Turtle doves in the Bible are significant as a sacrifice, a symbol for Israel, and a bird in season. This paper sets out to help us appreciate the sight and sound of these birds in spring. Archaeology and ornithology unsurprisingly corroborate what we read in the Scriptures. First, we will consider some of the benefits of watching and listening to birds. Then we will reflect on the disturbing consistency of the persecution of this bird from the Talmud in AD 200 to the present day in Europe. Ultimately, the final reference in Luke’s Gospel causes us to consider Jesus.
Why Should We Consider Birds?
1.) To instruct us.
We are very conscious of the suffering of God’s people in many parts of the world today. In the context of his own extreme trial, Job spoke the following: “But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you” (Job 12:7).
2.) To reflect on how birds help us understand the invisible attributes of God from what we can clearly see.
Paul’s opening persuasion in his letter to the Roman church informs us, “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Romans 1:20). Observing and listening to the turtle dove is one of the great joys of observational science—in this case, ornithology—helping us understand those attributes. So, recalling the words of King Solomon in Ecclesiastes 3:11: “He has made everything beautiful in its time,” we can see two of God’s attributes: namely, that he has given us beauty to observe, and his creation consistently demonstrates order.
Beauty, then, is something that we can clearly see when we observe this creature with its bright orange-brown feather edges and black feather centers contrasting with the pink hue on its breast. The black tailfeathers with their conspicuous white rim are striking to observe in the sunshine. So, we understand that God made this dove “beautiful in its time.”
In 1 Kings 4:31–34, when the Lord gave Solomon surpassing wisdom, birds were one part of God’s creation that he spoke about. I wonder whether this season of Solomon’s life describes one of the most important fulfilments of the creation mandate given to Adam in Genesis 1:28?
One of my neighbors remarked how she had become conscious of the birds singing in her garden again during the COVID-19 lockdown. Should you wish to do more than appreciate the music of birds where you live, a field guide may serve as a useful companion. Perhaps the most helpful and reasonably priced field guide that will enable you to identify and enjoy birds in Britain is Collins Bird Guide—The Most Complete Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe.1 The book informs whether birds are resident or seasonal visitors, shows the varying plumages of birds during different seasons, and includes a map indicating where they are usually observed.
Increasingly, we read of a growing awareness of the benefits to our mental health by simply observing wildlife for ourselves, realizing God’s care for them and us, and our value as created in his image. This seems to be in line with Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, where he tells his disciples:
For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?
Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? And who of you by being worried can add a single cubit to his life span? And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. (Matthew 6:25–29 LSB, emphasis added)
Archaeology, Ornithology, and Theology
In 2020, Rosella Tercatin, writing for the Jerusalem Post, demonstrated her awareness of doves in the Bible, from the story of Noah to the issues of ritual sacrifices and dietary restrictions, noting that birds play an important role in the biblical text. Yet, it was the archaeological excavations conducted in Jerusalem that caught her interest:
Analysis of bird remains excavated in Jerusalem confirmed that specific species of birds— pigeons, doves— were indeed sacrificed in the temple as the biblical text suggests, a new study published in the May issue of the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) showed.
Zoo-archaeologist Abra Spiciarch, a PhD candidate at Tel Aviv University, started her research as part of a grant focusing on biblical dietary laws. As she explained to the Jerusalem Post, one of the areas of interest was a comparison between birds present in Israel’s ancient landscape and those mentioned in the Scriptures.
Starting from this question, the researcher was able to identify evidence supporting the text also in the realm of ritual practices as well as to open a window in how humans and birds interacted in the land between 3,500 thousand 2,500 years ago.
Pigeons and doves often appear in the Bible as animals fit to be offered to God. For example, as described in Leviticus, they were one of the options for an atoning sacrifice for those who committed several types of sin or who had become impure. Moreover, a mother was required to bring a turtledove after completing her purification period following childbirth.2
Biblical References to Turtle Doves
Jehuda Feliks reflects on this dove in his book Animal World of the Bible, demonstrating his awareness of the significance of doves and turtle doves in the Scriptures:
Jeremiah states that the exact times of its migrations were known (8:7). Like the dove, the turtle dove was used for various sacrifices (Lev. 5:7; 12:6; Num. 6:10). It was included among the birds Abraham offered at the covenant between the pieces (Gen. 15:9). It symbolizes the innocent Israelite nation against whom its enemies plot (Ps. 74:19). In a passage which advocates that “one should be ever of the persecuted, but not of the persecutors,” the Talmud states that no birds are more persecuted than turtle doves and young pigeons – yet the Bible regarded only them as worthy of being offered upon the altar (bk 93a). The turtle dove, a beautiful bird with colorful feathers, is recognizable by the bright stripes at the side of its neck.3
Isn’t it sad to read in the Talmud (c. AD 200) “that no birds are more persecuted than turtle doves and young pigeons,” yet that is potentially matched in our day. The British Trust for Ornithology reports that the “turtle dove is ’red-listed’” in the UK, which means the turtle dove is at the highest extinction threat level and “has shown a very alarming population decline of 92% over the last 25 years.”4
Turtle Dove Bible References
Genesis 15:9; Leviticus 1:14, 5:7, 11, 12:6, 8, 14:22, 30, 15:14, 29; Numbers 6:10; Luke 2:24.
As Indicative of Season:
Psalm 74:19; Song of Solomon 2:12; Jeremiah 8:7.
The Creation of Birds Follows the Origin of the Seasons
It is worth reflecting upon the order of creation in Genesis 1; it was on the fourth day that the two great lights were made together with the stars in the expanse of the heavens. On the fourth day, God said:
Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years; 15 and let them be for lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth”; and it was so. (Genesis 1:14–15 LSB)
The birds are then created on the fifth day:
Then God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the face of the expanse of the heavens.” And God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarmed after their kind, and every winged bird after its kind; and God saw that it was good. Then God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let the birds multiply on the earth.” (Genesis 1:20–22 LSB)
This means the birds could have been created to migrate according to the repeated annual patterns of the seasons or by star placement, which were initiated in some form on the fourth day (though much has changed since the flood of Noah’s day)!5 This wonder of the created order is still being investigated today and repeats within each season every year. Our attention is drawn to this “wonder of migration” in the next two passages.
The Migratory Turtle Dove
The migratory turtle dove was a rebuke to the people of Judah. The Lord warns the southern kingdom of Judah through the prophet Jeremiah who utilizes the easily observed migratory birds and their significance:
Even the stork in the sky
Knows her seasons;
And the turtledove and the swift and the crane
Keep the time of their migration;6
But My people do not know
The legal judgment of Yahweh. (Jeremiah 8:7 LSB)
Iain Duguid’s comment in the NIV Study Bible gets to the heart of the lord’s words:
What we call “the laws of nature” actually manifest God’s order, which creation perfectly obeys (see Ps 19:1–6). The stork . . . the dove, the swift and the thrush, Migratory birds never refuse to travel their appointed routes at their “appointed seasons.” These birds know and obey the patterns of behavior the Lord laid down for them, while God’s people “do not know the requirements of the Lord.”7
The voice of the turtle dove celebrating the changing of seasons was heard in the land of Israel. We read in the Song of Solomon 2:12 where the seasons changed from winter to spring:
The flowers have appeared in the land;
The time for pruning has arrived;
And the voice of the turtledove has been heard in our land (LSB).
The gentle “turr turr” sound celebrates the arrival of spring. They are shy birds, but if you live near where they may be found, the best way to locate them would to listen carefully on a spring or early summer evening. The bird’s name is an onomatopoeic word, which means it is named after its associated sound. The turtle dove may be encountered in its breeding territory each spring in Israel and across Europe. This shows how the observational science of ornithology in the present is consistent with the teaching of Holy Scripture in the past!
The Turtle Dove as a Symbol for Israel
The turtle dove is an increasingly scarce summer migrant in England (Apr–Sept). For now, it is possible for you to encounter the same sound that was heard in Israel in the past. There are currently an estimated 40,000 pairs found on the east side of England. These are the descendants of turtle doves that were symbolic for Israel in Psalm 74:18–19, where Asaph sings the refrain:
Remember this, O Yahweh, that the enemy has reproached,
And a wickedly foolish people has spurned Your name.
Do not deliver the soul of Your turtledove to the wild beast;
Do not forget the life of Your afflicted forever (LSB).
Turtle Doves and Jesus
We have seen that the Israelites, symbolized by the turtle dove in Psalm 74, were not holy to the Lord, so the people of Judah were rebuked as recorded in Jeremiah 8. Yet the final mention of the turtle dove in Scripture is the most significant. Luke 2:22–40 records that Joseph and Mary made the six-mile journey from Bethlehem when they took Jesus to Jerusalem to present him in the Temple. The turtle doves referred to by Luke are associated with Joseph and Mary making the offering of the poor in obedience to the Law.
And when the days for their cleansing according to the Law of Moses were fulfilled, they brought Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice according to what was said in the Law of the Lord, “A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” (Luke 2:22–24 LSB)
Jesus, in every aspect of his life, obeyed and fulfilled the law of Moses and was totally dedicated and consecrated to the service of God—and thus was “holy to the Lord” in ways that no other human could be. He completed the work that the Father had given him for his glory and our salvation. You may not be able to hear a turtle dove this spring, but I do hope you will hear the voice of Jesus during this season of your life.
Note: I have referred to the text of the Legacy Standard Bible as it consistently translates the Hebrew word תּוֹר, תֹּר: as “turtledove.” The New King James Version does this as well, but not the King James Version, NIV 2011, or ESV.
Colin Mitchell’s interest in watching birds was kindled during his upbringing in a beautiful country area. He earned a B.A. (Hons) degree in applied theology at his local Bible College, Moorlands, where he later served as a part-time teacher and tutor. He has also had various leadership roles as an elder and full-time minister. In his retirement years, he has a passion for ensuring that the Gospel is not separated from its context in the Bible and its history. He and his wife, Chris, have three sons and three granddaughters.