I recommend that you study my essay on interpreting stories before working through this section. The essay Interpreting Parables is also closely related. This essay is part of the Participatory Study Method.
There are very few allegorical passages in the Bible, even though people commonly refer to many passages as allegory. Allegory is a form of literature in which elements of the narrative represent something other than what they appear on the surface. Characters often embody specific moral of ethical elements. The key to allegory is that most of the elements of the story represent something. In a parable, there is normally one central point, and many of the characters and elements of the story are simply props to help carry that one theme to conclusion. In an allegory, almost every element is made to carry some weight.
To illustrate, consider Luke 15:8-10, the Parable of the Lost Coin. There is a single theme, God seeking the lost which is illustrated through an ordinary experience, the loss of a coin. This is a basic parable. The following story, that of the prodigal son, is still considered a parable, but it adds a few more elements, and is closer to an allegory. For a true allegory, we can look at Ezekiel 16:1-58. Here Israel and Judah are represented by sisters who are rescued by the Lord as he seeks them, but who rebel despite the good things that have been done for them. There is an application in verses 59-63. In this allegory each element–the sisters, their lovers, their clothing, and their various actions are all representative of something. Ezekiel 16 is not precisely like a basic (or prototypical) allegory in that most of the elements represent real, historical persons or places.
The parable of the trees in Judges 9:7-15, is less a parable than an allegory. Here the various types of trees represent various types of people who might live in a country and be invited to be king. Nonetheless there is a single lesson at the end.
When I’m teaching a class on parables and allegories I ask students to identify parables and allegories, and students quickly find out that there is no strict border. In studying either a parable or an allegory, ask this question: Is this story focused narrowly on one issue, or does it try to make a number of related points?
Allegory in Other Types of Literature
Much of what we interpret allegorically in the Bible actually occurs in other types of literature. Paul uses the story of Hagar and Sarah (Galatians 4:24) as an allegory of the two covenants. When a story is interpreted allegorically, one need not use all of the elements of the story in the alleogrical interpretation. In Galatians Paul uses the two women, Sarah and Hagar, and the fact that one was free and one was a slave, along with the blessing on Isaac’s seed to represent the nature and future of two covenants. He doesn’t refer to many other elements of the story, such as Abraham’s role, God’s protection of Hagar and his promise concerning Ishmael, or Sarah’s role in throwing Ishmael and Hagar out of the house.
The book of Hebrews uses the future rest for Israel, which originally dealt with their settling in the promised land, as a sort of allegory for the Christian walk and the future blessing of rest for God’s people in the heavenly kingdom. (This material starts at Hebrews 3:7, but continues through the rest of the argument of that book.) In this way the exodus from Egypt, the troubles of the wilderness wandering, and the difficulties of the conquest can become an illustration of the Christian life, either of a group or of an individual.
This interpretation has become an important part of modern Christian thinking and experience, especially in the charismatic community. Christians are admonished to “take the land” which is a reference to the exodus, and to its allegorical interpretation as a description of the Christian life, both individually and as a community.
Some Dangers in Allegorical Interpretation
Once I was teaching a group of people, working on a Bible overview, and I used this allegorical interpretation of the exodus and the conquest. One woman in my class became more and more upset as I continued to work through the allegory. When it was time for questions, she asked, “But still those were real people suffering and dying, weren’t they?”
Now I intended to discuss the history, but I hadn’t gotten there at that point. She brought up one of the dangers of allegorical interpretation, especially of stories or histories: It is very easy to get attached to the allegory, and lose all of the meaning of the original story. This does not mean that an allegorical interpretation is bad, especially when that interpretation draws on the principles that lie behind the history.
An allegory may come from the author (such as Ezekiel 16), or be part of the reader’s interaction with the story. It is important to know the difference. If we believe that the Bible is inspired, we should try to find out what it says, not what we can make it say. Allegorical interpretation can be a way of imposing our theology and philosophy on the text of the Bible, rather than allowing the scriptures to correct us.
Sometimes allegory is used to get around the meaning of a passage. It is often used very loosely, as when anything that simply won’t fit is called allegorical. “Don’t take that too literally!” is a frequent comment, which often means, “Ignore that!” Genesis 1-3 are often dismissed as either allegory (which they are not) or as mythology. They do share some characteristics with the form of literature we know as mythology, especially in chapters two and three. But Genesis 1:1-2:4 share almost none of characteristics of mythology, and certainly do not look like intended allegory.
Does this mean that they must be taken literally? Actually there are many alternatives other than “allegorical” and “literal.” I believe Genesis 1 is liturgy, for example, intended for use in celebrating the creation in worship. It thus does not need to be narrative history, nor does it need to provide a chronology, but it nonetheless describes God’s involvement in creation.
Dangers of allegorical interpretation:
- Forgetting the intended meaning
- Using the allegory as the interpretation
Sometimes an allegory can be helpful, but unless you are sure that the author intended to write allegorically, don’t use it to prove a point.
- Wild flights of fancy
Allegorical interpretation is already just a bit loose, provided that the allegory is not intended by the author, and unless one is careful, one can simply create one’s own world of meaning completely detached from the text.
- Calling something allegory in order to avoid what it says
(See comments on Genesis above)
Don’t Be Afraid of Allegory
Despite the cautions I have given, understanding allegory, and even using allegorical interpretations of portions of the Bible can be an extremely rewarding type of study. Don’t be afraid of it. Just use it wisely!