BANNER (Heb. nēs, deghel, banner, ensign, standard). Banners were used in ancient times for military, national, and ecclesiastical purposes very much as they are today. In connection with Israel’s wilderness journey we read, “The Israelites are to camp around the Tent of Meeting some distance from it, each man under his standard with the banners of his family” (Num.2.2). The word occurs frequently in the figurative sense of a rallying point for God’s people (Isa.5.26; Isa.11.10; Jer.4.21).

BANNER (דֶּ֫גֶל, H1840, נֵס, H5812, אוֹת, H253, banner, ensign, standard, flag, signal; LXX, σημείον, sign). A banner, standard or ensign, generally on a high pole on a promontory or carried on a staff which the army, nation, religion or community used to designate something or to call attention to a cause, rallying point, danger, etc.

Although banners and standards originated in Egypt and countries like Babylonia, Assyria and Persia to the E, they also made their way into Pal. during OT times. The children of Israel carried such standards on their march through the deserts to the Promised Land. Thereafter, standards or banners (depending upon how one conceives of them) must have been quite common on the Biblical scene because of the rather frequent use of such designations in the Scriptures.

The development of ensigns and standards no doubt, took place in a military context. In the countries surrounding Israel, including Rome, standards were carried by the various divisions of the army or attached to the masts of fighting ships. The early standards were not banners or flags made of some fabric, but figures, emblems or images of animals and birds, or of the gods made of wood or metal brightly painted and fastened at the end of a long pole or staff.

The eagle was a common emblem on a banner in all countries. Some of the ensigns or standards were connected with the religion of the country, and could be found at temples or other places of worship. The exact nature of the standards of Israel (Num 2) is not known, but their presence at the camp, if comparable to other ensigns, causes scholars to believe that the wandering in the desert was really a military expedition. Later on standards and banners were used for other purposes also, such as communication.

The purpose of standards always has caused discussion among Bible scholars. Were they simply symbolic identification marks, for example, of a regiment of the army? Or is a deeper meaning and purpose to be seen? This writer believes that such banners or standards certainly served as marks of identification, but they also represented the ideals and aspirations of the people bearing them, and were used as a means of arousing the emotions and devotion to a cause, person or nation. Images and inscrs. carried at the head of a group, or mounted in stationary manner on a hill, caused the people to “rally around the flag” in unified effort. All movements may be characterized by three common necessities: symbol, slogan and song. This is apparent also from the use of the terms in the Bible.

In the OT three different Heb. words are used to designate a standard or banner. Often they seem to be synonymous, but broader usage allows one to make certain distinctions between them. Degel is used for the standard or ensign of each of the four large divisions of the tribes of Israel encamped in the desert. “The people of Israel shall pitch their tents by their companies, every man by his own camp and every man by his own standard” (Num 1:52). “The people of Israel shall encamp each by his own standard (degel) with the ensigns (oth) of their fathers’ houses; they shall encamp facing the tent of meeting on every side.” The standard of Judah was on the E side of the camp, Reuben’s on the S, Ephraim’s on the W, and that of Dan on the N. “Thus did the people of Israel. According to all that the Lord commanded Moses, so they encamped by their standards, and so they set out, every one in his family, according to his fathers’ house” (Num 2:34). It appears from this that degel designates a larger group or division of people, organized around a central goal, and no doubt the “armies of Israel” marched in this fashion to the Promised Land. In Psalm 20:5, degel becomes a battle flag: “May we shout for joy over your victory, and in the name of our God set up our banners!” In the Song of Solomon (2:4), however, it is used in a beautiful figure of love: “He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.”

The word nes is tr. “ensign” or “standard” in the Eng. Bible, but it refers more specifically to a rallying point for the people. It marks the center of attraction on which people should pin their hopes. Generally, such a signal was raised on some special occasion always on a high elevation and very conspicuous. Moses called the altar of thanksgiving after Amelek’s defeat, Jehovah Nisi, “Jehovah my banner.” Messiah Himself becomes such a standard and a rallying point of nations (Isa 49:22). It was raised to assemble the soldiers of an army at the sound of trumpets (Isa 13:2; 18:3). As in Isaiah 30:17, a banner was set up on a hill to communicate an urgent message. The banner tells the people to flee from the country to the cities for safety (Jer 4:6). When the army left a banner on a hill unattended, it was a sign of defeat (Isa 31:9). Under this type of standard may be included the fiery serpent of bronze raised on a pole which was to be the rallying point of salvation for the people (Num 21:8, 9).

The third term, oth, is used less frequently than degel and nes and generally refers to lesser “banners” such as signals and signs. In Numbers 2:2, as we have seen, it is used to identify the smaller family within the entire division, the latter being described by degel. In Psalm 74:4 it is used to speak of enemy forces setting up “their own signs (or banners) for signs.”

In a recent piece of research de Vaux states that these terms must be understood only in a military sense. Degel does not mean a sign or flag but a division of the army itself and this is the sense in Numbers 1:52ff. In the Qumran text, degel refers to about a thousand men or less. Nes, he says, is not really a banner but a pole or mast raised on a hill to give the signal to take up arms and to rally against the enemy. He says these were generally religious symbols and that the Ark of the Covenant of the Jews played such a role. Although he believes speaking of signs and banners and flags in the Bible really is beside the point, he does admit that the main argument for such flags in Israel is that all Eastern armies used them. He claims, however, that such ensigns were generally religious. There is also an interesting sentence in the Lachish Ostraca (4:10) which reads: “We are watching the signals of Lachish.”

The NT does not speak of banners and ensigns in the specific sense of the OT. Luke designates the figurehead of the Alexandrian ship “Castor and Pollux” with the term parasemos meaning “extraordinary,” “distinguished,” “marked,” and not the expected word semeion, “sign” (Acts 28:11). A connecting link between the Testaments might be the LXX’s tr. of oth in Numbers 2:2 with the term semeion, which brings to mind the numerous occurrences of semeion in the NT in the general sense of “sign,” “mark,” “signal”: “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you” (Matt 12:38); “then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven” (Matt 24:30); “And this will be a sign for you” (Luke 2:12); “no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah” (Luke 11:29). It is significant that the LXX seems to support de Vaux’s view because in Numbers 2:2 degel is tr. by the word tagma which in Gr. lit. is generally a military term meaning a detachment or division of soldiers.


B. Meissner, Babylonien und Assyrien (1920) 82, 92, 93; J. Kromayer and G. Veith, Heerwesen und Kriegsführing der Griechen und Römer (1928) 128, 129; J. Pedersen, Israel, Its Life and Culture (1959), III-IV, 1-13; R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel (1961), 227-229; J. W. Wevers, IDB (1962), 347, 348.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

The English word "banner" is from banderia, Low Latin, meaning a banner (compare bandum, Latin, which meant first a "band," an organized military troop, and then a "flag"). It has come to mean a flag, or standard, carried at the head of a military band or body, to indicate the line of march, or the rallying point, and it is now applied, in its more extended significance, to royal, national, or ecclesiastical "banners" also. We find it applied sometimes to a streamer on the end of a lance, such as is used by the Arab sheik today. "Banner" occurs in the following significant Old Testament passages:

(1) in the singular, "Lift ye up a banner upon the high mountain" (Isa 13:2 the King James Version); "a banner to them that fear thee" (Ps 60:4); and

(2) in the plur., "In the name of our God we will set up our banner" (Ps 20:5); "terrible as an army with banner" (So 6:4).

1. Military Ensigns among the Hebrews:

The Hebrews, it would seem, like the Assyrians, the Egyptians, and other ancient nations, had military ensigns. As bearing upon this question, a very significant passage is that found in Nu 2:2: "The children of Israel shall encamp every man by his own standard, with the ensigns of their fathers’ houses." "Standard-bearer" in Isa 10:18 the King James Version, "They shall be as when a standard-bearer fainteth," is not a case in point, but is to be rendered as in the Revised Version, margin, "as when a si ck man pineth away."

In this noted passage a distinction seems intentionally made (another view is held by some) between "the ensigns of their fathers’ houses" (literally, "signs"; compare Ps 74:4, where the reference is thought by some today to be to the standards of Antiochus’ army), and "the standards" of the four great divisions of the Hebrew tribes in the wilderness (compare the "banner" of So 2:4 and So 6:4,10).

2. A Distinction with a Difference:

The relation of these to the "standard" of Nu 21:8 f (Hebrew nec, the King James Version and the Revised Version (British and American) "standard") is by no means clear. The word nec, here translated "standard," seems to have meant at first a pole set up on an eminence as a signal for mustering troops (compare "mast" Isa 30:17 the English Revised Version, margin). But it occurs frequently in the prophets both in this literal and original sense, and in the figurative or derived sense of a rallying point for God’s people (see Isa 5:26; 11:10; Jer 4:21 and elsewhere). Here the rendering in English Versions of the Bible alternates between "ensign" and "banner" (see HDB, 1-vol, article "Banner").

George B. Eager