The Lost Language of Symbolism: An Essential Guide for Recognizing and Interpreting Symbols of the Gospel (Bookshelf eBook)(edit)
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Symbolism is a marvelously instructive and expressive language. . . . It partakes of the language of the heart and the language of the Spirit. . . . As Alonzo Gaskill deftly points out in this work, the language of symbolism embraces everything from the dust of the earth to the glories of the heavens. To miss what is being expressed or taught with symbols is like living in a world without sunsets or autumn leaves. — Joseph Fielding McConkie
"All things have their likeness," the Lord has said, "and all things are created and made to bear record of me, both things which are temporal, and things which are spiritual; things which are in the heavens above, and things which are on the earth" (Moses 6:63).
"Symbolism is the very language of scripture," writes author Alonzo Gaskill. As we more fully understand the symbolism in the scriptures and the temple, we are led to deeper, more profound insights and truths that previously eluded us. The result is that we can then more readily liken the scriptures unto ourselves for "our profit and learning" (1 Nephi 19:23).
This engaging and well-researched guide explores the symbolism of body parts, clothing, colors, numbers, directions, names, and animals in holy writ and in the temple. It also provides a series of charts comparing the lives of scriptural individuals and showing how they actually are types and symbols of Christ.
Filled with countless examples to help explain and support the author's discussion of symbols and their meanings, the text makes extensive references not only to recognized Latter-day Saint sources but also to lesser-known sources written by a variet1 of religious scholars both modern and ancient.
Symbolism is a language hidden in the margins, tucked between the lines, and suspended below the surface of the words. With study and effort, we can coax the symbolic meaning into the open and become fluent in reading the eternal truths it reveals. This book is an invaluable aid in that process.
- Published: February 2003
- Pages: 560
About the Author
Dr. Alonzo L. Gaskill was reared near Indepence, Missouri, and joined the Church in the fall of 1984. One year later, he served a mission to England. He has attended several schools and universities, earning a master’s degree in theology and a Ph.D. in biblical studies.
He has taught graduate and undergraduate religious education courses at the University of California (at both Berkeley and Santa Cruz) and Idaho State University. He was the director of the LDS institute of religion adjacent to Stanford University, and is an assistant professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University. He is a frequent presenter at BYU’s Campus Education Week and Know Your Religion seminars.
Dr. Gaskill and his wife, Lori, are the parents of four children and reside in Payson, Utah.
The Art of Interpreting Symbols
In general terms the word hermeneutics means “the art of understanding a text.” In a more narrow sense, the word refers to the methods or techniques used to
accurately interpret passages of scripture.
Our first order of business is to define useful technical terms and to note the
subtle yet important distinctions between them. For ease of comparison, let’s begin by briefly returning to the definition of symbol. Simply put, a symbol is something that represents another thing. It may be a
material object that represents an abstract moral or spiritual truth, or it may
be a visual or conceptual representation of that which is unseen. Put another
way, a symbol is "an image that stands for something in addition to its literal meaning. It is
more laden with meaning than simply the connotations of the straight image."
An image, on the other hand, is any word or action that names a concrete thing. If an
object or action can be pictured, it is an image. Images require two things
from us as readers of scripture. First, we must experience the image as
literally and in as fully a sensory way as possible. Second, we must be
sensitive to the connotations or overtones of the image. For example, in light
of the context in which it appears, is the image positive or negative?
A type is a symbol that looks forward to an antitype, or future fulfillment. The thing a type symbolizes always comes after the type; they are never concurrent. There is a major difference between symbols and types: a symbol represents something potentially concurrent with itself. For example, Jesus said of himself, “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35, 48) and “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12; 9:5). The bread and light that symbolized Jesus existed while he did. One commentator explained the distinction between symbols and types as follows:
Symbols serve as signs of something they represent, without necessarily being
similar in any respect, whereas types resemble in one or more ways the things
they prefigure. . . . Types point forward in time; whereas symbols may not. A type always precedes
historically its antitype, whereas a symbol may precede, exist concurrently
with, or come after the thing which it symbolizes.
Thus, a type can be defined as a "preordained representative relationship which certain persons, events, and
institutions bear to corresponding persons, events, and institutions occurring
at a later time in history."
1. Typical persons. These are individuals whose lives illustrate some significant principle or
truth related to the gospel and plan of salvation. The most significant and
common occurrences of typical persons are found in the reality that all ancient
prophets typify Christ, just as all modern prophets symbolize him.
2. Typical events. These are historical events that possess an analogical or corresponding
relationship to some later event. Examples include the wickedness and eventual
destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (see Genesis 19), typifying the state of the
worldly at the second advent of Christ,
3. Typical institutions. These are practices that prefigure later saving events. The quintessential model is the Mosaic requirement of animal sacrifice, typifying the future atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ (see Moses 5:4–8; Genesis 22:8; Exodus 12:5; Numbers 9:12; John 1:29; 1 Corinthians 5:7; 2 Nephi 11:4).
4. Typical offices. These are offices that typify or symbolize Christ. This category is really a
subset of typical persons. As we noted above, the prophetic office certainly
falls into this category, but so also does the ancient office of high priest.
5. Typical actions. These are personal actions that anticipate parallel manifestations of divine will. This category is exemplified by Isaiah’s walking naked and barefoot for three years as a sign to Egypt and Ethiopia that Assyria would soon lead them away naked and barefoot (see Isaiah 20:2–4). Another example can be found in Hosea’s marriage to the prostitute Gomer and his subsequent redemption of her after her infidelity, typifying the Lord’s covenantal love for weak and ofttimes faithless Israel (see Hosea 1:2–3).
Metaphors and similes are two of the most simple literary devices, yet they function much as symbols
do. Scholars commonly use the term symbol interchangeably with metaphor and simile. A metaphor is an implied comparison (e.g., “I am the bread of life,” “Ye are the light of the world”). Metaphors are not intended to be taken literally. As one author noted, “Christ is no more a piece of bread than Christians are photon-emitters.”
According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ use of parables during his Galilean ministry was constant (see Mark 4:33–34). Parables are much less common in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) than in
the New Testament.
In parables, as with many other forms of symbolism, it is important to
distinguish between the interpretation and an application. "The only true interpretation is the meaning the parable conveyed, or was meant
to convey, when first spoken. The application of a parable may vary in every
age and circumstance. But if the original meaning is to be grasped, it is
important to consider its context and setting."
Whereas a parable is like an extended simile, an allegory "can be understood as an extended metaphor: the comparison is unexpressed, and
the subject and the thing compared are intermingled. A parable generally
proceeds by keeping the story and its application distinct from each other:
usually the application follows the story. Allegories intermingle the story and
its application so that an allegory carries its own interpretation within
A motif can be described as a recurring theme or “a structurally unified verbal whole.”
a pattern that appears in a written text. . . . Even though a single instance of such a pattern warrants the application of
the term motif, it is more customary to apply the term to repeated instances of the same
pattern. . . . The literary term currently in vogue to designate the recurrence of common
ingredients in a story is type scene. . . . A motif is thus made up of a set of conventions—ingredients that recur so often in similar situations that they become
expectations in the minds of writers and readers alike.
One LDS scholar has suggested that the key to understanding the Book of Mormon’s typological unity is the recurring central motif of Lehi’s dream of the tree of life:
Ultimately, as in all Judeo-Christian figures of pilgrimage, [Lehi] goes through the wilderness of a fallen
world toward a redeemed world abounding in the joy of God’s loving presence. Call it quest or conversion, at bottom the pattern is a
simple transformation: from dark and barren waste by means of the Word to a
world fruitful and filled with light. And the transformation is enacted again
and again in the Book of Mormon, at both the individual and communal levels.
Finally, an archetype is an image or pattern that recurs throughout literature and, more particularly,
life. Archetypes might be described as “the universal elements of human experience.”
The foregoing definitions adequately cover the variety of symbolism found in scripture. Additional categories and details could be multiplied but are beyond the scope of this book. For example, somewhat interchangeable are technical terms such as analogy, comparison, emblem, figure, hallmark, insignia, model, seal, sign, and token.
Methods of Analyzing Scripture
Responsible and accurate scriptural interpretation can be complex and demanding. It is not enough to know the difference between the various kinds of symbolism. We must also know what to look for and what to analyze. Several types of analysis should be conducted when endeavoring to fully understand a scriptural text. They are as follows:
Most of us know the frustration of having said something that was taken out of context, so the importance of contextual analysis should be immediately clear. Contextual analysis is seeing the words in a given verse in proper relation to a larger, informing context—be it the passage, the chapter, the book, the author’s overall writings, or the standard work in which the verse is found. Relevant questions include, What was the general historical or cultural milieu in which this writer was speaking? What was the specific historical and cultural context? What was the author’s ostensible purpose? What is the immediate context of the verses under consideration?
Historical and Cultural Analysis
We must consider the environment in which a given author wrote. Readers who overlook the setting, time, and culture in which a text was written are prone to misunderstand the author’s intended meaning. Indeed, the meaning of a scriptural text cannot be ascertained with any degree of certainty without the interpreter first being aware of the historical-cultural context of the passage. As one text on biblical interpretation states:
Biblical passages not only express a writer’s train of thought but also reflect a way of life—one that in most ways differs radically from that of present-day readers. The literature and events recorded in the Bible originated
thousands of years ago. Beyond reflecting ancient languages, cultures, and
lifestyles, the biblical writers wrote their messages for people different from
ourselves. Consequently, every time we study a Scripture text, we must be aware
of these cross-cultural and epoch-spanning dimensions. . . . This is the basis of an important principle of hermeneutics:
The correct interpretation of a biblical passage will be consistent with the historical-cultural background of the passage.
The same can be said not only of the Bible but of all scripture. One
contemporary theologian wrote: "Understanding requires a conscious effort to overcome . . . historical distance. The interpreter must transpose himself or herself out of
the present time frame to that of the past. Understanding is a Nacherleben (re-experience) of an original Erlebnis (experience)."
Theological analysis, related to historical and cultural analysis, considers both the personal theology of the author and the theological understandings of the Church at the time the revelation was given.
Etymological, Lexical, and Syntactical Analysis
These approaches focus on the origin and definition of words employed by the
author (etymology and lexicology) and the relationship of those words to one
another (syntax). Such analyses help the student of scripture to recognize when
an author intends his words to be understood literally, figuratively, or
symbolically. Etymology will primarily be of use in biblical research, although
in recent years some have applied it to the Book of Mormon and, to a lesser
extent, to the facsimiles in the Pearl of Great Price. Following a key
principle of hermeneutics, "interpreters must deliberately pursue what the original words of a passage meant
at the time they were written in the context in which they occur. The meaning
of the original words, not what ideas may occur to us when we read the passage,
is the objective for word studies."
Literary analysis is a broad categorization of a text into a genre of scriptural
literature, such as law, narrative, poetry, exposition, apocalyptic, wisdom,
and prophecy. Although perhaps less important than the aforementioned forms of
analysis, the defining of literary form should not be ignored. Noting the
dangers of interpreting and applying scripture without attention to genre, one
author coined the phrase “genre mistake.” An example of this lapse would be to turn “a narrative description into a prescription for us, as if this [narrative] were the legal genre.”
Analysis of Applicability
Although a potentially subjective practice, analyzing for application—that is, relating the text to our own time and, much more subjectively, to our
personal needs and circumstance—is vital because the absence of application entirely misses the point of why
divinely inspired texts have been preserved.
Rules of Responsible Interpretation
We now turn our attention to the rules of hermeneutics, or scriptural
interpretation. Biblical scholars traditionally hold that scriptural symbolism
is not the result of prophets, apostles, or holy men applying a set of
interpretive standards or rules when speaking or writing. Indeed, the Spirit
itself determines the rules of symbolism—both in speaking or writing symbolically and in interpreting the same. Thus,
Gerhard von Rad wrote of symbolic interpretation: "No pedagogical norm can or may be set up; it cannot be further regulated
hermeneutically, but takes place in the freedom of the Holy Spirit."
The ultimate purpose of any imagery used by the Lord surely must be to cause an
intellectual and spiritual reaction within the reader. It is meant to
strengthen the impact of the truth. It is meant to illuminate our souls—to help us see and feel relationships more clearly. The full illumination can
only come with witness of the Spirit. We must humbly seek that witness.
There can be no question, then, that the following principles for ascertaining
and elucidating symbols must, in the end, be subject to the dictates of the
Spirit and the teachings of the prophets.
1. Rightly determine which elements of the verse under consideration are meant to be interpreted as symbols. If the language of the verse makes no literal or actual sense, then it must be interpreted as having symbolic sense (e.g., Revelation 12:1–4; 13:1–2). Contrarily, the following saying has some credence: "If the sense of scripture makes common sense, then seek no other sense or you may fall into non-sense." However, if a verse does make literal or actual sense, the interpreter should still seek to determine (a) if the passage could be dualistic (i.e., have more than one meaning or application, as do some of Isaiah’s prophecies) or (b) if another passage of scripture interprets or intimates that the passage in question is symbolic (see John 2:19; see also John 2:21; 1 Corinthians 3:17).
2. Look beyond the symbol. Symbols have denotations and connotations. A symbol’s denotation is its actual, literal meaning, its face value and essential nature. The connotation is what our minds associate with the symbol, the images, ideas, and values the symbol stirs in us. The parables of Jesus are good examples of symbolism in which the denotation never changes but the connotation does, constantly evolving and taking on new dimensions over time and from person to person.
3. Consider what the scriptures or modern prophets teach regarding the symbol. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught, "Whenever God gives . . . an image, or beast, or figure of any kind, He always holds Himself responsible
to give a revelation or interpretation of the meaning thereof, otherwise we are
not responsible or accountable for our belief in it."31 Accordingly, the interpretation may be specifically explained in the passage in
question (see Daniel 2:19, <
4. Let the nature of the symbol help clarify its meaning. Consider the moon as a symbol. Having no light of its own, the moon merely
reflects the light of the sun. Thus when John speaks of a celestial woman (the
Church) with the moon under her feet (see Revelation 12:1), it should be clear
that the moon symbolizes a weak or greatly diminished portion of light. Much
like the moon, nonrevealed religions reflect watered-down versions of the fulness, in this case the fulness of gospel truths. While those
religions may be able to raise their faithful adherents to a terrestrial level
(symbolized by the moon), they have not the power to bring them into the
celestial kingdom (symbolized by the sun).
5. Watch for a consistency in use of particular symbols. Because many symbols are used more than once in scripture, it is often helpful to compare every instance of them in order to better understand their significance. Even so, we must keep in mind that symbols can have multiple meanings. For example, water serves as a symbol for chaos and death but also for cleansing and sanctification. Moreover, some symbols possess both good and evil aspects. The lion, for example, symbolizes Jesus in Revelation 5:5 but Satan in 1 Peter 5:8.
6. Study the meaning and origin of the idioms employed. Idioms are verbal shortcuts whose meaning cannot be taken literally (e.g., “he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth”). Of course, understanding archaic idioms does not come naturally; it requires
research into the remnants of a culture, society, and people very much removed
from modern recipients of the scriptural text.
7. Balance the interpretation of symbols with an overall knowledge of gospel teachings. If your interpretation of a symbol or the passage in which a symbol appears contradicts what has been prophetically revealed about that symbol, you must assume that your private interpretation is wrong. All interpretation of scripture must be in harmony with what the Lord’s prophets have revealed in scripture and in discourse. If your interpretations are not harmonious with revealed truth, they must be rejected.
8. Use the footnotes, chapter headings, dictionary, and other study aids provided in the standard works of the Church. The scriptures and the words of modern prophets should be our primary sources for answers to our questions about the scriptures. Most conveniently, the LDS edition of the Bible and the other standard works of the Church contain excellent study aids. For example, the chapter headings for Isaiah 13 and 14 indicate that Babylon is a symbol of the world, or the wicked. And in Jeremiah 23, footnote 5b indicates that the word Branch is a symbol for Christ.
9. Be attentive to linguistic issues. The Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek, the Book of Mormon in “reformed Egyptian.” The English translation of the Book of Abraham evidences Egyptian influence,
and even the Doctrine and Covenants employs a form of English somewhat removed
from what is now common. Words translated from Hebrew or Greek into English and
words read without regard to the English of Joseph Smith’s day do not always carry the same meanings their original authors intended. For
this reason, those who seek to better understand the scriptures and their
symbolism need to be aware of linguistic issues. While not every member of the
Church has the opportunity to study Greek and Hebrew, much can be learned from
readily available aids, such as lexicons and dictionaries, that will allow a
novice to be linguistically attentive to the text.
10. Don’t get too caught up in determining authorial awareness. Certainly it is helpful when a prophet makes clear that the words he is
speaking are intended to be understood either symbolically or dualistically.
However, we should not forget that it is possible that the prophets did not
always know that they were writing something saturated in symbolism; that is
where God’s intervention comes in. Thus when Moses recorded the life of Joseph of Egypt in
such a way that it serves as a heavily detailed typological symbol of the life
of Christ, it matters little whether Moses knew that the story he was recording
was symbolic. What matters is that the detail is such that the symbolism is
unmistakable and undeniable.
Pitfalls to Avoid
In all of this, certain dangers should be noted so that we will not be misled. Four such pitfalls are discussed below.
1. Avoid reading into a scriptural symbol or passage something that the Lord or his prophet did not intend. Of course, we can freely liken the scriptures to ourselves and allow them to stimulate our thinking along lines that may not be directly traceable to the authors’ original intentions. Rather, the danger lies in misunderstanding important doctrines and truths, which will cloud our judgment and eventually lead us astray. In reading scripture, we must exercise great care, keeping ever in mind that
the meaning of a text is the author’s intended meaning, rather than the meanings we may wish to ascribe to his
words. . . . Problems result when readers interpret statements in a mode other than the one
intended by the author. As much distortion of the author’s meaning results from interpreting a literal statement figuratively as from
interpreting a figurative statement literally. . . . The words are to be interpreted according to the author’s intention. If the author meant them to be interpreted literally, we err if we
interpret them symbolically. If the author meant them to be interpreted
symbolically, we err equally if we interpret them literally.
This is not to imply that the authors of scripture always knew all of the implications of their written or preached words. Rather, this caution will help us not dismiss as figurative that which the Lord and his prophets intend to be understood literally, or vice versa. Elder Bruce R. McConkie noted:
This is difficult to do; it requires considerable experience and discernment;
and it surely rates as a three or a four [on a ten-point scale]. In general we
are safer in taking things literally, although the scriptures abound in
figurative matters. Literal occurrences include speaking with God face to face
as a man speaketh with his friend (Ex. 33:11; Moses 7:4); that man was made in
the image of God both physically and spiritually (Gen. 1:26–27; 5:1; James 3:9); the coming of Christ as the Only Begotten in the flesh
(Moses 1:6, 17, 33; 2:1, 26–27; 3:18; 4:1; Jacob 4:5, 11; Alma 12:33–34; 13:5; D&C 20:21; 29:42; 49:5; 76:13, 25; John 3:16); the Lord Jesus himself dwelling in
Enoch’s Zion (Moses 7:16, 21, 69); his personal reign during the Millennium (Joel
3:17, 21; Zech. 2:10–13; Rev. 20:4; D&C 29:11; 43:29; 133:25); the resurrection of all men from the dead with
corporeal bodies of flesh and bones (1 Cor. 15:21–22; Alma 11:40–41, 44; 42:23; Rev. 20:13); and so on.
This caution is also intended to remind us that it is not our place to
personally attribute modern meanings to ancient symbols.
2. Avoid extremes. Some argue that if the interpretation of a symbol is not given in the
scriptures, any interpretation, commentary, or elaboration on our part is
unwise, unsafe, and unauthorized. To give commentary, they argue, would be to
clarify what the Lord has not.
One of the great injunctions of this dispensation is that we “deny not the spirit of revelation” (D&C 11:25). Surely the refusal to see or read beyond the literal rendering of a
particular verse is to deny that spirit. The warning that those who seek to
seal or close the canon of scripture will lose what little understanding they
have (2 Nephi 28:30) is as true of chapters and verses as of the book itself.
The principle [and warning] applies as much to the figurative or symbolic as it
does the literal.
Elsewhere we read, "We will miss a lot of what the Bible contains if we do not see and understand
the literal and symbolic meanings of the Bible’s images."43 Again, if something is found to be symbolic, that does not negate the
historicity of the event, person, or passage.
3. Be cautious not to limit a symbol. As pointed out earlier, symbols can have multiple meanings. For example, a prophet can typify or symbolize a number of other people: Adam can be seen as typifying both the Father and the Son; aspects of Abraham’s life echo events in the lives of the Father, the Son, and the Prophet Joseph Smith; and Moses’ life prefigured the lives of Christ, Joseph Smith, and Brigham Young. In this regard, one biblical typologist noted that
Biblical personages, events or things, while having full value on their own,
also serve as patterns or “types” of other realities. . . . We must be very careful . . . and not assume that if something or someone appears to be a “type,” it means there is no other value or significance. Rather, the object,
situation, or person becomes doubly significant, possessing value within the
Biblical time and setting, but meaningful for the future as well.
4. Keep in mind that symbols do not reveal new doctrines. In the October 1984 general conference, Elder Boyd K. Packer offered six points
of conviction pertaining to recognizing basic doctrine and not being deceived.
In the first of those six, he stated, "Instruction vital to our salvation is not hidden in an obscure verse or phrase
in the scriptures. To the contrary, essential truths are repeated over and over
Numerous scholars both inside and outside of the Church have emphasized that the most important key one can utilize in order to better understand scripture is to rely upon the companionship of the Spirit, which will “teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance” (John 14:26).
The prophetic scriptures . . . can only be understood correctly in the Spirit from whom they originated. . . . If it is the Spirit of Jesus Christ who spoke through the prophets (1 Pet.
1:11), then the only appropriate exegesis is done in this Spirit (1 Cor.
2:10f.). If Jesus of Nazareth is “the one who was to come,” if he is the goal of all [scriptural] history, then he is the focal point that
gathers all the rays of light that issue from Scripture.
Notes to chapter 2: The Art of interpreting symbols
1. See Lategan, “Hermeneutics,” 3:149.
2. Ryken, Wilhoit, and Longman, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, xiv.
3. See ibid., xiii–xiv.
4. Virkler, Hermeneutics, 184–85. "A Symbol [is] a ‘timeless figurative representation,’ and a type [is] a ‘figure or adumbration of that which is to come.’ Symbols are objects expressing general truth, while types express relationships between historical facts. However, this distinction is blurred . . . and even traditional typologists tend to visualize symbols and types together as virtually synonymous" (101–2).
5. Ibid., 184.
6. See ibid., 188–89.
7. For examples of prophetic lives typifying the Messiah, see chapter 8 herein. See also Fairbairn, Typology of Scripture, 1:73–74, 114, 122, 125; Habershon, Study of the Types, 122–34, 165–74; McConkie, His Name Shall Be Joseph, 78–79; and McConkie, Gospel Symbolism, 146–60.
8. See Maxwell, Look Back at Sodom; and Roberts, New Witnesses for God, 1:365.
9. See Leviticus 21:16–24; and Old Testament: Genesis–2 Samuel, 187–88.
10. Virkler, Hermeneutics, 158.
11. Ryken, Wilhoit, and Longman, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, xiv.
12. Examples from the Old Testament include 2 Samuel 12:1–4, where Nathan prophetically alludes to David’s adultery and murder by telling a parable, and Ecclesiastes 9:13–16, which records a parable given to teach the lesson that wisdom is better than physical strength, even if society disregards it.
13. LDS Bible Dictionary, s.v. “parables,” 740–41. “The text only has a single meaning, . . . that which was intended by the writer” (Danielou, The Bible and the Liturgy, 242). Gilbert Cope argues: "We have to distinguish between, on the one hand, a narrative (or saying) which is deliberately and consciously composed to have two meanings—a literal sense and a second or allegorical sense, and, on the other hand, a narrative (or saying) which is capable of being ‘allegorized’—i.e., a narrative which was originally intended to be a straightforward account of what was believed to have happened (or to have been said), but which can subsequently be interpreted as referring to something else as well. . . . These varieties of allegorization, in the main, were used to relate the Old Testament to the New Testament—the content of the Old Testament deriving its full and proper meaning from what is recounted in the New Testament by the process of ‘back-interpretation.’ Hence the saying: ’The New is concealed in the Old—the Old is revealed in the New ’" (Symbolism in the Bible, 18–19). As noted in chapter 1 herein, the presence of symbolic material in a narrative does not necessarily affect the likelihood of the event’s historicity.
14. See Virkler, Hermeneutics, 159.
15. Good examples may be found in the parables of the unjust judge (Luke 18:1–9) and of the friend at midnight (Luke 11:5–10). In both of these parables we see a male figure who, if taken as a representation of God the Father, completely distorts the intended message.
16. The sensus mysticus, or "allegory[,] is generally defined as the search for a more profound meaning hidden beneath the shell of the literal sense. Typology . . . becomes a subdivision of allegory. . . . [T]ypology was an attempt to identify the features in sacred history and in the characteristic elements of Mosaic worship that are preparatory for a comprehensive picture of the life and ministry of Jesus" (Goppelt, Typos, 9). Many typologists acknowledge that the distinction between typology and allegory may be more contrived than real. The historical correspondence often said to set the two apart is not always clear or evident in typology, and it is sometimes present in allegory (see Barr, “Biblical Theology,” 103–48; Davidson, Typology in Scripture, 96, 100–101; and Jewett, “Concerning the Allegorical Interpretation of Scripture,” 1–20).
17. Jorgensen, “The Dark Way to the Tree,” 220.
18. Ryken, Wilhoit, and Longman, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, xv.
19. Jorgensen, “Typological Unity,” 222.
20. Ryken, Wilhoit, and Longman, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, xvii.
21. A more narrow archetype might be one that is recognized by all who are active members of the Church or, even more esoteric, one that is known exclusively by those who have received an endowment in the temple.
22. Ibid., 172.
23. Lategan, “Hermeneutics,” 149.
24. Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 184–85; emphasis removed.
25. Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament, 36.
26. See Virkler, Hermeneutics, 76–77, 94; and Klein, Bloomberg, and Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 155.
27. von Rad, “Typological Interpretation of the Old Testament,” 38. See Goppelt, Typological Interpretation, 201–2. Gilbert Cope added, "The application of scientific techniques of literary, historical and textual criticism to the Scriptures themselves" has only “further complicated” man’s attempt at understanding the Bible’s efforts to sanctify and direct the “human destiny” (Symbolism in the Bible, 11).
28. Grant and Tracy, Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible, 134.
29. See Read, Unveiling Biblical Prophecy, 11–12. See also McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 553. The introduction to a book on biblical imagery states: "Bible dictionaries and commentaries commonly err in . . . [that] some resources channel all their energies into uncovering the original context of an image, making sure that we get the literal picture but never asking what feelings or meanings are elicited by the image. Images call for interpretation, and to leave biblical imagery uninterpreted is a great waste. The images of the Bible exist to tell us something about the godly life, something they will not do if they are allowed to remain as physical phenomena only. In short, a common failing of commentaries and dictionaries is that they do not adequately speak to the issue of significance (what an image signifies by way of meaning)" (Ryken, Wilhoit, and Longman, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, xiv–xv).
30. In part I have drawn on the hermeneutical suggestions of Elder Bruce R. McConkie, “The Bible—A Sealed Book”; Conner, Interpreting the Symbols and Types, 12–15; and Lund, “Understanding Scriptural Symbols,” 23–27.
31. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 291.
32. Examples of the latter would be Elder Russell M. Nelson’s explanation of John 20, as given in the April 1993 general conference (in Conference Report, 40), and the teachings of Joseph Smith, which are saturated with clarifications of scripture.
33. See D&C 76:70, 75–78, and surrounding context on the kingdoms of glory likened to the sun and moon. Regarding the importance of understanding the nature of a symbol, one scholar wrote: "The significance of a symbol is based upon the literal or actual nature and characteristics of that which is being used as a symbol. A symbol is meant to represent something essentially different from itself. The link between that which is used as a symbol and that which is symbolized is the characteristic common to both" (Conner , Interpreting the Symbols and Types, 13).
34. It is worth noting the distinction between figurative and symbolic words (see Virkler, Hermeneutics, 27). For example, speaking literally, one might say, “A crown, sparkling with jewels, was placed on the king’s head.” Speaking figuratively, an angry father might say to his son, “If you do that once more, I’ll crown you!” Yet with symbolic intent the apostle John penned the following: "A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head" (Revelation 12:1).
35. Of knowing and utilizing Hebrew and Greek, Elder Bruce R. McConkie stated: "There is certainly no objection to this, but it does have some hazards. Joseph Smith and some of our early Brethren studied Hebrew. When a knowledge of ancient languages is used properly—as a means of gaining inspiration about particular passages—it merits a rating of, say, one or one and two-tenths. Improperly used, as an end in itself, its value sinks off the scale to a minus five or a minus ten, depending upon the attitude and spiritual outlook of the user. Those who turn to the original tongues for their doctrinal knowledge have a tendency to rely on scholars rather than prophets for scriptural interpretations. This is perilous; it is a sad thing to be numbered with the wise and the learned who know more than the Lord" ( Doctrines of the Restoration, 284–85). Nevertheless, it should be remembered that Elder McConkie himself frequently offered insights from the Hebrew or Greek. What seems important is that we regard such training as supplemental (rather than primary) and then acquire the skills or tools necessary to utilize it as needed. There are numerous helps available, ranging from the less academic, such as James Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible or W. E. Vine’s An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, to the more scholarly, like Johannes Botterweck and Helener Ringgren’s Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, Gerhard Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Francis Brown’s Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, Joseph Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, and W. Robertson Nicoll’s The Expositor’s Greek Testament. Many have found the facsimile edition of Noah Webster’s First Edition 1828 of An American Dictionary of the English Language helpful in understanding what the Prophet Joseph Smith intended in his translation of the Book of Mormon and in the revelations recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants.
36. See McConkie, Gospel Symbolism, x. See chapter 8 of this work for the typology of Joseph of Egypt.
37. Virkler, Hermeneutics, 76, 28; emphasis removed.
38. McConkie, Doctrines of the Restoration, 287–88.
39. Admittedly, we do not approach scripture tabula rasa (i.e., with an intellectually “blank slate”). Thus, it can be difficult to set aside preconceived notions of what a symbol means. Martin Heidegger developed "his concept of the hermeneutical circle. To begin with, interpretation never starts with a clean slate. The interpreter brings a certain pre-understanding to the process. This pre-understanding is challenged when new possibilities for existence are exposed through the event of understanding, which leads to a modification or revision of the interpreter’s self-understanding. Finally, the modified understanding becomes the new pre-understanding in the next phase of the process" (Lategan, “Hermeneutics,” 149). This process is successful only if we are willing to set aside our preconceived notions.
40. Many who specialize in biblical studies find the fact that allegory and typology soared during the period when the Greeks had influence over the Jews and Christians as sufficient reason to reject those approaches to interpreting scripture. Their position is that any typological, symbolic, or allegorical interpretation is simply a holdover from the days of Philo and the patristic fathers, including the influence that Egyptian allegory had on them, and therefore has no place in today’s historical-critical environment. Overall, this is a weak argument because the typological and symbolic approaches were well under way at least by the time of Isaiah (see Alsup, “Typology,” 6:684).
41. "There are occasional uses of figurative imagery, such as Ezekiel’s ‘wheels’ (see Ezek. 1:15–21), for which the Lord has not yet given us the interpretation. But for the most part, we do have the keys for understanding the symbolic imagery used by the Lord and his prophets" (Lund, “Understanding Scriptural Symbols,” 23). “Interpretation is essential to discerning the will of God” (Lategan, “Hermeneutics,” 150).
42. McConkie, Gospel Symbolism, x.
43. Ryken, Wilhoit, and Longman, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, xiii. A major difference between those of the house of Israel in Jerusalem and their New World counterparts was that the Nephites knew the meanings of types while the main branch of the house of Israel in the Old World was left in darkness because of hardheartedness (see Mosiah 3:15; 13:30–32).
44. "Figural interpretation is not figurative, not merely allegorical, for both figure and fulfillment, both type and antitype, . . . both ‘sign and what it signifies’ are regarded as fully historical. When Jesus cites Jonah or Moses’ brazen serpent as figures of himself, when Paul cites Adam as a type for Christ, when Jacob in the Book of Mormon cites Abraham’s sacrifice as ‘a similitude of God and his Only Begotten Son’—none of them denies the historicity of the event or person thus given the added dimension of figural meaning (see Matt. 12:40; John 3:14; Rom. 5:14; Jac. 4:5)" (Jorgensen, “Typological Unity,” 221).
45. Read, Unveiling Biblical Prophecy, 13, 15; emphasis removed. Remember the injunctions to “liken all scriptures unto us” (1 Nephi 19:23) and to “deny not the spirit of revelation” (D&C 11:25). The famous typologist Jonathan Edwards said that we should ask of each biblical event and experience, “What is God saying to me?” (Images or Shadows, 4, 98–99). Much of scripture is traditionally believed to have multiple fulfillment: "Prophecies are not always limited in their intent to events within the range of understanding of those to whom they were first addressed. . . . Their fulfillment may go well beyond the understanding of the prophet by whom they were spoken" (McConkie, Gospel Symbolism, 243, 245).
46. Packer, in Conference Report, October 1984, 81–82. "The answer is simple, and appropriately it is given in the scriptures: ‘Truth embraceth truth’ (D&C 88:40). Interpretations in full harmony with truths already revealed are currency backed by the gold of heaven. Conversely, any doctrine relying on the interpretations of a parable, allegory, or symbol must be rejected. Let us state it thus—we do not deduce doctrine from parables; we do not concoct it from allegories; we do not wring it out of symbolic interpretations. But when that doctrine has already been revealed, when it has been clearly stated in the scriptures and by living prophets, then responsible interpretations of parables, allegories, or symbols that sustain the revelation already given are smiled upon by the heavens and may properly wear the label of divine truth. Thus, our gospel understanding must always come first. Before we can understand the symbol, we must understand the truth it is to convey" (McConkie, Gospel Symbolism, x–xi; see 243, 248).
47. Joseph Fielding McConkie wisely noted: "Beyond the obvious announcement that truth is always in harmony with itself, there are no rules or guarantees of infallibility. Our interpretation of the scriptures becomes a measure of our honesty, wisdom, and maturity" (Gospel Symbolism, 247). Actually, the caution regarding the folly of trying to discover “new doctrines” in symbols may serve well as a rule or safety net that will keep the student of symbols from going astray.
48. Goppelt, Typological Interpretation, 58. See Davidson, Typology in Scripture, 64; von Rad, “Typological Interpretation,” 38; and Eichrodt, Old Testament Hermeneutics, 231, 243–44.
What a great book!!
by Tom - reviewed on May 03, 2003
Your gospel library isn't complete unless you have this book! The author does a great job of explaining what different symbols in the scriptures mean. The author has also included some very nice tables in the back of the book that are a great quick reference to finding the meaning of different symbols. This is a muxt have for any teacher or student of the gospel!
by Customer - reviewed on June 20, 2006
Ever since I have started reading this book, I cant help but read and look at everything in a new light. Its amazing the insights and knowledge that you can learn from just understanding little bits of symbolism. It sparks thoughts that you would have never thought of before. Truely, 'To miss what is being expressed or taught with symbols is like living in a world without sunsets or autumn leaves.' --Joseph Fielding McConkie
by Neil - reviewed on May 21, 2010
Gaskill did a fantastic job of presenting the information. I would highly recommend this book for any person interested in symbolism.
by Customer - reviewed on April 04, 2008
I just wanted to comment on Arle's review. Wow! What a misrepresentative review of a book. Arle says things like 'Gaskill...simply asserts things that are simple unknowable (e.g., the name Sherem in the Book of Mormon means 'pugnosed'...which raises the question of where Gaskill got his early Nephite dictionary)...' All the reviewer would have to do is look at the endnotes - which make up nearly a third of the book. Gaskill give references for nearly every claim he makes (including 'Felix')- and in many cases multiple references. Yes, Gaskill states that the name Sherem means 'pugnosed' or 'snubnosed.' But the reviewer misleads his readers into thinking this is something Gaskill made up. But the endnote (which the reviewer should have read) indicates that this is not Gaskill's theory; it is Hugh Nibley's - one of Mormonism's most prolific and respected scholars. The reviewer should be honest with his readers instead of implying that the author (Gaskill) is making things up. At least say that it is Nibley that made this claim, and then criticize Nibley. But to imply that this was just some unfounded and unsupported statement seems dishonest. What's the point of writing a review that misrepresents the facts? If you don't like a book, that's fine. But to misrepresent the book or its author seems to say more about you than it does about the book and its author.
Keep this book open when reading the scriptures
by cleve - reviewed on January 27, 2012
The scriptures are full of symbols. Symbols enrich the messages and give us deeper meaning of what the prophets are communicating to us. This book unlocks the meaning of words and phrases of distant cultures and languages. Gaskill writes with clarity, has provided excellent research and documentation. Don't miss reading the footnotes for sources and additional insights. This is a great reference book. There are two books besides the scriptures that I carry to church, one is TPJS and the other is the Lost Language of Symbolism. Thank goodness it is now an e-book. That will lighten my load.
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