried up.
Genesis 8:6-7
New English Bible (NEB)

As previously mentioned, that’s all that Genesis says about this raven [עֹרֵ֖בoreb], not even whether it ever returned. It probably didn’t, preferring to follow its own agenda rather than Noah’s. Bible Factoid #1 noted that the precursor to this story – found in the much older Epic of Gilgamesh, written circa 2100 BCE – Utnapishtim (the “Noah” of the Gilgamesh) released a raven as the third bird, which found food and flew around and did not return.

Common Raven, Santa Rosa (James Kenney, 11-24-12)

Common Raven, Santa Rosa (James Kenney, 11-24-12)

The raven was almost certainly the Common Raven (Corvus corax), the species we find today across North America and Eurasia. Their current range includes all of Europe and Asia Minor, northern Syria and Iraq, and nearly all of the southern and eastern edges of the Mediterranean Sea. Back then, forests in the Near East were more extensive and dense, attractive to our raven. Corvid family members are among the most intelligent and resourceful of birds, and the raven may be the brightest of the bunch, a good choice for any task requiring smarts. So smart, in fact, that they may well decide to skip your task and go do what they want to do. The tale of Noah, perhaps inadvertently, reflects this characteristic.

Hooded Crow on sheep's head (Jamie MacArthur,

Hooded Crow on sheep’s head
(Jamie MacArthur,

There are other dark corvids living in the vicinity. Hooded Crow (Corvus corone), about 25% smaller than the raven, is resident from Asia Minor down the Mediterranean eastern shore and the Nile River valley. Jackdaw (Corvus monedula) shares this area, but is largely grey and half the size of the raven. Brown-necked Raven (Corvus ruficollis) is a bird of desert and dry steppes. Their range currently  stops south of the Mediterranean southern shore, but includes eastern Israel, Jordan, etc. Their range likely stopped even farther south in biblical times, as it was three millennia closer to the ice age.

Jackdaws, India (Wikia)

Jackdaws, India (Wikia)

Hebrew had only one word עֹרֵב – oreb for raven or crow; bible translators used both at different times, but Common Raven is likely our bird. Incidentally, Hebrew uses positional case-marking on nouns. Notice the progressive increase in Hebrew word length: “raven” עֹרֵבoreb, “a raven” הָֽעֹרֵ֑בha-oreb, “the ravens” הָעֹרְבִ֣ים ha-oreb-im, and “and the ravens” וְהָעֹרְבִ֗יםwe-ha-oreb-im.

Brown-necked Raven, Hamada du daa, Morocco (Momo, Feb. 2007)

Brown-necked Raven, Hamada du Draa, Morocco
(Momo, February 2007)

Benjamin the Ravin
Our next citation is actually a red herring.
…Benjamin shall raven (יִטְרָ֔ף – ytrp, “yitrap”) as a wolf: in the morning he shall devour the prey, and at night he shall divide the spoil… Gen. 49:27 1599 Geneva Bible

Many words in the Jewish Hebrew and Christian Greek bibles occur only once*; יִטְרָ֔ף (“ytrp” or “yitrap”) is one of them. Such words usually create arguments because determining their meaning is little more than guesswork. The first KJV edition had “ravin”, later changed to “raven,” creating additional confusion. This obsolete word meant “to take away (goods) by force; to seize or divide as spoil.” Oxford English Dictionary’s last citation in this sense dates from 1625, fourteen years after the KJV was published. Nowadays we say ravening or ravenous.                              * See list at bottom

“Benjamin is a ravening wolf: in the morning he devours the prey, in the evening he snatches a share of the spoil.”   Gen. 49:27 NEB

Inedible Ravens
Ravens next appear as members of two equivalent – but not identical – lists of twenty unclean birds.

“These are the birds you shall regard as vermin, and for this reason they shall not be eaten….every kind of crow [or raven] ( עֹרֵ֖בoreb )…”  Lev 11:13-14 NEB

“These are the birds you may not eat…every kind of crow [or raven] ( עֹרֵ֖ב – oreb)…”   Deut 14:12-14 NEB

This list will be covered in a later lesson. Nearly all twenty birds are birds we wouldn’t want to eat today, consumers of dead animals lying on the ground: cormorants, raptors, vultures, gulls. Most – if not all – corvids fall into that category, and the phrase “any kind of raven (or crow)” makes good sense. Four of the forbidden twenty are cited as “every kind of…;” the other sixteen birds are individually named.

The Friendly Ravens

Then the word of the Lord came to him [Elijah the Tishbite]: ‘Leave this place and turn eastwards; and go into hiding in the ravine of Kerith [Cherith] east of the Jordan [River]. You shall drink from the stream, and I have commanded the ravens (הָעֹרְבִ֣יםhaorebim “the ravens”) to feed you there.’ He did as the Lord had told him: he went and stayed in the ravine of Kerith east of the Jordan, and the ravens (וְהָעֹרְבִ֗יםwehaorebim “and the ravens”) brought him bread and meat morning and evening and he drank from the stream.
1 Kings 17:2-6 NEB

The Prophet Elijah fed by the ravens, Paulwels Frank, 1590 (

The Prophet Elijah fed by the ravens, Paulwels Frank, 1590 (

When Israel’s King Ahab didn’t fully appreciate Elijah’s prophesy, Elijah suddenly felt that the deity was telling him to make himself scarce, hide in the wilderness, and live off the land. The “ravens” would help him survive.

As always, commentaries and disagreements abound.
Matthew Henry:  God could have sent angels, yet chose lowly ravens because even they would do what he asked.
Barnes:   Most ancient versions translate as “ravens;” others translate as “Arabians” or “merchants” (ma-arab).  Jerome [Latin Vulgate translator] took it as “Orbites“as does the Arabic Version.
Jamieson-Fausset-Brown: Sending unclean birds to feed Elijah is so bizarre that many choose “Orebim,” meaning merchants, or Arabians (we-ha-ar-bim), or citizens of Arabah, near Beth-shan (ha-a-ra-bah ). But “ravens” is preferable.
Cambridge Bible: The Septuagint says “ravens.” Jerome’s biography of Paul the Hermit says a raven supplied the hermit’s wants. Observers say large birds like ravens commonly carry home large quantities of food.
Pulpit Commentary: Some say הָעֹרְבִ֣ים (ha-o-ra-bim “the ravens”) must be ravens; men – smarter and lazier – would leave enough food for several days. But if Elijah were among kinsmen, friends, or Arab Bedouin following the law of hospitality, they might visit regularly such an honored guest. Visits might be made at twilight to avoid the day’s heat or discovery by authorities. The “orabim” are not ravens but men: kinsmen, friends, Bedouins or inhabitants of Orbo near Beth-shan.
Pulpit Commentary 1 Kings 17:4, comment 4. Both a rock named Oreb and a town named Orbo were in the area. Ha-o-ra-bim “Orbites” refers to inhabitants near the rock or of the town.
Clarke’s CommentaryBereshith Rabba, an ancient Rabbinical comment on Genesis, says [Hebrew omitted] “Air hia betachom Beithshan, veshemo Orbo.” “There is a town in the vicinity of Bethshan (Scythopolis), and its name is Orbo.”

Map of Israel, circled Beth, Tith & Cherith (ss)

Old Testament Israel: circled Beth-Shan, Tishbe, & Brook Cherith

When even professional biblical scholars, believing these passages are Holy Scripture, can’t agree whether “ravens” are really ravens, we neophytes might do best by using probability. What’s the likelihood of being fed morning and evening for a year by wild ravens, versus being fed by friendly humans, perhaps one’s own relatives? Consider what the map shows: Tishbe – the home of Elijah “the Tishbite” – lies just south of Brook Cherith in Giliad, and about twenty-three miles “as the raven flies” across the Jordan River from Beth-Shan (Orbo is in Beth-Shan’s “vicinity.”) It’s pretty clear that Elijah was hiding out in his old stomping grounds, among friends and family, no birds needed. But we report – you decide.

Other Biblical Uses for Ravens
The raven is one in a litany of reasons why Job should stop complaining about the way God treats him.
Who provideth for the raven his prey, when his young ones cry unto God, and wander for lack of food?    Job 38:41 Holy Scriptures according to the Masoretic Text (HSMT)

A similar metaphor is included in a litany of God’s good acts.
He giveth to the beast his food, and to the young ravens which cry.
Psalms 147:9 HSMT

Ravens will punish a wicked child.
The eye that mocketh at his father, and despiseth to obey his mother, the ravens of the valley shall pick it out, and the young vultures shall eat it.    Proverbs 30:17 (HSMT)

The black color of the raven is used as a simile:
His head is as the most fine gold, his locks are curled, and black as a raven.   Song of Solomon 5:11 (HSMT)

Our final raven is a parallel to last week’s citation from Matt 6:25-27, about anxiety, but this writer specifies ravens rather than the generic “birds of the air.”
Think of the ravens; they neither sow nor reap; they have no storehouse or barn; yet God feeds them. You are worth more than the birds! Is there a man among you who by anxious thought can add a foot to his height? If, then, you cannot do even a very little thing, why are you anxious about the rest?  Luke 12:24-26 NEB

The bible mentions ravens eleven times. Beyond the facts that they are black, have young which cry and are fed, experience no anxiety, enjoy pecking at eyeballs, may be mistaken for one’s friends, and are unreliable errand-runners, the bible has little to say about this very intelligent, successful and admirable bird.

Bible Factoid #5 – The Bar-Abbas Mystery
Even among true believers, this is among the most debated of New Testament stories. Previously we learned: “Bar” means “son of” in Aramaic; the gospels cite Jesus – when speaking of God the Father –  as saying “abba,” an Aramaic intimate word for “father;” “papa” or “daddy” is an English equivalent. “Bar-Abbas” means “son of Papa;” the “-s” ending is the Greek masculine addition. Mama, papa, baba, dada, abba – in any language, these nouns derive from baby talk, the first sounds a human infant can utter.

At the festival season it was the Governor’s custom to release one prisoner chosen by the people. There was then in custody a man of some notoriety, called Jesus Bar-Abbas (Βαραββᾶν – Barabban**). When they were assembled Pilate said to them, ‘Which would you like me to release to you – Jesus Bar-Abbas, or Jesus called Messiah?’….they said, ‘Bar-Abbas’. ‘Then what am I to do with Jesus called Messiah? Asked Pilate; and with one voice they answered ‘Crucify him!’….He then released Bar-Abbas to them; but he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified. Matt 27:15-26 NEB
**Greek uses the -s ending when the noun is subject (nominative case), -n when noun is object (accusative case).

Barabbas mini-series poster (

Barabbas mini-series poster ( , 2016)

There are several problems with this story. First, no written record exists anywhere – not Jewish, not Roman, not Christian – beyond this paragraph in each of the four gospels (the other three gospels borrowed from Mark) of the existence of any custom of releasing one prisoner upon request during Passover season or at any other time. Scholars not wedded to a belief in biblical literal truth and who appreciate supporting evidence doubt this story’s veracity.

Second, Jesus frequently referred to himself and others as sons or children of God the “Father” – fifty times in the four gospels. By the time he was hauled before Caiaphas the High Priest, Herod the King and Pilate the Roman Governor, this usage of “Abba” and “Father” was well known and they asked Jesus about it. Our story is saying that we now have two men called Yeshua (Jesus) Bar-Abba (Barabbas, “son-of-[intimate form of] father”). Two men called Yeshua bar-Abba – one a criminal, one a preacher.

Scholars and mystery-lovers ask: When the crowd called for Bar-Abba to be released – whom did they want, whom did they get? When they called for Yeshua to be crucified – whom did they want, whom did they get? Some scholars, including Hyam Maccoby, maintain that Jesus was commonly known as “bar-Abba” for his custom of addressing God as ‘Abba’ in prayer, and for referring to God as ‘Abba’ in his preaching. When the crowd told Pontius Pilate to “free Bar-Abba!” they meant preacher Jesus. There was no criminal Jesus present.

If we assume the story of setting one bar-Abba free is false, as many scholars maintain, why does the story exist at all? What purpose does it serve? To place blame on the Jews, many say; to make Christianity acceptable to Roman authorities. By the time the Gospels were written, Roman anti-Judaism had begun (c. 40 CE), the Jewish rebellion collapsed (66-73 CE, Jerusalem and the Second Temple were destroyed (70 AD), Masada had fallen (74 CE), the Diaspora quickened, Jews had lost favored status to practice monotheism rather than worship Roman Gods and the Emperor, and pretending to be a Jewish sect no longer protected Christians from oppression. What better way to disconnect from Judaism and curry favor with Roman authorities than to place blame for Jesus’ death onto the Jews. Thus many scholars view the gospels as partially polemic and apology, saying in effect to the Romans, “We don’t blame you, we blame the Jews. We’re no threat to you. We’re good Roman subjects. We ‘render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s…’”

The disciple that Jesus loved best (John or Mary Magdalene?) sits at Jesus' right hand, detail of Da Vinci's Last Supper (Daily Mail)

The “disciple whom Jesus loved”- John 19:26 (James, John or Mary Magdalene?) sits at Jesus’ right hand, detail of Da Vinci’s Last Supper (Daily Mail)

Proffered explanations of the Bar-Abba story are legion. Here’s a sampling.
1. Two men:  Yeshua crucified, Bar-Abba set free, as the Gospels say.
2. Two men: Bar-Abba crucified, Yeshua set free.
2a. Yeshua survived, met his followers afterwards, inspired them to carry on, the story ends.
2b. Yeshua went to France with or without one of the Mariams (Mary), settled down, had kids.***
3. One man Yeshua “bar-Abba:” religious preacher and insurrectionist, executed.
4. One man Yeshua “bar-Abba:” rebel insurrectionist, executed.
5. One man Yeshua “bar-Abba:” entire“bar-Abba” story invented to shift blame from Romans to Jewish leaders for bribing the crowd to call for the other “bar-Abba.” Pilate could release anyone, anytime without approval or permission, and had done so previously.
6. One man Yeshua “bar-Abba:” Mark invented parable of Yeshua as the innocent “scapegoat” and “bar-Abba” symbolizes all sinners redeemed, set free by Yeshua’s willing sacrifice.
7. One man Yeshua “bar-Abba:” Greek-speaking “Mark,” utilizing story of crowd calling “bar-Abba” when asking for Yeshua’s release, invented Barbbas to explain misunderstood apparent presence of a second man.
8. One man Yeshua “bar-Abba:” Pilate (typically described as hard and iron-fisted) taunts the crowd. When they called for “son of papa” to be released, Pilate crucified him anyway.
9. The gospels are fiction: based on the life of otherwise unknown itinerant preacher.
10. The gospels are fiction: based on the life of otherwise unknown failed revolutionary.
11. The gospels are fiction: inspired by and stolen from the pre-Zorastrian religion of Mithras.
12. The gospels are fiction: “Jesus” is a corruption of name of Greek God “Zeus.”
13. And on and on and on.

***2b. This is the route followed by Holy Blood, Holy Grail (Baigent, M., Leigh, R. & Lincoln, H.), the 1982 “non-fiction” book upon which Dan Brown relied for the “factual” superstructure of his bestseller The Da Vinci Code.

Lacking adequate information, opinions proliferate and grow ever more fanciful.

Part I – What About That Dove? & The Flood of the Gilgamesh
Part II – Sandgrouse or Quail? & YHVH [יְהוָ֖ה] [Yahweh]
Part III – Junglefowl in Judea! & New Testament Koine Greek
Part IV – Birds that Sow, Reap and Store & Whence Jesus (Ἰησοῦς)
Part VI – The Humble Hoopoe & Catching “Forty” Winks
Part VII – The Wise Hoopoe & On “On”
Part VIII –Don’t Eat That Bird! Part 1 & Of “Of”
Part IX – Don’t Eat that Bird! Part 2 & Seeing “Red”
Part X – Don’t Eat that Bird! The Last Bite & The Problems of Translation
[Chuck Almdale]

*A Sampling of Rare Biblical Words
Raven or ravin (יִטְרָ֔ף – ytrp, “yitrap”) 1 occurrence
Crow or raven ( עֹרֵ֖ב – oreb ) 3 occurrences
A raven (הָֽעֹרֵ֑ב – ha-oreb) 1 occurrence
The ravens (הָעֹרְבִ֣ים – haorebim) 1 occurrence
And the ravens (וְהָעֹרְבִ֗ים – wehaorebim) 1 occurrence
Merchandise (מַעֲרָב– ma-arab) 9 occurrences
Citizens of Arabah (or Oreb) (הָעֲרָבָ֑ה – ha-a-ra-bah) 3 occurrences
[Chuck Almdale]

Additional Sources:
Handbook of Birds of the World (HBW), Vol. 14. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Christie, D.A. eds. (2009) Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. Corvids – Pgs 617, 630-631, 637-639.
Holy Scriptures: According to the Masoretic Text. (1955) The Jewish Publication Society of America. Philadelphia, Pa.
New English Bible with the Apocrypha, The, Oxford Study Edition. Sandmel, Samuel, Suggs, M. Jack, Tkacik, Arnold J.; eds. (1972) Oxford University Press, New York

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