By Jenny Arnold
A couple of evenings ago I listened to a rather lovely radio programme entitled, ‘The Turtle Dove.’ Essentially it was about a group of folk singers who took themselves on a sort of pilgrimage through rural Sussex in celebration of an 18th Century folk song known as The Turtle Dove.
Their aim was to find the place where the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams had made a very early recording of a pub landlord singing this song, in the year 1907. They also intended, hopefully, to gain a sighting of and record the elusive European Turtle Dove.
The composer Vaughan Williams apparently enjoyed cycling about rural England taking inspiration for his compositions from Creation, and, in 1919, he used the lyrics and tune from the original folk song to write an orchestral piece of music. I was intrigued and inspired to further research as I already knew and loved another piece of music by Vaughan Williams entitled, ‘The Lark Ascending.’
According to the RSPB web site, the European turtle dove is a small, pretty pigeon with spotted wings, a distinctive neck stripe, and a broad, rounded white tail. The dove has a distinctive, and rather poignant, but very recognisable call.
Sadly, this bird is on the red list of endangered species for several unhappy reasons. First, it is migratory and arrives in Britain to nest and breed in the summer months feeding mainly on the seed of wild flowers. The dove prefers woodland, and both woodland areas and wild flower species are in sharp decline across the south east of England where the turtle dove is mainly to be found.
Secondly, the poor little turtle dove is considered a delicacy in certain European countries, and in North Africa where it over winters.
The RSPB estimates that around 2.4 million birds are shot and trapped during its migration each year. Thankfully the bird is protected within the British Isles.
To find out more about the campaign to secure the turtle dove’s future from extinction, please see the RSPB web site. https://www.rspb.org.uk/our-work/conservation/projects/operation-turtle-dove/
The turtle dove holds enduring imagery for the Christian – the early Christians used the dove (along with the fish) as a symbol of their belief, and as a way of recognising other believers until the cross was adopted in the 4th Century CE (AD).
The dove is mentioned over 40 times in the Hebrew Bible alone (the first 5 books of the Old Testament). In Hebrew, the word for Spirit is ruach, and is in the feminine form, and the dove is usually referred to by this form. In Genesis 1 verse 2, the Spirit of God is likened to a dove hovering over the water. This ‘hovering’ imagery is repeated later at the time of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist.
Doves in the Old Testament were also an instrument of atonement. Several passages in Leviticus and Numbers specify the sacrifice of 2 turtle doves or young pigeons either as a guilt offering, or to purify a person after a period of ritual impurity – such as following the birth of a child.
The Biblical Archaeology Society web site notes that bowls and other artefacts decorated with doves have been found in excavations of the Holy Land. Turtle doves were also used as a food source and several columbaria or dovecotes have been excavated in and around the city of Jerusalem.
The imagery of the dove is also used in several of the prophetic books of the Old Testament where the mournful cooing of the bird symbolises the suffering of God’s people – as in Isaiah 59 verse 11 for example:
‘We all growl like bears
We all moan mournfully like doves
We look for justice but there is none
Your deliverance is far away.’
All four of the Gospels note that Mary and Joseph visited the Temple to make a sacrifice of 2 doves (sometimes translated as 2 pigeons) following the birth of Jesus. Luke 2 verse 24 NRSV, ‘And they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the Law of the Lord, a pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons.’
But perhaps the most familiar dove imagery is the one I referred to earlier, and which again is recounted in all four of the Gospels, although in varying forms, at the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the Jordan river.
After Jesus came up out of the water, the Holy Spirit of God came from Heaven and descended on Him like a dove (MATTHEW 3 verse 16, Mark 1 verse 10, Luke 3 verse 22 and John 1 verse 32).
The baptism description of the Holy Spirit as a dove builds on the Old Testament description of the Spirit hovering over the waters at the time of Creation. The dove imagery here also reflects the sacrifice of doves as an atonement – a guilt offering under the Law.
Sensitive to the Spirit
In his book, ‘Sensitivity of the Spirit – Learning to Stay in the Flow of God’s Direction,’ R. T. Kendall relates the story of friends of his who went to live in Israel for ministry. They rented a house and discovered that a dove was using a niche in the old brickwork as her resting place. They were delighted and felt that this was confirmation of God’s Spirit upon their home and ministry.
However, with a house full of children and visitors and busy lives they began to notice that whenever there was disruption or loud noise such as the slamming of a door, the dove would fly away. Not wishing for the dove to find another home, they prayed and realised that the dove would not adapt to them, and that they would have to adapt to the dove. They did adapt and carried on their lives in a calmer and more measured way – and the dove stayed.
R. T. Kendall points out that just as his friends had to adapt to the dove, we also must adapt to the Holy Spirit of God and be very sensitive to the way we live our lives. Both the Old and New Testaments warn us against grieving the Holy Spirit:
Isaiah 63 verse 10, ESV, ‘But they rebelled and grieved His Holy Spirit; therefore He turned to be their enemy and Himself fought against them.’
Ephesians 4 verse 30, ESV, ‘And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.’
Although sensitive like a dove, the Spirit is also God and committed to our development as Christians – to forming Christ in us, and thus He is willing to discipline us. We need to be sensitive to Him and adapt our lives to fit in with Him if we want to mature in faith.
Perhaps the dove imagery I like best is found in Psalm 68 verse 13, NIV, ‘Even while you sleep among the sheep pens the wings of my dove are sheathed with silver, its feathers with shining gold.’ A truly beautiful image of the precious Holy Spirit of God caring for us as we rest secure beneath His wings.