Seems we’ve got oodles of chicks hatching out these days, and seven hens are still sitting. Of all our farm animals, I suppose chickens are our favorite. I think our Lord may have also had a special fondness for these two-legged animals. In Luke 13:34 and Matthew 23:37, the chicken is His choice to represent His great love for the people of Jerusalem. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing,” Jesus cries out in anguish over a people who, much like His people today, don’t always readily accept God’s protective care.
When I approach a sitting hen and her chicks, she often gathers them under her wings. If I get too close she can become quite vocal. I don’t speak “chicken,” but no one will convince me that the mother hen isn’t saying, “Stay back, buddy. You can’t have MY babies!” A mother hen will do everything in her power to protect her biddies. It’s her instinct. Call it chicken love if you will, but the hen is hardwired to protect them.
The image of a hen protecting her chicks appears several times in the Hebrew Scriptures (see Deut. 32:11; Ruth 2:12; Psalms 17:8, 36:7, 91:4; and Isaiah 31:5). Jesus, of course, knew these Scriptures well from an early age. So it shouldn’t surprise us that He would interpret His destiny and that of the Jerusalemites within the image of a mother hen with her chicks. Jesus lamented over Jerusalem because He knew what was going to happen there. His love for the very people who would betray Him was so great that He was willing to offer Himself as their protection. By comparing Himself to a mother hen, Jesus must have known how desperately a hen desires to protect and gather the children she has nurtured into life.
Before Jesus’ time, hens symbolized procreation and maternal care, while chicks represented new life. In ancient Greece, the rooster was a symbol of the god Apollo, and his crow was considered a greeting to the sun. The First Century A.D. Roman historian Plutarch wrote praisingly of the hen in De amore parentis (On the Love of Parents):
What of the hens whom we observe each day at home, with what care and assiduity they govern and guard their chicks? Some let down their wings for the chicks to come under; others arch their backs for them to climb upon; there is no part of their bodies with which they do not wish to cherish their chicks if they can, nor do they do this without a joy and alacrity which they seem to exhibit by the sound of their voices.
During the Middle Ages, roosters came to symbolize resurrection and appeared in weather vanes on church steeples. The Victorians endowed hens with the attributes of domestic happiness. Hens were the dutiful wives of the male bird, and both birds served their human master by giving him eggs, and ultimately their lives, in exchange for his care.
Today, the hen has been downgraded from being a mother to being an egg-laying machine. Roosters have been banished to breeder houses. The majority of modern hens and roosters exist only as breeders of animals who are slaughtered by the millions without ever having known the comfort of a mother’s wing or a rooster’s crow. For most Americans, chickens are nothing but meat, pornographically dismembered into legs, thighs, and breasts.
Not so on our farm. I can’t wait to greet Blackie and Brownie and Whitie and Chatter Box and Little Feather (who loves to fly up and roost on my arm) and all the rest of our grown-up hens and roosters. Entering the hen house I will loiter quietly near the mother hens, whose delicate eyes are glazed over with maternal bliss. I’m careful not to disturb their pacific and protective labor. The “peep peep” of several dozen chicks is the only sound to be heard—unless one gets too close to a sitting mama.
Yes, we enjoy our horses, our goats, our cows, but the chickens are probably our favorite animals to watch. I enjoy them for what they are—God’s wondrous creations—and, when I reflect on their character, my thoughts often go back to that old hymn by William Cushing and Ira Sankey:
Under His wings I am safely
May 27, 2004
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com. His latest book, Why I Stopped Listening to Rush: Confessions of a Recovering Neocon, will be released in June.