I once heard a preacher begin his sermon by reading 1 Samuel 17:40 where David was preparing to face Goliath and he collected “five smooth stones” as a part of his weaponry. The rest of his sermon was spent explaining why David chose exactly five stones and why they were smooth. I believe one stone represented faith, another courage, another–well, I don’t remember now. I think their smoothness represented grace…I think.
So, why did David take five smooth stones? We don’t know because the Bible doesn’t tell us. Maybe he needed the stones to be smooth so they wouldn’t get caught in his sling. Maybe five is all he could find. We really do not know.
That doesn’t stop us from speculating and it doesn’t stop preachers from allegorizing that little detail in the story.
What does it mean to allegorize the Bible?
Jesus often taught using parables. A parable is a simple story used to illustrate a greater (spiritual) message. An allegory is similar, but it takes a story with one message (or no message) and attempts to use it to illustrate another message altogether.
For example, Jesus gave us the parable of the sower in Matthew 13:3-9. In that story, a man is merely sowing his field but some of his seeds are falling on the road, among the thorns, and on stoney places. Of course, Jesus was not teaching us about farming in that passage. In fact, he went on in the chapter to explain the parable’s spiritual meaning (Matthew 13:18-23).
As for allegories, there is one notable allegory in the Bible found in Galatians 4:21-31. Paul used the story of Sarah/Isaac and Hagar/Ishmael to draw a distinction between life in bondage under the law and life in liberty through Christ.
To give you the short version of the Old Testament story, God promised Abraham and Sarah a son. But Sarah grew impatient waiting on the Lord and encouraged Abraham to have a child with their servant, Hagar. Ishmael was born. But Ishmael was not the child of promise and not the rightful heir to the land of Canaan. Isaac, who was born later, was that child of promise.
Isaac became a forefather of Israel and it was his decedents chosen by God and blessed by the old covenant. Ishmael’s decedents were excluded from those blessings. Of course, the old covenant had nothing to do with eternal life. The bulk of Paul’s Galatian letter teaches that eternal life was given even to Gentiles which included Ishmael’s family (Genesis 12:3, Galatians 3:8).
Even so, Paul allegorized that story. In other words, he used the story of Isaac and Ishmael–though it had its own lessons throughout–to illustrate a completely different point. Namely, he wanted the Christians of Galatia to understand life in bondage to the law versus life under the liberty of the true gospel of Jesus Christ.
The law of Moses was represented by Hagar in Paul’s allegory. Freedom in Christ was represented by Sarah. He didn’t mean only Sarah’s family would be saved. He didn’t mean Hagar’s family received God’s law and Sarah’s did not–quite the opposite.
What’s the problem with allegorizing the Bible?
Paul did it. Why can’t we?
First of all, Paul made it clear he was making an allegory out of the Old Testament text (Galatians 4:24). Second of all, Paul was divinely inspired by the Spirit of God to write what he wrote.
I believe there are at least three possible reasons why we like to allegorize the Bible. One, we know the Bible is a spiritual book so we want to assume everything in it is spiritual. Two, we like to come across to people as deep and profound. Three, it’s fun.
Frankly, not every passage of the Bible has some sort of spiritual meaning. For instance, historical and cultural facts are often given as context. It sets the stage for the spiritual teachings. To allegorize a passage when the Bible itself doesn’t allegorize it, does not make us more profound. It might be fun to try, but it doesn’t amount to a deeper understanding of God’s Word.
The greatest problem with allegorizing the Bible is that each allegory is entirely subjective. We should avoid it.