How can I know that a biblical text is symbolic?

There are several ways to tell that a text is not to be understood literally. Indications are:

  • Symbolic numbers: 3, 6 (meaning: mankind1), 7, 12 (the number of tribes of Israel), 1000 (meaning: many, a lot)
  • A genealogy that is out of order: When a genealogy is out of order, relate it either to the meaning of the names given or to prophecies about these people.

Example

Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.”
And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel:
12,000 from the tribe of Judah were sealed, 12,000 from the tribe of Reuben, 12,000 from the tribe of Gad, 12,000 from the tribe of Asher, 12,000 from the tribe of Naphtali, 12,000 from the tribe of Manasseh, 12,000 from the tribe of Simeon, 12,000 from the tribe of Levi, 12,000 from the tribe of Issachar, 12,000 from the tribe of Zebulun, 12,000 from the tribe of Joseph, 12,000 from the tribe of Benjamin were sealed.
Rev. 7:2-8

There are several reasons why this text is not to be taken literally:

  • The genealogy is out of order. Ruben is the oldest son, but he does not come first.
  • The tribe of Dan is missing. This does not mean that descendants of Dan will not be in the kingdom of God.
  • Ephraim and Manasseh are both sons of Joseph and they both have a piece of the territorial inheritance like Isaac’s sons. As such, usually, only Joseph (as an umbrella term for both Ephraim and Manasseh) or his sons are usually mentioned. Here though, both Joseph and his son Manasseh are mentioned, but Ephraim is missing.
  • Since Levi has no territorial inheritance, when he is mentioned, Ephraim and Manasseh are usually put under the umbrella term of Joseph so that there are 12 tribes. But Joseph is mentioned differently in this passage, and Dan is omitted so that there are 12 tribes.

Meaning of the numbers

The numbers in this passage are easy to interpret: 12 is the number of the people. Here, 144’000 (12×12×1000) symbolises the people multiplied (12×12) and many of them (1000). This means not just many people, but something like so many that they can not be counted. And each tribe constitutes a people of many (12×1000).

Meaning of the names of the tribes

My strategy to further understand this text was to have a look at the meaning of the names given here, in this order. If no meaning had emerged, I would have gone back to Genesis 47 and 48, and tried to put the blessings of Jacob in the order they are mentioned there. However, simply following the meaning of the names of the tribe patriarchs showed clear evidence for a prophetic meaning of the list.
The following table shows the order of names as given in Rev. 7, along with their meaning. In the ancient Hebrew culture, names were given because of their meaning, and this meaning was often explained by the parents. In order to understand the name, the explanation was listed here as given in the book of Genesis.

Birth order Name Hebrew Meaning Explanation by the parents
4 Judah (Yehuda) יְהוּדָה to thank or praise Leah: “This time I will praise the Lord.” (Gen. 29.35)
1 Reuben (Ruben) ראובן “See, a son” Leah: “Because the Lord has looked upon my affliction; for now my husband will love me.” (Gen. 29.32)
7 Gad גָּד Luck or good fortune Leah (for Zilpah): “Good fortune has come!” (Gen. 30.11)
8 Asher אָשֵׁר Happy or blessed Leah (for Zilpah): “Happy am I! For women have called me happy.” (Gen. 30.13)
6 Naphtali נַפְתָּלִי My struggle or wrestlings Rachel (for Bilhah):“With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister and have prevailed.” (Gen. 30.8)
(13) Manasseh (son of Joseph) מְנַשֶּׁה To forget Joseph: “God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house.” (Gen. 41.51)
2 Simeon (Shimon) שמעון “He has heard” Leah: “Because the Lord has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also.” (Gen. 29.33)
3 Levi לֵּוִי‎ Attached or joined Leah: “Now this time my husband will be attached to me, because I have borne him three sons.” (Gen. 29.34)
9 Issachar יִשָּׂשכָר Reward or recompense Leah: “God has given me my reward because I gave my servant to my husband.” (Gen. 30.18)
10 Zebulun (Zvulun) זְבֻלוּן Gift or honour Leah: “God has endowed me with a good gift; now my husband will honor me, because I have borne him six sons.” (Gen. 30.20)
11 Joseph יוֹסֵף “May the Lord add.” Rachel: “May the Lord add to me another son!” (Gen. 30.24)
12 Benjamin בנימין Son of the right hand Jacob names Benjamin (Gen. 35.18). Rachel had first called him “Ben-Oni”, meaning “Son of my suffering”.
  • Note 1 (as stated above): Dan (Jacob’s 5th son) is missing (Dan means “judge”, which Rachel – who names the boy her servant Bilhah had – explains: “God has judged me, and has also heard my voice and given me a son.” (Gen. 30.6))
  • Note 2 (as stated above): Ephraim (Joseph’s 2nd son) is missing (Ephraim means “to make fruitful”, which Joseph explains: “For God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.” (Gen. 41.52))

The interpretation of the Revelations 7 passage becomes clear by looking at the combined meanings of the names in the given order (Note: Words not in italics were added to improve legibility.):

I will praise the Lord for look: A son of good fortune was given. Happy am I because my wrestling God is making me to forget. He has heard me and has given me a reward: Yahweh will add to me the Son of His right hand.

Possible interpretation of the complete passage about the 144’000

This passage gives praise to our God for sending the son of his right hand, Yeshua (Jesus) the Messiah. As stated previously, the number 144’000 symbolises God’s multiplied people (12×12×1000) who will give praise to Yahweh for giving His son. They are the sealed ones.
In fact, looking at Revelations 6 gives further insight. The kings of the Earth are hiding from God’s wrath, and are asking: “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (Rev. 6.16-17). God’s answer are His sealed people who can stand before him, made righteous by the son of His right hand (Rev. 7). John does not use a chronological order in Revelations. He rather uses themes and ancient hebraic methods of emphasis.
Furthermore, God’s sealed people are probably to be sealed before the beginning of God’s punishment, because the angels who are holding together the earth (symbolised by the angels holding the 4 winds: These symbolise the four directions, i.e. north, south, east, west) are to hold back any spirits (“Wind” in Hebrew can also mean “spirits”) from attacking the Earth (or from blowing against it; Rev. 7.1).
Also, the 144’000 appear a second time in Revelations 14:

Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven like the roar of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder. The voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, and they were singing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the 144’000 who had been redeemed from the earth. It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins. It is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. These have been redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb, and in their mouth no lie was found, for they are blameless.
Revelations 14.1-5

In order to prevent married people from being worried: The women with which the other people have defiled themselves are probably the gods of the nations. In Revelations, these are termed with “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations” (Rev. 17.5) and her consorts. There is no reason for this passage to be inconsistent with the language of the rest of the book of Revelations.

Some things remain open, however, as this interpretation was a Remez (רֶמֶז) interpretation, which means it uses allegorical clues. There is a possibility for some of these things to happen literally (on a Peshat (פְּשָׁט) level): For example, it is possible that God chooses the physical descendants of Jacob (nowadays called Jewish people) to do a great work in the end times, as explained by Paul in Romans 11.12: “Now if their blindness means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!” This in no way means that the non-jews that were adopted (or grafted in) into God’s people will not be used as well. Ultimately, God will show His will and way of fulfilling His prophecies.

References

1 Derived from the fact that humans were created on the sixth day.

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