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Read Judges 9:7-21. verse 15: "The thornbush said to the trees, 'If you really want to anoint me king over you, come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, then let fire come out of the thornbush and consume the cedars of Lebanon.'"

Gal 4:24-31: These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written:

Be glad, O barren woman,
who bears no children;
break forth and cry aloud,
you who have no labor pains;
because more are the children of the desolate woman
than of her who has a husband.

Now you brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. At that time the son born in the ordinary way persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. But what does Scripture say? 'Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman's son.' Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman."

According to William Flint Thrall's standard literary definition, allegory is a "form of extended metaphor in which objects and persons in a narrative, either prose or verse, are equated with meaning that lie outside the narrative itself." Allegory is both a literary and exegetical method.  It is used for at least three reasons: 1) to dramatize, or in some way personify, abstract principles; 2) to create a literary situation in which concrete events and persona take on larger symbolical resonance; and 3) to uncover the supposed mystical or universal meaning behind otherwise literal narratives.

Jotham's allegory is a species of the first type.  He uses four plants to represent different political forces: the olive tree, fig tree, and vine each represent potentially healthy rulers who had the wisdom to be passed over rather than be betrayed by the current murderous system. The thornbush on the other hand, offers a paradox: come rest in the shade which is no shade or experience the fire that will come with bad rule and bad society. Jotham uses non-human objects to stand for human matters, and as a result he drives home the essence of his message. Allegories of this type represent an interesting aspect of the human need for understanding. It is as if we need narrative to give life to abstract ideas. A story gives interest and insight to abstraction and reminds us that such matters have a real drama to them. A dry discussion of the steps in repentance takes on real relevance when John Bunyan retells them in Pilgrim's Progress through the journey of the Pilgrim Christian who travels through the Slough of Despond, talks with Discretion, Piety, Prudence, and Charity, and survives Vanity Fair, in order to reach the Celestial City.

Paul, on the other hand, offers an allegorical interpretation of a narrative that at first blush does not purport to be allegorical.  He takes a story from Genesis in which Abraham is commanded by his wife Sarah to put away her slave and his concubine, Hagar, who had born to them a boy Ishmael. Sarah, who has given birth to her own son, Isaac, no longer wants Hagar and Ishmael to vie for Abraham's attention. Paul takes this historical narrative and interprets it as a allegory of life under the Old Testament law versus life under New Testament grace.  Scholars are divided over whether he intends this to be simply a dramatization of the message of grace or whether he intends this to be a mystical reading of Hagar and Sarah.

This division has its basis in later church history.  The early second and third century church was divided between two broad approaches to scriptural interpretation.  One method, often associated with certain teachers in Antioch, stressed the literal, historical, and grammatical approach to understanding texts.  The other, often associated with teachers in Alexandria, focused on uncovering the mystical, allegorical teaching behind passages, especially those that seemed to have apparent contradictions or seemed to attribute to God things unworthy of his nature, such as the sacking of Jericho. Both methods looked back to Paul as part of their example.

Catholic medieval thinkers like Thomas Aquinas, as well as Protestant Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin,  rejected the allegorical method because it tended to ignore the plain sense of passages, often leading to outlandish ideas that not only lacked any clear basis in Christian teaching but that also were impossible to critique in any fair manner.   How exactly was one to know if such allegories were true or not?  Aquinas insisted that any allegorical interpretation should at least be found in a literal way somewhere else.  Luther and Calvin went farther, almost entirely rejecting allegory.

In all fairness to the thousand-plus years of Christian practice that adopted this method, most allegorical interpreters did have limits; what they tended to find was bounded by Christian dogma and tradition.  Not everything was fair game.  At the heart of this method were a few central assumptions: 1) that God himself intended these allegorical senses, and 2) that they focused on the eternal nature of God and salvation.   This second assumption, however, is what also lead to abuses.  After all, to focus on the eternal, or if you will universal, truths behind these passages often lead to a slighting of history and God's work in history.  To read the disciples' descent from the mountain as a return to worldly temptation was to ignore what God was doing in that place and time as they descended.

And this leads us to the second, artistic function of allegory: the joining of the concrete and universal in the symbolic.  Allen Tate argued that Dante's use of allegory was superior to that of Spencer's because in Dante's world the events and characters are both concrete, real (if fictional) happenings as well as symbols of the universal message.   Dante's journey through the afterlife is both a literal journey and a complex symbol of the this-worldly struggle of sin and grace in human lives.   According to Tate, this is the chief virtue of the 'symbolical imagination': "Its humility is witnessed by its modesty.  It never begins at the top; it carries the bottom along with it, however high it may climb" (446).  Spenser, on the other hand, almost completely buries his plot and characters under the intended abstract message.  Tate would suggest that the Redcrosse Knight and Una are unreal, even in the world of the fiction.

In this sense, we can understand Paul's allegory in Galatians as both a reflection on Sarah and Hagar's universal meaning as well as an affirmation of their historicity.  Paul, under God's inspiration, has practiced the symbolical imagination.

To be honest, some of the methods I am recommending in these selections are open to the same kind of allegorical abuse that the Alexandrians were guilty of and the same kind of artistic mistakes that Tate accuses Spenser of.  In each case, the primary danger is for the interpreter to too easily pass over the hard work of understanding the original author in her or his historical context.  One should avoid, for instance, trying to find "Christian" truths in Homer.  This is not to say that Homer may not express truths that Christians may not agree with and learn from.  It is one thing to notice where Odysseus' actions agree and disagree with Christian ethics.  It is another to turn Odysseus into a Christ-figure.  Equally, when we point to the beauty of Homer's craft as an expression of God's doxa in the world, we should never forget that the work is also a literary work conceived in a culture separated by time, space, and ideology from contemporary Christianity.  If we too quickly pass over this, we may distort the true significance we wish to draw from a Christian perspective.

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Central Insight: Allegory can do a number of things: It can uncover the hidden drama in abstract truths. It can join concrete plot and character to higher truths.  It can also (perhaps mistakenly) attempt to locate the mystical meaning behind history.  In our interpretations, we should never forget history.

Suggestions for Application: Show how concrete characters and plot have deeper, symbolical meaning.  Alternately, show what an allegorical reading of a passage would overlook.


"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding