The meaning of symbols in the Bible

The Bible is full of symbolism. The language used in the Bible can contain multiple meanings. The literal meaning is often easier to understand than the symbolic meaning. Many symbols appear frequently in the Bible. Other symbols have double or even opposite meanings. For example, the lion can refer to the lion of Judah. That is what Jesus means. In another passage it is the devil who goes about like a roaring lion. Understanding the meaning of the symbols helps to better understand the Bible.

What are symbols?

A symbol is a sign, a word, where two or more meanings coincide. The word symbol originally comes from Greek. Sym-balloo means to join together. In the context of the Bible this means: bringing together the human and the divine domains. Symbols are often ambiguous. They have multiple meanings. The context of the symbol is important in determining the meaning of the symbol.

Symbols in the Bible

The Bible is a religious book. The Bible contains stories, poems and proverbs. Symbols are often used in those texts. These symbols connect the human with the divine meaning. Very concrete things such as numbers, colors, letters and animals have a deeper meaning in the Bible. The symbols are used to communicate something about God. The Bible is rich in imagery.

The meaning of the symbols in the Bible

The Bible is a book written in a different time and a different culture. The oldest parts of the Bible date back to about 800 years BC. The first part of the Bible is written primarily in Hebrew and Aramaic. The second part, the New Testament, is written in Greek. The images and symbols in the Bible were recognizable to the Bible writers and their contemporaries. For us who live centuries later, some symbols are less clear. It is often not very clear to us what a symbol means.

The symbolism of the shepherd and his sheep

In ancient Israel, a shepherd with his sheep was an image that people saw every day. In our time we generally no longer see a shepherd with his sheep every day. Yet the image of a shepherd is clear and we can also imagine that a shepherd takes good care of his sheep. The symbol of the shepherd as an image of God is also clear to us.

Behold the LORD God! He comes with power, his arm will rule. He has his reward with him, his reward goes before him. Like a shepherd he tends his flock: his arm gathers the lambs, he cherishes them, and he guides the ewes with care. (Isaiah 40:11)


Dogs in the Bible

Dogs are pets for us. They are well cared for and lovingly handled. They belong and are seen as family members. In obituaries it often happens that the name of the dog(s) is also mentioned with a dog’s paw. Things were very different in Biblical times. Dogs were unclean animals. They didn’t come to your house. They were more like stray dogs, mutts. The Biblical symbolism of dogs is far removed from our interactions with dogs. Dogs represent the enemy.

Dogs surround me, a fierce pack closes in on me. (Psalm 22:17a)
Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the hand of these dogs. (Psalm 22:21) At evening they return and wander about in the city, growling like dogs. (Psalm 59:7)


Great variety of symbolism in the Bible

There are many different types of symbols in the Bible. Colors and numbers in the Bible often have a symbolic meaning. This also applies to letters. The basic languages of the Bible are Hebrew and Greek. In each of these two languages, letters have their own symbolic meaning. Animals and plants also have a symbolic meaning. Consider, for example, the cunning serpent in paradise (Genesis 3), the dove of peace that flies to Noah in the ark (Genesis 8: 9-11) or the tree of life in the garden of Eden (Genesis 2:9). Body parts are also used because of their symbolism. The hand and arm stand for decisiveness and the ear for hearing, spiritual hearing and understanding faith.

The cross as a Christian symbol

The cross is the Biblical symbol that has become the sign of Christianity. The four Gospels record how Jesus died on the cross. The cross represents the suffering of the righteous, the sacrifice that Jesus made, forgiveness of guilt and God’s love for people. The cross can be found on churches. It is also used in jewelry.

read more

  • The symbolic meaning of trees in the Bible
  • The symbolic meaning of animals in the Bible
  • The symbolic meaning of colors in the Bible
  • The symbolic meaning of body parts in the Bible
  • The symbolic meaning of the cross of Jesus

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