What Was That? Fake Birds in the Media
What was that bird you saw on January 20: a dove or a mockingjay? When Lady Gaga stepped forward to sing the national anthem at the presidential inauguration, the gigantic golden bird brooch she wore reminded some of the mockingjay pin worn by Katniss Everdeen. This fictional “Hunger Games” series heroine also wore a spectacularly voluminous dress, so maybe it wasn’t all about the bird. Anyway, the official Hunger Games account quickly tweeted, “we’re missing one of our mockingjay pins, has anybody seen it?” To clarify the symbol and its meaning, Lady Gaga tweeted that it was “a dove carrying an olive branch” and wished that we would “all make peace with each other.” So far, so good. As a symbol of defiance against an immoral and oppressive political regime, the mockingjay would have been a bizarre choice for such an honored guest of President Biden to wear at his inauguration.
But what about that dove with the olive branch in its mouth? Laura Zornosa of the Los Angeles Times commented that Lady Gaga’s “interpretation stems from much farther back, in biblical times, when Christian beliefs stated that God sent Noah a dove with an olive branch as a message of peace and forgiveness.” And so with this confusing attempt to clear things up, the fog of biblical illiteracy descends once again. And why care about that? Because the Bible tells us the story of God, who He is and what He has done to bring us back to Himself. This is God working for the good of the world He loves. We learn about this by reading and by sharing the truth of what we read. Every part matters.
Right away, let’s point out that the account of Noah is “much farther back” than Christianity. It is deep in the book of Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament. Noah and his family and a whole bunch of animals took refuge from an unprecedented flood in a giant boat known as the ark. When the rains stopped, Noah was looking forward to getting back to his land-loving life and sent out a dove. At first, the bird came back to the ark because it had no place to land. A week later, Noah sent out the dove again and it returned with a freshly plucked olive leaf in its mouth! A week later, Noah did the same thing and the dove didn’t return at all. Good news! Noah must have thought, “The waters are receding, and we’ll soon be out of here!” Nothing about peace. Nothing about forgiveness. Not even anything obviously symbolic about that olive leaf or the dove. Just a sign of better times ahead.
Actually, the olive branch has a long historical association with victory and peace dating back to pre-Christian Greek mythology as well as the Roman Empire. The goddess Athena planted an olive tree on the Acropolis of Attica and was thus crowned the protector of the city that became Athens in her honor. The Roman poet Virgil who lived a couple of generations before Jesus used the olive branch in the poem “Aeneid” to represent peace after war. To be sure, throughout the Bible peace and forgiveness are virtues, no matter what is used to symbolize them—just not the olive branch.
So back to the Bible, what did that dove have in its mouth anyway? Was it a leaf or a branch? In Hebrew it was an aleh-zayit, something most English translations call an “olive leaf,” the word zayit meaning “olive.” The word aleh appears in about a dozen verses of the Bible, first of the fig leaves that Adam and Eve sewed together in the Garden of Eden to cover their nakedness. At the risk of pointing out the obvious, let’s just say clothes made of branches would have created more problems than the one they tried to solve (ouch!). In the Bible, the aleh can fade, wither, and be blown by the wind. For an agricultural society, dry leaves often signaled a drought and a horribly bad harvest. On the other hand, the righteous one is compared to a tree planted by water that bears lots of fruit and has fresh, green leaves (see Jeremiah 17:8 and Psalm 1:3). Unlike those who trust in their wealth and fall, the righteous (who trust in God) “will thrive like a green leaf” (Proverbs 11:28 NIV). There is one place in the Bible where the aleh may be more than just a leaf, though. In Nehemiah 8:15 we read that the aleh of olive trees, myrtles, palms, and various shade trees is suitable for building sukkot, the temporary shelters known from the Feast of Tabernacles. By themselves, branches don’t provide much shade, so perhaps this is a reference to the roof part of the shelter rather than the frame.
In any case, biblical words are usually not as precise as our modern, scientific terms such as the botanical “blade” and “petiole.” But the aleh is certainly not a stiff, woody branch that connects directly to the trunk of a tree or a bough that branches off of a branch. The aleh could mean the leaf by itself as well as a bunch of leaves connected to a flexible twig or sprig. In the case of the olive tree, leaves appear in abundance in pairs on either side of the twig. So back to that dove, it could have brought to Noah a single leaf or an olive twig with a dozen or so leaves on it. But we wouldn’t normally call that a “branch.” And for Noah, it was a sign of hope that the flood was about to be over. Noah hadn’t experienced war, so he didn’t need to hope for victory, peace, or even forgiveness for that matter.
There is, however, a powerful Christian symbol of victory, peace, and forgiveness: the cross on which Jesus surrendered his life. Today, the cross is the most common symbol of Christianity and has lost nearly all of its horror as a cruel instrument of Roman capital punishment. The transformation of the cross shape from death to life is just a shadow compared the reality of life in Jesus Christ who died for the evils, sins, and injustices of humanity. He rose in victory to new and unending life, which He gives by grace to those who trust Him and order their lives according to His teachings. Nobody ever showed greater love than Jesus who laid down His life for His enemies. The peace that Jesus brings is greater than anything we can achieve politically, though Jesus does call us to be peacemakers in this world. Lady Gaga tweeted that she prays for peace, love, and nonviolence in America. Me too. Jesus had a lot more to say about true peace, love, and forgiveness than a tweet can hold. May we His followers have eyes to see, ears to hear, and hands that take up His work, for there is much to do. Indeed, there always has been.