Eagle season in British Columbia begins soon! So, now might be a good time to think about Biblical eagles.
Moses—or a poet writing in his name—says outright that eagles make him think of God. This poet reminds the Israelites that God found them in a wild and empty place. There, like an eagle, God hovered over them. God found them in a wild and empty place. There, like an eagle, God hovered over them (Deut 32:10-12).
Eagle and Creation
If you’re a careful reader of scripture, who likes to notice literary patterns, then you’ll hear the echoes of creation in Genesis 1. When God first created heaven and earth, Genesis says, the earth was chaotic and void. And the spirit of God hovered over the deep waters. Put the two texts together and picture it: the giant raptor soars over the wild and empty wilderness. She comes to her nest and, hovering over it, she incubates the world. An eagle might be high-flying, all-seeing, fierce, and powerful, but she is absolutely devoted to her offspring. And so, the poet says, so is God.
But as you read this biblical poetry, don’t turn away from the eagle too quickly to contemplate God. Use the poem to think about eagles, too. Maybe like this: every time a mother eagle sits on her nest, she incubates the world. Every time eagle parents raise a chick they raise a whole world. There’s a famous Jewish teaching in the Talmud: whoever saves one life saves a whole world. Because if you save one life, you save that person’s every accomplishment; the future generations they teach, raise, or birth; and the hearts and futures of everyone close to them.
In the case of eagles, that’s an especially apt teaching. Only 50 years ago, the North American eagle population was devastated by pesticides. Through the food chain, eagles ingested high concentrations of the toxins. Because of the poisons, mother eagles who wanted babies, who found their mates and built their nests, laid eggs so thin, that the eggs would break when a parent bird sat on them. Eagle populations shrank. Human environmental activists worked for two decades to protect them. And now eagles have come back, one generation at a time, and, with them, as an extra treat, a little hint of divine majesty.
Eagle in Kabbalah
The tradition of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, has another take on the eagle in Moses’ poem. In the theology of Kabbalah, God is like an infinite energy. Nothing exists outside of this energy. Our bodies are expressions of it. Our feelings, thoughts, and souls are, too. So is every creature’s body, and every creature’s consciousness. Even if, especially if, these creatures have senses—like the “eagle eye”—that we can only imagine. And thus perceptions, thoughts, and feelings that we can’t even imagine. Every creature’s experience is a different expression of divine energy. Or, as medieval theologians would put it, every creature’s mind is a unique part of God’s mind. And thus, every creature plays a unique role in every other creature’s spiritual life.
What role do Kabbalists think eagles play in human spirituality? Eagles fly high in physical space. They can move our human hearts to awe, and lead our human minds to reflect on the subtle structures of the universe. And we humans are like the nestlings in Moses’ poem. The eagle hovers over us, and awakens us, to see more broadly, feel more deeply, and think outside the box. It helps us become aware of how the divine energy in the world vibrates in every creature, the ones we know, and the ones we don’t yet know. The eagle calls us to care not just about creation, but about every creature in it. As God says in Exodus, “I lifted you up on eagles’ wings so that you could see: you are precious to me, and so is everyone on my earth” (Exodus 19:4-5).
Image: Eagle at Alaksen Nature Reserve, BC, Canada.
Want to read more about Biblical animals? Check out Mouth of the Donkey: Re-imagining Biblical Animals.