Along with Halloween bats and black cats, the raven has been adopted in contemporary western culture as a symbol of all things dark and foreboding. Recently, players of the popular game Fortnite have been able to purchase a “skin” for their character which resembles a raven with a very ominous appearance. In the series Game of Thrones, the raven is associated with a character who has a dark past and seemingly darker intentions using his powers for evil purposes.
Folks who are steeped in all things steam punk and goth will be familiar with the Plague Doctor costume which recalls the outfit worn by doctors in the 17th century who donned a black overgarment and wore a mask which bears a resemblance to the raven. The mask whose bill was filled with aromatics like lavender was thought to protect the physician from the evil odors believed to be the cause of the plague. Where this visage comes, death is sure to follow.
The image of the raven has certainly been tainted by the famous poem by Edgar Allen Poe. The raven is the ever-present reminder of grief and loss experienced by the author. It is the raven who comes to visit the poet “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary.” The raven is depicted as “this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore” whose “eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming.” It would seem to be a bird with few redeeming qualities.
While this symbolism can be understood by the color of ravens, and their occasional habit of feeding off of carrion, not all cultures have associated the raven with darkness and evil. The raven is recognized as a very intelligent creature, and has historically been depicted much more favorably. In native American mythology, the raven plays a significant role in creation mythology, in particular the creation of humans. Aesop’s fables use the raven in tales which instruct us that thoughtfulness and cleverness are superior to brute strength. In Norse mythology, a pair of ravens serve as messengers for Odin, flying all over the world returning to him with important information.
Both Old and New Testament passages also represent the raven in a more favorable light. Its first appearance is in the story of Noah. After the waters began to subside, Noah wanted to have some indication about what was going on out in the flooded world. His first choice was to send out a raven. Nothing is said about the reason for Noah’s choice, but I presume it is because he recognized the intelligence of this animal. The raven never returns. It is often assumed that this is because the raven found a place to land and to eat (e.g., floating dead carcasses) unlike the dove which Noah sends out later. (You can read more about the dove here).
The raven is also God’s choice to provide for the prophet Elijah. In the story, Elijah tells King Ahab the bad news about the consequences of his disobedience – Ahab “who did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him”. Likely to protect Elijah from Ahab’s retribution, God sends Elijah into the wilderness. It is there that God sends the raven with both meat and bread to sustain him. Perhaps an unsurprising choice as corvids are known for robbing food, but are also large enough to carry the quantity of food to meet the needs of a man.
In several passages of scripture, ravens are cited as recipients of God’s care and provision (Job 38:41, Psalm147:9 and Luke 12:24). I have wondered why the raven would be singled out as the object of God’s provision. It could be because of their commonness and thus familiarity to the audience of these writings (there are actually seven different species of ravens and crows in Israel). If God would care enough to feed this common animal, how much more will He want to meet your needs?
Another aspect could be that citing the raven plays off the nature of this bird. Ravens and crows are known to be very resourceful. They feed off a wide range of types of food, and can be quite clever in their food robbery of humans. So, perhaps, the reference to them is to provide a helpful comparison: even though ravens are very adept at finding food, they are nevertheless dependent on God for His provision. This seems to come through in Jesus’ teaching where he references human resourcefulness in growing and storing up food for ourselves. We are very anxious in striving to meet our own needs, and Jesus tells us that we should instead trust in God who is there to meet all our needs.
So, the next time you see some Halloween decoration with a raven perched on a skull, I encourage you to think differently of this creature – one who is thought highly of by its Creator, a Creator who also thinks highly of you!