Have you ever been reading in the scriptures and wondered, “is that literal or figurative?” Have you wondered why certain numbers or colors were mentioned in a more than prominent way, as if they carried the entire meaning of the verse, but you didn’t know why that was so important and how to interpret it?
In Mark 8, we read this fascinating exchange between the Savior and his disciples.
15. And he charged them, saying, Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, and of the leaven of Herod.
16. And they reasoned among themselves, saying, It is because we have no bread.
17. And when Jesus knew it, he saith unto them, Why reason ye, because ye have no bread? perceive ye not yet, neither understand? have ye your heart yet hardened?
18. Having eyes, see ye not? and having ears, hear ye not? and do ye not remember?
19. When I brake the five loaves among five thousand, how many baskets full of fragments took ye up? They say unto him, Twelve.
20. And when the seven among four thousand, how many baskets full of fragments took ye up? And they said, Seven.
21. And he said unto them, How is it that ye do not understand?
Whoa. Do we understand? 5 -> 5,000 -> 12 and 7 -> 4,000 -> 7? Did the Savior just make an important statement based on a bunch of numbers? Yep.
In this study topic I’m going to give you a framework and you’re going to create some collection notes to facilitate your future study. Then you will always have resources available to you to help interpret symbolism in the scriptures.
Here is your most basic piece of framing. When we see something in the scriptures that might be symbolic, we first evaluate if it’s meant to be literal or figurative. Some things are clearly presented in a figurative way, while others may simply appear to be literal. Once you’ve arrived at that first layer of understanding, we look deeper. Is there a way for the literal thing to also be figurative? If so, we can classify it as both. If it’s not both literal and figurative, then it is only literal and not symbolic, or only figurative and not literal. We will look at examples in a bit.
In Scripture Notes, start a blank collection note with the title “Symbolism” and give it tags of Symbols, Symbolism, Types, and Shadows. Then add this quote to the master note area.
In his book Gospel Symbolism (pg. xi), Joseph McConkie said,
“We have discovered that to be fluent in the language of the Spirit one must be fluent in the language of symbolism…Further, no claim is made to be the final word. Symbols are the language of feeling, and as such it is not expected that everyone will perceive them in the same way. Like a beautifully cut diamond, they catch the light and then reflect its splendor in a variety of ways.”
Now look up these 4 verses and drag them into the verse area of your collection note.
Moses 6:63; D&C 88:41; 2 Nephi 11:4; Alma 30:44
Read over these verses and get a feel for the points they are making. Everything testifies of Christ, because Christ is in everything. The creator always signs his creation.
Create a new blank collection note. Title this one “Number symbolism” and tag it with Symbolism, Symbols, and Numbers. Create a second and name it “Color symbolism” and tag it with Symbolism, Symbols, and Colors.
When I attended institute many years ago at Utah State, one of my instructors (Brother John Fowles), opened my eyes to a study of symbolism. It got me started down this road and has been helpful over the years in identifying potential meanings in the scriptures. I’d like to share with you some of the information he shared.
In a course handout he provided a list of meanings on numbers and colors. He obtained the information from The Illustrated Bible Dictionary published by Tyndale, and The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible published by Abingdon, and other sources. I have modified it a little since that time as I looked up meanings in other sources as well. Copy/paste these tables into your respective collection notes. When you paste this in, it can be a little tricky to keep the formatting. I find it really helpful to press enter a couple times in the master note area before pasting in html data like this. When you paste it will ask how you would like to paste it. Click “keep” to preserve the html table formatting. You can also click into the source code of the master note and clean up any oddities manually if you understand some basics of html.
|1||God’s uniqueness; Holy; Deity; Singleness of purpose|
|2||A few; Companionship; Division; Unity; Oppression; Different|
|3||Power of God; Perfection; Complete; Covenant; Solid; Entire|
|4||Divine revelation; Complete harmony; Sufficiency; Completeness and Perfection; Totality; God’s creations; Man; Glory|
|5||Semi-complete; A few; Penalties; Rewards; Atonement; Grace; Temple|
|6||Evil; Apostasy; Man; Incomplete; One less than seven|
|7||Association with God; Fulfillment; Completion; Perfection; Sanctified; Covenant number; 3 + 4 (2 holy numbers added)|
|8||A new beginning; Abundant; Witness of Salvation; One after seven|
|9||The end; Last times or days; Judgment; Three times three; One less than ten|
|10||The Creation; Divine order; Completeness; Whole; Perfect under the covenant; Quite a few; Two times five; Three plus seven|
|12||Union of the people of God; Elective purposes of God; Earthly Government; 3 x 4; Number of Israel|
|13||Rebellion; Apostasy; Defection; Corruption|
|14||The Messianic number (number of David)|
|15||Acts wrought by the power of God|
|24||Heavenly Government and worship|
|40||Time of spiritual preparation; Renewal; Newness; Life; A generation|
|42||Antichrist; Evil; Man’s opposition to God|
|50||Jubilee; Deliverance; God’s administration of the world|
|70||Gentiles; Those who bring gentiles into the house of Israel; God’s administration of the world|
|666||Number of the beast (Six, three times)|
|1000||The most; The highest number; Hyperbolic number for very large|
|144000||Number 12 (elect) squared times 1000|
|Black||Solemnity; Negation; Sickness; Death; Mourning|
|Brown||Renunciation of the world; Spiritual death and degradation|
|Blue||Heavenly love; Unveiling of truth|
|Brass||Hardness; Strength; Firmness|
|Green||Spring; Triumph of life over death; Charity; Regeneration; Divine Revelation; Heaven|
|Purple||Sublimity; Power; Glory; Royal dignity; Purification from sin|
|Scarlet/Red||Martyred saints; Love; Hate; Blood; Festivals; Life; Sin; Justice; Honor|
|Silver||Moral innocence and holiness|
|White||Purity; Peace; Mercy; Pity; Holiness of life; Innocence of soul|
|Yellow||Cheering; Justice; Dingy; Jealousy; Treason; Deceit; Degradation|
All throughout the scriptures there are examples of symbolism used in a variety of ways. A guideline you might use is, if you can see a parallel to Christ in something, it’s probably meant to be interpreted that way. Ancient cultures were filled with symbolism and it played a major role in shaping their dialog (as can be seen in the example from Mark 8 above).
Lets look at a few examples, including the reference in Mark 8.
You’ve probably heard this one many times, but there is the story in John 11 of Jesus’ friend Lazarus who dies while Jesus intentionally delays returning to Bethany. They were in Perea, about 25 miles distant when they got the news and the record says, “he abode two days still in the same place where he was” (verse 6). He arrives after Lazarus “had lain in the grave four days already” (verse 17). Had he left Perea immediately instead of tarrying, it would only have been 2 days. The people are mourning and lamenting the fact that if Jesus had just been there in time he could have saved him. Why did Jesus delay?
In that culture there was a superstition that the spirit hung around the body for 3 days, so in the words of Miracle Max from the Princess Bride, people were only “mostly dead” until after 3 days had passed. In this case, Lazarus is fully and “completely” (see meaning of 3) dead and irretrievable in the eyes of the people. Thus Jesus’ miracle in bringing him back truly showed the people that he was “the resurrection, and the life” (verse 25).
Matthew starts his record with a genealogy of Jesus through his mortal paternal line. Then he make this fascinating statement:
17 So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David until the carrying away into Babylon are fourteen generations; and from the carrying away into Babylon unto Christ are fourteen generations.
Whoa… Three times Matthew states Jesus has a set of 14 generations. We know 3 means complete and perfect. But what about 14? In Hebrew, the name of David appears as DVD without the vowels. The value of the letter D is 4, and the value of the letter V is 6. Therefore, David’s name is 4+6+4=14. Matthew wrote to the Jews to prove the case that Jesus was the perfect descendant from Abraham and David to hold the keys of authority and be the rightful king of Israel. He was perfectly and completely the son of David (see verse 1) foretold would come.
Throughout his ministry people referred to him as the son of David, knowing the prophesies and looking for the time when their king would arise. (Do a search for “son of David” to see the references or create another collection note tied to this understanding).
OK, lets tackle that one at the beginning of this blog article from Mark 8. There were 2 miracles Jesus performed in feeding multitudes, not just 1.
In the first instance, he fed 5,000 Jewish men, and women and children. We read the account in Mark 6. Herod had beheaded John the Baptist, and the apostles gathered together to tell Jesus of the things they had been out doing and teaching. Jesus invites them to go to a desert place to rest. You might think of it as a little retreat for reflection and instruction. Well, the people saw them going and flocked to that place. After teaching them out in the desert, he didn’t want to send them home weary so he performed the feeding miracle to provide for their needs.
The second instance of this miracle we read of in Mark 8. This time it was largely a group of Gentiles who had flocked to Jesus for the miracles he was performing. They were traveling around the sea of Galilee and had left the coasts of Tyre and Sidon and through the coasts of Decapolis. Again Jesus had compassion on them and fed 4,000 men, plus women and children.
In both instances, there was a certain number of people, loaves and fishes, and baskets taken up afterward. Obviously, these things were important to Jesus. He could have just made the food perfectly match the needs of the people till they were filled, but instead, he made it all work out perfectly.
Here’s how it looks:
|Feeding||Starting Loaves||People||Baskets Remaining|
Remember, Jesus has warned the disciples against the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod. Leaven is a substance that when mixed into dough, causes the bread to rise. However, it wasn’t just new yeast. It was a pinch of dough from the last batch that would activate the new loaf. Jesus didn’t want his followers putting that leaven into their dough because he knew it would spoil the entire loaf of bread.
Now this is not all my own research so I can’t even promise it’s accurate. But the awesome thing about symbolic meaning is, different people can take away different things from the same symbol. So please share your own research or thoughts in the comments below and feel free to correct anything you believe I’ve written in error. 🙂
In the first feeding, this was to a chosen temple people. They had been with Jesus 3 days (a “complete” or “covenant” period). The 5 loaves (temple or atonement) fed 5,000 (the entire covenant chosen people (5*1000)). The 12 baskets remaining (represent Israel or God’s government on earth. Jesus is showing that he feeds the covenant people (12). The word used for basket in these narratives is kophinos which is a small wicker basket. From a commentary by David Brown, “The article here rendered ‘baskets’ in all the four narratives was part of the luggage taken by Jews on a journey–to carry, it is said, both their provisions and hay to sleep on, that they might not have to depend on Gentiles, and so run the risk of ceremonial pollution.”
In the second feeding, this was to the Gentiles which had been with him just 1 day (stayed single to their purpose). The 7 loaves (perfection or sanctification) fed the 4,000 (the rest of mankind (4*1,000) outside the covenant people). The 7 baskets taken up come from the Greek word spyris which is a large reed basket or hamper and is the same type used to lower Paul to the ground in Acts 9:25. This basket is much larger than the one used in the previous feeding.
In a macro view, this was Christ’s plan to the world, to bring the gospel first to the House of Israel, and then to the Gentiles. I also have in my notes something that I don’t understand and can’t verify to be accurate so I will forbear publishing it till I might someday confirm it and update this post. In short though, the idea is that the 12 baskets are tied in a way to the Pharisees, and the 7 baskets are tied to the Sadducees or Herod’s temple in some way. Thus when Jesus says, “how do you not understand” and wakes them up to the symbolism, they finally get it.
Lets test your knowledge and have some fun. Take this little quiz and see if you think the use of a number in a verse is literal, figurative, or both.
At this point you’ve seen some examples, built some resources, and now you’re ready to be turned loose and check out what the scriptures says for themselves. Try some of these searches below and see what you think of the types of symbolism you can identify in the scriptures. You may choose to make collection notes from your searches and save them as sub-tags of other collections. Or you may just make basic verse notes.
seven eight twelve forty tenth
You may have noticed I didn’t touch colors in this post except to give you a reference sheet for them. This post is long enough and I haven’t spent the time looking at colors in the scriptures to really give you a meaningful post on that topic. Numbers fascinate me though, and not just because I’m an accountant by training. 🙂
(Featured image – Marketa Bendova @123rf.com)
Please log in again. The login page will open in a new tab. After logging in you can close it and return to this page.