Allegory and Interpretation

The Rev. Dr. Thomas Curran

An article from Dr. Curran's column Pastimes

in the Nova Scotia and PEI Diocesan Times.


The fundamental sense of allegory occurs when, in describing one thing, an author is actually referring us to something else.  Its root meaning is the Greek word allos (other), which is to say this story is really telling "another story".  Allegory, then, is a different literary device from irony where, in saying one thing, you actually intend your reader to understand the opposite.  In allegory, there is an assumption of "a fit" between the object described and the more significant subject of the allegory, the deeper spiritual and moral meaning that is being allegorized.  So, in an allegory, the literal sense of the text is of far less interest than the actual subject of the allegory itself.


Allegory is of very great significance for the interpretation of Holy Scripture, since before the modern era the two fundamental forms of edifying scriptural interpretation followed the literary principles known as typology and allegory.  Typology is just a highfalutin way of referring to the conviction that the Old Testament is full of prophecies, anticipations and premonitions of the coming of the Messiah, who , in this "new covenant", is the actual key to all Biblical stories and parables.  Surely, the most famous instance is the so-called "Sacrifice of Isaac" (Genesis 22), treated by Christian readers as an anticipation, as a "type", of the sacrifice of Jesus as God's "only son".


But allegory is something else.  Take, for instance, the case of the two wives of Jacob, who through their combined households provided Jacob with twelve sons, the founding fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel (Genesis 30).  These founding fathers are, in due course, replaced by the twelve Apostles, the "new" twelve sons, who become the foundation stones of the new Jerusalem.  According to Genesis, Leah is the older, and less attractive, of the two wives and sisters, but Leah also proves to be considerably more fecund.  Rachel, on the other hand, is mother to only two of the sons, and the last two at that: Joseph and Benjamin.  But Joseph also proves to be the most significant and famous of the brothers, a Christ-like figure who must also suffer heinous betrayal.


The Bible, then, sets up a contrast between the older, the less attractive, but the more fecund sister Leah, and the younger, more attractive and less fecund Rachel.  This contrast is enhanced in Genesis 29, where the weak eyes of Leah are set against the sparkle in Rachel's eyes.  Leah then easily becomes an allegorical representation of the practical life, which is always first, less attractive and more productive; the contemplative life can only come second, that is, after the practical necessities have been addressed.  While Rachel remains infinitely more attractive, she is considerably less productive.  As you know, this accords with the common prejudice that in contemplation we enter the realms of what its detractors call "idle speculation".  This allegory suggests that the practical life is extremely short sighted; only when we can see beyond the everyday concerns, can we ascend to the vista of the mountain tops in contemplation and prayer.


Martha and Mary of Bethany, the sisters of Lazarus, are also understood allegorically.  Martha is the practical spirit, and the first to acknowledge the messianic power of this "Son of God" (John 11).  But the practical it seems must inevitably yield to the spiritual, as the contemplative life is both the more attractive, and the more far-sighted.  So in Luke, chapter 10 Martha's practicality, which consists in preparing the meal, setting the table, and looking after the guests, is characterized as being "distracted with much serving".  Martha expresses her irritation that Mary, the less productive soul, is entirely engaged in learning her doctrine at Jesus' feet.  Take a look at Jesus' response: "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things..."  Through contemplation and a life of prayer, we are enabled to return to the one thing "needful".