How Can I Recognize Biblical Symbolism?
“Writers use symbols to convey ideas, without actually specifying the idea, in order to get the reader to contemplate a theme that spans time and its relevance to culture and society.” How do people recognize biblical symbolism within Scripture and in extra-biblical writing? Are they denotive or closely related to the person or idea they stand for? And have some biblical symbols been misappropriated?
Denotive Biblical Symbols
One way to recognize a denotive symbol in any context is by the frequency of repetition in connection with a theme or a person. If imagery is frequently used and the same connections are made each time, pay attention.
Water represents either God’s anger or his mercy and is frequently associated with scenes of either judgment (the Red Sea killing Pharoah’s charioteers in the Exodus) or grace (Jesus at the well with the Samarian woman). Water is the purifying substance of baptism and the death-delivering force of the flood.
Symbolism in any context is supposed to prompt the reader to think more deeply about the association being made. How is the Red Sea like God’s anger? How is Christ-like Living Water? Why does the Bible compare Jesus with shepherds, and how is this connection achieved?
Is there anything that the symbol lacks as a representation (of grace or judgment or of Jesus etc.) and if so, what do the gaps say about the person or the topic it represents? Is the symbol ever subverted to shed light on the prevailing meaning?
For example, Christ is the Lion (Revelation 5:5), but also Satan is compared to a roaring lion (1 Peter 5:8). How does this contrast shed light on the nature of each?
Finally, while Christian symbolism has changed, one must be careful not to transpose modern understandings over scriptural imagery.
For instance, the rainbow featured in Genesis 9:13 stands for a promise God made with Noah “and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations” (v.12) never to flood the earth again.
In Revelation 4:3, the King of Kings (Jesus) sits on a throne surrounded by an Emerald rainbow. Some of today’s readers might associate the sign of a rainbow with the LGBTQ+ movement and thus assume that the Lord uses that same image in a show of solidarity for that group, but the meaning of the rainbow is a reminder of God’s promise of mercy available to all people and granted to all believers in Christ as Savior.
In that way, the rainbow does highlight equality under God, but it was not designed for the benefit of a specific social group. The only people who saw it were Noah and his family: the promise was theirs to promulgate.
Transparent Biblical Symbolism
In one way, the fish is both denotive and transparent. It is a symbol of the abundance of God and his miraculous works, of the way, his disciples would be “fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19).
The fish is often adopted by Christians as a way of identifying themselves to fellow road users, but it is also a symbol recalling a gathering where Christ turned a handful of fish and loaves into a feast for a multitude. The fish represents a feast of fish.
Christ is the vine. He is the staff and scepter. He is also none of those things; each image represents some aspect of who he is, but nothing can fully embody the Savior-King’s character except the Savior-King himself. More often, Christ is a symbol of characteristics such as love and grace.
The most transparent symbol of Christ is the empty cross. His absence on the cross is significant because he rose again; the cross itself is not mistaken for anything else, not like a sheep or water or a rainbow. His victory, his absence from the scene of his death, is signified by his absence from the cross.
More Examples of Symbols in the Bible
One resource lists a number of biblical symbols, including thunder, the lamb, baptism, and the human body, with a Scripture reference and what they have come to represent.
For example, fire is a symbol of the Holy Spirit as per Acts 2:3, which says, “Divided tongues as of fire” appeared to the disciples of Christ and “rested on each one of them.”
A dove also symbolizes the Holy Spirit because immediately after Jesus was baptized, “Behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him” (Matthew 3:16).
Further use of the “dove” imagery in Psalms, Song of Solomon, and Isaiah, for example, indicates gentleness, weakness, and even vulnerability. One sees a dove at Christ’s baptism in Matthew 3:16-17 where “the Spirit of God descend[ed] like a dove and [came] to rest on him.”
Twenty-first-century cultures have frequently misunderstood the dove of “peace” as representing a meek kind of love. But the biblical contexts in which one sees this animal connect love and gentleness with some facet of judgment and suffering.
Jesus’ baptism would inaugurate his ministry and lead him into the wilderness, where Satan would tempt him. Here he would endure a grueling 40-fast, 40 days of isolation, and was left with the power of God’s Word as a defense against the evil one.
He prevailed against sin and Satan. Later, he would die, a ransom for all believers, and defeat death. There is nothing gentle or meek about defeating the devil, though gentleness is a feature of Christ’s character.
But one only understands the full purpose of the “dove” symbol in any context by realizing that peace comes at a price.
Oral transmission of Israel’s history would have made these images familiar, especially if they were used repeatedly for the same purpose.
The dove, a rainbow, water, etc., would have become memory anchors, raising for the listener a connection between object and message while promoting continuity within the Word of God, which would carry over into Jesus’ ministry for those who were alive to see it, and to readers of his Word in later generations.
Today’s Christian, able to read the Bible as a single book, sees the genius in God’s inspired Word. “The Spirit’s appearance as the dove at Jesus’ baptism symbolizes the gentle Savior bringing peace to mankind through His sacrifice.”
With hindsight, facets of Christ and the reason for his baptism are better understood by reading the Old Testament, while a greater understanding of Christ also sheds light on the Old Testament.
Scriptural Symbols in Secular and Sacred Art
Even non-Christians sometimes recognize scriptural symbolism in a film, identify it in literature, or spot certain imagery in a piece of art. For example, Aslan, the lion in The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S Lewis, is a representation of Christ because, though he is fierce, he is also good.
Gandalf’s scepter/staff in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien reflects Jesus as both Shepherd and King, the caring ruler who lays down his life for his sheep.
How do we recognize these as “biblical” symbols? Many people will not do so if they are unaware that Lewis and Tolkien were inspired by Scripture or if they have not read the Bible.
Yet there is the hope that they will see the repeated use of certain props and ask, “Why are those there?” Or they might ponder Lewis’ choice to make Aslan a lion and not a person or some other animal.
Discussions begin, and the Lord can use these discussions to his glory and for our good, even if the symbol’s roots are not instantly recognizable.
One art scholar writes that water is often used “as a symbol of purity and tranquility, but it can also be tempestuous and forbidding, impossible to control and unreliable.” In other words, sometimes the water is a chaotic and frightening image, such as in any painting of a large crashing wave, whether it strikes against a ship or threatens the occupants of a rowboat.
Again, the biblical connection is not always obvious, although scriptural reference is deeply embedded in the study of art history or ancient literature, even at a secular university.
The meaning or purpose of imagery will not always lead to a Christian theme — that will depend on context.
Sometimes bread causes one to reminisce about simpler times; fish stand for a love of the outdoors, and the lion causes one to think of an African safari. But for the Christian, everything has the potential to remind him or her of Jesus.
Go Deep Enough but Not Too Deep
Sometimes, an image is used by writers and artists in their paintings, TV shows, and poems because they like it, or it possesses personal meaning quite apart from anything spiritual.
Meanwhile, many elements of biblical scenes are simply there because these are the real but ordinary props of Middle Eastern life.
Some of them evoke deep meaning, and some flesh out the reality of a situation. One should not attach symbolic significance to every object featured in the Bible.
Then again, any discussion about God’s Word and his purposes is positive so long as one does not lose sight of the hero of Scripture — Christ — in pursuit of details.