Symbolism in the Bible

Jewish literature is rife with allegory and metaphor.

Reprinted from
The Jewish Religion: A Companion
, published by Oxford University Press.

Symbolism is the use of concrete things to denote abstract ideas. Judaism does not tolerate the making of plastic images of God. The idea behind the prohibition of image-making appears to be that while an image of God is bound to be present in the mind, otherwise it would be impossible to think about God, to give this any kind of permanence in a concrete and lasting image is to attempt to perceive as the reality that which is beyond all human perception.

Symbolism for God

Symbolism for the divine is either purely verbal, calling attention to natural phenomena, as when the prophet Ezekiel uses the rainbow in his vision of the Chariot (Ezekiel 1:28): ‘Like the appearance of the bow which shines in the clouds on a day of rain, such was the appearance of the surrounding radiance.’

biblical symbolismIt is noteworthy that in the whole of this account the prophet speaks of ‘what looked like,’ as if to distance the symbol from the reality. In the Bible generally, terms such as height, light, and spirit (the Hebrew ruah, can also mean ‘wind’) are used in symbolic representation of the divine and the divine influence.

The biblical prophets use the marriage relationship as a symbol of the relationship between God and Israel (Jeremiah 2:2; Hosea 3:21-2). In Rabbinic literature the whole book of Song of Songs is read as symbolizing the relationship between God and His people, as the ‘lover’ of the song woos his ‘beloved.’

Visions & Teachings

The prophetic visions are full of symbols. Isaiah compares sin to crimson which can, in repentance, turn to the color of white fleece (Isaiah 1:18) and sees God as a king on a high and lofty throne (Isaiah 6:1). Jeremiah (chapter 1) uses the symbols of the almond tree and the steaming pot to convey the message that God’s judgment is soon to come.

Amos speaks of the sinful women as ‘cows of Bashan (Amos 4:1)’ and compares Israel to a fallen maiden (Amos 5:2). In the best-known Psalm (23) God is a Shepherd.

The book of Proverbs advises the binding of words of wisdom about the throat like a necklace (Proverbs 3:3) and compares the embracing of wisdom to the hugging of a beloved woman (Proverbs 4:8). In Proverbs, too, a phrase well turned is like golden apples on silver settings and a wise man’s reproof like a ring of gold (Proverbs 25:11-12).

These are only a few instances of the ubiquitous use of symbols in the Bible. Biblical, and for that matter Rabbinic, language is very concrete and has to rely on symbolism for the expression of abstract ideas.

Mitzvot as Symbols

In the Bible the Sabbath is a ‘sign,’ that is, a symbol, of God’s covenant with Israel (Exodus 31:16-17). The fringes (tzitzit) at the corners of the garment are reminders of God’s commandments (Numbers 15:38-40). The tefillin are described in the Shema as a ‘sign’ as, it is implied, is the mezuzah (Deuteronomy 6:8-9).

The sukkah is a symbol of the ‘booths’ in which the children of Israel lived during their journey through the wilderness (Leviticus 23:42-3). The shofar sounded on Rosh Hashanah has received many symbolic interpretations, for example that it is a call to alertness to God’s will, or symbolic of the crowning of God as King since trumpets are sounded at a coronation.

The four species of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:40) have been given various symbolic interpretations, for example, the upright palm branch represents the human spine; the heart-shaped citron, the etrog, the heart; the willows of the brook, the mouth; and the myrtle the eye, all of which are called upon to play their part in the worship of God.

From early times Judaism itself was symbolized by the menorah, itself the symbol of spiritual light, and by the tablets of stone. The symbol of the Magen David is, however, very late and was not used as a symbol for Judaism until the nineteenth century.

Symbolism in Rabbinic Literature

In the Rabbinic literature symbols are often taken from the natural world. Water is the symbol of the Torah because it is essential to life and because just as water only flows downwards, never upwards, the Torah cannot find its place among haughty and arrogant scholars.

The Torah is also compared to fire because it burns away the evil traits in the human character and because it provides spiritual warmth and illumination. Scholars are compared to builders, craftsmen, carpenters, weavers, and other such useful and creative workers.

Following Jacob’s use of animal symbolism when blessing his sons (Exodus 49), Rabbinic literature is full of such comparisons. The second-century teacher, Rabbi Judah ben Tema, says (Ethics of the Fathers, 5.20): ‘Be strong as the leopard and swift as the eagle, fleet as the gazelle and brave as the lion to do the will of thy Father in Heaven.’

In the later literature scholars are often referred to as ‘the great lion’ or ‘the great eagle’.

Some of the medieval writers interpreted the sacrifices symbolically as a representation of what ought to have happened to the sinner were it not for the divine mercy which allowed the animal as a substitute.

The relationship between this world and the World to Come is described symbolically as the relationship between the eve of the Sabbath and the Sabbath itself. Only those who make provisions on the eve of the Sabbath are able to enjoy the Sabbath bliss.

Similarly, this world of error and darkness is compared to the night while the World to Come is compared to day.

Living as they did in an agricultural society, the Rabbis used the products of the soil as symbols for the life of Torah. The tree is used as a metaphor for the Torah on the basis of the verse: ‘It is a tree of life to them that hold fast to it (Proverbs 3:18).’

The value of a tree consists chiefly in the fruit it produces and so, too, the student of the Torah should be fruitful in the performance of good deeds. And just as a small tree sets fire to a larger tree, young scholars can set on fire the minds of more mature scholars by providing them with keen questioning of their opinions.

The vine, too, is the symbol of the Torah. One who learns from the young is like one who eats unripe grapes but one who learns from the old is like one who eats ripe grapes.

Israel is compared to the olive, based on the verse: ‘The Lord called thy name, a green olive tree, fair, with goodly fruit (Jeremiah 11:16).’ The olive, while still on the tree, is first marked out and then taken down and beaten; after which it is transferred to the vat, put into the mill, and ground. Only after a long process can the oil be produced.

And so, too, Israel is buffeted from place to place by the heathen nations but when Israel repents God answers. And just as oil does not mix with other liquids, Israel does not mingle with other nations so as to lose its identity.

There is no need to refer to further examples. The Midrashic literature, in particular, is full of this kind of symbolism.

Symbolism in the Kabbalah

The Kabbalah is especially rich in symbolism of the Sefirot. The symbol of light is frequent in the Zohar, the Sefirot being described in terms of illuminations flashing forth and reflecting one another, and various colors are allotted to particular Sefirot.

The patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, represent, respectively, the Sefirot of Loving-kindness, Power, and Harmony. In the opening passage of the Zohar (in current editions) the Sefirah of Sovereignty is symbolized by the pink rose, in which there is a blend of the Sefirot of Power, represented by the color red, and Lovingkindness, represented by the color white.

The right arm represents Loving-kindness and the left arm Power, and other parts of the body are made to represent other aspects of the Sefirot.

The union of the Sefirot is often depicted symbolically as the union of male and female. It has to be appreciated, however, that in all this the Kabbalists themselves think of the various representations as something more than mere symbols.

For the Kabbalists, for example, the human arms are the form assumed on earth by the spiritual entities on high. Light, for the Kabbalists, is the physical form of spiritual light on high, and so forth. In the later Kabbalah the spiritual forces that inhere in matter are called ‘holy sparks.’

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