Doves have several important symbolic meanings in the Bible:

Reconciliation and peace

In the story of the Flood, recorded in the Old Testament of the Bible (Genesis chapters 7 to 8), it rained for forty days and the land was flooded. This was seen as a punishment for wrong living. Many months elapsed after the rain stopped, before it was possible for Noah and his family to step out of the Ark Dove with an olive branchonto dry land. As the mountain tops began to reappear, Noah sent out a dove, but it returned to the ark because it couldn't find anywhere else to alight. When he sent it a second time, it returned after seven days with a fresh olive leaf in its beak; the third time, it did not return. So Noah knew the land was drying out and beginning to support life again and that God was giving humans a fresh start. This story has given rise to the proverbial saying, ‘to come bearing an olive branch', meaning to offer peace or reconciliation. Depicted with an olive twig in its beak, the dove has thus become a symbol of reconciliation and peace.

The Holy Spirit

The dove is also seen to represent God's Holy Spirit. (See Big ideas: Trinity, Holy Spirit)

In the New Testament, the writers of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell the story of the baptism of Jesus:

As soon as Jesus was baptised, he came up out of the water. Then heaven was opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God coming down like a dove and alighting on him. Then a voice said from heaven, ‘This is my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased. (Matthew 3:13-17; see also Mark 1:9-11 and Luke 3:21-22)

At Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit was heralded by wind and fire, and the ‘gift of tongues' (Acts 2:2-3. T S Eliot combines these images in ‘Little Gidding IV' (Four Quartets):

The image of the dove has been used widely by religious artists as a symbol of the Holy Spirit.

Because of the gentle nature of doves, and their life-long coupling, they are also associated with love. The Bible contains a beautiful love poem, ‘The Song of Songs' or ‘Song of Solomon', which uses this symbolism.

The gentleness of doves is also reflected in the advice Jesus gave his disciples when sending them out to preach: ‘Be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves' (Matthew 10:16).

Related topics

Big ideas: Trinity, Holy Spirit

Other cultural references

Eliot's, ‘Little Gidding IV' (Four Quartets)

Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.