Why is There a Dove at the Baptism of Jesus?

August 10th, 2013

What is the dove doing at the baptism of Jesus?

Well, probably most of us would say, Noah, dove, covenant— obvious! The dove is a symbol or sign of the covenant.

Ok, but… covenant with… who?— Noah? Israel?

Actually, the dove isn’t a sign of any covenant in the Bible. In the Noah story, God cuts a covenant with Noah, but only after he actually exits the box (‘ark’, in Latin), and a dove isn’t mentioned there. So I still wonder what the dove is.

There are 52 references to a dove (יונה) in the OT. I’m increasingly convinced that the number of occurrences of words in the Bible is significant, because the numbers are meaningful in other contexts, more often than they’d be if they were just random, but i know of no key. So i’ll just note that 52 is the number of weeks in a year, and file that away as a potential clue… to something.

But in these 52 references, the dove is mentioned—

  • in the noah story (4 times: Gen 8.8–12);
  • in sacrificial material (10 times: Lev 1.14; 5.7, 11; 12.6, 8; 14.22, 30; 15.14, 29; Num 6.10);
  • in a reference to famine in 2 Kgs 6.25;
  • in material about Israel going into or already in exile in Isaiah (2 times: 38.14— note the reference to resurrection in 38;17; and 59.11); Ezekiel (7.16); and Nahum (2.7);
  • in material about Israel returning from exile (Isa 60.8; Ho 11.11);
  • in a reference to Moab in flight/exile (Jer 48.28);
  • in material about flighty Israel in Hosea (7.11);
  • in the book of the prophet Jonah (whose name means ‘dove’) (19 times: 2 Kgs 14.25; Jon 1.1, 3, 5, 7, 15, 17–2.1; 2.10–3.1; 3.3–4; 4.1, 5–6, 8–9— all of them just naming the prophet/protagonist of the book);
  • in poetic references in Psalms (55.6 (image of escape); 56.0 (uncertain title); 68.13 (uncertain image of plunder)); and
  • in references to the bride in Song of Songs (6 times: 1.15; 2.14; 4.1; 5.2, 12; 6.9).

So, in order of usage: Jonah, sacrifice, Israel, exile, bride, Noah.

The Noah material is actually the least prominent, at least by frequency. We think of it first, mostly (I’m sure) because chapters 6-9 of Genesis are about as far as we ever get with the OT and, after all, the Noah story does come at an important place in the Bible. But Noah is not necessarily the main thing a Hebrew speaker who really knew the Bible might think of, when s/he thought of a dove.

Well, leaving aside the prophet ‘Dove’ (Jonah) for the moment— even though his name accounts for about two fifths (19/52) of all the references to a dove in the Bible— the next most frequent uses of a dove in the Bible have to do with sacrifices, particularly sacrifices of purification.

The semiotics of sacrifice are not well understood, but purification is always the repairing of some breach, which is why it’s required after healing from childbirth, a running issue of blood, or etc. It always takes place on the ‘eighth day’— which is a symbol of new creation (the eighth day is the new first day, after the Sabbath); as such it later emerges as a symbol of the resurrection, since Christ was crucified on the sixth day, spent the Sabbath in the tomb, and arose on the eighth day, the first day of the new creation, the day without evening). For purification, always two doves are required. And the sacrifice is associated in Leviticus and Numbers not only with purification, but also at the same time with atonement (reconciliation), Israel (it is an offering brought by anyone, not priests or kings), and with the poor (who can’t afford bigger sacrifices).

For some reason the dove has become a symbol of peace in our society— possibly because Noah’s dove was a “sign of reconciliation”. I’m not sure that’s quite the point in the Bible, but the dove did bring the olive twig, a sign of new life, to Noah. Even so, though— given that the Noah story is above all a good story— one still wonders why Noah chose a “dove”. But, given the popular symbolism, and because we don’t really know the Bible very well, I think we usually just assume the dove at Jesus’ baptism is “a sign of peace or something”, and don’t look any farther. But one really expects a lot more from a important symbol at a key moment. If you have some insight into this, do let me know!

But as far as i can see from the data i’ve presented, I think on the whole the dove is a symbol of Israel, and we should read the dove in the story of Jesus’ baptism as the vocation to be Israel comes upon him. This, it turns out, is quite consistent with the theology of all four gospels in general, where Jesus is the ‘true Israel’.

Arguably the dove in Noah’s story stands for “Israel” as well, since Israel was to be, precisely, a sign of hope and reconciliation and new life for God’s creation.

All of this leads us to reflect on the entire book of the prophet ‘Dove’, then— Jonah, of course— who spent three days in the belly of the whale, as a reflection on Israel’s vocation among the nations. ‘Dove’ went to Nineveh, in fact; that is, to Babylon, the place of Israel’s exile (and note how Israel goes into exile in Nineveh like a dove in Nahum 2.1-7; but God is against Nineveh and its violence in Nahum 2.8-13.

Dove = Israel, then, and when God asks Dove (Jonah), “Should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?” (Jon 4.11), he is plying that question not just to Dove/Jonah, but to Dove/Israel.

So at the baptism of Jesus, the dove descends, Jesus becomes the true Israel, and we see that God’s going to get his answer.

Perhaps purification always requires two doves because, as Isaiah 40-55 shows us, there was always Jacob-Israel, who fails, and Servant-Israel, who does God’s will. One of the doves is always sacrificed as an offering for sin, and the other as an offering for atonement. Actually the one Son fulfilled both. Curiously, he is said to have done so at age 33, and 33 is the number of references to a dove in the Bible except for Dove/Jonah.


2 commentspermalink

§ 2 Responses to Why is There a Dove at the Baptism of Jesus?"

  • Dana Ames says:

    I wonder, then, if the 2 doves viz. sacrifice can be analogous to the 2 sacrifices (the one immolated and the scapegoat) on the Day of Atonement.


    • admin says:

      Yes, there’s a parallel. I wish i had more time. The sacrificial system is something i’ve wanted to study for a long time. A good start, though, is Mary Douglas’s In the Wilderness, Leviticus as Literature, and Jacob’s Tears: The Priestly Work of Reconciliation. The first to are really good; haven’t gotten to the third one yet.

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