Elephants are not mentioned in the Bible. However, there is an indirect mention of them in the original Greek text which used the word elephantinos which loosely translates to “of ivory.” In Hebrew, the equivalent would be shanhabin, which translates to “elephant’s tooth” or ivory. The Hebrew word is used in two portions of scripture – 1 Kings 10:22 and 2 Chronicles 9:21, while the Greek word is used in Revelation 18:12.
Elephants Symbolism in the Bible?
Since elephants are only mentioned in relation to ivory, we can infer that the symbolism of elephants in the Bible has to do with ivory. Ivory was very costly and was used as a status of wealth. It was also used as a decorative item. Elephants can therefore symbolize beauty and affluence.
Symbolism of Ivory in the Bible
Since elephants are only mentioned in reference to ivory, we will have to study the symbolism of ivory in order to understand what elephants symbolize in the Bible.
Ivory as a symbol of wealth
In ancient times, ivory symbolized wealth and status. This comes out clearly from several places in scripture. For instance, in the book of Ezekiel 27:15, ivory tusks were given to Tyre which was a trading nation. It appears that ivory, which was a store of wealth, was also accepted as currency in trade (just like gold and silver). This thought is further confirmed in the book of Revelation 18:12 which lists “articles of ivory” together with other products and goods that were considered valuable in commerce.
In Bible times, Ivory was mostly sourced from the upper Euphrates region where it was harvested from Elephants. During this time, there were large herds of this magnificent animal in the region. There are many Assyrian accounts of elephant hunts around the 8th century B.C. However, some of the ivory was imported into the region from India by the ships that would go there for trade purposes. In Ezekiel 27:15, reference is made to merchants from a place called Rhodes which is believed to be a region in Africa. There is therefore the likelihood that some of the ivory also came from Africa.
When Solomon was king, the Bible records that his ships of Tarshish imported gold, silver, ivory, and other goods. Here is the reference:
Along with Hiram’s fleet, the king had a fleet of large merchant ships that sailed the sea. Once every three years the fleet came into port with cargoes of gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks. 1 Kings 10:22
It took the ships of Solomon a total of three years to complete their voyage. This shows how far they traveled in pursuit of the goods they brought back into the kingdom. It therefore makes sense to imagine that they would go as far as India to get the ivory.
Ivory as a decorative item
Ivory was also used by the wealthy for its aesthetic beauty. Skilled artisans would use it to make furniture, jewelry, and other items that were used by the wealthy. In Amos 6:4, we get to learn of a very interesting use of ivory – making beds. But the real display of opulence and extravagance is in the use of Ivory in making houses (e.g. King Ahab’s house as described in 1 King 22:39, Amost 3:15, and Psalms 45:8). The throne of King Solomon was also overlaid in ivory as testament if his opulence (1 Kings 10:18; 2 Chron 9:17). Prophet Ezekiel also spoke metaphorically of how Tyre had ships that had ivory inlaid decks (Ezekiel 27:6). This may be a hint that the Phoenicians decorated their ships with ivory.
Other Noteworthy Symbolism of Elephants
As we have already observed, Elephants are not explicitly mentioned in the Bible. However, there are a couple of characteristics that are unique to elephants and that may help us learn a thing or two. Here are some of these characteristics:
- Elephants have thick skin
Elephants have one of the thickest skin in the animal kingdom. Their skin is an impressive 2.5CM thick on most of their bodies. The thick skin protects them from predators, pesky parasites, and unnecessary loss of water. Elephants should teach us to have a thick skin – in the metaphorical sense. There are many things that happen to us but we must have the resilience of elephants. A Christian with a thick skin will not bow down to peer pressure and they will not give up their principles because they have been mocked by the world. On the contrary, they will stand firm on what they believe in – even if it means standing alone.
- Elephants never forget
Elephants have an incredible memory. Their memory is so incredible that they never forget a face. This memory comes in handy when traversing the wilderness in search of water. However wide the jungle is, elephants will always remember where and when water and food are available throughout the year. The Bible says the memory of the upright is blessed. We should all desire to have a blessed memory – one that can help us remember things better. One of the things that humans easily forget is God’s help and blessing. God understood just how forgetful humans can be and so he warned them in advance;
You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the power to get wealth, that he may confirm the covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day. Deut. 8:18
- Elephant Babies stand within 20 minutes of birth
Human babies take anything from 8-12 months to start standing. Incredible, the elephant babies stand only 20 minutes after birth. This is useful because they live in the harsh jungle and they have to get ready to start surviving from the get-go. Granted, we may not have the capability to start standing as early as elephants do but we can still borrow a leaf on the importance of early maturity. There are so many Christians who are still babies in the things of God years after conversion. In 1 Corinthians 3:1-3, apostle Paul appears to be frustrated by the slow growth of the Christians at Corinth. He says he could only feed them on the milk of the word of God because they were still babies. But we cannot afford to be overgrown babies because time is running out. Let us all aspire to grow in the things of God.
In summary, elephants may not be mentioned explicitly in the Bible but we can still learn a couple of things from their symbolism. From the wealth and beauty that is symbolized in their ivory to the physical traits that teach many things, we can learn a lot from these magnificent beasts.