As Jesus leaves the Temple area in Jerusalem he is quoted as having said:
Matt. 23:37 ¶ “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. (NIV)
This saying is also found in Luke 13:34 as Jesus is progressing towards Jerusalem. This idea of protection and tender concern is also found in passages such as Psalms 17:8, 36:7, and 91:4.
In glancing at a number of commentaries on the Matthew 23 and Luke 13 passages, all I found were general statements about “protection” and “tenderness.” However, I once heard a lecture by N. T. Wright where he seemed to suggest that what was involved here was a “barn yard fire,” where the mother hen gathered her chicks under her wings. After the fire swept though the barn yard the mother hen had been incinerated, but the chicks under her wings were still alive—the hen sacrificing her life for her chicks.
This interpretation never struck me as too plausible and after lecturing to an adult group one of the participants came up to me and described a much more plausible explanation:
He said that he had grown up on a farm and that a hen has a variety of informative “clucks.” For example a certain clucking sound would call her chicks to eat. He also said that as a prank, he would cut out a cardboard eagle or hawk, affix it to a long stick, and would then maneuver it so that the shadow of the bird of prey would fall within the vision of the hen. Upon seeing [the shadow of the fake] bird of prey she would utter a special clucking sound that called her chicks to gather under her wings for protection from the danger! This of course is what she would do when a real bird of prey was threatening her or her chicks. (my paraphrase)
Again, the hen sacrificing her life for her chicks. I had not heard such an informative comment on this passage before—but then I am not a farmer, nor the son of a farmer!
The altar on which the above mosaic is found is located in the Roman Catholic Church Dominus Flevit that commemorates Jesus weeping over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41) as he entered the city from the east.
You can view/download 10 images of Dominus Flevit Here.
As one who has raised birds for 20 years, perhaps my observations will help explain the figure of the hen with chicks. My experience has been with small hookbills and various finches but, to some degree, they are similar in manner to chickens.
The hen is “territorial” in her nest in that she is the great defender and totally fearless. The roosters (males) only fight among themselves for dominance while the hen protects her chicks always. The hen broods the eggs until hatching and provides heat for the tender chicks until they are fledged.
Yes, birds have distinct calls for alarm, to maintain contact with the flock, and other calls too as another reader has said. So the hen is both the refuge from danger and for warmth. I am not sure it is necessary to read substitution in the figure but certainly she will fight to the death in any attack.
To me the figure of the hen and chicks speaks of “overall care and protection” that God has for His children. The people of Jerusalem chose not to accept God’s care and so had no savior when things caught up to them.
20 years of raising birds! Thanks for your helpful comments.
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I used to raise chickens. The hens would spread their wings, scoop up the babies and gather them underneath their wings. The faces of the hens would shine with contentment, knowing the babies were being kept warm and safe. One of my hens was protecting her eggs when the rooster let her know that he wanted her to get off the eggs and mate with him. She refused to put her babies in jeopardy. So, the rooster pecked her in the head in a violent attach until she lost consciousness. He also killed her babies. She was willing to die for the safety of her babies. My young son gave the rooster away, nursed her back to health by feeding her water with a dropper, and placed new eggs under her from a neighbor’s chicken. She recovered to enjoy her new family. Indeed, hens will go to their death for the sake of their children. It’s no wonder that Jesus referred to Himself as a hen desiring to gather her chicks.
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