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What Is a Biblical Allegory?

By T. Carrier
Updated Jan 31, 2024
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The Holy Bible contains many allegories. These are small fables that are meant to impart an important lesson. Characters and situations in the stories are thus symbolic of general principles such as temptation, liberation, and spiritual belief. Examples of biblical allegory include the two covenants and Nathan's poor man's tale. Some individuals also assign allegorical value to singular symbols such as the lamb and bread and wine in Communion practices.

Allegories are found in many modes of artistic expression, particularly in literature. In some cases, an entire novel can function as an allegory. This type of fictional story can be viewed as a prolonged metaphor, which uses literal objects and beings to draw a comparison with a figurative idea or theme. Most often, allegories as a literary device have a political, social, or religious undertone. For example, the novel Animal Farm by George Orwell — in which animals assume control of a farmland — is viewed by many as a veiled criticism of Soviet Communism.

Various individuals in the Bible use allegory as a means of teaching spiritual values. The apostle Paul, for example, referred to the tale of Abraham and his two sons as an allegory. Since one of Abraham's sons was born to a slave and another to a free woman, these two sons were thought to represent the two covenants — or agreements — that God made to Israel: bondage and liberation. In some interpretations, the old agreement would be represented via the slave woman's son. The free-born son would thus represent the new covenant, which Christians might view as Jesus Christ's arrival and individuals of the Jewish faith might view as the arrival of a future Messiah.

Another biblical allegory is that used to make King David realize his sin. A man of God called Nathan visited the king and recounted a story about a wealthy man with a large stock of animals who takes a lower-class man's only lamb and uses it as a dinner course. Due in part to this tale, David repented because he too had taken something valuable and loved from a poorer man: Uriah's wife Bathsheba.

Scholars have extensively studied every passage of the Bible, and many seek biblical allegory in even simple images. Jesus Christ refers to himself as living bread in the New Testament of the Bible, which is a symbol many faithful have carried into modern times at Communion. During this ceremony, believers consume bread and wine, which are symbolic of the body and the blood of Christ. Similarly, a lamb has come to represent spiritual renewal as a biblical allegory for many, due to the lambs that were sacrificed during the plague of Egypt.

While some stories in the Holy Bible are obviously symbolic, division remains concerning the literal versus symbolic interpretations of other passages. For example, some view tales like Noah building an ark after a worldwide flood and Jonah being consumed by a whale as actual events. Others believe these are fictional allegories meant to highlight themes like spiritual virtue and spiritual imprisonment. Some individuals even view the entire Bible as an allegory for one's spiritual journey from darkness to salvation.

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