Genesis as Allegory

This is the fourth in a series on the old earth/young earth controversy.

Paul in Galatians 4:21-31 refers to the birth of Isaac to Sarah and of Ishmael to Hagar (Genesis 16), as an allegory.  Some have appealed to this text as warrant for treating Genesis 1 also as allegory.

Here is the Galatians text in the King James:

21 Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law?

22 For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman.

23 But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise.

24 Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar.

25 For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children.

26 But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.  [My emphasis.]

The critical word in the Greek is ἀλληγορούμενα·

I do not have any Greek, and I appeal to the Greek scholars among us to correct my mistakes.

The English Standard Version ( also:

Now this may be interpreted allegorically.

The New International Version takes a slightly different approach:

These things are being taken figuratively.

But there doesn’t seem to be a significant difference between “allegorically” and “figuratively.”  According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “the word [allegory] traces back to the Greek word allēgorein meaning “to speak figuratively,” and means “a work of written, oral, or visual expression that uses symbolic figures, objects, and actions to convey truths or generalizations about human conduct or experience.”

It may be noted, of course, that the dictionary definition is neutral as to whether the events which carry the allegorical meaning are themselves true, or whether the allegorical meaning is true. And in the case of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, clearly Paul has no intention of questioning the historicity of the births of Isaac and Ishmael.  Genesis could, likewise, be both history and allegory, no?  What if it is?  Would its allegorical quality have any bearing on the meaning of the Six Days of Genesis 1:3-31?

Paul’s comment on Genesis 16 is very helpful, in that it shows that in regard to any given biblical text, a figurative interpretation cannot be ruled out a priori.  Essentially, Paul gives us permission to ask the question.

Genesis 1 doesn’t sound much like an allegory.  An allegory uses actors and actions to represent other, deeper things.  What deeper things do the waters and the mountains and the fish and the birds represent?  They represent themselves, do they not?  The uncertainty as to the duration of the Six Days isn’t resolved by any attempt to interpret them as allegory: how is a 24-hour day an allegory for some longer period of time?  How is a longer period of time deeper than a 24-hour period?

This is to be contrasted with Genesis 2 and 3, however.  A Tree of Life, a Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and a talking snake look everything like symbols of greater things.  But if Genesis 2-3 are an allegory, would that make a figurative understanding of Genesis 1 any more plausible?

It might, particularly in light of the apparent need to read Genesis 1 together with Genesis 2 and 3; for they both contain accounts of the creation of man, and the latter account does sound figurative.  The man is formed out of the dust of the ground, God breathes life into him.  There also seems to be a connection between the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and Genesis 1, in that Eve was created on day 6, and 1:27 and 2:8 together show that the Garden and the Trees came before Eve (perhaps even as early as day 3).  2:16-17 shows that some time on day 6 but before creating Eve, God commanded Adam not to eat the fruit of the Tree.  (There is no positive indication that God made that command to Eve directly, since she didn’t yet exist – Adam may have informed her about it later.)  All of this shows that even if the Fall did not occur until day 7, the command concerning the Tree must have come on day 6.  To me, the Tree looks everything like an allegory.

I would like to mention here the possibility that we are Adam (and Eve) – and I mean literally!  Modern genetics shows that every human being has a genetic endowment inherited from our first parents.  Isn’t it Adam who now walks the fields and the streets of the world?  Weren’t we literally in Adam at the Fall?  In some mysterious yet literal way, didn’t we also repudiate God on that primordial day?  Taste the fruit?  Isn’t this both an allegory and literally true at both levels of meaning?

Galatians 4 shows that the at least some of the people and events of the Old Testament – people who actually existed and events which actually occurred – were providentially ordered so as to teach deeper things about God and his plan for redeeming the cosmos.  It does not enable us to rule out the possibility that Genesis is history or that it is allegory or that it is both.

Genesis seems to describe universal human experience in a way which is unfathomable, at least until now.  Genesis is somehow my biography, and yours.  Genesis tells me that being human may be a greater mystery than any of us realizes.

But at present, I remain unconvinced that it is necessary to take one view or the other or, if one takes one view or the other, to convince anyone else that one is correct.  Why?  Because what we do know, through other lines of reasoning, is that whether it took him 6 days or 13 billion years, God created everything that exists.  Together, nature and the Bible assure us that there is a God who wants us to know him, and that our happiness is in knowing him.  If we know this, then we are free, and how is it then necessary to pledge loyalty to one interpretation of Genesis or another, and why should we feel compelled to try to convince anyone else that our view is the correct one?  Better minds have wrestled with this, to no clear conclusion.

I do not intend (obviously) to suggest that it is not worth the attempt; and again, we have not yet looked at the scientific arguments and counter-arguments.


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2 Responses to Genesis as Allegory

  1. debahlynn says:

    Hi Tom, I tried to post this comment on your blog, but received the message that my post could not be posted. Not sure why, but I’ll just paste it into this email. Hope you and Irene are doing well. ~Debbie

    Tom, you might be interested to hear Jack Crabtree’s take on Paul’s use of allegory in the Galatians passage. Jack recently did a series on the book of Galatians, which you can find here: Talk #17 is the one that deals with that passage, beginning at minute 23:30. His contention is that Paul is not interpreting Genesis when he employs the allegory, but rather he is using Hagar and Sarah to represent Jews who are bound to the law vs. Jews who are children of promise. Give a listen and see what you think!


    • Debbie,

      It posted!

      I’ll check out Jack’s stuff. Thanks!

      Do you think he’s saying that Paul is not saying God intended it as an allegory but that Paul saw that it could be used as an allegory?



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