An allegory is a literary tool that uses characters, places, and events to symbolize people and ideas. There are many popular allegorical books in the literary canon, such as George Orwell's Animal Farm and Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. In these texts allegory creates a critical lens to view cultural, religious, and political ideas. However, allegory is not always critical, and is often used to express spiritual or moral truths within a story. Popular Christian literature that is driven by allegory includes John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress and C. S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia. When the truth takes the form of characters or extended metaphors it is often easier to grasp, which makes allegory an easy way to convey biblical principles.
Is there allegory in the Bible?
The Bible contains allegories as well. Most frequently in the Bible we see them in Christ's parables. For example, in the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32), we see not just a son who finds his way home but spiritual truths regarding our relationship with God and His heart as a Father. The Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:3–9, 18–23) illustrates different responses to God's Word, as Jesus explained. The goal of the allegory is to make spiritual concepts more understandable.
There are also many non-literary allegorical symbols in the Bible that are brought to life through tradition and ritual. For example, the act of sacrificing an animal such as a lamb or sheep was a symbolic foreshadowing of how Jesus would be sacrificed for our sins. Jesus is also called the "Lamb of God" (John 1:29, 36). The Old Testament animal sacrifices were prefiguring the eventual sacrifice and death of Christ.
Similarly, the institution of traditional marriage, while serving a very practical purpose, can also be seen as allegorical for Christ's relationship with the church (Ephesians 5:31–32). Further, the ceremonial laws that Moses lists in the Old Testament are not each themselves an allegory, but viewed from a broad perspective, they represent God's people separating themselves from the ways of the world.
Allegory is also sometimes used to explain historical events that seemingly have no previous deeper meaning. An example of this occurs in Galatians 4, when Paul explains the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar as an allegory for the Old and New Covenants. Paul says in Galatians 4:22–26, "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." Here, Paul illustrates that we are under the New Covenant of freedom in Christ, not under the Old Covenant of bondage. Hagar represents the slavery to the law, and Sarah represents our lives of freedom. This concept of bondage and freedom is easier to absorb when it is applied to a historical event that shows the spiritual truth through historical symbols.
God, who is the Great Storyteller, uses many storytelling tools and devices to reach us. Allegory enriches texts because there is more meaning to find behind the words and narrative. All of the ways that God chooses to communicate with us work toward His glory. The foreshadowing and reoccurring themes that allegory produce is another way for God to astound us and make Himself easier for us to find.
What are the various forms of biblical literature?
What is a parable?
Why should we study the Bible?
How is the Bible inspired? What does it mean for the Bible to be inspired?
Why does understanding the Bible matter?
Truth about the Bible