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Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (14): Apocalyptic Symbolism II

How does one go about interpreting symbols? The best outline of an answer to this question is found in the introduction to G. K. Beale’s commentary on Revelation. First of all, it is important to recognize the way different types of symbolic expressions function. A metaphor, for example, is “a deliberate transgression of a word’s boundaries of meaning.” If one were to say, as Jesus did, “Peter is a rock,” you are transgressing the boundary between a living thing and an inanimate object. You are applying a characteristic of the object, rock, to the man, Peter. While metaphor transgresses the boundaries of both Peter and rock, one’s description of Peter is enriched by the comparison.

While the metaphor, Peter is a rock, is fairly straightforward, Beale points out that symbols are often multiple in meaning, resisting simplicity of comparison. For example, the phrase, “George is a wolf,” may imply that a certain young man is a potentially dangerous sexual predator. But an author could also use that expression to say that George is a dangerous criminal who hurts people and should be feared. But comparison between a man and a wolf could equally focus on the cunning, quickness, and/or relentlessness of wolves in the wild. Such multiple meanings are very common in Revelation. The concept of water, for example, (implied as well as stated) can be a metaphor for washing (Rev 7:15-17), for nutrition (positive: Rev 22:10; negative: Rev 8:11), for power and destruction (Rev 9:14; 17:15) and for something that forms a barrier (Rev 16:12; perhaps 21:1). In such cases the context in which the symbol comes needs to inform the reader as to which of the many possible meanings is to be understood.

A related principle for interpreting symbols is that once a given meaning for a symbol is established in a given work, that same meaning normally carries on to repeated uses of that same symbol later on in the book, unless the context of a later usage points the way to some different understanding in that setting. Where the meaning of a symbol is not provided in a work, it is important to survey the way that symbol was used elsewhere in the literature of the ancient world up to that time. The symbols of Daniel, for example, should be examined where they appear in earlier and contemporary writings of the Old Testament. Valuable information can also be found in the evidence of extra-biblical literature and archaeological artifacts. For the book of Revelation potential backgrounds for a given symbol include the Old Testament in its entirety and the literature and archaeology of the entire ancient world, including Judaism and the Hellenistic culture of the Greco-Roman world. Lay scholars of Daniel and Revelation can access such information in critical commentaries and such resources as Bible dictionaries, scholarly lexicons, and concordances.

Another way to interpret symbols is examine the degree of correspondence between the picture evoked by the symbol and the literal subject of the symbol. In the comparison “George is a wolf” the humanity of subject of the comparison excludes such wolfly associations as fur, pointed ears, and large teeth. Unless George exhibited such characteristics to a considerably greater degree than most humans, it is likely that comparing him to a wolf is restricted to some aspect of the wolf’s behavior rather than its appearance.

How can one detect the presence of a symbol? Beale notes at least six ways. (1) The formal linking of two words of totally different meaning, “the seven lampstands are the seven churches.” (2) The use of a key descriptive term to alert the reader to the presence of some unusual meaning, “the mystery of the seven stars.” (3) The impossibility of a literal interpretation, “I ate the book.” (4) A statement that would be outrageously false or contradictory is taken literally, “my two witnesses are the two olive trees and the two lampstands.” (5) Context that renders a literal interpretation probably. (6) Clear and repeated figurative use of the same word elsewhere in the book. Beale notes that the last of these is probably the most consistently helpful.

Another aspect of apocalyptic symbolism mentioned by Beale is the use of numbers, which are to be taken as symbols more often than not. Beale notes that seven is the number of completeness, while four represents an extension of that concept to something universal or worldwide in scope. Twelve represents unity in diversity as in the one nation Israel that is composed of twelve tribes. Ten also represents completeness. In addition to obvious uses of numbers, the book of Revelation is often organized in patterns of fours and sevens. So in Revelation the interpreter needs to give attention not only to the numbers in the book, but to also count groupings of symbols, which may have an extended meaning as a result.

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (13): Apocalyptic Symbolism

Apocalyptic works in general, and the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation in particular, are characterized by the use of symbols to convey truth. In the books of Daniel and Revelation horns and eagles speak, iron can be mixed with clay, leopards can have four heads, and dragons can chase women through the sky! A symbol is any object or description that represents something other than its common meaning. By their very nature, symbols express a double meaning. There is a literal intention; the primary meaning the term has in everyday life. Then there is a second intention; the literal points beyond itself to a second meaning that is evident only in relation to the first meaning. These two meanings can even be opposite! In the book of Revelation the lion is a lamb, death is a victory, and the victim is the victor!

The very vagueness of symbols opens up the possibility of near infinite depth of expression. This makes apocalyptic books both difficult and rich in meaning at the same time. The same symbol can have different meanings in different contexts. Symbolism is a more flexible tool for the portrayal of reality than is ordinary prose. To interpret a given symbol in its context it is necessary to compare the possible meanings inherent in its double intentionality with the literary context in which it is used.

That symbolism is the main literary form of expression in the visions of Daniel is evident from the very first. In Dan 2:45 the strategy of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream/vision is expressed as follows: “This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands– a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold to pieces. The great God has shown (esȇmane) the king what will take place in the future. The dream is true and the interpretation is trustworthy.” The vision of Dan 2 is a pictorial representation of events that were to occur in Nebuchadnezzar’s present and future. The Greek translator of Daniel (LXX) uses to word semainô to express that God “had symbolized” to the king what would take place in the future.

The Book of Revelation opens with a clear allusion to Daniel 2. The language of Rev 1:1 picks up not only on Dan 2:45 and its use of semainô but also the language of “revelation. . . God showed. . . what must come to pass” found in Dan 2:28-30. This allusion to Dan 2 makes it clear that the entire book of Revelation is couched in symbolism as a primary method of communication. Whereas in the rest of the New Testament the language is to be taken as literal unless careful investigation indicates that a symbol is intended, in Revelation the opposite is the case. The language of Revelation is to be taken as symbolic or figurative unless careful investigation indicates that the language must be understood in literal terms. Recognizing that the Apocalypse of John uses symbols and their interpretation as the medium of the message is a fundamental aspect of correct interpretation of the book.