Why Did Jesus Christ Compare Himself to a Hen?

October 3, 2016
KnoWhy #200
Image via Adobe Stock
Image via Adobe Stock
"How oft have I gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings."
3 Nephi 10:4

The Know

After the great calamities and destruction among the Nephites, they experienced “thick darkness upon all the face of the land” (3 Nephi 8:10),1 and in response to these afflictions, “there was great mourning and howling and weeping among all the people” (v. 23). It is in this setting of anguish and suffering that the voice of Jesus Christ was “heard upon all the face of this land” (3 Nephi 9:1). 

As part of His message of redemption, Jesus declared, “how oft have I gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings” (3 Nephi 10:4). This metaphor was repeated four times in three successive verses, and was even used in three different tenses: “how oft have I gathered you and nourished you” (v. 4, speaking to those of the fallen cities), followed by “how oft would I have gathered you” (v. 5, speaking of those in Jerusalem), and concluded by “how oft will I gather you” (v. 6, speaking to the spared members of the House of Israel, emphasis added for all verses). Clearly, this repeated metaphor was of transcendent—even eternal—significance.2

The Love Nest, 1905, by Benjamin Franklin Austrian.

Jane Allis-Pike explained, “For a metaphor to be meaningful, the reader must have a familiarity with the objects used for comparison.”3 For people living in ancient America, chicken might have referred to an actual chicken,4 or it could have been a loan-shift term for a fowl with similar features in the New World.5 Turkeys, for example, were prevalent in ancient America,6 took special care to protect their young,7 and played a significant role in religious thought.8

Whatever species of fowl was represented here by the words hen and chickens,9 audiences generally are familiar with the natural behavior of hens and their young. Allis-Pike explained that Jesus Christ can be represented by a mother bird in His role as “creator of this earth,” His “desire to protect his young” (those who become His children through covenant), His willingness to “[use] his body to shield his beloved ‘children’ from endless death and hell,” and His “proactive care in the nurture of his ‘children.’”10

She concluded,

Like the hen that hurries her chicks together, Christ focuses on “gather[ing]” his “children.” This gathering comes in the form of teaching them to follow him, to accept the gospel, to learn the plan of salvation, and receive the saving priesthood ordinances.11

The chicks that need to be gathered, on the other hand, meaningfully represent the House of Israel. “The Book of Mormon peoples are one branch of the house of Israel. They have a long-standing history and covenant relationship with the Savior and his gospel. They know the Savior as the chicks know their mother.”12

The Why

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The underlying purpose of this metaphor was “to remind and teach the people of the true nature and conditions of their covenant relationship with [Jesus Christ].”13 Not only does it convey the historical assurance of “Christ’s desire to protect his people,” but it also “underscores the fact that they must want his protection.”14 This can be seen in Christ’s twice repeated statement “how oft would I have gathered you,” followed by the emphatic declaration: “yet ye would not” (3 Nephi 10:5).

Christ’s hen metaphor is explained further in Alma’s open invitation that “whosoever will come may come and partake of the waters of life freely; and whosoever will not come the same is not compelled to come” (Alma 42:27).15 Like a mother hen, Jesus Christ is ever concerned for the physical and spiritual needs of His children. And because His infinite atonement stretches wide as eternity, He will always remain capable of providing shelter and protection to all who willingly come unto Him. He promises and affirms, "how oft will I gather you" (3 Nephi 10:6). 

Jesus Christ invites all to come unto his love and mercy.  Jesus Appearing to the Five Hundred by Grant Romeny

It should also be recognized that even though this metaphor pertains to God’s dealings with the House of Israel, His efforts here and now at gathering and including His children within His covenant are boundless. All who are willing to be “baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him” will be immediately enfolded and included in His loving arms (Mosiah 18:10). Brent L. Top invited,

May we exercise greater faith in the arms of the Lord—His arms of power, His arms of love, and His arms of mercy. May we allow Him to cradle and carry and comfort us in those arms. In turn, our arms—our determination and our devotion—will be strengthened. … May we all be “clasped in the arms of Jesus.”16

Further Reading

Henry B. Eyring, “‘Come Unto Me,’Ensign (May 2013), 22–25, online at lds.org.

Jane Allis-Pike, “‘How Oft Would I Have Gathered You as a Hen Gathereth Her Chickens’: The Power of the Hen Metaphor in 3 Nephi 10: 4–7,” in Third Nephi: An Incomparable Scripture, ed. Andrew C. Skinner and Gaye Strathearn (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2012), 57–74.

Clifford P. Jones, “The Great and Marvelous Change: An Alternate Interpretation,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 19, no. 2 (2010): 50–63.