Reading Scripture as an Allegory
Allegory can be a difficult word to use or to understand when it comes to Scripture. For some, it is a word that makes our skin crawl with discomfort. For others, it opens the door to a wide range of possibilities that might frighten us, or maybe excite us about all of the possibilities for interpretation and application. But for Paul, allegory is neither frightening nor exciting. For Paul, allegory is a tool. A tool that he brandishes here in this fourth chapter of Galatians in order to illuminate how it is that this whole story about Jesus works.
Take a look at Galatians 4:21-31. You can read it here.
Here, Paul uses the story of Abraham and his journey to have children as an allegory, or figuratively, to describe two different kinds of life. One is described as that of his relationship with Hagar (which can be found in Genesis 16). The other is of his relationship with Sarah (found in Genesis 12-23, but especially in Genesis 17).
Abraham’s relationship with Hagar is a contract of sorts, although one that is very different from the world in which we live. Abraham and Sarah devise that Abraham could have a child, an heir, through Hagar, one of their servants. And so, they go about the business of making this happen, knowing all along that this child will be birthed by Hagar, but will really be Sarah’s child. The only problem with this arrangement is that once the child is born, Sarah (understandably) grows jealous of Hagar and her ability to bear children. She begins to mistreat both Hagar and the child. They are sent away into the wilderness, without a care to their survival at all.
And this is what Paul says living under the Law is truly like. It is a contract of sorts that is slavery. It doesn’t lead to a happy ending, like Sarah and Abraham thought. It instead leads to a wilderness experience where we must turn to God for a solution to our slavery.
But, on the other hand, Paul presents the story of Abraham and Sarah’s child, Isaac, as an allegory of what freedom from the Law through Jesus is all about. This child is born not out of contracts or authorized adultery. It is born from the promise of God and of the Spirit.
And this, Paul says, is what the Gospel offers. It offers to us the promise of God and life through the Spirit. We no longer would be enslaved to the Law, but freed from it so that we can have life with God.
(Now, one final word on reading Scripture as an allegory. As we can see, there is clearly much more that could and should be discussed from these chapters from the book of Genesis 16-17. Paul is not attempting to give us an accurate reading of those texts that fully encompasses their meaning. He is using that story to help illuminate a different story. He is using it to help us understand the meaning of the story of Jesus in the midst of a present day context with a familiar ancient one. In order for us to study and understand the purpose and applications of Genesis 16-17 outright, we would need to return to those chapters and read them within their context, rather than in this one.)
And so, why does Paul do this? What does this allegory mean for us as modern readers?
Well, perhaps Paul says it best in this chapter in verses 31 and 7, respectively:
Galatians 4:31 – Therefore, brothers and sisters, we aren’t the slave woman’s children, but we are the free woman’s children.
Galatians 4:7 – Therefore, you are no longer a slave but a son or daughter, and if you are his child, then you are also an heir through God.
May we go into our daily lives this week not as slaves of the Law, but as children of God.