Asking about the symbolism of pomegranates in the Bible is like asking about the symbolism of lotus flowers in Egyptian religion. There are many interesting and interrelated interpretations which could easily fill a book. Here, I wanted to give readers additional information as an introduction to this culturally significant fruit, whose cultivation in Mesopotamia dates to the 4th millenium BC1
As a symbol for beauty, sexuality, and fertility
Throughout the ancient near east, the pomegranate, due to its abundance of seeds, was a symbol of feritility2. From its pleasing taste and red color, it was a symbol of sexuality and beauty (Song of Solomon 4.3 and 6.7) and thus as an object of desire.
From the Song of the Gracious Gods in Ugarit4:
The two wives are the wive[s of El],
the wives of El, and forever.
He stooped: their lips he kissed.
O, how sweet were their lips,
as sweet as pomegranate[s];
from kissing came conception,
from embracing, impregnation.
From the Babylonian Talmud:
The Gemara continues: One who wishes to see something
resembling the beauty of Rabbi Yoḥanan should bring a new, shiny
silver goblet from the smithy and fill it with red pomegranate seeds
[partzidaya] and place a diadem of red roses upon the lip of the
goblet, and position it between the sunlight and shade. That luster is
a semblance of Rabbi Yoḥanan’s beauty. Bava Metzia 84a:7
From the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament5:
The tree or its fruit is often depicted on monuments, ornaments,
pendants, and the like, although the secondary literature does not
always clearly distinguish pomegranates from apples, quinces, and
poppy heads.5 The pomegranate also appears frequently in the literary
productions of the eastern Mediterranean, Mesopotamia, Iran, Urartu,
Greece, and the Aegean. Its symbolic significance has frequently been
noted. In the ancient Near East as well as the Greco-Roman world, the
pomegranate was a symbol of fertility or an aphrodisiac; it also
symbolized life. Not every picture or mention of a pomegranate,
however, should be considered symbolic. The pomegranate is
occasionally associated with so-called dying-and-rising deities.
Related: Temptation and Forbidden Fruit
So it also became a common symbol of temptation and forbidden fruit. Some traditions have the pomegranate as the fruit in the Tree of the Knowledge of good and evil3(although other traditions call it a different fruit). Similarly in Greek mythology, Perspephone ate a single pomegranate seed and was thrown into the underworld.
During the festival of Sukkoth (Feast of Tabernacles), the walls of the sukkah were decorated with each of the seven fruits, including pomegranates but it was forbidden to eat them.
From the Tosefta6:
G. [If] one hung up in it [as decoration] nuts, peaches, pomegranates,
bunches of grapes, and wreaths of sheaves of corn, it is valid.
H. One should not eat of any of these, even on the last day of the Festival.
There is a charming story of the pomegranate as a forbidden fruit in the Talmud, (translation from sefaria):
Every time Rabbi Chiya bar Abba fell upon his face (in the Tachanun
prayer) he used to say, ‘The Merciful save me from the Yetzer Ha'Rah.
One day his wife overheard him. ‘Let me see,’ she reflected, ‘it is so
many years that he has separated from me: why then should he say
that?’ One day, while he was studying in his garden, she adorned
herself with a scarf and strolled in front of him. ‘Who are you?’ he
asked. ‘I am Cheruta, and have returned today,’ she replied. He
desired her. Said she to him, ‘Bring me that pomegranate from the
uppermost branch.’ He jumped up, went, and brought it to her. When he
re-entered his house, his wife was firing the oven, whereupon he went
and sat in it. ‘What is this?’ she asked. He told her what had
happened. ‘It was I,’ she told him; but he paid no heed to her until
she gave him proof. ‘Nevertheless,’ said he, ‘my intention was evil.’
That righteous man fasted all his life, until he died from that very
As one of the Seven Fruits, thus a symbol of Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Church
There are seven fruits or "seven seeds" in the promised land, outlined in Deutoronomy 8.7-8:
For Yahweh your God is bringing you to a good land with streams of
water, springs and underground water, welling up in the valleys and in
the hills, to a land of wheat and barley and vines and fig trees and
pomegranate trees, a land of olive trees, olive oil and honey; (LEB)
(The "honey" is understood to be honey from dates, so dates are the seventh.)
These seven seeds play a special role in the Old Testament:
Only these seven could be raised as a heave offering as "first fruits". See the Jerusalem Talmud7:
[A] They may not bring firstfruits [from any produce] other than [the] seven kinds [for which the land of Israel was noted, i.e., wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives used for oil, and dates for honey (Deut. 8:8)]
These seven seeds are the first fruit. Whenever you read a reference in the Law about the "first fruit", it is talking about these seven seeds (unless it is a metaphor, e.g. Christ as the first fruit or something else "as" the first fruit.).
The harvest began on the day after Sabbath in the week of passover. The first day, Sunday, was the Feast of First Fruits. The Israelites set aside the first fruits for God and could not eat of them (another reference to the Forbidden Fruit symbol) until after the counting of the Omer was complete. During the counting of the Omer, each day a prayer needed to be said until this 7 week period of gathering in was complete, after which all the first fruits were dedicated to God as a heave offering on the 50th day, Pentecost.
On the Feast of Pentecost, these 7 seeds were carried in a special procession and raised to God as a heave offering in front of the entire congregation. Thus they are symbols of the 7 fruits of the Spirit.
Christ was crucified on the Day of Preparation (Thursday), rested in the grave on the Sabbath, and rose on Sunday, the Feast of First Fruits, as the first fruit of all those who will be resurrected: But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep (LEB) (1 Cor 15.20). Thus the pomegranate, as a first fruit, is a symbol of Christ, or at least it is part of the collection that pre-figures Christ.
But the first fruit is also a symbol of the Spirit of Christ within believers: Not only this, but we ourselves also, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves while we await eagerly our adoption, the redemption of our body. Romans 8.23. And thus of believers: But we ought to give thanks to God always concerning you, brothers dearly loved by the Lord, because God has chosen you as first fruits for salvation by the sanctification of the Spirit and faith in the truth. 2 Thess. 2.13 (LEB) See also Rev 14.4
related: use in heave offerings and the festivals
There is much more symbolism of pomegranates in the feasts. For example,
- the paschal lamb could only be roasted on a stick of pomegranate wood - no other wood could be used. From the Jerusalem Targum8:
[A] How do they roast the Passover offering?
[B] They bring a spit of pomegranate wood,
[C] and stick it through [the carcass] from the mouth to the buttocks.
[I:1 A] Why [use a spit made] of pomegranate [wood]?
[B] Said R. Hiyya bar Ba, “All trees drip moisture and that of pomegranate does not drip moisture.”
[C] With what situation do we deal? If with moist [wood], even that of pomegranate drips. If with dry [wood], even all trees do
[D] Rather [teach] thus [as the reason in C:] All trees are dry outside and moist inside. Pomegranate is dry outside and dry
inside. [Hence using the latter type of wood insures that no moisture
would drip and no inadvertent boiling take place.]
Note that the pomegranate wood was considered the exact opposite of the fruit. It was viewed as dry and bitter wheras the fruit was moist and sweet. This dichotomy also carries symbolism as it refers to the pomegranate as fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, something that is to be desired and obtained but also to be abstained from. This dichotomy is present in the bad wood versus the good fruit.
From the Jerusalem Talmud again, the wood was considered bad:
[I:1 A] It is written, “The fruit of a goodly tree” (Lev. 23:40).
[B] This refers to a tree the fruit of which is good, and the
wood of which also is good.
[C] And what sort of tree is that? It is the etrog.
[D] If you say that it refers to a pomegranate, its fruit is
good but its wood is not good.
And it was considered the most bitter wood, as one of the potential trees to make the bitter water sweet (from sefaria):
AND THE LORD SHOWED HIM A TREE. What was it?61Tanh., Exod. 4:24;
Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, Wayassa‘ 1; Exod. R. 50:3. R. Joshua says:
It was an olive tree; R. Nehemiah says: A willow tree. Some say: The
roots of a fig tree; and others say: The roots of a pomegranate,
since there is nothing as bitter as those.
So you see this dualism which again echoes the "knowledge of good and evil", as the pomegranate is both the sweetest and the most bitter, with the bitter sometimes able to make sweet, and the sweet sometimes forbidden. The dry bitter wood that the paschal lamb is roasted on versus moist, the sweet fruit that is offered to the Lord in Pentecost. Also related to the eating of the bitter and sweet on Passover.
Related: as a symbol of Israel and thus the church
The traditional symbol of Israel is "vineyard" or promised land, but pomegranates are "metaphorically adjacent" to these, as pomegranates are made into wine similar to grapes, and the fruit of the pomegranates is often a synechdoche for the land in which it grows. We see
Joel 1.11-12 the withering of the seven seeds is a metaphor for the barrenness of Israel.
Song of Solomon 4.12-13, the "orchard of pomegranates" has been interpreted as a reference to Israel, as the beloved, or bride, is interpreted as Israel by rabbis10 and as the Church or Body of Christ by Christians.
In Haggai 2.19, the promised fruitfullness of pomegranates and the other 7 seeds is a metaphor for blessings and fruitfulless of Israel.
As a symbol of mishpat: judgement, decison, law, regulation
Given the symbolism of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, e.g. deciding for yourself what is good and evil, it is no wonder that there are many associations with pomegranate and mishpat, the hebrew word glossed in the heading. To start, we can go back to the Song of Solomon 6.7:
Your cheeks behind your veil are like halves of a pomegranate. (LEB)
The word for "cheeks" here is raqqah, which is actual "forehed" or "temple". That didn't make sense to the translators so they wrote it as "cheeks" and made it plural, but a more faithful translation is found in the NICOT commentary9:
Like a slice of pomegranate is your temple
behind your veil.
Traditionally, this verse was equated with knowledge and sometimes mitzvot. This was targummed10 as:
And the King, who was their head, was as full of precepts as a pomegranate,
In the Talmud, this is often referred to as knowledge of the torah, precepts, or even mitzvot:
If the golden altar in the Temple, which was only covered by gold the
thickness of a golden dinar, stood for many years and the fire did not
burn it, for its gold did not melt, so too the sinners of the Jewish
people, who are filled with good deeds like a pomegranate, as it is
stated: “Your temples [rakatekh] are like a split pomegranate behind
your veil” (Song of Songs 6:7), will not be affected by the fire of
Gehenna. And Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said about this: Do not read:
Your temples [rakatekh], but rather: Your empty ones [reikateikh],
meaning that even the sinners among you are full of mitzvot like a
pomegranate; how much more so should the fire of Gehenna have no power
over them. (Sefaria translation)
There is a famous passage in the Talmud where a student of Rabbi Aher (who later became an apostate) defends studying under him because "ate the pomegrante but threw the peel away". Thus the fruit of the pomegranate is compared to knowledge acquired from the apostate rabbi.
The Gemara relates: Rabba bar Sheila found Elijah the prophet, who had
appeared to him. He said to Elijah: What is the Holy One, Blessed be
He, doing? Elijah said to him: He is stating halakhot transmitted by
all of the Sages, but in the name of Rabbi Meir He will not speak. He
said to him: Why? He replied: Because he learned halakhot from the
mouth of Aḥer. He said to him: Why should he be judged unfavorably for
that? Rabbi Meir found a pomegranate and ate its contents while
throwing away its peel. He said to him: Indeed, your defense has been
heard above. (sefaria translation)
Torah scroll covers are shaped like pomegranates (called rimonim) also continuing the association with knowledge.
fruit in the old testament is also often interpreted as knowledge (e.g. Pr 25.11)
By tradition the pomegranate has 613 seeds, corresponding to each of the 613 mitzvot11
This is just a taste of the many meanings and symbols of the pomegranate. I hope this can start you on further reading.
1 Abram, Mary. "The Pomegranate: Sacred, Secular, and Sensuous Symbol of Ancient Israel." Studia Antiqua 7, no. 1 (2009). https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/studiaantiqua/vol7/iss1/4
2 Jacob, I., & Jacob, W. (1992). Flora. In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 2, p. 808). New York: Doubleday.
3 Eisenberg, R. L. (2004). The JPS guide to Jewish traditions (1st ed., p. 696). Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society.
4Wyatt, N. (2002). Religious texts from Ugarit (2nd ed., p. 332). London; New York: Sheffield Academic Press.
5 Mulder, M. J. (2004). רִמּוֹן. G. J. Botterweck, H. Ringgren, & H.-J. Fabry (Eds.), D. E. Green (Trans.), Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Revised Edition, Vol. 13, p. 505). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
6 Neusner, J. (2002). The Tosefta: Translated from the Hebrew with a New Introduction (Vol. 1 & 2, p. 568). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.
7 Neusner, J. (2008). The Jerusalem Talmud: A Translation and Commentary. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers.
8 Neusner, J. (2008). The Jerusalem Talmud: A Translation and Commentary. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers.
9 Longman, T. (2001). Song of Songs (p. 178). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
10 Braude, W. G., & Kapstein, I. J. (2002). Pĕsiḳta dĕ-Rab Kahăna: R. Kahana’s compilation of discourses for Sabbaths and festal days (2nd ed., p. 276). Philadephia, PA: Jewish Publication Society.
10 Cathcart, K., Maher, M., & McNamara, M. (Eds.). (2003). The Aramaic BibleA: The Targum of Canticles. (P. S. Alexander, Trans.) (Vol. 17, p. 30). Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press.
11 Eisenberg, R. L. (2004). The JPS guide to Jewish traditions (1st ed., p. 671). Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society.