Our language is filled with symbolic references, so much so that we often do not recognize the symbols we use. So too with the Bible. The problem is that symbols are culturally and historically conditioned and when we are removed from the original biblical author’s milieu, we may misinterpret the symbol in tragic or comical ways.
Let me offer this definition for symbol:
An expression or object with deeper, yet standard and recognized meaning.
An example of this is the Bible’s use of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18-19) to make “Sodom” or “Gomorrah” into symbols of ungodly, defiant sexual depravity and resultant wrathful punishment by God. This symbolic use happens in Deuteronomy, in the prophets, and in the New Testament. When Isaiah thunders:
Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom;
listen to the instruction of our God, you people of Gomorrah! (Isa 1:10)
whom is he addressing? These cities had been destroyed, maybe 1,000 years before Isaiah’s time. In context, he is addressing the citizens and leaders of Jerusalem in the eighth century BC. He uses the symbolic power of these notorious cities to both brand and warn the Jerusalemites of his day.
Jude, writing 800 years after Isaiah, also uses the symbolic nature of Sodom and Gomorrah to make a doctrinal point, but his readers seem to need more information to interpret the symbol as he intends:
In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire. (Jude 7)
Jude’s word for “example” (δεῖγμα) points to his teaching point: unbridled sexual sin will be punished by God, and we know this from Sodom and Gomorrah. He does not choose to use the Greek word for “symbol” (σύμβολον), but this word is found only in Hosea 4:12 (LXX) and two places in the apocryphal book of Wisdom in biblical literature, so we can hardly fault Jude for this. He is depending on his readers’ recognition of the “standard and recognized meaning” of Sodom and Gomorrah in the history of the people of God.
As one who teaches a course on the book of Revelation, I am growing more aware of the power of symbol in this book. This is not a quest to break some sort of code language used by the author to obscure his meaning. Symbol, like metaphor, brings power to the text. Craig Koester puts it this way:
Religious symbols like those in Revelation … communicate in a more complex way, often conveying several meanings at once. They engage readers in an ongoing process of reflection, rather than giving information that eliminates the need for future thought. The image of the Lamb who was slain (Rev. 5:6) is one of the principal images in Revelation. The symbol is not difficult to decode, so that readers can easily recognize that the Lamb is Jesus, who was crucified. By depicting Christ as a Lamb, the book does not conceal his identity but discloses or “signifies” something about Christ. The image works by evoking a range of associations—sacrifice and atonement, Passover and liberation, purity and innocence—that enhance the readers’ understanding of Christ’s significance (in Revelation and the End of All Things, pp. 47-48).
We need not build a wall between an author’s use of metaphor and symbol, for there is a connection in the secondary meaning of each. But a good metaphor is fresh, a new “assertion of correspondence between two primarily dissimilar objects.” A good symbol is old, an expression that resonates from past learnings.
Mark S. Krause