Judges 9:7-21. verse 15:
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."
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
|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
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
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.
* * * * *
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
Suggestions for Application: Show how
concrete characters and plot have deeper, symbolical meaning. Alternately, show what
an allegorical reading of a passage would overlook.