Why was God described as being “like a dove” in Luke?

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Reading through Luke, I came to the scene depicted in chapter 3 of Jesus’ baptism. Luke 3:21-22 Now then when all the people were baptized, it came to pass, that Jesus also being baptized, and praying, the Heaven was opened. And the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him, and a voice came from Heaven, which said, Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased. When I read this passage, the first question I had was why a dove? What is the significance of a dove? Why not another animal? Since this is a literature class I decided to first look for clues within the text itself. First of all, it does not state that the spirit WAS a dove but that it merely was LIKE a dove. I believe that is very important. This wording indicates the use of a simile. So my question is again is why compare the spirit of God to a dove?

There are other stories in the Bible that I believe may have contributed to this comparison. The most widely known story with a significant dove is in Genesis 8:10-12 So he waited yet another seven days; and again he sent out the dove from the ark. 11The dove came to him toward evening, and behold, in her beak was a freshly picked olive leaf. So Noah knew that the water was abated from the earth. 12 Then he waited yet another seven days, and sent out the dove; but she did not return to him again.  In Genesis the dove represents hope of a promised land, but it could easily symbolise catastrophe and death by the flood. That in essence baptises the world, riding it of its sins. I believe this is a plausible reasoning for  Luke to use a simile of the dove at Jesus’ baptism. For Christians baptism is used for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38), so it would make sense that Luke would use this figurative language here because the dove in Genesis represented the end of God baptizing the world with water to destroy the evil in it. According to Jewish tradition, the sacrifice of two doves was done either as a guilt offering or to purify oneself after a period of ritual impurity.  This ritual would make the association of purifying oneself with the dove and baptism is also a way of purifying oneself. So a possible reason for the dove is not to necessarily to represent God, but to perhaps represent the significance of the act of baptism that Jesus had just done. Since baptism was a fairly new tradition it would make since for Luke to use this analogy to solidify the importance of what had just happened.

On the other hand maybe the analogy is used by Luke to show a comparison of God himself and not the act of baptism. Ancient Jews practiced monaltry which is the belief that many gods exist but only one should be served. With this in mind, it is important to consider what a figurative dove could represent in the other religions that the Jews were exposed to and even believed in to a certain extent. According to biblicalarchaeology.org there is strong evidence in the Hebrew Bible, as well as the archaeological record, that many ancient Israelites believed the goddess Asherah was the consort of their god Yahweh. Perhaps it is not so surprising, then, that the heirs of this Israelite religion incorporated the “feminine” symbol of the dove to represent the spirit of God (the word for “spirit,” ruach, is a feminine word in Hebrew).  In this passage we find that the dove may have represented the female counterpart to the God of the old testament. This idea also helps to uncover another possible reasoning behind this simile in Luke chapter 3. Luke may have used this analogy because the Jewish people of the time did believe in other gods and other religions and it would help his readers, both Jew and gentile, to understand what the spirit was like for those witnessing the event.


.All of these reasons make a good case as to why Luke used the figure of the dove. In my opinion one of the most likely reasons for this comparison is found in the christian tradition of the dove representing the holy ghost or a departed spirit, herald of heavenly news. In this case the news was that Jesus was God’s son and he was pleased with him. (Luke 3:22). This is by far the most simplistic explanation. I believe its also a very plausible explanation.

In conclusion, there are several possible reasons for the analogy of the dove in Luke chapter 3. Some of them appeal to the background of the Jewish people, others pull at the convergence of Judaism with other religions and cultures of the time, and still others are based on the newly developed Christian traditions. I believe when deciding for certain what the reason was it is important to consider two possibilities. Firstly, that the dove was representative of the Holy Spirit and the importance of the message being brought from Heaven. Secondly that the dove was used to represent the significance of the act of baptism by comparing it to the great flood that cleansed the Earth of evil.



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