Editor’s Note: To read a companion piece, “Keys to Making the Old Testament a Powerful Force in your Life,” click here.
As we continue to search for keys that will further unlock an understanding of the Old Testament, one of the biggest keys is being able to lift ourselves out of our cultural mindset and put ourselves in that of those who lived in Old Testament times. This needs to happen in many ways, most of which will be addressed in future columns. In this article we will address one of the most important ways: recognizing and understanding symbolic action. Coming to understand symbolic action will allow you to 1) identify the symbolic action and unfold all of the various elements of the symbol 2) see how these symbols would have affected the people of the Old Testament 3) see how these symbols can apply to you in your life.
Most Latter-day Saints find themselves in a world that is increasingly divorcing itself from symbolism. Members of a modern Western mindset want things spelled out clearly and plainly. We don’t want hidden meanings and we want everyone to come away with the same understanding if they have read or seen the same thing. This mindset does not lend itself to seeing and understanding symbolism. Yet “God teaches with symbols; it is his favorite method of teaching.”[i] Our unfamiliarity with symbolism, especially symbolic action, can make the Old Testament, the temple, and other ordinances more difficult to understand. In all of these situations God teaches us through symbolic action.
Symbolism and Symbolic Actions
There are many reasons God teaches with symbols. One of these is that symbols can reveal many different things to us at different times, depending upon our current state, readiness, and need. Another is that a symbol can teach several things at once. They can also teach in a more powerful, memorable, and penetrating way. One symbol can teach each person a different thing, allowing God to personalize his messages for each individual. Another reason we will find symbols used so heavily in the Old Testament is that God teaches us in our own language, which includes the language of symbolism for those who speak it. The ancient Israelites, like so many of their neighbors, looked for symbolism in everything, especially actions. Thus we should expect God to use symbolic actions as a way of teaching ancient Israel because it was a language they would look for and understand. The difficulty for us is that we are not as attuned to it as our ancestors, so we struggle understanding some of the events we read about in the Old Testament.
This struggle is not cause for alarm or dismay about reading the Old Testament. Instead, it should be seen as an opportunity to develop an ability to speak the language of symbols, and thus to more fully understand many of the things God tries to tell us in so many situations. The process is not difficult, it just requires time and willingness. Once a few basic tenets are understood, all we need to do is slow down enough to recognize the symbols and then take the time to unpack them and think through what they might mean. Before that, though, the first step is to understand how God used symbolic action in the Old Testament and why.
We are spending some time introducing the idea in this column because it will help not only with the topic covered here, but with topics of future columns.
Ancient Israel saw actions as potent with meaning. This is bound to happen more with largely illiterate societies than it does with literate ones. When most people cannot read or write, the manner of conveying information will fall more heavily to oral and symbolic transmission. When someone from the ancient world encountered an inscription on a stone or temple most of them would not have been able to read it. At the same time, most of them would have understood the basic purpose the inscription when it was accompanied by some kind of iconic drawing, which they usually were. Acting out important messages is always important, but it was more important for a group that could not read those messages, making the actions their only way of re-accessing the message. Let me provide an example.
Moses and all of Israel made a covenant with God at Mt. Sinai. Presumably those who made the covenant remembered most of what they had said and done. Yet the next generation was not going to be able to sit down and read the account of what their forefathers had done. They would not be able to pour through it again and again trying to tease out the meanings. So instead Moses had the next generation renew the covenant themselves, but did so by having some shout out the blessings that came from keeping the covenant and others yell back the curses that came from breaking it. Not only did acting this out help them remember and understand the covenant, it also became a powerful way of helping them become invested in the covenant. One of the things about symbolic action is that as one becomes part of the message by acting it out, the message imbeds itself deeper, reaching an emotional commitment level that goes beyond that reached from just reading. The memory fades less easily, the meaning is more easily reflected on, and the moment makes an indelible impression on the mind and the heart.
Because of all these reasons and more, Israel was a people attuned to symbolic action. God spoke to them through symbolic action in a way that often puzzles us unless we realize that Israel read most actions as a kind of symbol. Knowing this can clarify many stories. For example, creation was symbolically conceived of as the creation or appearance of dry land out of the midst of watery chaos. With this in mind, the parting of the Red Sea takes on new meaning. Moses comes to the water and, by the power of Jehovah, makes dry land appear. Israel is created as a nation as they go through this re-enactment of the creation of the world: dry land appearing in the midst of the water. In contrast, when pharaoh came to the water, instead of being able to maintain the creation brought about by Jehovah, the water crashed down on him, symbolically ending the creation and making a clear statement that Jehovah, not pharaoh or his gods, was the creator of the world. Israel and her new neighbors received this message loud and clear. This symbolism was drawn on again during the days of Joshua.
As Joshua succeeded Moses as the leader of Israel, he and all his people must have realized he had very big shoes to fill. Most of the people he led had grown up knowing only Moses as their leader. Yet it was Joshua they would need to trust and follow as they conquered the Promised Land. When Israel came to the Promised Land, they first had to cross over the Jordan River.
In order to do so, they followed those who carried the Ark of the Covenant into the Jordan River, which then parted for them, and they passed over on dry land. Thus, Israel was born, or reborn, as a nation when they came into the land of their inheritance.
It was also very clear that God was with Joshua in the same way he was with Moses. God used the language of symbolism to fully convince Israel that Joshua was as much their prophetic leader as Moses had been. No further sermon was needed, the river had done that talking. Moreover, the fact that they followed the Ark of the Covenant, with its lid known as the Mercy Seat, or Seat of Atonement, taught them that their covenant with God, and his atonement, would be the way they would receive the blessings he had promised them. This brief outline only touches on a few of the things God taught Israel, and us, by parting the Jordan River.
Symbolic Action as a Protection
Symbolic action can help us understand an important story that is typically powerful, and then either puzzling or repugnant to most Latter-day Saints. When Elijah ascended to heaven, his prophetic successor Elisha accompanied him. Elijah parted the Jordan River and passed to the other side along with Elisha. As he was taken up into heaven, the hairy mantle he had become famous for wearing fell from him and was picked up by Elisha. The idea of the mantle falling on Elisha continues to carry symbolic meaning for us today. Elisha then used the mantle to part the Jordan, thus drawing on both a new and an old symbol to demonstrate that prophetic authority had fallen to him. Even today Latter-day Saints readily draw on this symbolic action to speak of the passing of a calling from one individual to another.
Shortly thereafter Elisha was accosted by several youth that mock him, calling him “baldy.” The Hebrew indicates that those who mocked Elisha were not children but youth (young teens). It is shocking to us that they were consumed by bears. However, in a society that sees things in terms of symbolic action, mocking a newly called prophet and getting away with it would be seen as a statement that the prophet was not called of God. Furthermore, the reference to baldness may have been a way to say Elisha lacked wisdom since the long hair and beard that accompanied age were associated with wisdom. Some have even seen the insult of “baldy” to be a refusal to accept the passing of the hairy mantle that symbolized Elijah’s prophethood. John the Baptist would also draw on this symbol of prophethood, wearing leather and hair similar to Elijah’s.
The bears served as a symbol of God’s protection of Elisha and thus became a symbolic action statement that God really had called Elisha. If the mocking had gone unanswered, it would have been perceived by all who heard of it as a symbolic statement that God was not with Elisha. The hairiness of bears may have even played a further role, again denoting that God was served by hair-wearing creatures. It is even possible that the mantle was made of bear hair, though we have no way of knowing. In any case, it is clear that these wild, hairy creatures served as symbols of God’s power and his ability and willingness to protect his servants.
Symbolic Action is God’s Mercy
If we combine the topic of the last column, about looking at the big picture for God’s mercy, and the topic of this column, we can make more sense of this story. In a world so oriented towards symbolic action, insulting someone who was newly called as a prophet, even questioning his wisdom, would have been seen as a test as to whether or not God was with Elisha. If God did nothing, many Israelites would not have accepted Elisha as Elijah’s successor. This would have been problematic not just for those mocking youth, it would have been tragic for all of Israel, for they would need to follow Elisha in the coming days. For the sake of Israel God had to answer the challenge with a dramatic event that said something to all of Israel. The punishment may seem harsh to us, but it is because of how much we concentrate on the small picture.
If we look at the big picture, the way we spoke of in the last column, it feels differently. To us, death is a terrible ending, and thus the story of youth being killed seems like a senseless tragedy. To God, death merely represents moving from one phase of our existence to another. As I explained in my last column, or in my book Return Unto Me, God moved the wicked people of Noah’s day from the mortal phase of their existence to the next, where he hoped to have more success in getting them to repent. We should view the death of these youth in the same way. In one instant God used a symbolic action that both taught Israel a needed lesson and moved these troubled youth to another phase of life where he would undoubtedly continue to work with them. When we can move ourselves out of our modern and our mortal mindset and view the incident in a more ancient and eternal perspective, it makes much more sense.
The Old Testament is full of a number of stories that seem strange to us because we are not attuned to symbolic action. “Coming to understand Israelite culture helps make some sense of them. Understanding that God helps bring His children home to Him through methods that will be most effective for them, regardless of how painful those methods may be, helps make more sense of them. Bears, leprosy, plagues, and fissures in the earth are like intravenous needles inserted into the arm of a child: painful, but spiritually lifesaving. Clearly God saw these situations from a perspective far above ours and acted accordingly. Truly His thoughts are higher than ours and His ways higher than ours.”[ii]
Teaching through Symbolic Action
Teaching through symbolic action in the Old Testament takes place on both a small and a large scale. God frequently had his prophets engage in symbolic action as a powerful form of prophesying. So, for example, Ezekiel was asked to shave his hair and burn a third of it, stab a third of it, and scatter the other third in the wind. He then explained that Jerusalem would be destroyed and that many would be killed in the burning of the city, many by the sword, and many would be scattered. Alma tells us that high priests were ordained in a way that made it so we could understand more about Christ and his mission.
The Law of Moses had countless ordinances that were set up in a similar fashion, designed to help all to recognize Christ when he came.The Apostle John drew heavily on this, constantly comparing Christ to the Passover lamb so that Jews would understand how the symbolism of the Passover was fulfilled in Christ, and helping Jews thus recognize that Christ was indeed the Messiah, and what being the Messiah actually meant.
The symbolic action of the Passover is worth discussing further as an example of how symbolic action could speak in so many ways to so many people over such a long period of time.
The Passover itself was a potent symbolic action. Today, most Latter-day Saints easily see how the lamb without blemish symbolized Christ. We also readily recognize how the blood of the lamb on the doorposts, which caused the angel of death to pass over a household, teaches of how we are saved from physical and spiritual death by the blood of the lamb. Moreover, the freedom from bondage that came from the Passover night also symbolizes how we can be freed from our bondage to sin because of the lamb. The sacrificial lamb had to be wholly consumed, as we must fully partake of the atoning sacrifice of our Lord. No bones could be broken, as Christ would have no bones broken during his sacrifice. A number of other things, such as the lack of leaven and eating the meal with their shoes on, also contained important symbols. For now, we will focus on the symbolism of the sacrificial lamb.
Saving the children of Israel from death and bondage through such a symbolic action allowed God and his servants to continue to teach Israel in potent ways from that time until now. Every year Israel celebrated the Passover, being reminded again and again of God’s delivering power as they acted out each year the most important part of that deliverance, the part that reminded them of freedom from death and bondage. Other prophets would draw on this imagery. When Nephi continually referred to the Messiah as the “Lamb of God” he was able to use only a few words to convey an entire story of deliverance and associate it with the Messiah. When he and others referred to having garments, or sins, washed white in the blood of the lamb, they were able to take all the meaning and lessons from that story and combine it with a new image or symbol, thus enhancing what they were trying to teach manifold.
John the Beloved particularly drew on the imagery of the Passover Lamb in his Gospel and the Revelation of St. John. For John the image was so powerful that often it was the primary way he referred to the Savior. John associates the death of the Savior with the time of the slaying of the Passover Lambs. He further ties the Passover into the death of Christ by writing of hyssop being used to give Christ vinegar while he thirsted on the cross. Hyssop was the plant that was used to spread the blood of the lamb on the lintel in the first Passover. John points out that while the lamb was shedding his blood hyssop was again present. John probably took his cue of tying the Passover Lamb so strongly into the atonement of Christ from the Savior himself. The Savior, as they were partaking of a meal designed to help them remember the Passover Lamb, instead told them to remember him.
Symbolism of Passover and Sacrament
When Christ created the new ordinance of the Sacrament out of the old ordinance of the Passover, he both taught that the Passover was fulfilled in him, and simultaneously transferred all of the Passover symbolism into the symbolism of the Sacrament. As we partake of the Sacrament, when we think of all the symbolism naturally entailed in it, and combine it with Passover symbolism, we will get even more out of the ordinance. There are layers upon layers in these symbolic actions, conveying lesson after lesson through age after age.
While the Passover is one of the most powerful elements of the Law of Moses when it comes to symbolically teaching of Christ, it certainly was not alone. The Law of Moses is packed with unending symbolic actions that teach of the Gospel and testify of the Messiah. All of the actions of the Law were intended to prophesy of Christ.
Furthermore, things that happened on a large scale were symbolic actions designed to teach both ancient and modern Israel. The entire Exodus story happened in such a way that we can learn of the delivering and redeeming power of God. So did the stories of the Jaredites and the Nephites in their exoduses to their promised lands. Everything God did with the nation of Israel on a vast, sweeping scale can teach us about how he works with us as individuals. The most powerful lessons of the Old Testament are usually carried in stories, stories that have deep symbolic meaning.
This is probably one of the most important keys to understanding the Old Testament. As we read small stories, sweeping events, laws, ordinances, and prophecies, we must slow down and look for the symbols. Don’t rush through the stories. Don’t think to yourself, “this is strange” and move on. Instead try the following three steps: 1) Stop, think about it, unpack the symbols. Make sure you understand what literally happened, and then try to figure out what symbolism could be attached to those actions, 2) Ask yourself how the event may have had meaning to a people so oriented to symbols and symbolic action. How would they have perceived the various elements of the story? What would a symbolic silence have taught them, and what did the action teach them? What lessons would not be taught without the actions you are reading of? How are the lessons reinforced and made more potent by having action be the symbol? 3) Then put yourself in their place, and see what the symbols can say to you. How does symbolic action teach you when you identify with the people you are reading about? What is God trying to say to you by having these stories recorded in this way? How can the action move and motivate you more deeply than just a sermon?
The symbolic actions of the Old Testament speak powerfully. The question is if we are listening and if we have learned the language of symbolism so that we can understand the messages they are screaming out to us. When we do, not only will the Old Testament teach us more powerfully, but so will our own ordinances, including the temple. The messages are waiting to reach us, all we have to do is learn to let them.
0001pt; line-height: normal;”>[i]Orson F. Whitney, “Latter-day Saint Ideals and Institutions,” ImprovementEra, August 1927, 861.
[ii] Kerry Muhlestein, Return Unto Me (American Fork: Covenant Communications, 2013), 39.