(Noah) sent out a dove to see if the water had receded from the surface of the ground. But the dove could find nowhere to perch because there was water over all the surface of the earth; so it returned to Noah in the ark. He reached out his hand and took the dove and brought it back to himself in the ark. He waited seven more days and again sent out the dove from the ark. When the dove returned to him in the evening, there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the water had receded from the earth.
We don’t have to read very far in the Bible to see how the use of “go-betweens” in our relationship with God is an acceptable practice that the Lord Himself often seems to encourage. By “go-betweens” I mean tangible aids in discerning God’s will through the interpretation of our circumstances, where these are offered as vocabulary for divine communication.
We read, for example, the famous story of Gideon’s fleece. Gideon, in seeking assurance of God’s will, discerns according to whether the dew falls on his fleece or not that a certain action is what God would have him do (Judges 6). We see this also in the book of Acts where the casting of lots is used as a means of choosing a new apostle to replace Judas. Perhaps we’ve all set up similar transactions with God at times. “If you do this Lord, I will take it as a sign that You are confirming Your will with me.”
Noah, as well, is versed in this language. In the story of the deluge, Noah has been drifting for several weeks on an endless sea. He has no way of knowing how much longer he will be confined to the ark. Perhaps he is running out of food, space, or patience so he sends out a “fleece” in the form of a dove to see if there is any hope for change. Is there land out there? Is this journey nearing an end? The dove, having found no place to rest, returns to the ark and Noah must accept that the answer is no.
Though the dove’s return is, undoubtedly, a disappointment, Noah sees it as only a temporary setback in his discernment process. A week later, he sends the dove out again to search for land. Such fleeces are a form of prayerful inquiry—a means of exploring, with God, possible alternatives to our present life. As it was for Noah, they represent prayers of reconnaissance through which we seek clarity in the discernment of God’s will. They are “soundings,” from which we await an echo of confirmation or assurance from God.
In querying his circumstance as he does, Noah models for us a valid form of prayerful inquiry whenever we are uncertain about the shape of our lives. We too, at times, might consider putting “feelers” out in a certain direction just to see what the Lord might do (1Sam 14:6). In what areas of your life do you find yourself longing for change—for the waters of your circumstances to recede and reveal new land to you? What are the “doves” that you have sent out in search of possible places to land? How do these serve as a vocabulary of hope in your relationship with God? And what happens to your disposition when they return empty, or not at all?
Noah’s resolute faith serves as a helpful model for us when we too face disappointing yields. It validates our persistent inquiries regarding God’s will for our lives. It also models the hope we are encouraged to maintain until the waters of our unwanted circumstances have receded. Our gentle, but persistent, probing into God’s purposes will feel much more empowering to us than sitting below deck and waiting for the ark to ground itself.