Signs and Symbols
SIGNS AND SYMBOLS
A sign, in biblical Hebrew ʾot, is a mark, an object, or an event conveying some particular meaning. A sign is called mofet ("portent") when it is portentous or marvelous in character. Symbols constitute a special category of signs. They are visible objects generally acknowledged to represent, by way of association or analogy, something that is invisible. Symbols are not to be confused with *myths, metaphors, or poetic comparisons. The symbolic acts of the prophets, reported in the Bible, are in fact symbols that are acted out. Ancient Hebrew does not possess a special term that corresponds exactly to modern understanding of a symbol, but words such as ʾot ("sign, token"), mofet ("portent"), demut ("likeness, shape"), ẓelem ("image, statue"), or temunah ("form") are sometimes used in a similar sense.
The direct or indirect author of an ʾot in the Bible is almost always God. According to C.A. Keller, this indicates that the term originally belonged to the religious sphere. In the oldest biblical texts, ʾot means an oracle or an omen by which God guaranteed that He entrusted someone with a special mission (Ex. 3:12; cf. 4:8–9, 17, 28, 30; Judg. 6:17; i Sam. 10:7, 9), or that His might will participate in an undertaking (i Sam. 14:10), or that a prophetic statement announcing future events is true (i Sam. 2:34; ii Kings 19:29; 20:8, 9; Isa. 7:11, 14; 37:30; 38:7–8, 22; Jer. 44:29). The word mofet is also employed in this sense in I Kings 13:3, 5. ʾot designates also heathen omens (Isa. 44:25), especially astronomical ones (Jer. 10:2), and sometimes denotes a token of good faith (Josh. 2:12) or kindness (Ps. 86:17), evidence (Job 21:29), an example (Ezek. 14:8; cf. Ps. 71:7), or a distinguishing mark, e.g., the sign of Cain (Gen. 4:15), the blood mark on the Israelite houses in Egypt (Ex. 12:13), or the emblems of the tribes in the wilderness of Sinai (Num. 2:2; see *Banners).
God's miraculous interventions, principally in Egypt, are often considered "signs" which provided evidence of His supernatural power and of His election of the people of Israel (Ex. 7:3; 8:19; 10:1–2; Num. 14:11–12; Deut. 4:34; 6:22; 7:19; 11:3; 26:8; 29:2; 34:11; Josh. 24:17; Jer. 32:20, 21; Ps. 78:43; 105:27; 135:9; Neh. 9:10; cf. Isa. 55:13; cf. Ps. 74:9). In these texts, the word oʾt is practically synonymous with "wonder" or "miracle," and it is often employed as a parallelism for mofet (Ex. 7:3; Deut.4:34; 6:22; 7:19; 26:8; 29:2; 34:11; Jer. 32:20, 21; Ps. 78:43; 105:27; 135:9; Neh. 9:10), which is also used in that sense in Exodus 4:21; 7:9; 11:9, 10; Joel 3:3; Psalms 105:5; i Chronicles 16:12; and ii Chronicles 32:24, 31. Certain cultic institutions or sacred objects came to be regarded as "signs" commemorating divine actions in the past and containing a lesson for successive generations. Among these "signs" are the unleavened bread (Ex. 13:9), the dedication of the firstborn male (Ex. 13:16), the Sabbath (Ex. 31:13, 17; Ezek. 20:12, 20), the teaching of the Shemaʾ (Deut. 6:8; cf. 11:18), the originally ritual maledictions, characterized also as "portents," which are referred to in Deuteronomy 28:46, the censers that were converted into an overlaying of the altar (Num. 17:3), Aaron's rod (Num. 17:25), the twelve stones in the Jordan (Josh. 4:6), and the sanctuaries of the Lord in Egypt (Isa. 19:20; cf. 66:19), such as that of Elephantine, which were probably inspired by the Israelite places of worship. In the Priestly tradition of the Pentateuch, the rainbow (Gen. 9:12, 13, 17) and circumcision (Gen. 17:11) are called "signs of the covenant," ʾot berit, because they are guarantees of a covenant. The sun, moon, and stars are considered divine "signs both for festivals and for seasons and years" (Gen. 1:14; cf. Ps. 65:9).
In the prophetic books a "sign" (Isa. 8:18; 20:3, Ezek. 4:3) or "portent" (Ezek. 12:6, 11:24, 27; cf. Zech. 3:8) can also refer to a symbolic act or symbolic behavior. A number of such "symbolic acts," described or actually performed by the prophets, are recorded in the Bible. For instance, Hosea symbolized Israel's relation to the Lord in an unhappy marriage to an unfaithful wife (Hos. 1–3; but see *Hosea), and he named his children Lo-Ruhamah ("Not-Loved") and Lo-Ammi ("Not-My-People") to express the fate of the people (Hos. 1:6–9, cf. 2:3, 25). Isaiah used the same method and called his children by names such as Shear-Jashub ("A remnant shall return"; Isa. 7:3) and Maher-shalal-hash-baz ("Speed-Spoil-Hasten-Plunder"; Isa. 8:1–4). Thus he could say: "the sons whom the Lord has given me are signs and portents in Israel" (Isa. 8:18). He himself went "naked and barefoot… as a sign and a portent to Egypt and Cush" (Isa. 20:3). Other acts of this type are Ahijah the Shilonite's tearing his garment into 12 pieces and giving ten to Jeroboam to symbolize the partition of Solomon's kingdom (i Kings 11:29–31), and Zedekiah son of Chenaanah's butting with horns to show that the king of Israel would gore the Syrians with horns of iron (i Kings 22:11). Such symbolic actions are particularly common in Jeremiah and Ezekiel. For instance, Jeremiah shattered an earthen vessel in front of the people (Jer. 9:10–11) in order to symbolize in a concrete manner the destruction of Jerusalem. On another occasion, he carried a yoke to show that the yoke of Babylon would be placed upon Judah and its allies (ibid. 27–28). Ezekiel acted out the siege of Jerusalem (Ezek. 4:1–3) and the deportation (ibid. 12:1–16), thus becoming himself a "sign" (ibid. 4:3) and a "portent" (ibid. 12:6, 11) for the Israelites. And when the prophet lost his wife, the Lord forbade him to observe the rituals of mourning (ibid. 24:15–24) in order to serve as a sign for the people (24:24, 27). As noted by Naḥmanides in the 13th century (commentary on Gen. 12:6) and stressed by moderns like G. Fohrer, such actions symbolizing future developments are quasi-magical and serve to bring these events about.
The "symbolic acts" of the prophets are only one particular form of symbolism found in the Bible. Many of the Israelite symbols are similar to those of other Near Eastern peoples. In fact, the origins of army, civil, and religious forms which expressed themselves in symbols are the same throughout the Near East. For instance, the impressive symbolic ceremony connected with contracting a covenant is found in Mesopotamia, Syria, and Israel: An animal was killed and dismembered, and the partners in the covenant walked between the pieces to show that they invoked a similar doom of destruction upon themselves if they proved unfaithful to their oath (Gen. 15; Jer. 34:18–19). The verbal agreement was thus accompanied by a symbolic act which produced a profound and lasting impression on the mind, and indicated to both parties the fate they would deserve in case they violated the agreement. A similar symbolic gesture is found in Deuteronomy 21:4: The calf's neck was broken to call for the same fate upon the unknown murderer, while the elders of the city, by washing their hands (Deut. 21:6; cf. Ps. 26:6; 73:13), indicated symbolically that the city was free of guilt. It was believed that these symbolic actions were being executed in the presence of the deity who served as a witness and a guarantor of their permanent value. Therefore, lifting up the hand toward heaven and calling upon the authority of the deity was also a symbol used in taking an oath (Gen. 14:22; Deut. 32:40; cf. Ex. 6:8; Num. 14:30; Neh. 9:15, et al.).
In the realm of profane symbols, the giving of the hand showed that a relationship was established between two persons (ii Kings 10:15; Ezek. 17:18). By having a person sit at one's right hand one showed a willingness to share authority with him (i Kings 2:19; Ps. 110:1), while by laying one's hand on a person, one symbolized the transference of power from one party to another (Num. 27:15–23). Similarly, blessing is conveyed, and sin transferred, by laying on of hands (Gen. 48:14; Lev. 16:21). Burial and mourning customs involved numerous symbolic actions. The mourner, for instance, demonstrated his sorrow by lacerating his body and cutting his hair (Jer. 7:29; 16:6; 41:5; 48:37–38; Ezek. 27:31; Amos 8:10; cf. Lev. 19:27–28; Deut. 14:1), by rending his clothes (i Sam. 4:12: ii Sam. 1:11–12; 3:31) and girding himself with sackcloth (ii Sam. 3:31), by placing ashes upon his head (i Sam. 4:12; Ezek. 27:30), and sitting on the ground (Gen. 23:2–3; Ezek. 26:16; Lam. 2:10). There were also funeral meals (Jer. 16:7; Hos. 9:4), originally conceived as a kind of communion with the dead which consoled the survivors. The enthronement of the king and the exercise of his authority, marriage ceremonies, and birth customs also involved different symbolic acts and the use of various symbols. However, it was mainly in the domain of the cult that symbols were employed. The worshiper, for instance, spread out his hands in prayer toward the deity, who was supposed to dwell in heaven or the Temple, to show that he desired to obtain divine mercy and help (Ex. 9:29, 33: i Kings 8:22, 38, 54; Isa. 1:15; Ps. 28:2; 44:21; 63:5; 141:2; Job 11:13; Lam. 2:19; Ezra 9:5; ii Chron. 6:12, 13, 29). Of course, the most important religious symbols were the representations of the gods, called ʾot ("sign"; Ps. 74:4), ẓelem ("image, statue"; Num. 33:52; ii Kings 11:18 = ii Chron. 23:17; Ezek. 7:20; 16:17; 23:14; Amos 5:26), or temunah ("form"; Ex. 20:4; Num. 12:8; Deut. 4:12, 15, 16, 23, 25; Ps. 17:15; Job 4:16). In fact, the image was not merely a symbol of the god whom it represented. Rather, the god was supposed to be present within the image or to be identical with its essential nature. It is true, of course, that the official cult of the 12 tribes and the later Israelite cult in the Temple of Jerusalem were aniconic. However, the ark of the covenant symbolized God's presence among His people and Judges 17–18 refers to the Danite idol. A frequent appellative for the Lord is ʾabbir Yaʿaqov/Yisrael ("Bull of Jacob/Israel"; Gen. 49:24; Isa. 1:24;49:26; 60:16; Ps. 132:2, 5) or ʿegel ("Young Bull"; Ex. 32:4, 8; i Kings 12:28; Neh. 9:18). There is little doubt that the ancient Israelites borrowed their bull symbolism from the Canaanites. There is not, of course, a perfect equation between the Canaanite and ancient Israelite uses of this symbolism. For the Israelites, the bull signified power, whereas for the Canaanites it was primarily a symbol of sexual potency. It should be noted, moreover, that for the Israelites the "young bull" symbolized the platform upon which the unseen God stood, rather than God himself.
The lion was regarded as a symbol of strength and sovereignty. As an emblem of power, it became, most probably in the times of David and Solomon, the symbol of the tribe of Judah (Gen. 49:9). The figure of the lion is among the few which are found on glyptics. There is a carved figure of a roaring lion on the seal of "Shemaʾ, the servant of Jeroboam" (Pritchard, Pictures, 276). Lions also appear, together with oxen and cherubim, on the bases of the brass sea in the Temple (I Kings 7:29). The two pillars of Jachin and Boaz (i Kings 7:15–22; ii Chron. 3:15–17) were probably borrowed from the two pillars of the temple of Melkart at Tyre. But, in general, the various images, cult objects, sacred garments, or rites performed in the Temple symbolized, at least originally, some specific religious conception. Even the cultic *Tabernacle erected for the ark and the Temple of Jerusalem, which were to the Israelites the visible dwelling places of God, were intended to symbolize His invisible abode.
For Talmudic period see *Divination.
M. Farbridge, Studies in Biblical and Semitic Symbolism (1923, 1970); H.W. Robinson, Old Testament Essays (1927), 1–17; idem, in: jts, 43 (1942), 129–39; C.A. Keller, Das Wort oth als "Offenbarungszeichen Gottes"… (1946); G. Fohrer, in: zaw, 64 (1952), 101–20; 78 (1966), 25–47; idem, Die symbolischen Handlungen der Propheten (19682); K.-H. Bernhardt, Gott und Bild… (1956); E.L. Erlich, Kultsymbolik im Alten Testament und im nachbiblischen Judentum (1959); Z.W. Falk, in: vt, 10 (1960), 72–74 (Eng.); W. Kornfeld, in: zaw, 74 (1962), 50–57; K.H. Bengstorf, in: G. Friedrich (ed.), Theologisches Woerterbuch zum Neuen Testament, 7 (1964), 199–268; CH Gordon, in: A. Altmann (ed.), Biblical Motifs (1966), 1–9; J. Ouelette, in: rb, 74 (1967), 504–16.
"Signs and Symbols." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 12, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/signs-and-symbols
"Signs and Symbols." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . Retrieved October 12, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/signs-and-symbols
Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).
Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.
Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
- Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
- In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.