A good deal of “urban legend” has grown up around this verse from Deuteronomy. Many who have not had the opportunity to observe eagles have thought that the verse talks of parent eagles teaching their offspring to fly by either dropping them and catching them up on their backs or wings before the young hit the ground, or just carrying them through the sky to “teach” them the mechanics of flight.
In reality, eagles don’t do either of these things, and the verse doesn’t really say they do. It seems to refer to the parent eagle using its wings to keep the eaglets away from the edge of the nest when they are still very small. “Carries them aloft” is better translated “bearing them on its pinion [feathers]” (as in the ESV and other translations), and the whole verse is simply talking about the eagle protecting its young in the nest.
But interestingly, this is not to say that the adult eagles do not help their young in learning to fly. The help the parent eagles give is not of the hand- (wing-) holding type, but of encouragement. Once the young eaglets have grown flight feathers and are getting ready to fly, the young birds usually begin to jump up and down in the nest, flapping their wings in “baby steps.” The adult birds encourage the young to leave the nest and to begin flight in various ways. They often stop feeding the young or cut down feeding to give the young incentive to find food themselves. They will also fly around the nest repeatedly, again encouraging the young, and even sometimes visibly carrying food in their talons. It is this ongoing encouragement that helps the young eagle learn to fly.
So if there is an analogy for Christian life to be found in eagle flight school, it is simply the lesson of encouragement. Eaglets, like children, and like those new in the faith, profit from encouragement; and it is certainly a part of Christian responsibility and opportunity to help those who are only beginning to come into the truth. There are many ways we can “encourage the young” – and encourage one another at any stage in our growth (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
There is both a positive and a negative aspect to this encouragement. If you will permit one more detail regarding eagles, it is this. Adult eagles, while feeding and caring for their young in the nest, often ball their feet to prevent the young from being skewered by the parent birds’ talons. So it is with us. Encouraging others can take the form of treating them with concern instead of unwarranted criticism and can also take the form of positive encouragement by what we say and do that helps them along the way. Think of it as flight school – it’s certainly an important part of Christian living.