This is a passage which I have read many times, but still am not sure about its intention. With the way it is written I cannot help but feel something more grand in scope is being said; more than just Noah and some birds, and though I have some ideas, it eludes me. But I shall put forth some thoughts nonetheless.
First we have the matter of the raven being sent out. We know that it is an unclean animal by Hebrew standards, this because it is the type of bird that feeds on carrion (other dead things.) Being unclean it also means Noah only had two of them and let one go. We also know it did not return to the ark; it flew to and fro, and in all likelihood would have had to land on various floating things, feeding on what it could find until the water dried up.
Then we have the dove, a clean animal by sacrificial standards. The dove was much more discerning about where she would touch the ground. A dove does not feed on dead things and apparently wouldn’t even land on them. The dove instead flew about and returned to the ark. Then Noah waited seven more days before sending the dove again. The next time, it returns, in the evening, with an olive leaf in its beak. The dove stays another seven days, and next time Noah sends it out, it does not return.
I have two theories of what may be happening here. Both involve the dove representing the Holy Spirit. One of my views is shared by A.W. Tozer and I will state that I considered something very close to his view before reading one of his sermons on the Holy Spirit, and was both delighted and slightly freaked out that he had written about something very similar.
Tozer explains that the raven represents the man of this world without God, and that he would be at home in the aftermath of the flood, even before the waters of judgment dried up. The dove however is different; in representing the Holy Spirit, it cannot come down where God’s judgment is present. Even today, the Holy Spirit may be fluttering about and wanting to land on you, but if there is any presence of the judgment of God on you, it cannot land on you.
Another thought of mine is that the dove represents the Holy Spirit, and each seven day period back in the ark represents a time period, or dispensation. The first time period being the Old Testament when the savior had not yet come. The time while the dove was flying around may have been the inter-testamental period. The second time after the dove was sent out, it returned in the evening, which I take as potentially representing the ‘last days’, or the time of Christ. This time it returned bearing an olive leaf, which today we may mean to take as a sign of peace, though I don’t know what meaning it would had back then. Then, after another seven day stay, the dove is gone. The general thought is that at some point in the future, the Holy Spirit will depart as well.
Additionally, I also feel that there is a significance in the mention of the Holy Spirit coming down onto Jesus being described as a dove in all four of the gospels. Quite honestly I wonder if it flew about after the flood until the baptism of Christ, until there was someone truly worthy to land on.