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Feb 15, 2019

Seven Examples of Symbolism in the Bible

Matt Charbonneau

When reading the Bible, we come across many objects, people and events that can have multiple meanings and hold great significance. We may notice them on the surface, but inadvertently dismiss their importance or gloss over their symbolism.

Yet, these many symbols can enrich our faith and deepen our relationship with God by providing a tangible understanding of the intangible.

While the Bible is filled with symbols, here are seven that can powerfully demonstrate God’s love for humanity:

Rainbow

Genesis 9:13, Ezekiel 1:28, Revelations 4:3

A sign of promise from God, we see references to rainbows in various forms, including being called a “bow in the clouds.” We can interpret a rainbow as a way of God revealing his covenant with us. For instance, at the conclusion of the Great Flood, God presents to Noah and his family a rainbow as a sign of his redeeming grace given to humanity.

Stairway

Genesis 28:11-13, John 1:51

While staircases can sometimes appear daunting in life, they can easily serve as a connection between two spaces. Noticing stairways in biblical passages can remind us of the bridge between earth and heaven. Specifically, we can think of Jesus awaiting us at the top of the stairs, having paved a way to follow him and enter into the Kingdom of God.

When considering stairways as portrayed in our faith, I recall a figurine my aunt has in her home. Sitting prominently on a bookshelf is a staircase with Jesus at the top, his arms outstretched to welcome us home into paradise. As individual stairs can represent life experiences or stages, may we always seek to climb each of them, never resorting to shortcuts or elevators that can diminish the gratification of our spiritual life journey.

White Hair

Daniel 7:9, Revelations 1:14

In today’s age, we are fed many messages about self-image and appearance, including hair coloring in order to hide the fading of our natural color. Along this point, our five-year-old son has begun to notice gray strands of hair creeping in on my head, commenting occasionally, “Daddy, you’re old!” While this can be difficult for one to hear or acknowledge, I think back to a friend’s comment about embracing his gray hair since it indicated the true blessing of life experience gained over time.

Many figures in the Bible are featured as old and certainly experienced—Abraham, Jacob, and Moses to name a few. Their white hair merely underscores their great wisdom and insightful judgment gained throughout their lives.

Rock

Psalm 18:2, Psalm 40:2, Matthew 7:24-27

A symbol we analyze in some of my classes, a rock denotes strength and permanence, as opposed to the temporary nature of sand, for instance. We can rely on a rock’s stability, just as we can always depend on God as our unwavering and eternal foundation.

Whether it’s in Jesus’ parable of the two houses, his appointing of Peter as the leader of his Church, or any other mention in the Bible, we can draw encouragement from a rock’s symbolism of the strength and security God provides to his people.

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Dove

Genesis 8:11, Mark 1:10, Luke 3:22

A beautiful bird portraying innocence and purity, the dove widely symbolizes the Holy Spirit showered upon us. As we are made perfect in the image of the perfect Creator, our faith reminds us continually of how God rests with us, restoring us always.

We can observe the Holy Spirit revealed by a dove several times in Scripture, including the retrieving of a leaf from an olive branch to inform Noah of dry land, the descending of the Spirit from heaven at Jesus’ baptism, and the celebration of Pentecost following Jesus’ Ascension. Regardless of the example, we can be confident God is present with us at all times, watching over us and leading us along his path.

Lamb

Genesis 22:8, Exodus 12:7, John 1:29, Revelation 5:6

Considered to be such a docile animal, why would anyone wish to harm a sheep—a lamb, especially? Yet, in the Bible we often read about God’s people sacrificing lambs. Whether an offering to God from humanity or an offering to the world from God, the sacrificial lamb is a symbol that can never be ignored or understated.

We see a foreshadowing of Jesus’ sacrifice when Abraham and Isaac offer up a ram to God; and again during the last plague on Egypt, when Moses directs the Hebrews to smear lamb’s blood along the doorposts and lintel of their homes, symbolizing the blood pouring from Jesus’ head and hands on the Cross during the ultimate sacrifice of his crucifixion.

While a lamb greatly symbolizes our Lord’s sacrifice, may we also appreciate the significance of the animal as a sign of God’s peace and love. Jesus, after all, is the Good Shepherd who always leads and protects us, his flock.

Anointing with Oil

1 Samuel 16:13, Isaiah 61:1, Luke 4:18

When celebrating the sacraments, we are, at times, anointed by a priest. However, do we actually understand the impact of this action, or the effect of the oils with which the priest anoints us?

The ceremony of anointing and the oils used symbolize further connection to God. As David was anointed king by the prophet Samuel, we too are empowered by the Holy Spirit through our sacramental rites.

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As these and a multitude of other symbols demonstrate, God reveals himself in so many wonderful ways and invites us to know him fully.

While there are seven symbols described above, the number seven itself is significant in the Bible and in Catholic teaching.

The seven days of creation, the seven days detailing Joshua’s victorious battle with Jericho, and Jesus’ direction to forgive seventy times seven times are some examples of the number seven in Scripture.

Our Catholic Church also highlights the significance of the number in our sacraments, the combination of the seven virtues—three theological and four cardinal—the seven deadly sins, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Now having a greater understanding of symbols in the Bible and our faith, let us continue to grow in relationship with God and others, as he created us to be.

Can you think of other significant symbols in the Bible? Mention them in the comments below.


Photo by Thaï Ch. Hamelin / ChokdiDesign on Unsplash


You May Also Like:

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About Matt Charbonneau

Matt Charbonneau is a high school religious education teacher who inspires his students to explore a deeper relationship with God. Applying uplifting lessons, engaging activities and insightful experiences, he strives to demonstrate the powerful presence and unconditional love of God in everyday life. For more of Matt’s writing, visit God’s Giveaways at www.mattcharbonneau.com

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