Time to Study the Old Testament Again Part 6 – Symbols, Signs, Types and Shadows, and Tokens

Jeff SpectorBible, christ, doctrine, scripture, symbols 7 Comments

“Behold, my soul delighteth in proving unto my people the truth of the coming of Christ; for, for this end hath the law of Moses been given; and all things which have been given of God from the beginning of the world, unto man, are the typifying of him.” 2 Nephi 11:4

One of the beautiful things about the Old Testament and also one of the most frustrating is its use of symbols, types and shadows,  signs,  and tokens.  It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words and the same can be true of a symbol or type.  A symbol can represent something that is often hard to explain or cannot be expressed in a small amount of words.

Our entire life is full of symbols and other devices to represent an idea, or even a rule.  Symbols like the $, £ or € are readily identified as types of money.  Others, such as: ©, §, ™ each has a special meaning, which we might recognize,  but would require a long explanation to fully understand it. Others still, like traffic signs are very obvious like a STOP sign, but others such as the one pictured here, need training to understand what it means and how we are to use it.

And so it is with the symbols, types and shadows, signs and tokens of the Gospels. A general rule that might be applied, as described in 2 Nephi 11:4 is that all things typify of Christ.  In other words, all things somehow point to Jesus Christ. Our task is to figure out how.

So just what are symbols, types and shadows, signs,  and tokens.

Symbols – According to The Merriam-Webster Dictionary a symbol is: ”an authoritative summary of faith or doctrine: or 2 : something that stands for or suggests something else by reason of relationship, association, convention, or accidental resemblance. “

“Symbols are teaching devices. Symbols are the language in which all gospel covenants and all ordinances of salvation have been revealed. From the time we are immersed in the waters of baptism to the time we kneel at the altar of the temple with the companion of our choice in the ordinance of eternal marriage, every covenant we make will be written in the language of symbolism.”  (Donald W. Parry, Joseph Fielding McConkie, Guide to Scriptural Symbols, 1990 Page 1)

Examples of Gospel Symbols

Noah’s Ark is a symbol of the Savior Jesus Christ because for Noah’s family and mankind from that point forward, it was the Ark that figuratively saved them from destruction in much the same way as the Savior saves us from eternal destruction.

The Arm is a symbol of power and strength, such as:

“With him is an arm of flesh; but with us is the LORD our God to help us, and to fight our battles.  And the people rested themselves upon the words of Hezekiah king of Judah. (2 Chronicles 32:8)”

The Passover is rich with symbols such as the unleavened bread, the Matzah, which reminds us of the haste in which the Israelites left their captivity and the sweetness of freedom. The Bitter Herbs, which reminds us of the bitterness of slavery and the bitterness of sin and finally, the unblemished firstborn Lamb, sacrificed for freedom,  a symbol of Jesus Christ, the greatest sacrifice of all who frees us from sin and brings us freedom through repentance.

Types and shadows – “a person or thing (as in the Old Testament) believed to foreshadow another (as in the New Testament)” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/type). A type can be a person, an event or a place or location. (Alonzo L. Gaskill, The Lost Language of Symbolism, Salt Lake City 2003)

Examples of Types and Shadows

People – There are a significant number of examples where people are types for others, mainly the Savior.  Adam, Enoch, Noah, Moses, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and David, etc. are all types for Jesus Christ, for example. Cain is a type for Satan/Lucifer. The story of Esau and Jacob has Esau as a type for the old Covenant and Jacob representing the Gospel of Jesus Christ or the new Covenant.

Eventsthe Renting of the Veil typifies the ability for us to return to Our Heavenly Father and our new found access to Him though the Atonement of Jesus Christ.

Place or Location – Kolob is a place that typifies Jesus Christ.

“And I saw the stars, that they were very great, and that one of them was nearest unto the throne of God; and there were many great ones which were near unto it;

And the Lord said unto me: These are the governing ones; and the name of the great one is Kolob, because it is near unto me, for I am the Lord thy God: I have set this one to govern all those which belong to the same order as that upon which thou standest.” (Abraham 3:2 – 3)

Jesus stands next to the Father and is certainly one of the great ones. And at the Father’s right hand, He is the nearest to Him.

Signs – “something material or external that stands for or signifies something spiritual or  something indicating the presence or existence of something else.”  ( http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sign)  Signs are typically given to show or warn the people of, a future event. The sign can mark a good event or a bad event. The most common usage for signs is to inform the people of the impending Savior’s birth, or to describe how the last days before the second coming of Christ will play themselves out (i.e. the Signs of the Times).

Examples of Signs

The birth of the Savior – “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14)

To show the power of God – “And thou shalt take this rod in thine hand, wherewith thou shalt do signs.” (Exodus 4:17)

Keeping the Sabbath Day Holy – “Speak thou also unto the children of Israel, saying, Verily my sabbaths ye shall keep: for it is a sign between me and you throughout your generations; that ye may know that I am the LORD that doth sanctify you. Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore; for it is holy unto you: every one that defileth it shall surely be put to death: for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.” (Exodus 31:13 – 14)

Tokenan outward sign or expression (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/token) The token is usually a physical thing that represents a covenant between God and man or the sealing of a covenant between God and man.

Examples of Tokens

The rainbow – After the Flood, The Lord told Noah, “This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth.” (Genesis 9:12 – 13)

Circumcision – And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you. (Genesis 17:11). This token was done away with by the Atonement of Jesus Christ.

The blood on the door post during the Passover – The Lord instructed the Israelites to take the blood of the lamb and apply it to their door post as a token of their obedience to the Lord’s instructions. Did the Angel of death or the Lord need the blood on the door to identify the faithful?  Of course not. But the Israelites needed to do it to show their obedience.

“And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where ye are: and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and the plague shall not be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 12:13)

These are but a small example of the symbols, types and shadows, signs and tokens contained in the Old Testament. As you study them, please keep in mind these guidelines given by Gerald Lund in the Book, “Literature of Belief: Sacred Scripture and Religious Experience,” edited by Neal A. Lambert:

1.   Look beyond the symbol for its intended meaning.

2.   Look for the interpretation of the symbol in the scriptures themselves.

3.   Look for Christ in the symbols and imagery of the scriptures.

4.   Let the nature of the object used as a symbol contribute to your understanding of its spiritual meaning.

5.   Seek the reality behind the symbol.

Comments 7

  1. Thanks Jeff, as always this is careful, clear and concise.

    Although I sense that Mormons are good at learning symbolism in a manner which recites the ideas that we have been taught. We seem to still approach these issues with a rational logic, rather than a poetic sensibility. Moreover, we also seem to reject readily interpretive frameworks that sit ourside of what we currently believe in be the case. Thus, although by their nature symbols are polysemic; Mormons tend to want to retain a form of unitary hermeneutics when reading the scripture. e.g. the flood story means this, and thats it.

    I have often considered how we could be more willing and able to approach the scriptures with a poetic paradigm rather than a truth or ratinonal-based paradigm.

  2. Another great post. I do think that my understanding of symbols, etc. is greatly enhanced by reading versions of the Bible other than the KJV and also reading non-LDS sources. As Rico mentioned, symbols can mean many things but our minds are often focused by the “Chapter headings” in the LDS version of the KJV onto a single interpretation, which generally goes along with what McConkie felt was correct as he spearheaded that project.

  3. Sorry. Double post.

    I also like reading non-LDS versions of the Bible as the flow of the words is changed (ie. indentation, paragraph form with superscripts for verses, etc.) to emphasize the poetic nature of the writing as opposed to just some verses crammed together. I have also really enjoyed the readers version of the Book of Mormon for the same reason.

  4. “I have often considered how we could be more willing and able to approach the scriptures with a poetic paradigm rather than a truth or ratinonal-based paradigm.”

    In general I don’t think people are interested in the poetic paradigm because you can’t prove anything with it. There’s this need in churches that see themselves as exclusive to take “facts” from scripture and use them to proof text. Robert Borg’s book, “Reading the Bible Again for the First Time” was interesting to me in that it challenged some of the conventional opinions that we’ve assumed the bible says. What we see as obvious in the idea of a messiah and the resurrection was not at all obvious to the Jews both pre and post Babylonian captivity. People see what they want to see and make cases for it but it may very well not be so.

    Seeing the scriptures in a poetic sense has more to do with the translation and writing style. It’s for that reason that I have a hard time with the psalms, the 23rd in particular, and Luke’s Christmas story in anything other than the King James version. At the same time Isaiah and most everything else is very difficult for me in the KJV.

    Lastly in reading the list of guidelines by Lund I can imagine they’ve all been used over the years to justify every permutation, combination and possibility of behaviors that God upheld and that He wanted us to do. For good and for evil.

  5. #4- “In general I don’t think people are interested in the poetic paradigm because you can’t prove anything with it.”
    and “Seeing the scriptures in a poetic sense has more to do with the translation and writing style”

    One of the challenges of the poetic paradigm that Rico points to is, in my mind, that it is, at the same time, both about the text and about the reading in a way that other modes of reading hope not to be. So while your first statement is essentially correct, in that its not the purpose of the poetic to prove anything; the poetic is always working within reason and knowledge and in excess of reason and knowledge; seeking insight in excess of facts or knowledge.

    Your second statement reduces the poetic to the use of language in the process of “carrying over”. But the poetic as such is, I think, inclusive of an approach to scripture. An approach that is creative, imaginative, and interpretative. It might ask about the literary form of a passage from scripture but at the same time it also seeks out the imaginative potential that lies in reading that passage; it is always both at once. At a point it begs a question central to all readings but that other readings refuse to acknowledge, this being in essence, how we can tell the dancer from the dance.

  6. I do enjoy reading the other versions of the bible to see how they are translated. As far as the Old Testament is concerned, I think it probably loses a lot in the translation from the Hebrew to the English. The fact, that the pronunciation of the name of God is called into question also calls into question some of the transation itself since in hebrew words can have different meaning just by different vowels or tittles. (don’t go there)

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