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Flags in the Bible

Last modified: 2023-09-23 by martin karner
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One of the names of God (used by Moses) in the Old Testament is "Jehovah Nissi" which means in English "the Lord our Banner" (Exodus 17:15).
In the New International Version (modern English translation) of the Bible, the word "banner" or "banners" appears 18 times, and the word "flagstaff" appears in Isaiah 30:17. In the King James Version (ancient English translation), "flag" is used in the sense of the plant, but the word "banner" appears 6 times. I haven't checked other translations, but the idea of a cloth object as a means of inspiration and cultural cohesiveness appears throughout the Old Testament.
Michael Wilson, 4 August 2004

While there is clear reference more then once to object that are named "degel" and "nisi" that would nowdays be interpreted as flag, standards and banners, there is no clear reference that these ibjects would be consisting of a cloth object atop a pole. They might have been some other kind of vexilloides, not including cloth.
In any way, it seems certain that some kind of objects that served as identification and gathering point were already present, at least in the time of the Exodus. Regarding the flag in the sense of piece of cloth on a staff, I don't think that there is a clear reference to such an object in the entire Old Testament, and possibly not even in the New one. Our concept of flag in the widest sense did not come up until much latter the the final compilation of the either of the two. On the other hand, evidence of vexilloids could be traced back in history 5000 years, to approximately a millennium before the Exodus.
Željko Heimer, 5 August 2004

The objects in question might not have been cloth, but rather some form of solid vexilloid.
Nathan Lamm, 5 August 2004

"Standard" is used 18 times in the King James Version (KJV). In the KJV it refers to standards in the Vexi sense -- other translations also use "standard" in the sense of "standard measurements".
"Ensign" is used eight times, six times it translates the Hebrew "nes"; the same word is translated "standard" 7 times, "banner" twice, "sail" twice, and "sign" once.
The same word is the root of "Nissi" in ""Jehovahnissi". The other Hebrew word, as Željko has pointed out, is "degel", translated "standard" 13 times, and "banner" once.
Many of the references to "standards" refer specifically to the symbols of the twelve tribes.
There are no vexi-references in the New Testament that I can find. Jesus referred to "Eagles" twice, and He would have known (and His audience would have known) that the Eagle was the Roman symbol. His references to Eagles as carrion-birds /may/ have been a bit of a pun on the Romans. Several modern translations translate the word as "vultures", and lose this pun.
Dean McGee, 5 August 2004

The modern Hebrew word for eagle, "nesher" in fact means "vulture" in Biblical Hebrew. In Biblical times, it was the vulture who was considered the "king of birds".
Perhaps the arrival of the Romans with their eagle standards marked the beginning of the shift in Hebrew. So Jesus may have been making a pun that the same word referred to both vultures and eagles (i.e., Romans). But that would be hard to prove.
Nathan Lamm, 5 August 2004

Quickly checking the Greek Text of the New Testament I did not find any reference to flags there, either. The relevant word "sêmeion" appears frequently, but only in the sense of "sign", usually in the context of "wonder", thus "signs and wonders".
The two instances, where the eagles are mentioned are Matthew 24:28 ("For wheresoever the carcass is, there will the eagles be gathered together") and Luke 17:37 ("Wheresoever the body is, thither will the eagles be gathered together"). In both cases the Greek word used is "aetos", which only means "eagle", as far as I know. The proper Greek word for vulture would have been "gyps". However, the context of course would rather demand "vulture".
M. Schmöger, 5 August 2004
[The Biblical Greek (Koine Greek) has only one word for eagle and vulture: aetos. The same applies to the Biblical Hebrew, where nesher refers to both types of birds. The reader has to extract the correct meaning from the context.]