On the concept of 'sign' in the Hebrew Bible
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On the concept of ‘sign’ in the Hebrew Bible


Semiotica 221 (2018), 105-121.


In this paper, we examine the use of signs as instruments of thought in Semitic languages of the ancient Near East. We employ a Peircean concept of ‘sign’ together with derived typologies based upon Categorical (after Peirce), temporal and effectual relations between events, as conceived by the intended interpreter. Following a brief discussion of the ‘sign’ concept as attested in extinct Semitic languages and in Biblical Hebrew, we perform a typological analysis of the use of signs in Biblical narrative. On this basis, we infer that some Biblical writers had a tacit awareness of a tripartite concept of ‘sign.’ Furthermore, we demonstrate that different Biblical writers had different preferences for the use of signs: symbolic (abstract) signs were favored in the Torah and iconic (embodied) signs were favored by the Major Prophets.

Keywords: Peircean signs, sign types, Biblical signs

1. Introduction

John Deely (2001) has provided us with a wide ranging historicophilosophical survey of the ‘sign’ concept within the Greco-Roman tradition of thought, as expressed in Indo-European languages. Jean Bottéro (1974, 1992) has examined the logic of sign interpretation in ancient Mesopotamian divinatory texts, written in the extinct Akkadian and Sumerian languages (cf. Manetti 1993). Michael Fishbane (1975), in a study available only in Hebrew, has examined the uses of the Hebrew word for ‘sign’ in Biblical texts, from temporal and functional perspectives. In this study, our aim is to characterize the ‘sign’ concept as it is used in Biblical narrative, from the perspective of Peircean semiotics. We shall begin by defining our terms, i.e., with a discussion of the Peircean concept of ‘sign’ in a form that is appropriate for our purpose. This is followed by the definition of three sign typologies that are applicable to the study of Biblical semiotics. We then present a brief survey of the ‘sign’ concept as it appears in some ancient Semitic narrative texts. On these bases, we examine the uses of signs in the Torah (The Five Books of Moses) that are traditionally given abbreviated titles that refer to their contents: Genesis ‘The Creation of the World,’ Exodus ‘The Departure from Egypt,’ Numbers, a figurative reference to the censuses recorded during the 'Journey in the Wilderness' (cf. Milgrom 1990: xi), Leviticus ‘Priestly Instructions’ and Deuteronomy ‘The Teaching of Moses’ (cf. Tigay 1996: xi). We shall also examine the uses of signs in the books collectively referred to as the Major Prophets. Our aim is to demonstrate a tacit awareness by the ancient authors of a tripartite concept of ‘sign.’ From this we derive a typological characterization of the semantic range of the ‘sign’ concept in Biblical narrative.

2. A Peircean concept of ‘sign’

In the writings of the great American logician, Charles S. Peirce, scholars have found numerous attempts to rigorously define the elusive concept of ‘sign’ (cf. Deely, forthcoming). In his early writings, Peirce informally conceived of a sign as something that stands for some other thing in some way to someone (cf. CP Division of Signs 2.228). In this sense, a sign is conceived as an objective entity that is accessible by sensory perception. Subsequently, Peirce became aware of the fact that the intuitive concept of ‘sign’ has three aspects, which was anticipated as early as the 17th century by John Poinsot (for references, see Deely 2001). Hence, the intuitive Peircean ‘sign’ concept consists of three relates that form parts of a meaningful whole. Key to the understanding of this tripartite relation are the terms “that stands for” and “in some way.” Here, “...that stands for...” is a binary relation of reference, which involves a process of mental substitution. The expression “in some way” refers to a third term that mediates or connects those of the binary relation. This ‘triadic’ relation is irreducible in the sense that the three relates have interdependent functions. Hence, in the absence of any one term, the other two lose their meaning as parts of a conceptual whole. On this basis, Peirce redefined the concept of a ‘sign’ as being an irreducible triadic relation consisting of a binary relation between a ‘representamen’ and an ‘object’ that is mediated in some way by an ‘interpretant’ in the mind of an interpreter. It was Peirce, as a logician, who distinguished between the object and the interpretation of a sign. At a later time, Peirce generalized this relational concept of ‘sign’ by eliminating its dependence upon a personal mind as a source of the interpretant. In this study, since the referents of signs used in Biblical narratives may be memories of events or predictions of events rather than objects of perception, we shall replace the Peircean term ‘object’ by the more general term ‘significate,’ as proposed by John Deely (forthcoming). Hence, for the purpose of this study, we define a sign to be a triadic relation consisting of a binary opposition between a perceivable ‘representamen’ and a conceivable ‘significate,’ which is mediated by an ‘interpretant’ in the mind of an interpreter, who may be thought of as a person or as God. When the interpretant of the sign is understood to be a way in which the ‘representamen’ may refer to the ‘significate’ in the mind of an interpreter, a sign may have different interpretants at different times for the same interpreter, depending on the collateral knowledge in the mind of the interpreter at a given time. In section 5, we shall see that at least some of the writers of the Hebrew Bible had an intuitive understanding of the triadic nature of the ‘sign’ concept.

3. Typologies of signs

Peirce (EP 1992:1) based his now classical triadic typology of signs on what he regarded as “Universal Categories of Thought.” However, this typology may also be derived from the classical relations of mental association: similarity, contiguity and conventionality (cf. Cantor 2016, for references). In Peircean terminology, when the representamen and object, i.e., significate, of a sign are related by a principle of similarity, contiguity or conventionality, the sign is called an icon, an index or a symbol, respectively. Another typology of signs is based upon the temporal relation between the perception of the representamen and the conceived occurrence of the significate. It is assumed that the representamen of the Peircean sign is perceived in the subjective present of its interpreter. If the significate is conceived as an event that has occurred in the subjective past of the interpreter, the sign is said to be retrodictive. If the significate is conceived as an event that is to occur in the subjective future of the interpreter, the sign is said to be predictive. If the significate occurs in the subjective present of the interpreter, it must not be directly perceivable due to the substitutive relation between the representamen and the significate. In this case, the sign may be termed implicative. A typology of signs may also be based upon their power to produce an intended effect on the interpreter (cf. Cantor 2006). Such effectual signs may influence actions by provocation or inhibition, or impart knowledge. These signs may be termed provocative, inhibitive or informative.

4 The concept of ‘sign’ in the ancient Near East

Our only direct access to the thought processes of ancient people is through written language. In this study, we examine the explicit use of signs in the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew language is a member of the Semitic language family, which includes Arabic and extinct languages such as Akkadian and Ugaritic (cf. Militarev 2010:27). The term Akkadian refers to the aggregate of many ancient Assyrian and Babylonian dialects. Akkadian and Ugaritic used a cuneiform script whereas Hebrew used an alphabetic script. The earliest language in the region, for which there is documentary evidence, was Sumerian. This was a non-Semitic language which became extinct as it was assimilated by Akkadian. In Sumerian, the word transcribed as giskim (literally ‘message tool’) has been translated in different contexts to mean ‘sign, signal, password, instruction or omen’ (Halloran 2006:102). The Akkadian noun giskimmu was used to mean ‘sign or omen’ following the assimilation of Sumerian by Akkadian (Gelb et al. 1956:98). The more frequently used Akkadian noun ittu (singular), ittatu (pleural) was used in different forms in different contexts to mean ‘sign, mark, feature, omen, portent, password, signal, acknowledgement or proof’ (Gelb et al. 1960:304). It is likely that this noun was derived from the verb idû, which was used in different forms to mean ‘to know, to become aware of, to mark, to inform, to reveal or to identify’ (Gelb et al. 1960:20). In Ugaritic, as transcribed from the cuneiform, the noun ’at (singular), ’att (pleural) has been translated as ‘prodigious or ominous sign’ (Olmo Lete & Sanmartin 2015:117). By convention, the mark ’ will indicate a glottal stop in Ugaritic or the letter aleph in Hebrew. In Biblical (classical) Hebrew, the noun transcribed as ’ot (singular), ’otot (pleural) is translated in different contexts as ‘sign, mark, reminder, memorial, commemoration, ensign, assurance, confirmation, omen, portent, pledge, miracle, wonder’ (cf. Brown et al. 1979:16; Clines 1993:165; Koehler et al. 1994:26). It is likely that the noun ’ot was derived from a Hebrew verb meaning ‘to agree or to consent,’ which implies the use of a personal sign or mark as proof of agreement (cf. Klein 1987:15). We note that the word ’ot may refer to past events (to reaffirm, to commemorate), to present events (to identify, to assure, to confirm) or to future events (to predict, to warn). We also note the familial resemblance among the Akkadian ittu, the Ugaritic ’at and the Hebrew ’ot, based on their phonic and semantic characteristics. In Biblical Hebrew, the semantic range of the noun mofet (singular), moftim (pleural) is much more restricted than that of ’ot. In different contexts, mofet has been translated as ‘sign, portent, wonder, marvel’ (cf. Brown et al. 1979:68; Koehler et al. 1995:559; Clines 2001:183). Another word with the same root consonants as mofet is literally translated as an ‘opening instrument or key,’ which in ancient times was regarded as a sign of authority (cf. Klein 1987:373). These related words all suggest the root meaning: a means of gaining access to what is totally unexpected or hidden; a power that controls and may even reverse natural processes. Hence, mofet refers to a visual sign that reveals the power and authority of God.

5. Signs in the Hebrew Bible

In this section, a triadic structure (consisting of a representamen, a significate and an interpretant) is identified for each sign referred to as ’ot or mofet and explicitly described in the Hebrew Bible (cf. section 4). A concordance of the Hebrew Bible (Evans-Shoshan 1989) was used to identify all occurrences of these two words. In general, any sign may have multiple interpretants and more than one use. Hence, in order to limit the scope of this study, the author has specified what he believes to be the most likely interpretant in the given context for each sign and what is thought to be its intended use by the speaker, who may be God or a messenger of God. All Biblical quotations have been taken from Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures (1985) and printed in italics. Comments by this author, intended to provide a minimal context for interpretation, are enclosed in square brackets. All non-semiotic references to the ancient Near East may be found at the Klau Library of the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio.

5.1 Genesis

Gen. 1:14 [On the fourth day of Creation] God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate day from night; they shall serve as signs (’otot) for the set times—the days and the years; and they shall serve as lights in the expanse of the sky to shine upon the earth.”

Months as parts of years and weeks as parts of months are not mentioned here (cf. the comment on Exod. 31:13). In this verse, ’otot is translated as ‘signs’ and implicitly refers to the observable periodic movements of the Sun and Moon as representamina, the divine intention to provide light for guidance during day and night as significates, and the concept that this divine time scale provides the basis for a calendar of memorial events as interpretant (cf. Sarna 1989:9). These signs are symbolic, implicative and informative.

Gen. 4:15 “And the Lord put a mark (’ot) on Cain lest anyone who met him should kill him.”

This expression may be derived from the Mesopotamian practice of branding or tattooing temple votaries and slaves with signs of ownership (cf. Frahm 2010:130). In this verse, ’ot is translated as a ‘mark’ that serves as the representamen of a visual sign, awareness of its divine origin as the significate, and a warning that the bearer of the mark is under divine protection as the interpretant (Sarna 1989:35). This sign is symbolic, implicative and inhibitive.

Gen. 9:12 [God speaking to Noah after the Flood] “I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall serve as a sign (’ot) of the covenant between Me and the earth.”

In this verse, ’ot refers to a natural sign with the appearance of a rainbow following rain as representamen, God’s pledge to never again use a flood to destroy the earth as significate, and the memory of God’s pledge (referred to as a covenant) as interpretant (Sarna 1989:63). This sign is symbolic, retrodictive and informative. In Gen. 9:12 and 9:17, the word ’ot is used in reference to the Covenant with Noah without description of its relates.

Gen. 17:11 [God speaking to Abraham] “You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign (’ot) of the Covenant between Me and you.”

This physical sign involves a novel interpretation of a ritual, explicitly restricted to men, that was widely practiced in the ancient Near East (Sarna 1989:385-386). For the Israelites, it was used as a mark of membership in a group committed to standards of conduct that were governed by a Covenant with their God. In contrast, the Philistines, a people often in conflict with the Israelites, were repeatedly described as being “uncircumcised.” In this verse, the practice of circumcision was probably used to create a distinguishing mark that helped preserve the religious identity of the Israelite population. Hence, ’ot refers to a visual sign with a physical mark as representamen, acceptance of God’s Covenant with Israel as significate, and Israelite identity as determined by the Covenant as interpretant. This sign is symbolic, implicative and informative.

5.2 Exodus

Exod. 3:11-3, 12 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” And He said, “I will be with you; that shall be a sign (’ot) that it was I who sent you.”

In these verses, ’ot refers to a mental sign to be interpreted by Moses with the assurance of God’s presence when he faces Pharaoh as representamen, the knowledge that this presence confers upon him the authority to be God’s messenger as significate, and awareness that this authority corroborates his message as interpretant. This sign is symbolic, implicative and informative.

Exod. 12:13 [God instructing the Israelites before the Exodus from Egypt] “And the blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign (’ot) for you: when I see the blood I will pass over you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.”

In these verses, ’ot refers to a visual sign with a mark made with the blood of a sacrificial lamb as representamen, the Israelites occupying the marked house as significate, and the intention of God to spare the Israelites as interpretant. This sign is symbolic, implicative and inhibitive (for God).

Exod. 13:9 [After Moses gives the Israelites instructions for the performance of rituals that commemorate the Exodus, he says] “And this [teaching] shall serve you as a sign (’ot) on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead — in order that the Teaching of the Lord may be in your mouth — that with a mighty hand the Lord freed you from Egypt.”

Exod. 13:16 “And so it shall be as a sign (’ot) upon your hand and as a symbol (totafet) on your forehead that with a mighty hand the Lord freed us from Egypt.”

In both passages, ’ot refers to a mnemonic sign that is bound to a hand. The phrase ‘on your forehead’ is a translation of the expression ‘between your eyes’ (Sarna 1991:66). In Exod. 13:16, the word totafet, which literally refers to an ornamental headband, is translated as ‘symbol’ (Sarna 1991:68). It is inferred from the parallelism of the two passages that they both refer to mnemonic signs and that “...observance of the foregoing precepts possesses the same commemorative function in relation to the Exodus as do physical memory-aiding devices placed on the hand and head” (Sarna 1991:66, 270). Hence, ’ot refers to a sign with a domestic ritual reenactment of the Exodus (the Passover Feast) as representamen, the historical events of the Exodus as significate, and the reaffirmation of God’s covenantal protection of the Israelites as interpretant. This is a symbolic, retrodictive and informative sign.

Exod. 31:13 [God instructing Moses] “Speak to the Israelite people and say: Nevertheless, you must keep My Sabbaths, for this is a sign (’ot) between Me and you throughout the ages, that you may know that I the Lord have consecrated you.”

The same concept is repeated, for emphasis, in Exod. 31:17. It is likely that the conventional seven-day week was initially derived from observations of the sky. The obvious periodicity in the changing patterns of illumination (the phases) of the Moon is the basis for a lunar calendar. Hence, a lunar (synodic) month of approximately 29 days may be subdivided into four seven-day intervals, corresponding to the four phases of the Moon (cf. Russell et al 1945:157). Sarna (1991:201) observes that the idea of the holy is first encountered in the Creation narrative, in relation to the Sabbath: “And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all work of creation that He had done” (Gen. 2:3). Hence, observance of the Sabbath may be regarded as a declaration of faith (Sarna 1991:201). In this context, ’ot refers to a mimetic sign with observation of the Sabbath by the Israelites as representamen, the commandment by God to observe the Sabbath (the seventh day) as significate, and memory of God’s covenantal consecration of the Israelite people as interpretant (cf. Sarna 1991:201). This is an iconic, retrodictive and informative sign. In Exodus, the word ’ot is used nine other times and translated as ‘sign,’ while mofet is used five other times and translated as ‘marvel,’ both referring to actions performed by Moses before Pharaoh.

5.3 Leviticus

The words ’ot and mofet do not occur in Leviticus, which consists of declarations of the Laws that are to govern Israel.

5.4 Numbers

Num. 17:3 [God speaking to Moses following the Korah rebellion against priestly authority] “[Remove] the fire pans of those who have sinned at the cost of their lives, and let them be made into hammered sheets as plating for the altar — for once they have been used for offering to the Lord, they have become sacred — and let them serve as a warning (’ot) to the people of Israel.”

In this verse, ’ot is translated as a ‘warning.’ It is a visual sign with hammered copper plating of the altar of burnt offering as representamen, knowledge that the plates were made from pans used by non-priests as significate, and a warning that such transgressions have fatal consequences as interpretant (cf. Milgrom 1990:140). Hence, this is a symbolic, retrodictive and inhibitive sign.

Num. 17:25 [In response to the Korah rebellion and after the reaffirmation of Aaron’s authority as head of the priesthood by the miraculous sprouting of Aaron’s staff within the holy sanctuary while the staffs of other tribal chieftains were unchanged.] The Lord said to Moses, “Put Aaron’s staff back before the Pact to be kept as a lesson (’ot) to rebels, so that their mutterings against Me may cease, lest they die.”

In this verse, it is understood that a staff represents the authority of a tribal chieftain (Milgrom 1990:143). Also, the “Pact” is understood to mean the “Ark of the Pact” containing the Ten Commandments. Hence, Aaron’s staff is to be placed in front of a physical symbol of the Covenant between God and Israel (Milgrom 1990:143). In this verse, ’ot is translated as ‘lesson.’ It refers to a visual sign – Aaron’s miraculously blossoming staff – on display before the Ark of the Covenant as representamen, the knowledge that God had chosen Aaron to be the chief priest as significate, and the reaffirmation of Aaron’s authority as head of the priesthood as interpretant. This is a symbolic, retrodictive and informative sign. In Numbers, the word ’ot is used once to signify an identifying ‘banner’ or ‘standard.’

5.5 Deuteronomy

Deut. 6:8 [Moses speaking to the Israelites about God’s commandments] “Bind them as a sign (’ot) on your hand and let them serve as a symbol (totafet) on your forehead; inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your [city] gates.”

Again, (cf. Exod. 13:9), the word totafet is translated as ‘symbol’ and probably refers to a type of ornamental headband worn in the ancient Near East as shown in Egyptian and Assyrian art (Tigay 1996:79). The phrase ‘on your forehead’ is a translation of the figurative expression ‘between your eyes’ (Tigay 1996:359 n.32). The act of binding the commandments of God to both a hand and the head has been interpreted both literally and figuratively (Tigay 1996:78). In the literal sense, ’ot refers to a visual sign with the physical binding of selected commandments to the body (hand and head) as representamen, an awareness that the commandments represent the Covenant between God and Israel as significate, and the commitment to live one’s life in accordance with the Covenant as the interpretant. This is a symbolic, retrodictive and informative sign.

Deut. 11:18 is an amplified restatement of Deut. 6:8. The verses Deut. 4:34, 6:22, 7:19, 13:2-3, 26:8 and 34:11 all refer to ’otot and moftim, translated as the ‘signs and portents,’ performed by Moses and Aaron in the Exodus narrative. The verses Deut. 11:3, 28:46 and 29:2, which refer to the same events, are translated as ‘signs and deeds,’ ‘signs and proofs,’ and ‘signs and marvels.’

5.6 Joshua

Josh. 2:12 [Spoken by a woman who hid the two spies that were sent by Joshua to reconnoiter the region around Jericho] “...Provide me with a reliable sign (’ot) that you will spare the lives of my father and mother, sister and brother and all who belong to them…” The men answered her, “Our persons are pledged for yours, even to death! If you do not disclose this mission of ours, we will show you true loyalty when the Lord gives us the land.”

In this context, ’ot refers to a spoken sign with an oath of loyalty sworn by the spies as representamen, the conditional assurance that the lives of the woman’s family and dependents will be spared as significate, and the promise that loyalty will be rewarded with loyalty as interpretant. This is a symbolic, predictive and informative sign.

Josh. 4:6 [After instructing the leaders of the twelve tribes to pick up twelve large stones from the middle of the Jordan riverbed and deposit them at their night encampment, Joshua says] “This shall serve as a symbol (’ot) among you: In time to come, when your children ask, ‘What is the meaning of these stones for you,’ you shall tell them...”

In this verse, ’ot is translated as ‘symbol.’ It is a visual sign with a pile of large stones as representamen, the recollection that they were collected from the Jordan riverbed during the miraculous crossing into Canaan on dry land as significate, and awareness that the miraculous separation of the waters of the Jordan river was due to the presence of the Arc of the Covenant, i.e., that the Israelites were guided and protected by God, as interpretant. This is a symbolic, retrodictive and informative sign.

5.7 I Samuel

I Sam. 2:34 [Spoken by a prophet after predicting that the descendants of Eli the priest, who allowed his sons to be unrepentant sinners, would no longer be priests] “And this shall be a sign (’ot) for you: The fate of your two sons Hophni and Pinchas – they shall both die on the same day.”

In this verse, ’ot refers to a sign with the deaths of the sons of Eli on the same day as representamen, the awareness that these events constitute a divine punishment for his transgressions as significate, and the predicted end of the priestly line of Eli as interpretant. This is a symbolic, predictive and informative sign.

I Sam. 10:7 [Samuel prophesying to Saul, the soon to be declared King of Israel, that when he encounters a band of prophets ‘speaking in ecstasy,’ he will be seized by the Spirit of the Lord and will ‘speak in ecstasy’ along with them] “And once these signs (’otot) have happened to you, act when the occasion arises, for God is with you.”

In this context, ’otot refers to signs with predicted events as representamina, Saul’s knowledge that God is with him as significate and awareness that God has prepared him to act as interpretant. These are symbolic, predictive and provocative signs.

I Sam. 14:10 [Facing the Philistine garrison, Jonathan says] “If they say, ‘Come up to us,’ then we will go up, for the Lord is delivering them into our hands. That shall be our sign (’ot).”

In this verse, ’ot refers to a sign with an invitation by the Philistine garrison to attack as representamen, the assumption that this invitation represents the Will of God as significate, and confidence in an Israelite victory as interpretant. This is a symbolic, predictive and provocative sign.

5.8 II Kings

II Kings 19:29-30 [After King Hezekiah prays to God for deliverance from attack by the Assyrians, Isaiah sends a message to Hezekiah that concludes] “And this is a sign (’ot) for you: This year you eat what grows of itself and the next year what springs from that; and in the third year, sow and reap, and plant vineyards and eat their fruit. And the survivors of the House of Judah that have escaped shall regenerate its stock below and produce boughs above.”

In these verses, ’ot refers to a sign with a metaphoric expressions of survival and recovery of Judah as representamen, deliverance from the Assyrian threat as significate, and reaffirmation of God’s promise of protection as interpretant. This is an iconic, predictive and informative sign.

II Kings 20:8-11 [When King Hezekiah fell dangerously ill, he asked Isaiah] “What is the sign (’ot) that the Lord will heal me...?” Isaiah replied, “this is the sign (’ot) for you from the Lord that the Lord will do the thing that he has promised: Shall the shadow advance ten steps or recede ten steps.” ...So the prophet Isaiah called to the Lord, and he made the shadow which had descended on the dial of Ahaz recede ten steps.

In these verses, ’ot refers to a visual sign with a miraculous movement of the gnomon shadow on a well-known sundial in Egypt as representamen, the expected movement of the shadow as significate and anticipation of the miraculous healing of Hezekiah’s illness as interpretant. This is a symbolic, predictive and informative sign.

5.9 Isaiah

Isa. 19:19-20 [Following the prophesy that a day will come in which God is worshiped in Egypt] In that day, there shall be an altar to the Lord inside the Land of Egypt and a pillar (matsevah) to the Lord at its border. They shall serve as a symbol (’ot) and reminder of the Lord of Hosts in Egypt, so that when [the Egyptians] cry out to the Lord against oppressors, He will send them a savior and champion to deliver them.

In the ancient Near East, altars were sites at which offerings were made to gods and stelae bearing proclamations of sovereignty were erected at territorial boundaries (cf. Vogel 2011). In Isaiah 19:19, an altar is a sign, translated here as a ‘symbol,’ of God’s presence in the land. A ‘memorial stone,’ (Koehler 1995:621) translated here as a ‘pillar,’ will bear a declaration of God’s sovereignty in the land. Hence, these verses refer to a compound visual sign with an altar and a boundary stela dedicated to God as representamen, the predicted acknowledgement of the sovereignty of God in Egypt as significate, and the consequent anticipation that God will deliver the Egyptians from their oppressors as interpretant. Here, the altar is used to encourage the Egyptians and the boundary stela is used to warn their enemies. Hence, this is a symbolic, predictive and provocative sign for the Egyptians and a symbolic, predictive and inhibitive sign for their enemies.

Isa.20:2-4 [When an Assyrian general conquered the coastal city of Ashdod, which is on the road connecting Egypt and Syria, God instructs Isaiah] “Go untie the sackcloth from your loins and take your sandals off your feet,” which he had done going naked and barefoot. And now the Lord said, “It is a sign (’ot) and a portent (mofet) for Egypt and Nubia. Just as my servant Isaiah has gone naked and barefoot for three years, so shall the King of Assyria drive off captives of Egypt and exiles of Nubia ...to the shame of Egypt.”

In these verses, ’ot and mofet refer to a mimetic and predictive sign with programmatic actions of Isaiah as representamen, the fate of the conquered population of Ashdod as significate and a future judgment by the coastal peoples that Egypt could not be relied upon for protection against invaders as interpretant. This sign is used to warn the people that inhabit the coastal plain that they cannot rely on Egypt for protection. This is an iconic, predictive and informative sign.

5.10 Jeremiah

Jer. 44:29-30 [The prophet Jeremiah delivering a message from God to the Judeans who chose to live in Egypt and adopted Egyptian religious practices] “And this shall be a sign (’ot) to you – declares the Lord – that I will deal with you in this place so that you may know that my threats of punishment against you will be fulfilled.” Thus said the Lord: “I will deliver Pharaoh Hophra, King of Egypt, into the hands of his enemies ...just as I delivered King Zedekiah of Judah into the hands of King Nebuchadnezzar...”

Here Jeremiah establishes a parallelism between a future conquest of Egypt, which will entail the death or captivity of the Judeans living in Egypt, and the past conquest of Judah by Babylon. In these verses, ’ot refers to a sign with the prediction that Egypt will be conquered and the implied death or captivity of its resident Judeans (Jer. 44:27) as representamen, the historical fact that Judah was conquered by the King of Babylon (Jer. 44:30) as significate, and reaffirmation of God’s threat to punish Judean syncretism in Egypt as interpretant. This is an iconic, predictive and informative sign.

5.11 Ezekiel

Ezek. 4:1-4 [After being summoned by God, Ezekiel is commanded to perform a symbolic sequence of actions] “And you, O mortal, take a brick and put it in front of you, and incise on it a city, Jerusalem. Set up a siege against it, and build towers against it and cast a mound against it; pitch camps against it and bring up battering rams roundabout it. Then take an iron plate and place it as an iron wall between yourself and the city, and set your face against it. This shall be an omen (’ot) for the House of Israel.

In these verses, ‘brick’ refers to a sun-dried mud brick. The prophet is commanded to incise a sketch or map of Jerusalem on it, before it is hardened (Greenberg 1983:103). The prophet is to construct models of siege-works and to silently enact a siege of Jerusalem (Greenberg 1983:103). Placement of an iron plate between the prophet and his representation of Jerusalem signifies a severance of the relation between God and the city. By glaring at the barrier, the prophet represents God’s angry intensions toward the inhabitants of the city (Greenberg 1983:104). In these verses, ’ot has been translated as ‘omen’ and refers to a mimetic sign with the prophet silently directing a siege against an image of Jerusalem as representamen, a future siege of Jerusalem as significate, and prediction of the fate of Jerusalem without God’s protection as interpretant. This is an iconic, predictive and informative sign.

Ezek. 12:3-6 [God speaking to Ezekiel of the people’s willfulness and disregard for the message delivered by the prophet (Greenberg 1983:209)] “Therefore, mortal, get yourself gear for exile, and go into exile by day before their eyes ...and go out again in the evening before their eyes as one who goes out into exile ...Break through the wall [of your house] and carry [the gear] out through it ...Take it out in the dark, and cover your face that you may not see the land; for I make you a portent (mofet) to the House of Israel.”

Ezek. 12:11 Say: “I am a portent (mofet) for you: As I have done, so shall it be done to them; they shall go into exile, into captivity.”

In these verses, Ezekiel is figuratively referred to as a portent (mofet), based on his actions. Enactment of his exile at night and breaking through a wall of his house suggests that he is leaving in haste after his home has been destroyed. Covering his face suggests the shame of forced exile. Here, mofet is translated as ‘portent’ and refers to a mimetic sign with a programmatic sequence of actions performed by the prophet as representamen, the future captivity and exile of Israelites as significate, and the dire fate of Israel as interpretant. This is an iconic, predictive and informative sign.

Ezek. 14:6-8 [After admonishing ‘certain elders of Israel’ to renounce their idolatry, Ezekiel delivers a message from God] “For if any man of the House of Israel, or of the strangers who dwell in Israel, breaks away from me and turns his thoughts upon his idols and sets his mind upon the sins through which he stumbled, and then goes to the prophet to inquire of Me through him, I the Lord will respond to him directly. I will set my face against that man and make him a sign (’ot) and a byword, and I will cut him off from the midst of my people.”

Again, the expression ‘set my face against’ is to be interpreted as ‘direct my anger toward.’ Here, to ‘cut off’ may mean to ‘have an untimely death” (Greenberg 1983:250). In these verses, ’ot refers to a sign with those who have appealed to God in bad faith as representamen, their fate to be an object of scorn and to suffer an early death as significate, and a dire warning against those who would appeal to God in bad faith as interpretant. This is a symbolic, predictive and inhibitive sign.

Ezek. 24:24 [After predicting the death of Ezekiel’s wife while commanding him not to observe the customary mourning rituals and after predicting the desecration of the Temple with the slaughter or exile of His people, God instructs the prophet to declare to the people] “Ezekiel shall become a portent (mofet) for you: you shall do just as he has done, when it [the catastrophe] happens; and you shall know that I am the Lord God.”

Here, there is an explicit parallelism between programmatic actions of Ezekiel following the death of his wife and the predicted actions of the remnant of Israel following desecration of God’s sanctuary. As expressed by Greenberg (1997:515), “...Ezekiel is ordered to act out beforehand the inability to observe social norms that will result from universal bereavement.” As in Ezek. 6 and 11, Ezekiel is declared a sign and metonymically identified with his actions. In this verse, mofet, translated as ‘portent,’ refers to a mimetic sign with the behavior of the prophet after the death of his wife as representamen, the behavior of Israel after being driven into exile as significate, and knowledge that the calamitous fate of Israel is God’s punishment for the iniquities of the people as the interpretant. This is an iconic, predictive and informative sign.

Ezek. 24:27 [God tells Ezekiel that, when he learns from a survivor in exile that his mimed prophecies of doom have been realized, he will regain this ability to speak] “So you shall be a portent (mofet) for them and they shall know that I am the Lord.”

In this verse, mofet, translated as ‘portent,’ is regarded as a miraculous sign with the prophet’s regained ability to speak as representamen, the fulfillment of his prophesy as significate, and reaffirmation of God’s power to control events as interpretant. This is a symbolic, predictive and informative sign.

Ezek. 39:15 [After the prophesy that an invading army, led by the tribal chieftain Gog, will be annihilated, God instructs the Israelites to purify the land by burying the dead invaders at a specific site, over a period of 7 months. Then they are told to appoint men to search the land for any other remains for 7 more months] “As those [searchers] who traverse the country make their rounds, any one of them who sees a human bone shall erect a marker (’ot) beside it, until the buriers have interred them in the Valley of Gog’s Multitude.”

As previously noted, the number 7 has a natural significance. A lunar month, consisting of 29 ½ days, is naturally divided into four lunar ‘changes’ or weeks that correspond to the lunar phases, where the closest whole number approximation to the duration of each week is 7 days. In the Hebrew Bible, the number 7 signifies the time interval mandated by God for completion of a creative act (cf. Gen. 2:2 “On the seventh day, God finished the work that He had been doing, and He ceased on the seventh day from all the work that He had done” and Exod. 31:15 “Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day, there shall be a Sabbath of complete rest, Holy to the Lord”). Hence, the seven-day week is completed with a day of rest. In Ezek. 20:12 and 20:20, the Sabbath is referred to as a sign (’ot) between God and Israel. The Festival of Passover, which commemorates the deliverance from bondage in Egypt, is celebrated for 7 days. The Festival of Weeks, which commemorates the giving of the Torah, is celebrated 7 weeks after Passover and every seventh year is designated as a Sabbatical year, etc. (cf. Kraus 1966: 84-85). In this verse, ’ot is translated as a ‘marker’ and refers to a sign with a visual object as representamen, an unburied human bone as significate, and God’s command to perform a burial to purify the land as interpretant. This sign is used to elicit a specific action. This is an indexic, predictive and provocative sign. There are no other descriptive references to signs in the Hebrew Bible.

6. Patterns of sign types

It is clear that the different writers of the different books of the Hebrew Bible favor the use of different types of signs in their narratives. We note that informative signs may be used to identify, to instruct, to prove, to corroborate, to reaffirm, to encourage, to assure or to warn while some of these uses may provoke or inhibit a specific action. In the Torah, we have found that most signs are symbolic and retrodictive. In the Major Prophets, however, iconic signs are more frequent than symbolic signs and most signs are predictive. Hence, the writers of the Torah favored symbolic and retrodictive signs, whereas the Major Prophets favored iconic and predictive signs. This striking duplex opposition between the uses of signs in the early and late phases of the Biblical narrative remains to be explained.

7. Conclusion

In the Hebrew Bible, God cannot be seen. However, in some situations and by selected individuals, it is possible to ‘hear’ God speak. It is unclear whether this is truly auditory speech or ‘inner’ speech. Hence, the authority and intentions of God were communicated either directly by a spoken message or indirectly by the interpretation of signs presented either in dreams or as extraordinary visual experiences. In this study, we have traced the concept of ‘sign’ as expressed in some ancient members of the Semitic language family. Specifically, we have presented a typological characterization of the use of signs in the Hebrew Bible. It is hoped that scholars with competence in extinct Semitic languages with extensive surviving texts such as Akkadian, Ugaritic or Eblaitic might provide similar typological characterizations. Such typologies could form the basis for a comparative study of the ‘sign’ concept in ancient Semitic cultures from a semiotic perspective. This would extend the temporal horizon for the attested concept of ‘sign’ in the history of thought.


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