The dove came back to him in the evening and there in its bill was a plucked-off olive leaf. – Genesis 8:11

A dove in flight carrying an olive leaf in its beak is widely recognized as a symbol of peace. What is the significance of the olive leaf?.

God’s first words to Noah are: The end of all flesh is come before Me; for the earth is filled with lawlessness through them; and, behold, I will destroy them through the earth (Gen. 6:13). A midrash teaches that the Flood was provoked specifically by people stealing from one another’s olive trees: “They make oil between their [neighbors’] rows – this implies they were making miniature oil presses” (Gen. Rabbah 32:1) which could be carried into others’ groves to surreptitiously extract oil from the fruit of their trees. We can deduce that the olive leaf that the dove brings to Noah after the Flood represents the world repaired and with it a second chance for humankind to live peacefully.

Another rabbinic interpretation of the text echoes a tradition preserved in non-rabbinic sources that the Tree of Life was an olive tree: “…in its bill was a plucked-off olive leaf. From where did she bring it? R. Birai said: The gates of the Garden of Eden were opened for her, and from there she brought it. Said R. Abbahu: Had she brought it from the Garden of Eden, shouldn’t she have brought something better, like cinnamon or balsam? But in fact she hinted, saying to him: “Noah, better is bitterness from this source than sweetness from your hand” (Gen. Rabbah 33:6).

In the Talmud, the dove addresses God directly in a prayer: “May my food be as bitter as the olive but entrusted to Your hand rather than be sweet as honey and dependant on a human” (Eruvin 18b). Perhaps she knows that in future generations people will not treat other living creatures or their own kind, for that matter, well. It’s up to us to change that.

Leave a reply