Guest Post: On the Wings of a Dove?

J. Watkins is a long-time commenter on the site and someone off whom I often bounce ideas in the Ancient Studies room of the BYU Library. He defines himself in the following terms: “I’m Justin Watkins. I’m from Cardston, Alberta and I’m an undergraduate senior at BYU studying ancient near eastern studies. My focus is in the NT but I’d like to study
the LXX for my graduate work. I also love studying Church history as a hobby. I’ve been married nearly 4 years to my Aussie sweetheart, Sarah, who is my 4th grade teaching sugar momma. We have no kids. I fear that I am a true nerd in every sense of the word. On the LDS scale I’d say I fall just right of the middle as far as my views on doctrine and ethics go.”

I’ve been intrigued since my mission about the phrase from Matt. 3:16: “and
he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting upon him.”
(KJV) My current study of Matthew in Greek 311 has reraised the question
about exactly what this phrase means. For instance, Mark 1:10 uses similar
language: “and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him.” John 1:32 says:
“I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon
him.” But Luke says something different. Luke 3:22 says: “and the Holy
Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him.” Our modern day
scriptures universally use the phrase “in the form of a dove.” (see 1 Ne.
11:27; 2 Ne. 31:8; D&C 93:15; Abr. Fac. 2, fig. 7)

From the English this could go one of two ways: either the HG came in the
form/shape/figure of a dove or it in someway acted like a dove in its
descending. The Bible Dictionary under the topic “Dove, Sign of” quotes
Joseph Smith at length saying, “the devil cannot come in the sign of a dove…
The sign of a dove was given to John to signify the truth of the deed, as
the dove is an emblem or token of truth and innocence.” (HC 5:261) In my
mind this tended towards the idea of a shape or “bodily form” as Luke had
it, especially because “the devil cannot come in the sign of the dove” but
apparently he can come in other shapes and sizes.

Until recently this was all I knew and so the matter was closed. But in
Greek class it was raised again when we translated Matt. 3:16 and I noticed
that the word used there is hôsei, or literally “like a dove.” So which is
it? Of course, then I found another quote from Joseph on this and he said
“The Holy Ghost is a personage, and is in the form of a personage. It does
not confine itself to the form of the dove, but in sign of the dove. The
Holy Ghost cannot be transformed into a dove; but the sign of a dove was
given to John to signify the truth of the deed, as the dove is an emblem or
token of truth and innocence.” (HC 5:275-6)

So here we have a weird thing, the Holy Ghost giving the sign of the dove,
whatever that means. And there is still Matthew, Mark, and John to think
about. The Holy Ghost descended like a dove. And then I remembered
something from my Hebrew class. Don Parry, when we first began to translate
Genesis back in Heb. 101 (or 102, I forget), noted that in the second verse
of the Bible that we have a hapax legomenon, a word that occurs only once,
that is translated in the KJV as “moved” but had more of a sense of
hovering. He told us that the root of this word (merahepeth, root rhp) was
found only in one other place in the OT, in Deut. 32:11 in reference to an
eagle (vulture?) “fluttering over her young.” In Hebrew the word is yerahep.
In the big BDB Hebrew lexicon, the entry for this verb states that the
root meaning for this verb is to hover. However, it has cognates in other
Semitic languages. In Ugaritic, the meaning is the same as in Hebrew, but in
Syriac the same root means to move gently, to cherish or to brood. Here we
(meaning Latter-day Saints) have a great connection. In Moses 2:2 we still
have “moved” but in Abraham 4:2 we have “and the Spirit of the Gods was
brooding upon the face of the waters.” defines “brood” as a
verb in this way: to sit on or hatch (eggs), to protect (young) by or as if
by covering with the wings, (intrans.) to hover envelopingly; loom.

For me this has two exciting implications. The first concerns the
authenticity of the Book of Abraham. It can, of course, be argues away but I
still think it’s pretty neat. The second is why I wrote this blog: In two
distinct ways the Spirit is said to behave like a bird. It can brood like a
bird or descend like a bird. (how a dove descends any differently than any
other bird I can’t say) Usually the Spirit is likened to wind, especially
since in Greek and Hebrew the word for spirit and wind are the same. The
comparison of the Spirit to the wind is the primary one made to the Spirit
but the sense of moving like a bird is also found in the scriptures in
several places and is often overlooked. Comparing the Spirit to the wind
taught us several of its attributes such as it “bloweth where it listeth”
(John 3:8) and it fills our mouths with breath, causing us to testify and
prophesy. Comparing the Spirit to a bird teaches us something else, like
the protective and nurturing nature of the Spirit; its inherent desire for
closeness to us.

17 Replies to “Guest Post: On the Wings of a Dove?”

  1. And of course the whole idea fits nicely with Christ saying he would often have gathered his people as a hen gathers her chicks but they refused.

  2. Nice little word study. Hooray for real scholars, scholarship, and all that stuff!

    I think this pericope must be something of a rite of passage in NT Greek classes. I’ve never met anybody who didn’t deal with it in some fashion. That being the case, let me welcome you to the “club,” so to speak!

    You have many hours of fun to look forward to with these and related passages. Does the NT teach that the Spirit has a personality? How should one translate the anarthrous occurrences? What pronoun to use–neuter or masculine? What is the relationship between hagios pneuma and paraklatos? All these and more will definitely put you in touch with your inner ‘trinitarian’ theologian…

    But for the moment, let me just make you an offer. I’ll give you $20 if, should this passage be on your final, you go ahead and translate peristera (dove) as pigeon, citing any number of OT sources (e.g. Lev 1:14; 5:7, 11; 12:8; 14:2) as well as Luke 2:24 as your impetus for so doing…

    C’mon, man, you know you want to do it!

  3. Oops, I didn’t know that anyone who’s ever studied Greek would know this. *sigh* Oh well. But Mogget, you’re on. I’m writing pigeon no matter what now.

  4. No, no, no, that’s NOT what I meant.

    It’s not that “everyone who’s ever studied Greek” would know this, it’s that YOU know it now. It’s that YOUR curiosity has been aroused and will now need to be fed…

    And although everybody seems to go somewhere with it, everybody doesn’t go in the direction of the “hovering” in Genesis, either.

  5. Word studies… The appeal to etymology is one of my peeves. That a word was used at Ugarit a certain way means it’s used in P (assuming P wrote Gen. 1) the same way, even though the two are quite separated geographically, linguistically, and chronologically? Sure, it might be the same, but we take our chances when we go beyond that. But hey, why not.

    And Genesis 1:2 — I don’t think the writer of that passage knew anything about the Holy Ghost as a Christian pneumatological concept. Probably an epithet for deity??? I don’t know. But then again, Genesis does state certain things about the H.G. that are extraordinary and fantastic, like Gen. 41:38 (KJV). To think that pharoah would have actually said something like that is… out there. But I see where you’re going — that the ruach concept in Gen. 1:2 was used by the Gospel writer(s) to describe the HG. I like that angle more than the angle that most predictive prophecy folks take.

    Pigeons all the way. Better yet, go with woodpeckers.

  6. Mogget: Ahhh, now I see. It is true that my growing Greek knowledge has sparked this kind of curiosity.

    David: I’m famously not ever as clear as I think I’m being. I think it goes the way that you suggested, NT writer borrowing the idea from the OT. And as for the whole Ugaritic connection (where most of the defenitions of Ugaritic words come from our understanding of the OT), John warned me about this too but he added that one of his Profs told him that he appreciates the Syriac similarities more because their meanings were independently ascertained.

    And as for your apparently deep dislike of Semitic comparitive studies, why? Don’t the parallels that have been accurately determined have any sway in your mind, like the ones between Arabic and Hebrew? Or am I missing something? Besides, the Deut connection where the root is used to describe a bird moving/brooding/hovering over her young seems to me to go a long way towards strengthening the connection between the Syriac (if not the Ugaritic) and the Hebrew root. Any thoughts?

  7. J,

    If your circumstances permit, you might take a selective look at some chapters on word studies in Peter Cotterell and Max Turner’s Linguistics and Biblical Interpretation.

    No worries, it’s an easy book.

  8. J,

    I second Mogget’s motion for Cotterell & Turner, and would add James Barr’s Semantics of Biblical Language. Barr is one of these “against something” scholars more than a “for something” scholar, but the watershed effect of this book still has influence to today, and thank God for that, because the TDOT (contra TDNT) learned from Barr’s inestimable advice in this book when the TDOT was in creation. Also, check out D. A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies for more word-study pitfalls.

    deep dislike of Semitic comparitive studies

    Ha! Where do you get “deep?” 😉 I like you, man. You’re funny. To me, word studies aren’t the only factor in comparative semitics. My post-graduate work will be in comparative semitics, but word studies that blatantly borrow or pick and choose from this or that cognate language in order to “clarify” a tough word (or hapax) generally need to be done with some caution. That Ugaritic has influence on Biblical Hebrew or vise versa is a stretch. Yes, both the languages are Semitic, I concede that, but we’re on thin ice when we start borrowing meanings across cognates for words that generally have a very narrow or distinct semantic domain, like the one in question. I’m not saying your work on “brooding” is errant, I’m just suggesting that word studies, to me, don’t prove much. I don’t do them in exegesis papers unless something jumps off the page and roundhouse kicks me in the face. A lot of the fixation on word studies in modern scholarship (actually, word studies have waned considerably in recent years, thank God) have given way to syntactical meaning, not semantic meaning, because honestly, how a word is used syntactically generally sheds more light than how it can be used in an isolated incident. Word studies also breed parallelomania in some scholars.

    The Deut. connection is good because it’s within the same language and writ, but which language is “shedding light” on which language, to me, can’t be pinned down with much accuracy.

    Again, don’t get me wrong, I love comparative semitics, just not the “word meanings” kind. Or rather, I don’t put a whole lot of stock in them (but I also don’t totally ignore them either). I like syntactical/grammatical comparisons more. Especially in the NW Semitic dialects (ala Garr, Harris, O’Connor, etc.).

  9. Thanks guys for the advice. David: good defence of yourself. And thanks for not getting all offended. I realize that it is hard to convey mood in an arena like this and the way I meant to come across was inquisitive, not offended or aggressive, so thanks for not taking it that way. And by the way, how the heck do you make those smiley faces on a blog like this?

  10. If you don’t mind permitting a non-scholar of ancient languages among you, Joseph’s teachings on the matter are a bit complex. Teaching at the Vincent Knight home on the baptism of Jesus in 1841:

    Then the three signs which were given were conclusive The dove which sat upon his shoulder was a sure testimony that he was of God Brethren be not deceived an nor doubtful of this fact a spirit of a good man or an angell from heaven who has not a body will never undertake to shake hands with you for he knows you cannot perceive his touch and never will extend his hand but any spirit or body that is attended by a dove you may know to be a pure spirit Thus you may in some measure detect them the spirits who may come unto you (WoJS pg. 65-66)

    Ehat & Cook note that the three signs are “(1) the opening of the heavens and the Holy Ghost, a personage in the form of a man, descending; (2) the appearance of a dove; and (3) the voice of the Father saying ‘This is my Beloved Son.'”

    Two years later, Joseph taught again on the topic, the record of which was used as the source for the HC:

    Willard Richards
    …the Holy Ghost—in in the sign the form of a dove — with the sign of the dove. instituted before the creation Devil could not come in sign of a dove.—Holy Ghost is a personage in the form of a personage —does not confine itself to form of a dove—but in sign of a dove.


    Franklin Richards
    The Holy Ghost cannot be transformed into a Dove but the sign of a Dove was given to John to signify the Truth of the Deed as the Dove was an emblem or Token of Truth.

    I think the two discourses are consistent. Also, Facsimile 2 Figure 7 refer to it as the “sign of the Dove.”

    I think it is interesting as it relates to Joseph’s teaching on the Sign of the Son of Man.

  11. Like you need anybody’s permission to join the conversation…ha! I was hoping someone would pop in with more on the JS angle. I have some questions when you get time.

    the Sign of the Son of Man.

    And this sign is? I am assuming Mt 24:30 is the reference here.

    Do you have any idea why JS has the dove linked to the idea of truth / authenticity?
    Tradition? Or something deeper?

  12. The discerning of spirits was tantamount in the mind of Joseph during the last years of his life. I believe that these are two different “signs,” but I think they both relate:

    1 May 1842
    There are signs in heaven, earth, and hell, the Elders must know them all to be endowed with power, to finish their work and prevent imposition. The devil knows many signs but does not know the sign of the Son of Man, or Jesus. No one can truly say he knows God until he has handled something, and this can only be in the Holiest of Holies. (WoJS pg. 119-120)

    Then, relating to Mt:

    Richards (JS diary) 6 April 1843
    …then one grand sign of the son of the son of man in heaven. but what will the world do? they will say it is a planet. a comet, &c. consequently the sun [Son] of man will come as the sign of coming of the son of man; is as the light of the morning cometh out of the east.(WoJS pg. 180)

    Burgess Account
    it will be small at its first appearance and gradually becomes larger untill every eye shall see it. Shall the Saints understand it Oh yes. Paul says so. Shall the wicked understand Oh no they attribute it to a natural cause. They will probably suppose it is two great comets comeing in contact with each other

    It will be small at first and will grow larger and larger untill it will be all in a blaze so that every eye shall see it. (WoJS pg. 181)

  13. Hm. You know, I have to confess that that stuff from JS does not make a lot of sense to me, maybe because the thought-world of JS always seems so foreign. Anyway, thanks. I’ll look at it more closely now.

    I wanted to come back the dove as it is in the Synoptics. First though, I should tell on myself, that I, when confronted with this text in my very first semester of Greek, did exactly as J. Watkins did and went straight to Genesis. The professor didn’t say much, just that I had a “different hermeneutic.” This irritated me enough that I went looking for the differences and so found out that the methods I had learned for scripture study under CES were inherently counter-productive. So I learned new ones.

    Anyway. First, the dove and the pigeon are members of the same genus but of different species. The bird we call the pigeon — the one with the beady red eyes picking up trash–is actually the rock dove.

    Second, here’s some possibilities as they have appeared throughout history for the impetus behind the dove:

    1)A storm arose, a bird got disoriented and flew down to Jesus, fluttering around and squawking. If you hear 19th century liberal Protestants in this one, you’re right on target. (At the time, the Catholics were still with Jerome, insisting on this as the first manifestation of the Trinity.)

    2) In Philo, the dove is associated with wisdom. Two issues, however. How much Philo is there in Mark, from which this story came, and where are the rest of the “wisdom motifs” that we should expect?

    3)Mark conflated older stories, one of which had the Spirit, and the other the dove. His version retains both images. The problem with this is that so far no one has found sources like this that are older than Mark.

    4)Noah’s dove. This makes the dove a symbol of deliverance, I guess. Lots of water around, anyway. Anyway, Noah’s dove had an olive branch, which is a Messianic symbol to some. But dates are uncertain, and the dove around Jesus has nothing in its mouth.

    5) The bat qol (daughter of the Voice)is said to be like the cooing of a dove. Problem is, this one is also pretty late and the dove and the voice from heaven are two distinct events in our story.

    6)The Genesis link, via b. Hag 15a where the moving Spirit is explicitly referred to as the fluttering of a dove. And you do actually get a fluttering dove around Jesus in the Odes of Solomon.

    7) A bird is the only reasonable way to shown descent from heaven, and the positive connotations of the dove in the OT make it the best candidate. This would be known colloquially as common sense, and is, in biblical studies, to be avoided. And of course, there’s no “hovering” or “fluttering” in the Gospels.

    After a couple of years of going back on forth on this, I ‘ve decided that J.W. and I are sort of right: the dove is a glancing allusion to Genesis, raising the theme of the new creation and associating it with Jesus, but the motif of the descent of the Spirit and the favorable attributes of the dove are higher. If fact, if you check the standard NT Greek lexicon (BDAG), it will tell you that pigeons were thought to have no bile!

    I don’t think, however, that this means that the author of Genesis was thinking about what Christian’s regard as the holy Spirit. In the case of Genesis, God’s spirit is the only moving thing in a static universe, and so is an image of God’s power as an “agent” of change.

    Or something like that. David J. always says it better in the OT.

  14. Perhaps the insight of D&C 93:31 is that the sign of the Holy Ghost was chosen for a sure remembrance to John the Baptist. With that sign came the confirmation of his pre-mortal orientation and calling that he was now to exit center stage and allow Christ to fulfill his role. John was very popular and for him to assume a testifying secondary role is a significant gospel event and a model for all those who hold the Priesthood

  15. About the word similarity stuff:

    I like it. I think it works.
    Take Spanish and English for instance. The title of the movie “Chicken Run” is Pollos en Fuga. The word Fugar (to flee) sheds light on the English “fugitive”. Since “fugitive” kind of has that “fuga” part in it, it probably means something having to do with running away or fleeing from something.

    And it turns out that it does mean that! wow!

    That’s just one example out of a billion.

    So I’m with J. in his association between Syriac and Hebrew roots.

    Good job. Nice post.

Comments are closed.