A Case Study In Allegory

Why Biblical imagery must often deviate from physical reality

Perhaps the most famous Christian allegory comes, not from the pages of the Bible, but rather from the pen of John Bunyan in 1678. His work, “The Pilgrims Progress”, describes in vivid detail a long journey taken by a man named ‘Christian’ from the ‘City of Destruction’ to the ‘Celestial City’. This text illustrates many Christian concepts, and teaches many spiritual lessons. It has captivated readers for generations around the globe.

But for many believers, the concept of allegory remains obscure. It is accepted as legitimate, in theory, but in practice it is not well understood or defined. It would seem on the surface to be an elusive catch phrase for any type of spiritual symbolism we would like to superimpose upon any particular Biblical text. The fact is that alleged allegories are often arbitrary and speculative, and for no good reason. There exists an almost limitless number of ways in which one might claim allegorical meaning from any passage.

It turns out there is only one explicit instance of the word ‘allegory’ in the whole Bible. In Galatians 4, Paul uses it to describe his spiritual exposition of Abraham’s two wives and two sons. This certainly does not preclude the existence of other allegories elsewhere1, but it does provide us with a clear test case for the genre. And since Paul leans on Isaiah to make his point, we should do the same.

So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God…For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written, ‘Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear; break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than those of the one who has a husband.’ … So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.’

Paul defines for us his allegory, based upon two women, and two cities. These symbols are drawn explicitly from Isaiah’s commentary, and Paul quotes the OT prophet so that the reader may be advised of this fact. He certainly follows the pattern, for example, found first in statements such as ‘look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you’.2 The parents of Isaac are directly compared with the creation, as if Israel were mined by God out of the ground like a precious metal. So Paul recognizes the spiritual parallels between the imagery of Isaiah and the circumstances of Sarah and Hagar.

But let us acknowledge that Sarah and Hagar do not explicitly come from Isaiah.  Rather, the imagery of the woman Israel (in two parts) comes from Isaiah.  Paul stands on Isaiah’s shoulders, so to speak, and puts the pieces together. He contributes additional material to the imagery. This verifies that the basic technique, found first in the pages of Isaiah, is OT allegory.

Notice carefully what Paul does. He states, ‘now this may be interpreted allegorically’. Literally, he is ‘constructing an allegory based on the OT account.’3 He takes a plain literal series of events, and draws a comparison between them and his intended spiritual message. And how exactly does he do that? Paul extracts themes from reality which communicate his point, and ignores those aspects of reality that contradict his point.

This is very surprising to consider at first. ‘The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.’4 We cannot presume then to understand the method of allegory without first observing this fundamental characteristic, as illustrated in table below.

ALLEGORY REALITY
Two Covenants Two Women
Law, Liberty Slave, Free
Flesh Persecutes Spirit Older Persecutes Younger
ALLEGORY CONFLICT
Bearing Children For Slavery Ishmael Was Never A Slave
Barren Woman Is Divorced Sarah Is Never Divorced
Barren Woman Has More Children Sarah and Hagar Each Have One
Divorced Woman Is Remarried Hagar Was Never Remarried
Children Born Without Labor Pain Sarah and Hagar Experience Labor

While Paul’s allegory is not derived out of thin air, nevertheless the real life story of Sarah and Hagar is not the allegory. The allegory of Sarah and Hagar is merely the comparison between their real life story and God’s spiritual imagery, after the fact. It reflects the interchangeable, nonliteral characters defined first by Isaiah.

Paul confirms for us that these two symbolic women found first in the pages of Isaiah, are really one and the same. He observes that ‘a child is no different from a slave’, and goes on to say that ‘when we were children, [we] were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world’. But ‘you are no longer a slave, but a son!’ And again, ‘we are not children of the slave but of the free woman’. Although Sarah and Hagar were two different women, the symbolic ‘children’ only have one mother. First, the ‘children’ are slaves born to a slave woman. Then they transition and become free, born to a free woman. But these children are not born twice. The change in status for the children is merely dictated by the change in status of their mother. Paul emphatically states that ‘Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother’. This is taken directly from Isaiah 66:13, where the imagery of the city and the woman are equated. Of course, this city is ‘above’ because it is precisely the ‘new heaven’, which Isaiah also defines as ‘Jerusalem’. And finally, this one woman or city is no longer a slave. She had been ‘sold for her iniquities’, as Isaiah says, or ‘cast out’ as Paul says. But Isaiah also tells us that she was ‘redeemed without money’ and subsequently remarried.

So then the allegory has a sound basis in past reality, but ultimately departs from it. Paul takes what makes sense, from past reality, and abandons what doesn’t. He presumes explicit license to deviate from physical reality for the purpose of a spiritual point. Aspects from the story of Sarah and Hagar are selectively gleaned, and there is nothing wrong with this at all.

But why do the allegories of Isaiah and Paul require a deliberate retelling of that past historical reality to make the point? The answer, perhaps, may become obvious with some thought. The fact is that any real life human story, when examined in detail, will become woefully inadequate on its own to convey God’s spiritual message. There will inevitably be some contradictions between physical reality, and God’s perfect spiritual plan. The lives of Sarah and Hagar are merely a case in point.

Therefore allegorical contradictions with reality do not undermine the real life story. At the same time, an allegory is only a rough approximation of historical reality. This is not a philosophical trick. It is only to accept the use case for allegory that Scripture actually defines. Allegories are constructed from reality, and they are the complete opposite of arbitrary. They are literally a compromise between the physical reality, and the spiritual reality. We as NT participants in God’s covenant unfortunately often blur the two, so that we do not recognize the difference.

Footnotes

  1. I Corinthians 10:1-11; Ephesians 5:22-33, etc.
  2. Isaiah 51:1-2
  3. See the NET Bible, Galatians 4:24
  4. I Corinthians 2:14

Author: Rick Brower

Rick lives in the U.S. Midwest with his wife and three children. When he is not remodeling something around the house he is usually writing study papers. He enjoys a wide range of Biblical topics, but is particularly interested in exploring modern challenges to faith. He also loves snow, probably because it doesn't come around too often to become a nuisance.