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Old Testament | Symbols

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Mountains

Mountains are often the literal meeting places between Yahweh and humans in the Hebrew Bible. Paradoxically, they symbolize the power and transcendence of Yahweh, as well as Yahweh's accessible presence among the people. Two mountains are central to the Hebrew Bible: Mount Sinai, where Moses meets Yahweh and receives the law; and Mount Zion, the location of the temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem.

Mount Sinai is of utmost importance in the Torah, and Mount Zion dominates the biblical imagination thereafter. Mount Zion is the location of the temple and the capital city Jerusalem, which makes it synonymous with the kingdom of Judah (especially in Isaiah and Psalms). A mythologized Zion features prominently in the prophets' visions of future renewal, as in Isaiah 2:2: "In days to come the mountain of Yahweh's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it."

Vineyard

A vineyard or vine is used often in the Hebrew Bible as a symbol for the people of Israel. In Genesis 9:20, Noah was the first person in history to plant a vineyard, immediately after the flood. In metaphoric usage, Yahweh is the one who plants and tends the vineyard of Israel: "You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it" (Psalm 80:8). The most prominent use of this symbol is the Song of the Vineyard in Isaiah 5, which likens Israel to a vineyard carefully tended by Yahweh yet does not yield good grapes and must be uprooted: "For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!" (Isaiah 5:7).

Vineyard imagery, drawn from familiar agricultural practices of the biblical world, captures the patience and diligence of Yahweh's interactions with the people of Israel, as well as Yahweh's frustration when the carefully tended vine does not seem to bear fruit as expected.

Branch

The image of a growing branch—particularly a new shoot emerging from the stump of a tree that has been cut down—symbolizes restoration and rejuvenation in the Hebrew Bible. Isaiah envisions a day when "the branch of Yahweh," the city of Jerusalem, will again prosper (Isaiah 4). This language in the prophets often refers to a chosen anointed ruler, or messiah, who will restore the fortunes of the Davidic dynasty. Isaiah predicts, "A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots" (Isaiah 11:1); and in Jeremiah, Yahweh proclaims, "I will raise up for David a righteous branch" (Jeremiah 23:5).

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