Among birds, few capture the attention of people like an eagle. They are frequently used as symbols of strength and power, of defiance and determination – over a dozen nations identify some type of eagle as their national bird. So, it probably is unsurprising that the eagle would find its way onto the pages of the Judeo-Christian scriptures. What may be surprising is that the use of the eagle in scripture does not relate to the imagery found in western culture.
In the middle east, there are over 11 species of eagles, but in scripture there is only one term for an eagle (neshar). Depending on the context of the verse, that same Hebrew term has also been translated as “vulture”. So, when trying to understand the meaning behind passages that refer to eagles, we need to be careful about making any associations which relate to the characteristics of any species in particular. Rather, we ought to think of the characteristics which would be common to all eagles.
The eagle is mentioned about 30 times in scripture. They get a mention in dietary restrictions (we are instructed not to eat them), they are used to describe the traits or activities of humans, and to describe images in visions and dreams. There are about eight passages, though, which relate to the relationship between God and people – this is what I want to focus on here.
Some “eagle passages” are written as warnings to the people of Israel. In the book of Proverbs, we are warned against putting our trust in riches which are fleeting – “they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle.” (Proverbs 23:4-5) You perhaps have seen videos of an eagle swooping down to handily snatch up a fish or rabbit. This imagery seems to suggest that these riches do not simply fly off on their own, but it is God himself who will swoop down and take them away. This is the warning God gave to those in Judah who ceased to trust in Him: “What I have given them will be taken from them.” (Jeremiah 8:13) We can expect God to do this if we depend more on our wealth than on the One who provided it in the first place.
In a couple other passages, we are warned about how God will deal with the deception that grows in our lives due to our pride. The subject of these warnings is the Edomites – a nation which had a long history of opposing Israel and eventually assisted with the armies of Babylon in the sacking of Jerusalem. These passages serve as a fair warning to anyone who pridefully attempts to thwart God’s power, position or purposes. If we set ourselves up to be great, “though you build your nest as high as the eagle’s, from there I will bring you down.” (Jeremiah 49:16 and Obadiah 1:3-4).
Other eagle passages provide a promise to those who do trust in God and follow his ways. To the nation of Israel who had been delivered out of Egypt, God clarified for the people how that was accomplished: “I carried you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to myself.” (Exodus 19:4) As I read this passage, it makes me think of the fate of poor Frodo and Sam in The Return of the King who, after destroying the Ring in Mt Doom, collapsed and were left stranded on a small hill on the side of the mountain as lava streams flowed all around them. It is then that two great eagles swoop down, and “in a dream, not knowing what fate had befallen them, the wanderers were lifted up and borne far away out of the darkness and the fire.”
The eagle rescue in Exodus is not just a rescue for the sake of rescue, but it is for a purpose. God tells Israel that if they do follow him, they “will be for me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:6) This imagery is carried out further in the Song of Moses which describes the care with which the Lord will give his people: “he guarded him as the apple of his eye, like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, and spreads its wings to catch them and carries them on its pinions.” (Deuteronomy 32:10-11) Implicit here is the sense of an ongoing rescue – there will be mistakes made along the way by those who follow Him, but God will be there to catch them when they fall.
The most often quoted eagle passage is that from Isaiah – a message to a nation in exile promising the hope of a future restoration. They are reminded first that, “The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth”. God knows that this trial will cause them to become weary, but because He is an all-powerful God, He “gives strength to the weary, and increases the power of the weak.” He promises that “those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles…” (Isaiah 40:28-31) Similar imagery is used by King David in one of his psalms which praises God for his forgiveness, healing, redemption, and provisions, “so that your youth is renewed like the eagles’.” (Psalm 103-1-5)
When it comes to soaring like eagles, it is worth noting that eagles don’t soar using their own strength, but by riding on thermals. All they have to do is identify a place where the air is rising (biologists are still trying to figure out how they do this), and then stretch out their wings and be lifted up. All we have to do is identify the truth found in His Word, rest on the instruction and promises that God has given us, and let Him do the rest.
Collectively, the use of the eagle as an image in scripture does not call us to the fierce independence and strength ascribed to national symbols. Rather, it calls us to utter dependence on God for his strength and wisdom in leading us to do what is right and to become a people who act as His agents on earth.