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As we take a look at Old Testament symbols, it is important to understand their history. Throughout the history of the church scholars have looked upon the Old Testament stories as both historical and allegorical, a foreshadowing of New Testament events. A story such as Abraham’s having two sons, one born to a bondservant and one to a free woman, is symbolic of the Old Testament (law) and the New Testament (freedom from the law). The story of Noah’s ark is symbolic of Jesus Christ on the cross because the length of the human body is six times its width, as was the ark. Because of the allegorical nature of the stories, they are often portrayed side by side with their New Testament counterparts in stained glass windows.
It is important to remember that though the Old Testament stories were given allegorical meanings, they are historical. It was the theologian Origen who would heretically say that the Old Testament stories were allegory only. This was denounced by St. Augustine who said that while the stories were allegorical in nature, they were also historical fact. “‘Brothers,’ he says, ‘It is in the name of God to believe before all things when you hear the Scriptures read that the events really took place as is said in the book. Do not destroy the historical foundation of Scripture, without it you will build in the air.’”1 The symbols in this chapter are in alignment with St. Augustine’s teaching.
AARON – 1. He is symbolized by a budding almond staff based on the story in Numbers 17. 2. A rod and snake represent him based on the role Aaron played as a priest in Numbers 21:4-9. 3. A golden censer symbolizes Aaron as a priest. 4. A golden calf symbolizes Aaron because he helped craft it (Exodus 32).
ABEL – 1. He is represented by a shepherd’s staff. 2. Abel is sometimes portrayed with a lamb which was his first sacrifice (Genesis 4:3-5).
ABRAHAM – 1. Abraham and his wife Sarah were to be the parents of many nations. It was not until Abraham and Sarah neared 100 years old that they had their first child, Isaac, as told in Genesis 22. One day God asked Abraham to sacrifice his only son on an altar. Abraham hesitantly agreed. Just before he killed his son on the altar an angel stopped him. Abraham is thus symbolized by a knife and container of fire. The New Testament parallel to this story is the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross. These two scenes are often depicted together in stained glass. 2. A number of stars symbolize Abraham based on the story in Genesis 17 where God told Abraham that his descendents would be as numerous as the stars in the heavens.
ADAM – 1. Adam is symbolized by a man with a spade. 2. Adam, as a person, is also seen as symbolic. He was the first man, the first Adam who caused humanity to fall into bondage to sin. Jesus was the second Adam who gave set humanity free from sin. 3. A garden hoe. 4. A set of keys.
ALTAR OF BURNT OFFERING – It is a symbol of forgiveness. In the Old Testament, a person’s sin was forgiven by God when a perfect sacrifice was made on the altar. An animal had to die for the person’s sin (Exodus 20:24). This act was a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death on the cross which was a final sacrifice for all sins. The altar of burnt offering was first located in the courtyard of the tabernacle and then the temple.
ALTAR OF INCENSE – The altar of incense was located first in the tabernacle and later in the temple. Incense was burned upon it every morning and night as the priest prayed that God would hear the cries of His people.
ALTARS – Cain and Abel, the first sons of Adam and Eve, both worshiped God by sacrifices (Genesis 4:3-5). The sacrifice of Abel, that of several choice lambs, was accepted by God. The sacrifice of Cain was produce from the land and was not accepted by God. Two altars together symbolize Cain and Abel.
AMOS – He is represented by a shepherd’s staff because he was a shepherd by profession.
THE ARK – A symbol of an ark comes from the story of Noah and the flood (Genesis 6). The ark can be shown in the midst of the flood. It is also portrayed as resting on dry ground with the rainbow arching over it. 1. The ark symbolizes God’s protection of the righteous. 2. It is a symbol of the flood and God’s righteous judgment against wickedness. 3. The ark symbolizes the church.
ARK OF THE COVENANT – 1. The sacred seat of God on earth. The Ark of the Covenant was placed in the Holy-of-Holies in the tabernacle (and later in the temple at Jerusalem). No one except the High Priest was allowed in the Holy-of-Holies because God resided there. If anyone did enter, they died because they were sinful and rebellious and were in the presence of a perfect and Holy God. The Bible tells of one account where the Ark of the Covenant was touched while being transported. Uzzah immediately died (2 Samuel 6:2-7). In this sense it symbolizes the presence of God. 2. A symbol of worship.
BURNING BUSH – A symbol of Moses and God’s calling in his life (Exodus 3). Moses was out in the desert when he noticed a bush that was burning, yet it was not consumed by the flames. God was in the burning bush and instructed him to go and free the Israelites who were slaves in Egypt.
CAIN – 1. He is symbolized by a plough. 2. An ox goad and/or a yoke.
CANDLESTICK (Menorah) – A seven-branched candlestick found in the tabernacle and the temple. When lit, it was the only source of light, as neither the tabernacle nor temple had any windows. The seven candles stood as a symbol of God’s perfect light.
CANDLESTICK (Chanukiah Menorah) – During the Maccabean revolt (167 B.C.), the Jews were able to recapture Jerusalem and the temple from the Syrian-Greek army. Because the temple had been defiled by the pagans, the temple had to be cleansed. When the priests went to re-light the Menorah, they found that there was only one undefiled jug of oil remaining. It would take eight days to make more. Regardless, the high priest decided to light the Menorah. The oil lasted for all eight days until new oil was ready! This miracle is still celebrated as Chanukiah (meaning dedication) or the Feast of Lights. The Chanukiah Menorah has nine branches, eight for each day the oil lasted and a servant candle in the middle called the “Shamash.” From the Shamash the other eight candles are lit.
CREATION – When the beginning of creation is depicted, the artist often uses Genesis 1:1 written on a scroll.
CREATION OF MAN – This is portrayed by writing Genesis 1:27 written on a scroll; where God makes man in His own image.
CREATION STAR (STAR OF DAVID) – 1. The Hebrew name for God, Yahweh, is considered sacred by the Jews. Whenever the Jewish rabbis come to the word “Yahweh” while reading aloud, they substitute the word “Adoni” in its place. Another substitute for the sacred name of God was to write two Hebrew letters called “yods.” They are usually written between rays of light or in the creation star. The star symbolizes creation because it has six points, one for each day God created all things. 2. Today the star is synonymous with Israel. The star is called the Star of David. This star dates back to Roman times, when it was used as a simple decoration piece. The Jews liked the design and started integrating it into their synagogues. The earliest usage of the Star of David dates back to 200 A.D. to a synagogue in Capernaum. Now this star is inseparable from Israel. It appears on their national flag.
DANIEL – 1. He is symbolized by a man in the presence of several lions, referring to his duration in the lion’s den (Daniel 6). 2. He is symbolized by a ram with two horns (Daniel 8) and the great image that King Nebuchadnezzar had dreamed (Daniel 2). 3. A figure of Daniel can be seen with a small figure of Mark on his shoulder, because Mark was considered Daniel’s counterpart in the New Testament. The four major prophets, (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel), are often displayed as parallel to the four evangelists, (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) of the New Testament.
DAVID – David’s story is so thoroughly recorded in the Bible that it encompasses readings from I Samuel through the end of II Samuel. The images and items used to symbolize him are many: 1. A young lion. 2. A harp. 3. A sling and five stones as well as Goliath’s head and great sword. 4. A horn of oil. 5. A crown. 6. A turreted castle.
DEBORAH – She was a female judge (Judges 4) who is symbolized by a crown.
ELIJAH – 1. Elijah is symbolized by a scroll and a red vestment. 2. A sword. 3. A mantle and/or a fiery chariot (2 Kings 2).
ELISHA – 1. He is symbolized by Elijah’s mantle which he had asked for and received from Elijah (2 Kings 2:12-14). 2. A double-headed eagle.
ESAU – 1. He is symbolized by a bow and arrows (Genesis 27:3). 2. A mess of pottage which was used by his brother Jacob to steal the birthright away from him (Genesis 27:14).
EVE – 1. She is represented by a spindle or distaff. 2. Some traditions portray the Virgin Mary as Eve’s counterpart in the New Testament. By Eve’s actions sin entered the world. By Mary’s actions of obedience, the power of sin was destroyed by her Son.
THE EXODUS – Israel’s bondage in Egypt is often depicted by showing a taskmaster’s whip and/or a pile of bricks.
EZEKIEL – 1. He can be symbolized by a closed gate. 2. A turreted gateway. 3. An image of the New Jerusalem city. 4. A figure of Ezekiel can be seen with a small figure of John on his shoulder, who is considered to be Ezekiel’s counterpart in the New Testament. The four major prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel) of the Old Testament are often displayed as parallel to the four evangelists, (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) of the New Testament.
FLAMING CHARIOT – The prophet Elijah was taken up to Heaven in a flaming chariot (2 Kings 2). He was only the second person not to face physical death (Enoch being the first).
FLAMING SWORD – The flaming sword represents the expulsion (removal) of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden (Genesis 3:23-24). An angel was placed at the entrance to guard the garden and in his hand he wielded a flaming sword.
GIDEON – 1. Gideon is symbolized by a wool fleece which he had laid out before God to help him know he had heard from God (Judges 6:37-38). 2. A pitcher, a light, a torch and/or a trumpet symbolize Gideon. These items are taken from the story in Judges 7 where God ordered Gideon to attack a much stronger military force with his small band of fighters.
HABAKKUK – 1. He is portrayed by an angel. 2. A temple of God.
HAGGAI – 1. He is represented by timbers. 2. A temple under construction.
HOSEA – 1. Hosea is represented by a cast-off mantle which symbolizes the infidelity (unfaithfulness) of Israel. 2. He is represented by a skull. 3. A smashed idol.
ISAAC – Isaac is shown as a boy carrying a bundle of wood for the sacrifice (based on the story in Genesis 22). The wood is often held in the form of a cross because Isaac’s sacrifice was a foreshadowing of the death of Jesus who would also be obedient to the point of death.
ISAIAH – 1. Isaiah is symbolized by a saw. This is based on several illustrations Isaiah gave concerning wood (Isaiah 10:15, 40:20, 44:19). Because of his intimate knowledge of wood, he was thought to have been a carpenter. 2. He is symbolized by tongs, a burning coal and an altar, which are taken from the account in Isaiah 6 where Isaiah is standing in the throne room of God. 3. Isaiah can be depicted as a man with a tiny figure of Matthew on his shoulder. Matthew is considered Isaiah’s counterpart in the New Testament. The four major prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel) of the Old Testament are often displayed as parallel to the four evangelists, (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) of the New Testament.
JACOB – 1. A ladder symbolizes Jacob, referring to his dream of a stairway reaching up into Heaven (Genesis 28:11-16). 2. Twelve stars represent the twelve tribes of Israel and the sun and moon represent Jacob and Leah and their twelve sons (Genesis 37:9).
JEREMIAH – 1. Jeremiah is represented by a stone, the item that he is said to have been martyred with. 2. Jeremiah can be symbolized with a switch or a cistern, referring to the abuses Jeremiah suffered because of preaching God’s message. 3. A scroll with the prophetic words of Jeremiah can represent him. 4. A figure of Jeremiah with a tiny figure of Luke on his shoulder can also be seen, as Luke was considered Jeremiah’s counterpart in the New Testament. The four major prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel) from the Old Testament are often displayed as parallel to the four major evangelists, (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) from the New Testament.
JOEL – 1. A pointed hood. 2. A trumpet. 3. A host of lions.
JONAH – 1. He is represented by a large fish or a ship, recounting his being swallowed by a great fish (Jonah 1).
JOSEPH – 1. He is symbolized by his coat of many colors (Genesis 37:3). 2. A star and sheaf of wheat symbolize him (Genesis 37). 3. An open pit or Egyptian column, a ruler’s scepter, a chain or a mummy can also symbolize Joseph; these represent his sale to Egyptians as well as his later rise to power in Egypt.
JOSHUA – 1. He is symbolized by a sword and trumpet because of his leading the Israelites into the promised land. 2. A scepter.
LAVER – A container holding water for the priests to wash and cleanse themselves before performing their priestly duties. The laver was found first in the tabernacle and then in the temple.
MALACHI – He is represented by an angel coming out of the heavens.
MELCHIZEDEK – He is often viewed as a character who foreshadowed Christ (Genesis 14:18). 1. He is symbolized by a loaf of bread. 2. A chalice. 3. A mitre and crown. 4. A crown and censer.
MICAH – 1. He is portrayed with a broken sword along with a lance. 2. A temple on a mountain. 3. A turreted tower.
MOSES – Moses’ storied history makes for many symbolic representations of him. 1. Items given to him by God such as the two tablets of stone (Exodus 19). 2. An ark of bulrushes (Exodus 2). 3. A burning bush (Exodus 3). 4. A snake of bronze (Exodus 3). 5. A stream of water flowing from a rock (Exodus 17).
NAHUM – 1. He is represented by a mountain with the feet of an angel emerging from a cloud. 2. A broken yoke.
NOAH – Noah and his family were spared by God when He sent a worldwide flood upon the earth (Exodus 7 & 8). He is symbolized by the ark, an oar or a dove with a sprig of olive in its beak, all referring to the flood narrative.
OBADIAH – 1. He is shown with a pitcher and loaves of bread. 2. He can be shown standing by two caves in which he concealed one hundred prophets.
OLD TESTAMENT FESTIVALS – Listed here are four Old Testament festivals along with their respective symbols. 1. The Passover is symbolized by a spotless lamb or blood on door posts. 2. Pentecost is symbolized by a scroll of the law or a sheaf of wheat. 3. A tent made of tree limbs is symbolic of the Festival of Tabernacles. 4. The Atonement is symbolized by a red heifer or a censer.
OLD TESTAMENT WORSHIP – Almost any items found in the tabernacle or temple are used to symbolize Old Testament worship. The seven branched candlestick, the altar of burnt offering, the altar of incense, the brazen laver, the table of showbread, the breastplate of the high priest, the priest’s mitre, the ark of the covenant and the tabernacle itself can be used.
PLAGUES – The plagues of Egypt are often shown by Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh with a staff and/or snake. Since the other plagues can be a little more difficult to depict, usually only the tenth plague, the death of the firstborn, is shown.
THE PROMISED LAND – 1. A large cluster of grapes hanging from a pole, symbolizes the spies’ trip into the promised land (Numbers 13). 2. A piece of honeycomb and a vessel of milk. (Numbers 13:27). 3. Seven ram’s horn trumpets referring to the fall of Jericho and Israel’s entering the promised land (Joshua 6).
RUTH – She is symbolized by a sheaf of wheat.
SAMSON – Many interesting and amazing stories are told about Samson (Judges 13-16). Many symbols for Samson are pulled from these stories. 1. A lion. 2. The jaw-bone of an donkey. 3. Gates of a city (Gaza). 4. Seven cords/ropes. 5. Two great pillars in various stages of being or having been destroyed. 6. Samson himself can also be displayed. He is always muscular and has long hair.
SCROLL (Pentateuch, Torah) – The Pentateuch/Torah refers to the first five books of the Old Testament, all written by Moses. They are also referred to as the Book of the Law because all the guidelines and regulations for the Israelites are spelled out in these books. The Pentateuch, even today, is considered sacred by the Jews. Traditionally, Jewish men may read from the Pentateuch, starting at the age of thirteen. The Pentateuch is depicted by either a scroll or a book.
SETH – The third son of Adam and Eve. 1. He is represented by three seeds from the Tree of Life. 2. A thread wound around the thumb three times.
THE SIBYLS – “In Mediaeval days and during the Renaissance artists were often known to picture the Twelve Sibyls in company with the prophets. These Sibyls are supposed to have been prophetesses who uttered Messianic testimony in pagan lands. Persica proclaimed our Lord in Persia, it is said. Her symbol is a lantern, and she tramples a serpent or a dragon under foot. She revealed the Messiah by means of the Book of Genesis. Libyca’s field of activity was in Africa. She is represented by a torch or a burning candle, because she is said to have declared Jesus Christ as a Light to enlighten the Gentiles. Erythraea, who went to the lands bordering the Red Sea, holds a sword, or is shown by a horn or a white rose. She declared the Annunciation. Cumana went to Cumea. Her symbol is a manger, because she is reported to have declared the Nativity of our Lord. Samiana, who labored in Samos, is given a reed or a cradle, for she spoke of our Lord’s birth in a cattle shed. Cimmeriana, who went to the lands around the Black Sea, is shown by a horn of milk because she foretold the nurture of the Holy Child. Europeana went to Europe, it is said, and preached concerning the slaughter of the Innocents. Her emblem is a sword. Tiburtina proclaimed the Lord’s coming in Tivoli. She is given a hand or a rod, for she spoke of the smiting of our Saviour. Agrippa is shown by a scourge because she predicted the scourging of our Lord. Delphica, who went to Delos, is shown by a horn or a crown of thorns. She is said to have foretold the crowning of our Lord with thorns. Hellespontica, who preached at the Hellespont, is shown by means of a flowering rod or a Tau cross. She spoke of the Incarnation and the Crucifixion. Phrygiana, whose field of activity was in Phrygia, carries a processional cross or a banner of victory, for she proclaimed the Resurrection. Examples of these Sibyls may be seen in the south aisle windows of St. Quen of Rouen, at Sens, at Autun, on the west of the church at Aix, in Michelangelo’s mural paintings in the Sistene Chapel, in Giotto’s Tower at Florence, at St. Jacques’ at Dieppe, and in Raphael’s ‘Adoration of the Kings.’ Two Sibyls are introduced in the famous polyptych at St. Bavon’s Cathedral in Ghent.”2
SNAKE OF BRONZE – 1. While wandering in the desert the people complained to God about His provisions for them (Numbers 21:4-9). So God sent poisonous snakes to bite and poison them. Many died from the bites. The people quickly repented and cried out to Moses to pray to God to take the snakes away. God forgave the people and instructed Moses to make a bronze snake and to lift it up on a pole. Every person who saw the bronze snake was healed. 2. The bronze snake is a foreshadowing of Jesus being put up on a cross. All who looked upon His sacrificial death and believed would be “healed” of their sins. Even Jesus Himself alluded to this point in John 3:14-15, when He said He too would be lifted up. The two events were often portrayed together in stained glass.
SOLOMON – 1. Solomon, Israel’s wisest king, is symbolized by a temple which he built (I Kings 6). 2. A scroll and scepter, to symbolize his rule as king. 3. An idol can be used in a negative sense, because it led to his downfall (I Kings 11).
TABLE OF SHOWBREAD – A golden table with twelve loaves of bread upon it. It was located in the holy place, first in the tabernacle and then in the temple. The twelve loaves of bread were a symbol of Israel’s dependence on God to provide for their needs.
TEMPTATION AND FALL OF MAN – 1. The temptation and fall of Adam and Eve in the garden (Genesis 3) is often shown as a trunk of a tree with some sort of fruit on it and a snake coiled around it. 2. An apple or a piece of fruit can symbolize the fall. Keep in mind that the fruit Adam and Eve ate was most likely NOT an apple. The connection seems to stem from the Latin words malum meaning “apple” and malus meaning “sin.” Thus, the apple became the traditional piece of fruit connected with the first sin. SEE ALSO: Plants: Apple. 3. It can also be represented as a snake coiled around a globe.
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS – The commandments refer to the ten great commandments cut into stone and given to Moses by God Himself (Exodus 20). They are always depicted on two stone tablets. When oak leaves are shown behind the two tablets, it symbolizes secureness and regeneration. Because there were no verse divisions in the Bible until the Geneva Bible in 1560, the ten commandments can be divided at different points.
Hebrew form – Don’t forget to read from right to left!
Catholic & Lutheran form – These churches stand behind the ancient division of the ten commandments. Exodus 20:2 is viewed as the introduction and Exodus 20:3 is the first commandment. The first three commandments deal with our responsibilities towards God. The remaining seven deal with our responsibilities towards humankind.
Greek & Calvinistic form – Exodus 20:2 & 3 are separate commandments. So the first four commandments deal with our responsibilities towards God. The remaining six, including a combining of the statements regarding coveting, deal with our responsibilities towards others.
TOWER OF BABEL – The tower of Babel was a tower that people tried to build to reach the heavens (Genesis 11). It was there that God confused the languages of the peoples and construction was immediately stopped. It is symbolized by a spiraling tower.
THE TWELVE TRIBES – The symbols of the twelve tribes of Israel are based upon Genesis 49: 1-27. 1. Reuben is symbolized by water. 2. Simeon is symbolized by a sword. 3. Levi is symbolized by a sword or a censer. 4. Judah is symbolized by a lion’s cub or a scepter. 5. Zebulun is symbolized by a ship in a harbor. 6. Issachar is symbolized by a donkey with two burdens. 7. Dan is symbolized by a snake (adder). 8. Gad is symbolized by a banner or implements of warfare. 9. Asher is symbolized by a horn of plenty. 10. Naphtali is symbolized by a running hind. 11. Joseph is symbolized by a fruitful tree branch by a well. 12. Benjamin is symbolized by a wolf.
ZECHARIAH – Due to the numerous prophecies of Zechariah, he is symbolized by a number of things. 1. A donkey. 2. Four horns. 3. A red horse. 4. A measuring line. 5. A winged scroll. 6. Four chariots. 7. A stone full of eyes.
ZEPHANIAH – He is represented by his various prophecies. 1. Men. 2. Animals. 3. Birds 4. Fishes. 5. A walled city with a great sword hovering above.
1. Mâle, Emile, “The Gothic Image, Religious Art in France of the Thirteen Century,” (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1958), p. 135-136.
2. Webber, F. R., Church Symbolism (Cleveland: J. H. Jansen, 1934), 37-38.