Noah’s dove obtained its olive branch from Mount of Olives

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Damien F. Mackey



According to a Midrashic tradition, Noah’s dove brought back an olive branch from the holy Mount of Olives.



The dove is used as a symbol of the Holy Spirit, as we read, for instance, at:


Saint Gregory of Nazianzus says of the Holy Spirit’s appearance as a dove at Christ’s baptism:


And the Spirit comes as a dove, for he honours the body being seen “corpreally”, since He is also God by divinization. And since long ago the dove has been accustomed to announcing the good news of the flood’s end.

– Oration on the Holy Lights, 381 A.D.


Here, St Gregory sees the dove sent out by Noah from the ark as a foreshadowing of the Holy Spirit’s descent as a dove at Christ’s baptism. This is unsurprising, as overwhelmingly the Holy Fathers, starting with the Apostle Peter, interpret the Flood as a prefiguration of Christian baptism: the righteous Noah and his family saved through water. St John of Damascus says more or less the same thing, and adds:


Olive oil is employed in baptism as a significant of our anointing, and as making us anointed, and as announcing to us through the Holy Spirit God’s pity: for it was the fruit of the olive that the dove brought to those who were saved from the flood. (Gen 8:11)

-An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith (Book IV)


Here, the physical, created, dove that Noah sent out is seen as a symbol of the Holy Spirit, carrying the anointing (olive branch). St Bede the Venerable writes:


The olive branch with green leaves is the grace of the Holy Spirit, rich in the words of life, the fullness of which rests on Christ… And by a most beautiful conjunction, the figure is in agreement with the fulfillment: a corporeal dove brought the olive branch to the Ark which was washed by the waters of the Flood; the Holy Spirit descended in the form of a corporeal dove upon the Lord when He was baptized in the waters of the Jordan.

-Homilies on the Gospels


St Cyril of Jerusalem says the same, associating Noah with a prefiguration of Christ: “the dove returned to [Noah]… thus, say they, the Holy Ghost also descended upon the true Noah [Christ].” St Cyril also teaches, when considering why the Holy Spirit might appear specifically as a dove at Christ’s baptism, a more general symbolism between the Holy Spirit and the dove:


…perhaps He came down in the form of a dove, as some say, to exhibit a figure of that dove who is pure and innocent and un-defiled, and also helps the prayers for the children she has begotten, and for forgiveness of sins.

-Catechetical Lecture 17


Now, according to a Rabbinic tradition, Noah’s dove obtained its olive branch from Mount Olivet. Thus we read:


Why is the mountain holy?

When the Temple stood, the sacrifice of the Para Aduma (the Red Heifer) was done on the Mount of Olives, which – in keeping with the Biblical tradition – was “outside of the camp,” and was facing “the front of the Tent of Meeting” (Numbers 19:2-4). Also, the new month was announced by lighting a fire at its summit. Rabbinic commentators say that the olive branch that the dove brought to Noah was from the Mount of Olives. It’s interesting to note that olive trees only thrive up to the elevation of the Mount of Olives (approximately 800 meters), which was a sign to Noah that the waters had not just receded, but had receded to a particular elevation. Until the Romans sieged the city in 70 [AD] and cut down most of the trees, the entire mountain was covered with olive trees.


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