Allegory and the Old Testament

It is safe to say that the allegorical method has fallen upon hard times in the scholarly world. What was once considered a discovery of the deeper meaning of the Old Testament text is now almost universally derided in the academic halls as the arbitrary and perhaps even perverse ingenuity of commentators with altogether too much time on their hands. To quote but one scholar’s evaluation of the method (as used for interpreting the Song of Solomon), “To read a single allegorical interpretation is to be impressed, and to wonder if the author is on to something profound; to read a hundred allegorical interpretations is to be depressed, and to want to discard the whole…I do not believe that the allegorization of any text of the Song is of theological or exegetical value”. Okay then. Like I said, hard times, and not just for the Song of Solomon.   Most modern interpreters would hold that finding value in an allegorical interpretation of the Law, the historical books, and the Psalter is also passé. In the words of one author (Hanson, in his Allegory and Event, cited in O’Keefe and Reno’s Sanctified Vision), the use of allegory by people like Origen “since the arrival of historical criticism has had to be entirely abandoned and is, as far as one can prophesy, never again likely to be revived”.

But a method which has won the assent of pretty much all the Fathers cannot so easily be discarded by Orthodox who look to the Fathers as their guides. One need not agree with the Fathers in all their detailed conclusions (for example, in their dating of the Book of Daniel), but Orthodox commentators will accept their basic mindset and approach, including their acceptance of allegory as a valid method of interpretation. One sometimes reads that the School of Antioch rejected the allegorical method while the School of Alexandria accepted it, but actually interpreters hailing from both cities accepted the allegorical method as legitimate. It was a matter of proportion and enthusiasm, with Antioch tending to the historical side of the continuum and Alexandria tending more to the allegorical side. But both Antioch and Alexandria accepted the basic historical reliability of the sacred text as well as the legitimacy of some further allegorical interpretation. I believe that we Orthodox should follow them, and accept both the historical meaning of the text and its allegorical application.

How to do this? Are there any rules? Following our forebears of Antiochene provenance (such as St. John Chrysostom), I suggest the following.

The historical meaning of the text must be regarded as the primary one in that it lays the foundation for further interpretation.   One cannot deny the historicity of the events portrayed in the text because we happen to find them difficult or uncongenial. If an historical text like 1 Kings reports that a miracle happened, then it happened, and our modern distaste for the supernatural or our materialist dogma that “miracles cannot occur” cannot be allowed to over-rule what the text says. If the text reports that God commanded Joshua to slaughter the inhabitants of Jericho, then that is what God commanded. We may wonder why God said that, but denying that He commanded it is not an option. Laziness may push us to simply deny that it happened and exempt us from the hard work of wrestling with the text and its modern implications, but such a course must be resisted. We must accept the historical reliability of the report and try to work out what it means—and more importantly perhaps, what it does not mean—for us.

In other words, allegory must not be used as an easy escape hatch to avoid theological difficulties. It simply does not follow that because a text has an allegorical interpretation and application—as most texts do—that this somehow nullifies the historical meaning. Take for example the crossing of the Red Sea. The plain historical meaning is the escape of Israel from the peril of the advancing Egyptians. An historical reading will accept that it happened more or less as reported. But we accept that the passage through the Red Sea is also an allegory of our own escape from the kingdom of Satan and his demons, so that just as Israel passed through the waters and emerged safe on the other side to advance towards the Promised Land, so we also pass through the waters of baptism and advance towards the Kingdom of heaven. The allegorical interpretation does not nullify the historical, and it is illegitimate to somehow set up the two interpretations as alternatives from which we may choose. The historical and the allegorical interpretations are not rival choices or two halves of an exegetical dichotomy. They are two parts of a total interpretive house, consisting of its historical foundation and the allegorical superstructure based upon it.

Also therefore one must not build an allegorical superstructure inconsistent with the original historical foundation or interpret the text allegorically in a way that does violence to the original. Take for example the slaughter of Jericho. The original text asserts that the Israelite armies were to put to the sword the inhabitants of the city, sparing only the harlot Rahab and her family. An allegorical interpretation would equate Israel’s enemies within the city with the demons and sins which wage war against us and which will destroy us unless we eliminate them from our life. The allegory is rooted in the history and represents a consistent interpretive trajectory: in both interpretations the enemies are enemies to be destroyed; what has changed is our own situation. The Church is not national, but supra-national—and in fact, eschatological, not of this world at all. Our enemies now are thus not national but spiritual—armies of wickedness in the heavenlies, as St. Paul has said (Ephesians 6:12f). This allegory thus builds on the historical. But we cannot say that because there is a legitimate interpretation that equates the Canaanites with the demons that the historical command to slay the Canaanites never occurred or to say that such a command was immoral simply because it is capable of allegorization. In fact everything is capable of allegorization, given enough time and ingenuity. A total interpretation of the text therefore will declare:

  1. God commanded the slaughter of Jericho for some good reason (even if we cannot immediately say what that reason was);
  2. The event actually occurred;
  3. Its historicity was descriptive, not prescriptive—i.e. it does not give us permission to slaughter that way today;
  4. Its more immediate application and meaning have to do with slaying the enemies currently warring against us, namely the demons and our sins.
  5. This allegorical interpretation represents a deeper and more abiding truth.

This I believe may set a paradigm for all allegorical interpretation. All of the Old Testament must be interpreted allegorically as well as historically—as I argued at length in my 2012 book The Christian Old Testament (as I do in an upcoming commentary on the Song of Solomon to be published by SVS Press, in which I attempt to rehabilitate the allegorical method for a deeper understanding of the Song). Appealing to the Old Testament history does not mean a rejection of the allegorical. It only means that the two ways of reading the text are not mutually exclusive. It is perverse to suggest otherwise. We begin with the historical, and dig deeper to find its abiding meaning—a meaning consistent with the historical, but of more immediate concern to us as Christians.

 

 

12 comments:

  1. Like you, I have never known the Church to see any contradiction between history and allegory.
    A couple of minor quibbles nonetheless.
    You wrote:

    “They are two parts of a total interpretive house, consisting of its historical foundation and the allegorical superstructure based upon it.”

    Since Christ is the meaning of the Old Testament, as well as all of history, I wonder if it wouldn’t be more accurate to speak of Him as the foundation and history as the superstructure. The patriarchs and prophets not only spoke of, but actually LIVED the life of Christ. I think of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph (son of Jacob), Moses, David, and the list goes on and on. Their very lives were prophetic, though doubtless they didn’t see or know it. I believe the same is true of our lives today though, like them, as mere threads we cannot see the great tapestry of Christ God is weaving.

    Secondly, you wrote:

    “We must accept the historical reliability of the report and try to work out what it means—and more importantly perhaps, what it does not mean—for us.”

    While I agree that we should accept the historical reliability (at least in the sense of not questioning that these things actually happened), I would suggest that we do not need to work out what it means (or does not mean) for us. This could be as fraught with danger as interpreting any Scripture apart from the Church. If we will but listen during the Liturgy, praying along with the Church (and Sunday Liturgy alone will not suffice), we will come not only to understand, but also to participate in what they mean for us.

    Your thoughts?

    1. I quite agree with your quibbles; in talking about foundation and superstructure I was speaking only of exegesis and application. Christ Himself is revealed in both the historical lives and events as well as in our allegorical application of them. I love your line about the patriarchs and prophets living the life of Christ. I will steal the line, with your permission.
      All that I meant in saying that we need to work out what an historical event means or doesn’t mean for us is that we need to discern in what ways it might be offered as an example. Thus the slaughter of Jericho cannot be understood as God’s implicit permission for us committing genocide against our national enemies. As you point out, incorporating our Scripture reading into a liturgical existence should save us from such a dangerous interpretation, since permission for genocide cannot be squared with a truly liturgical life.

      1. “I will steal the line, with your permission.”
        By all means, Father.

        Having my eyes/mind opened to see that all history, including that which we ourselves are living in this very moment, is about Christ was life-transforming for me. It brings a whole new perspective to Paul’s saying, “For me to live is Christ.” It is also something akin to “Did not our hearts burn within us as He opened up the Scriptures?” The more that can share in it the better.

  2. Father,
    I really appreciate this article, especially on the heels of “Why we need a God of wrath”…as well as the related articles and the OCA “The God of Joshua”. I’d be lying if I said I fully understood the difficult topic of God’s wrath. It is hard to imagine Him any other way than kind, gentle, yet firm, leading and guiding, even in His displeasure toward our sins. Yet, the paradox…or a seeming contradiction…I also see that God deals severely with us when we consistently, in defiance, turn away from Him, as if to say ‘I do not know you’…. with no will to repent whatsoever. He seems to overlook these things in His much long-suffering, until He sees the “fullness” of our sins. It is here when I read the manner in which God deals with us that I have many questions. This is where the blending of history and allegory are most helpful explaining God’s dealings with mankind, OT to NT.
    So here are some of my thoughts and questions… a life alienated from God is one who is subject to God’s wrath. But isn’t the very separation from God, the movement from life to death, and the consequences of being unrepentant, unforgiven… existence in being “uncovered”…isn’t that the essence of God’s wrath? Isn’t that what took place here on earth with the ungodly of Sodom, Canaan, the Flood, etc., and manifested in wars and devastation? (I have this verse in mind, for example:”For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only He who now restrains will do so until He is taken out of the way” ) Isn’t this severity of God, understood by specific commands to kill all that moved in Canaan, correctly understood as a withdrawal of His grace, His blessing and being left to the authority of demonic powers, who they have always worshiped ? It may appear that I am trying to give God a “pass”, as if He withdraws and looks upon us at a great distance, uninvolved, as if to say there really wasn’t a command to kill. I do not mean to imply that. What I really want to know is what does God want us to know about Himself. Is His justice as boundless as His mercy? I think it is. Then I look at His Son, where justice and mercy hung on a Cross. A transcendence I can not explain.
    If you would address my rambling here, it would be more for the better. In the meantime, with God’s grace and blessing, in time I will little by little understand more.
    Thank you Father.

    1. I am reluctant to do more than tremble when I look at such mysteries as how God’s mercy and justice combine to both save and judge. We are on safer ground when doing exegesis, since we are then simply receiving what God has already revealed. The only rambling that I have to share is that when we turn from light to darkness and embrace sin we thereby already choose wrath over mercy, so that the divine wrath is revealed as justice when it comes, and not as simply God’s irascibility or as arbitrary anger. If we choose to become mad dogs, of course eventually we will be treated as such, and not be allowed to snap and bite forever.

  3. For the first 50 years of my life, I was a Missouri Synod Lutheran, which focuses on the historical truth to the exclusion of any allegorical meaning. I knew there had to be more meaning in the Scriptures, and I thank God that He lead me to the Orthodox Church, where I am blessed to find out the deeper meaning of His words.
    There is a great danger in insisting that the only meaning is historical; this is why people search for the Ark of the Covenant, or Noah’s ark, without learning about the deeper meaning.

    1. Thank you! I never thought about the fascination for finding the Ark as part of the rejection of allegory; I suppose you are right! And I would go even further and say that saying that the only meaning in the Scriptures is historical is almost nonsense, in that even events themselves have little meaning. The Flood, for example, was all event and no meaning until the Scriptural authors portrayed it as God’s judgment. Historical events are facts, but all facts require interpretation to become meaning. I am reminded of CS Lewis’ illustration about a pointing finger: a man points with his finger to a bit of food on the ground for his dog and the dog comes and sniffs his finger. For the dog, the finger is all fact and no meaning; it has no way of understanding what pointing means. Without intending to give offence, some anti-allegorical interpretations are similarly canine.

  4. Fr. Lawrence, I often wonder what one means by “historical”. The authors of scripture weren’t writing ‘history’ because ‘history’ itself has a history and ancient peoples seem not to have shared our modern ideas about what ‘history’ should be. As an object of critical inquiry, ‘history’ doesn’t exist. The past is gone and we can’t travel back to the past to examine it. All we have are artifacts and texts that we can interpret. For antiquity, we have primarily texts. There is not an obvious way to get ‘behind’ that text and access the ‘history’ it is purportedly ‘representing.’ Although lacking an idea of “history,” the ancient Hebrews (according to James Kugel) did have an idea of what “scripture” should be, and the first assumption was that it is a “fundamentally cryptic text.” The Church fathers also have a notion that scripture is veiled (as Moses himself was veiled as he came down from the Mount Sinai) and that Christ himself removes the veil, revealing that Moses “wrote of me” (John 5;46). So Christ is both the interpretive key of an otherwise cryptic Scripture and also the subject of Scripture. As Christ, himself Truth, is our only criterion of what is true, is not Christ the “primary meaning” of Scripture, rather than any ‘historical’ meaning?

    1. I do agree with you about history, and of course about Christ. All history—even modern history—of necessity represents a selection of historical facts and the presentation of a particular point of view. There is no such thing as completely unbiased history. This is especially true of Old Testament history, which makes no pretence of objectivity. Even this history is a kind of prophecy (which is perhaps why the Jews refer to them as “the former prophets”). The narratives of 1-2 Kings portray the kings as either good or bad solely on the basis of their fidelity (or lack of it) to God’s covenant, quite apart from any other royal virtues they might have had. And of course their standards of reporting differed from ours (such as their use of numbers). But none of this means that (as one person famously said) “history is bunk”; there is an historical kernel of truth behind all such reporting. And I quite agree that the ultimate significance of this historical kernel is fulfilled in Christ. By “primary meaning” I only meant that we must start with the historical kernel or actual reportage and only then draw out the allegory on the basis of these events. This was, I believe, the point of the Antiochene exegetes, that our allegory should not rest in the air, but be grounded upon the assumption of the historical events. Thank you for helping clarify this important point–and for that wonderful line about the Old Testament being a “fundamentally cryptic text”.

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