Symbolic Action: A Key to Understanding the Old Testament

Symbolic Action: A Key to Understanding the Old Testament
By Kerry Muhlestein · May 12, 2014

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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.

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Isn’t it the intellectual and politically correct way to read an ancient book by approaching it as a new language and a foreign culture?

Image fixed ~ Primus Pilus

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