An allegory is a story in which the characters and/or events are symbols representing other events, ideas, or people. Allegory has been a common literary device throughout the history of literature. Allegories have been used to indirectly express unpopular or controversial ideas, to critique politics, and to rebuke those in power (e.g., George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels). Other times, allegory is used to express abstract ideas or spiritual truths through an extended metaphor, making the truth easier to grasp (e.g., John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and Hannah Hurnard’s Hinds’ Feet on High Places).
The Bible contains many instances of allegory used to explain spiritual truths or to foreshadow later events. The clearest examples of allegory in Scripture are the parables of Jesus. In these stories, the characters and events represent a truth about the Kingdom of God or the Christian life. For example, in the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13:3–9, the seed and different types of soil illustrate the Word of God and various responses to it (as Jesus explains in verses 18–23).
The story of the Prodigal Son also makes use of allegory. In this story (Luke 15:11–32), the titular son represents the average person: sinful and prone to selfishness. The wealthy father represents God, and the son’s harsh life of hedonism and, later, poverty represents the hollowness of the ungodly lifestyle. When the son returns home in genuine sorrow, we have an illustration of repentance. In the father’s mercy and willingness to receive his son back, we see God’s joy when we turn from sin and seek His forgiveness.
In the parables, Jesus teaches abstract spiritual concepts (how people react to the gospel, God’s mercy, etc.) in the form of relatable metaphors. We gain a deeper understanding of God’s truth through these stories. Other examples of biblical allegory, as a literary form, include the vision of the dragon and the woman in Revelation 12:1–6; the story of the eagles and the vine in Ezekiel 17; and many of the proverbs, especially those written in emblematic parallelism.
Some of the traditions and ceremonies instituted by God in the Bible could be considered “non-literary allegories” because they symbolize spiritual truths. The act of animal sacrifice, for example, represented that our sins deserve death, and each substitute on the altar prefigured the eventual sacrifice of Christ, who would die for His people. The institution of marriage, while serving great practical purposes, is also a symbol of the relationship between Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:31–32). Many of the ceremonial laws of Moses (regarding clothing, foods, and clean and unclean objects) represented spiritual realities such as the need for believers to be distinct in spirit and action from non-believers. While these examples may not be considered allegories individually (since an allegory requires multiple symbols working together), the religious system of the Old Testament (and parts of the New) can be seen as a broad allegory for man’s relationship with God.
Interestingly, sometimes significant historical events, which appear at first glance to contain no deeper meaning, are interpreted allegorically later to teach an important lesson. One instance of this is Galatians 4, where Paul interprets the story of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah as an allegory for the Old and New Covenants. He writes, “For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise. These things are being taken figuratively: 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” (Galatians 4:22–26). Here, Paul takes actual, historical people (Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah) and uses them as symbols for the Law of Moses (the Old Covenant) and the freedom of Christ (the New Covenant). Through Paul’s allegorical lens, we see that our relationship with God is one of freedom (we are children of the divine promise, as Isaac was to Sarah), not of bondage (we are not children of man’s bondage, as Ishmael was to Hagar). Paul, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, could see the symbolic significance of this historical event and used it to illustrate our position in Christ.
Allegory is a beautifully artistic way of explaining spiritual matters in easily understood terms. Through the Bible’s allegories, God helps us understand difficult concepts through a more relatable context. He also reveals Himself as the Great Storyteller, working through history to foreshadow and carry out His plan. We can rejoice that we have a God who addresses us in ways we can understand and who has given us symbols and allegories to remind us of Himself.