Blood, goats, swords, oil…what does it all mean?
Especially if this is your first time reading through the Bible, coming across so many odd word choices can make you stop and think, What did I just read?
While the amount of symbolism and figurative language in both the Old and New Testaments can seem overwhelming at first, you’ll soon learn to recognize and understand their meanings— especially with the right guidance and tools for studying Scripture. You may find it quite fascinating!
Why so many symbols?
Symbols are everywhere. Even today we have visual symbols that represent law enforcement, highways or hazardous waste. Some symbols are actions, like a bride and groom lighting a unity candle to represent joining their lives together.
Other symbols are words or expressions, such as calling a person your “rock” to illustrate how they are strong and steady. If a person bothers you incessantly, however, you might call them a “thorn in your side.”
When it comes to the Bible, however, you might be asking, “Why does it need to use so many weird symbols? Why use metaphors in a way that can seem literal? Why didn’t the authors just say what things actually were?” To answer this question, first think of why symbols would be used anywhere.
To add color, feeling or emphasis. For example, rather than just saying, “Satan is evil,” the devil is referred to as “roaring lion” who “prowls around,” looking for someone to “devour.” He’s also described as a dragon in Revelation. These visuals create a more memorable, lasting effect. You might find yourself automatically applying traits of those creatures to the devil, such as insatiable hunger and violent disregard like a lion, and powerful and destructive like a dragon.
To convey significance. Purple was considered the color of royalty, since purple dye was expensive and hard to come by. Another symbol of kingship, a crown, was used as mockery and torture when Jesus had a crown made of thorns shoved on His head before He went to the cross.
To describe something unfamiliar, special or even dangerous. If you saw something you’d never seen before and you didn’t know what it was…how would you describe it to a friend? You’d probably compare it to something similar-looking that was familiar to your friend.
To add to that, what if you had to describe a new concept to a friend but you didn’t want to give it away at the beginning? You knew they’d understand it better if they figured it out for themselves. This reasoning for symbolism is also common throughout fictional literature.
If you’ve taken a literature class in high school or college, you might remember several works that were rife with symbolism. More often than not, the author used symbols to make the reader think deeper.
Or maybe you had to “speak in code” because you didn’t want people standing nearby to hear what you were telling your friend.
Jesus Himself had to use symbols frequently because His own disciples did not yet understand the concepts He was teaching them (see Luke 8:9 and Matthew 15:5). He even cautioned His disciples that if people weren’t in tune with Him, they would never be able to understand what biblical symbols meant (Matthew 13;10-15). He also commended them when He said,
“To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God; but those who are outside get everything in parables” (Mark 4:11).
“Outside”? That sounds divisive…but Jesus is separating those who are “inside” or “outside” the understanding of His word by whether or not they look to Him for understanding. That’s it.
In fact, the Apostle Paul, one of Jesus’ later followers, wrote:
“The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:14).
Some powerful truths are enhanced by symbolism and are meant for readers who look to God for insight. These truths, or their corresponding symbols, don’t have to be bizarre or extreme. The thing is, without reading those passages as an intentional part of your journey to Jesus Christ, you’ll more than likely come away with a weak interpretation that only skims the surface of the deeper truth within. In other words, intent matters…as well as where you turn for further guidance.
In other cases, sometimes Bible authors had to find a way to widely share information that would have been difficult, dangerous, or even impossible for people to understand while in their current political situations. When explaining events, or prophecies of the future, these authors had to cloak the message in symbolism so that people who wanted to understand it could, but others—such as oppressive political authorities—could not.
One example of this is the book of Revelation, which we’ll take a look at in a bit. The book’s author, John, was describing the astonishing visions of the future he received from God. The prophecies in this book connected his current time to the “end of time”—when Jesus Christ would return to the earth, stop the man-made madness from overrunning the world, and take His believers with Him to heaven.
Revelation covers the power struggle of nations throughout history, and the effects of each of those paradigm shifts on the rest of the world. It shows how the forces of good and evil are constantly warring against each other all through the ages. Kings and kingdoms are represented by various animals that symbolized different traits, or by horns growing out of the heads of great beasts.
To further understand the purpose of these crazy symbols, imagine if a prolific author wrote something like that today…without using symbolism! What if the book both named and described in literal detail who will rule which countries, who will conquer whom, what will happen to the rest of the world as a result, etc. Certain leaders would likely be offended, shocked, or overtaken by angry disbelief that an author would publish a piece that so audaciously claimed to know all the gory details of future events.
News programs or talk shows might pick up the topic and make a spectacle of it. Some world powers might even try to “engineer” the progression of events, attempting to ensure the things written in the book didn’t come true (see Daniel chapters 2 and 3). Something like this would definitely cause chaos. The author would probably have to live in hiding, for fear of being mobbed—or worse.
In other words, all this uproar could affect the intended purpose of the book: to assure its readers that things of this world come and go—but even when things get bad, good will ultimately triumph over evil.
If the book is written with symbolic language, however, those looking for the true meaning within will get the picture. Meanwhile, any potentially concerned oppressors would either pay no mind or have no grounds to prove any slander, treason, etc. This was the case in John’s day, and symbolism served as a form of protection.
Where do the symbols in the Bible come from?
God has gifted each of the Bible’s writers with their own style, perspective, thoughts, and sometimes even visions or dreams. They wrote down their experiences in their own words. Depending on their jobs, backgrounds, lifestyles, socio-economic status, etc., they described what they learned in terms of what they were already familiar with. Most of the time they chose ordinary items to use for symbols, such as colors or animals, to help their readers make sense of complicated concepts.
For example, the Holy Spirit of God is symbolized by oil (likely olive oil, rather than unrefined oil from the ground). Olive oil was a staple in daily life during Bible times and it represented health and vitality. It was frequently used in anointing the sick as an act of dedicating them to God.
In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit was symbolized by tongues of fire—which had other symbolic meanings as well, such as revival, purification, warmth, etc.
You’ll find hundreds of symbols in the Bible. Some of them will be clear right away, while others will require further study to determine exactly what they represent. When that happens, no need to be discouraged! Any powerful, life-changing book can be expected to require study and research to grasp the fullness of its truths. After all, this book’s sole purpose is to explain an infinite God to finite beings.
Symbols in action (use of allegory in the Bible)
As we go deeper into parts of the Bible known for their use of symbolism, you’ll find passages with a collection of “storified” symbols that work together to illustrate a principle. This is a literary device called allegory. Its defining characteristic is that ideas are represented as people, or sometimes as personified animals.
One of the most common uses of allegory is within a fable you probably heard when you were young: “The Tortoise and the Hare.” The two key symbols are the tortoise, representing slowness, and the hare, representing speed and haste. The story of these two animals, however, also represents something as a whole—the idea that innate ability isn’t everything (especially when accompanied by arrogance), and dedication and follow-through can accomplish the same goals.
You can find helpful uses of allegory all throughout the Bible, such as in 2 Samuel 12, when God had a prophet, Nathan, approach King David with a message. At the time, the king had recently schemed to have a man killed so he could take his wife for his own. However, the prophet didn’t directly accuse King David of murder, covetousness and adultery. Instead he told a story of a rich man with many sheep, and a poor man with only one. When the rich man needed to entertain guests and prepare dinner, instead of killing one of his own sheep, he took the one special sheep from the poor man.
The rich man represented the king. The poor man and his one beloved sheep represented the husband and the wife King David stole from him.
Not considering the underlying meaning, King David was furious that someone could do such a thing. But then the prophet let him have it.
“You are that man!”
The message sunk in. With this new perspective the allegory provided, King David realized the depth of his own guilt and sinfulness before God.
In the Gospels of the New Testament, you’ll find several uses of allegory within parables Jesus told to teach His followers about life, relationships, and what it means to follow God.
“‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matthew 13: 44-46, ESV).
Jesus spent His time healing people, but the rest of His time He spent blowing people’s minds with his teaching—specifically his crazy stories! The two super-short stories about hidden treasure and pearls are taken from Matthew 13. Interestingly enough, this entire chapter of the Bible is about Jesus, the Master Storyteller and Communicator, telling His followers deep, life-changing, spiritual truth—in symbols! No doubt there were many who were confused and didn’t understand what He meant by these two short stories. Let’s look at what they mean.
Jesus spent a large amount of time trying His best to make people understand what His Kingdom would be like and how it was different from any other Kingdom. In this first parable He explains His Kingdom as a priceless treasure, and in the next story He demonstrates how the Kingdom is a “pearl of great value,” worth more than any other possession someone could have.
The point of both stories is that people who are searching for God’s Kingdom, when they find it, will be willing to do whatever it takes to get it!
Yes, it’s an actual word. It literally means a fear of symbols. But you don’t have to be! With these four easy steps you can begin the process of overcoming your fear…well, ok, maybe not fear, but uncertainty or hesitation that can come from reading Scripture with startling symbols.
1. Pray First: Always start any kind of Bible study with a prayer. God promises—in the Bible—if you ask Him to give you wisdom in understanding and applying it, He will.
2. Yes, You Can Use Your Common Sense. Most (but not all) of the symbols you find in the Bible are not based in literal reality, so they probably aren’t meant to be taken at face value. For instance, when was the last time you saw a dragon or a 10-horned beast? It’s safe to assume they must symbolize something else.
3. Read in Context: The Bible is its own best interpreter. If you’re not sure about a symbol or allegory, don’t rush to judgment or give up. Keep reading, looking for other spots in the Bible that use the same figurative language or mention the same situations. You’ll often find more.
Also, nowadays most Bibles have concordances or other interpretative study tools that can be used to help you understand what the symbols mean. You can find a ton of them online. One great one is https://www.amazingfacts.org
4. Ask For Assistance: Finding a family member, friend, or neighbor—or even contacting the pastor or a leader of your nearest Seventh-day Adventist Church—can help you get the guidance and encouragement you need. The Bible encouraged “meeting together” to study God’s Word
God has given you the opportunity to discover deep spiritual truths that not only provide better understanding but can influence your worldview in helpful ways. When you diligently study the Bible’s symbols, metaphors, parables and allegories, you can learn amazing things about the true character of God and His will for your life.