Discussions on the purported difference between “spiritual” meaning and “literal” meaning date back to the first few centuries after Christ. Numerous early Christian scholars felt that the Old Testament would be relevant only if it spoke directly of Christ. Thus, they developed a system of interpretation that acknowledged a “literal” meaning of the text, but then encouraged the interpreter to look for the deeper, fuller, spiritual meaning below the surface of the text. Indeed, some of these writers advocated a two-level system (literal and spiritual), while others expanded it into multileveled systems—either three (corresponding to body, soul, and spirit) or four (literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical).

For example, the fourfold system would see four levels of meaning for the city of Jerusalem: (1) literal: the actual Israelite/Jebusite city; (2) allegorical: the church of Christ; (3) moral: the soul of a person; and (4) anagogical: the heavenly city of God. By the fourth century this interpretive approach, although not without its critics, was popular among many writers of the church, and allegorical interpretation, as this overall approach is now known, became the normal way of approaching the Old Testament.[2] This style of interpretation remained popular until the Reformation (sixteenth century), when the Reformers (primarily Calvin and Luther) led the new Protestant church away from the allegorical approach.

Although the Reformers occasionally still used allegorical interpretation, in general they returned the church to the literary context of the Bible for the determination of meaning. Contemporary evangelical scholarship has followed in the footsteps of the Reformers and has tried to caution the church against using fanciful allegorical interpretations that are often based more on imagination than on the text itself. However, allegorical interpretation was still used by numerous popular preachers throughout the twentieth century, and it is still around in various forms. It has also been brought back to life through some of the newer interpretive approaches, such as reader response. Once the author loses control of the meaning, many readers will naturally drift into overspiritualizing the text through fanciful allegorical interpretation.

What do we mean by allegory? An allegory is a story that uses an extensive amount of symbolism. It is similar to a parable but generally has a greater degree of correspondence—that is, most or many of the details in the story represent something or carry some specific nuance of meaning. Greidanus defines it as “an extended metaphor—that is, a number of elements in a story make up a string of metaphors which have a deeper unified meaning.”[3] Allegory is a literary technique. Sometimes an entire book can employ the technique of allegory to convey its message. Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is such a book. Thus, when one reads and interprets Pilgrim’s Progress, he or she must read it as allegory and not as history or as a historical novel.

The Bible also uses allegory occasionally. Isaiah 5:1–7 would qualify as an allegory. Read this text and note the extended use of metaphor:

1I will sing for the one I love
a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
on a fertile hillside.
2He dug it up and cleared it of stones
and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
but it yielded only bad fruit.
3“Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
4What more could have been done for my vineyard
than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
why did it yield only bad?
5Now I will tell you
what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge,
and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall,
and it will be trampled.
6I will make it a wasteland,
neither pruned nor cultivated,
and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds
not to rain on it.”
7The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are the vines he delighted in.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.

Isaiah preaches this passage to Israel to warn them that God will judge them for their lack of justice and righteousness. Isaiah uses an extended metaphor with numerous elements of correspondence. Fortunately in verse 7 Isaiah himself identifies the meaning of the allegory and tells us what the corresponding elements are. God is the owner of the vineyard. Israel is the vineyard. The good grapes that the owner couldn’t find are justice and righteousness.

So allegory itself is not a bad thing; it is merely another literary device used occasionally in the Bible to convey a message in a colorful way. However, allegorical interpretation as an interpretive method is quite different from allegory, and it can mislead us completely if we use it to interpret a nonallegorical text. Few texts in the Bible are allegorical. Therefore, you will find few opportunities to use it. Do not use it randomly on all Old Testament stories! Do not fall into the habit of trying to “spiritualize” the Old Testament through allegorical interpretation. Keep your meanings tied to the literary and historical-cultural context. Use the Interpretive Journey to arrive at meaning and application, not imaginative allegorical approaches.

Perhaps a few illustrations of improper allegorical interpretation will help. Greidanus cites the popular radio preacher Martin DeHaan’s interpretation of Genesis 2:18–25 as a good example. The passage in Genesis reads as follows:

18The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”
19Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals. But for Adam no suitable helper was found. 21So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. 22Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.
23The man said,
“This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
for she was taken out of man.”
24That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. 25Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.

DeHaan allegorizes the passage with the following interpretation:

While Adam slept, God created from his wounded side a wife, who was part of himself, and he paid for her by the shedding of his blood. . . . Now all is clear. Adam is a picture of the Lord Jesus, who left His Father’s house to gain His bride at the price of His own life. Jesus, the last Adam, like the first, must be put to sleep to purchase his bride, the Church, and Jesus died on the cross and slept in the tomb for three days and three nights. His side too was opened after He had fallen asleep, and from that wounded side redemption flowed.[4]

DeHaan is rather imaginative with his connections between this text and the death of Christ. Greidanus correctly observes that although DeHaan is trying to be Christ-centered in his preaching, he is doing so at the cost of missing the meaning of the text. DeHaan’s meaning has been read back into the text rather than developed from the text. “It has nothing whatsoever to do with the author’s intended message,” writes Greidanus. “And sadly,” Greidanus continues:

In the process of allegorizing the text, its real message is left behind. For the text is about God in the beginning making a partner for the lonely man. The author’s message for Israel is about God’s wonderful gift of marriage. Since Israel lived in a culture where polygamy was normal and where women were not valued as true partners, this message of God’s original design for marriage taught Israel about God’s norm for marriage. That message should have been preached, for it is still good news for women and men today. And it could have been reinforced by Jesus’ own teaching based on this passage, “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Mk. 10:9).[5]

So by trying to find a deep, “spiritual” meaning in Genesis 2, DeHaan ignores the context of the chapter and misses an important teaching about marriage. God’s message to us on marriage is a spiritual message, and we do not need to search our imaginations for some strained connections to the death of Christ in order to make this passage relevant. Everything DeHaan says about the significance of Christ and his death is true. Christ did die for his bride, the church, and redemption does “flow” from his side. However, simply because one understands the significance of Christ’s death does not mean that he or she understands Genesis 2. We do not evaluate interpretations of Genesis 2 merely on the basis of correct New Testament theology. We evaluate it on the basis of whether or not we have evidence that it is the intended meaning that the Holy Spirit has placed in the passage. “Jesus died on the cross to save sinners like me” is an important biblical truth. However, that does not qualify it to be the meaning of every Old Testament text.

One area of the Old Testament that seems to elicit particularly imaginative allegorical interpretations is the description of the tabernacle in the book of Exodus. In this book, after God leads the Israelites out of Egypt and into the desert, he enters into a covenant with them. At the heart of the covenant is God’s threefold statement: “I will be your God, you will be my people, and I will dwell in your midst.” If he is to dwell physically in their midst, then he needs a place to stay. God tells them to construct a tabernacle (a portable temple) as the place where he will reside in their midst. Most of the latter half of the book of Exodus deals with the details of how to construct this tabernacle.

The significance of the tabernacle is that it was the physical location of the presence of God. As such it definitely has numerous New Testament connections. The presence of God is still a critical doctrine for New Testament believers, but now we experience the presence of God within us through the Spirit instead of experiencing his presence through worship at the tabernacle, as did the people in the days of Moses. Also, the Old Testament sacrificial system connects to Israelite worship in the tabernacle and provides valuable background to help us understand the sacrifice of Christ. Thus, in some sense the sacrifices do point us to Christ.

The book of Hebrews underscores numerous comparisons between Christ and the Old Testament system connected with the tabernacle. It tells us that the sacrifice of Christ is better than the old sacrifices because he was blameless and because his sacrifice is not repeated over and over as the Old Testament ones were. Christ is also better as a high priest than the Israelite priests because he is a superior mediator, being without sin and better able to understand us. So there is much about the tabernacle and its associated sacrificial system that does have New Testament parallels. However, this affirmation does not give us license to make imaginative connections between Christ and every minute detail of the tabernacle.

Allegorical interpreters seem to search for any loose semantic or thematic connection between the details of the tabernacle and Jesus’life. Almost any connection is acceptable to this approach as long as it somehow relates to Jesus. Without taking time to validate their conclusions, these interpreters often proclaim this connection, however farfetched, as the meaning.

For example, when you read in Exodus 27:19 a reference to tent pegs (pins in the KJV), the popular allegorical approach would lead you to search for some type of connection between Christ and the tent pegs. Think for a minute and see what you can dream up. Any ideas? Of course, if the pegs were made of wood, we could say that they represent the cross, but, alas, they are made of bronze (KJV brass). Maybe we can come up with something for bronze. Bronze doesn’t decay and rot as wood does, and the salvation we find in Jesus doesn’t decay or rot either, so maybe the bronze pegs represent our enduring relationship with Christ. How about that? Moreover, the tent pegs also hold up the sides of the curtain walls. This holding up idea should give us some fertile fields to work with. Jesus holds us up and supports us. He is our firm anchor as these pegs are firm anchors. So the pegs must represent Jesus and his strength in holding us up, right?

Do such meanings seem far-fetched to you? Is this how Christians should interpret the Bible? Are we going to find the message God has placed in the text through this kind of random speculation? What restricts our imagination here? With this method we can dream up dozens of meanings for the tent pegs, none of which is the meaning intended by the author—if there even is any significance to the tent pegs beyond their role of holding up the tent walls.

Yet allegorical interpreters are able to find christological meaning in all of the details, even the tent pegs. For example, using the KJV translation of pins rather than tent pegs, Talbot writes:

The pins, or nails, [tent pegs] of the Tabernacle were made of brass; therefore, they did not rust. As they withstood every desert storm, even so Christ’s holy life withstood every onslaught of Satan. How minutely the details of the God-given pattern for the tabernacle in the wilderness foreshadow the glories of our crucified and risen Lord![6]

DeHaan outdoes Talbot. He is able to move even beyond the outlandish suggestions we made above. First he agrees with Talbot that the corrosion resistance of the brass/bronze material of the pegs represents the “incorruptible life and death of our Lord Jesus.” But then he draws deep significance from the fact that the pegs were half buried in the ground. He writes:

We repeat, the pins were buried in the ground, but also emerged from the ground, and it speaks of the death and the resurrection, that which is buried, and that which is above the ground. The part of the pins beneath the ground becomes a symbol of the death of the Lord Jesus Christ; the part above the ground suggests His resurrection. And this is the Gospel, the “good news” of salvation, the finished work that makes us secure. If the pins were driven all the way into the ground, they would be worthless. Part of them must be above the ground in order that the ropes may be attached to them. So, too, the death of the Lord Jesus Christ by itself could not save a single sinner. The good news of the Gospel is not only the Cross, not only the death of Christ for sinners, but it is the death plus the resurrection of our Savior. The pins are buried, but also rise above the ground in order to make us secure.[7]

Notice the leap that DeHaan has taken from the text into sheer speculation. None of the passages in Exodus that mention the tent pegs alludes to the ground (Ex. 27:19, 35:18; 38:20; 38:31; 39:40). The ground is not even mentioned! Yet DeHaan has created an entire level of spiritual meaning from this questionable connection between the unmentioned partial burial of tent pegs and the resurrection of Christ. Is this not far-fetched? What are the controls or limits of such interpretation? Are his readers free to pursue this line of reasoning, or does only DeHaan have this insight?

There are dozens of connotations that tent pegs have. Are we free to draw theology from all of these connotations? And how does DeHaan know that the pegs were buried half in and half out like our modern tent pegs are? Those of you who have pitched tents in soft sand also know that normal tent pegs are useless in the soft sand unless the entire peg is buried (called a dead man). Did the priests in Exodus ever do this? In addition, in Numbers 3:36–37 and 4:32 the Merarite clan of the Levite tribe was given responsibility for maintaining and carrying the tent pegs. What does this do to DeHaan’s Christology? Does the Old Testament priesthood care for Christ and carry him on their backs as these priests carried the tent pegs? Do you see how absurd this line of interpretation can become? There is no connection between the tent pegs in the tabernacle and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Fabricating such a connection does not honor Christ.

Was there symbolism in the tabernacle? Absolutely! But the symbolism should be sought against the ancient Near Eastern background in which the people of the Exodus lived. Throughout the Bible God communicated to his people using forms that they were familiar with. The Bible uses symbols frequently. One of the problems with allegorical interpretation of symbols is that the interpreters tend to use their creative imagination to find deep theological connections to the New Testament without even asking what the symbol might have meant to the biblical audience. In their zeal to find symbolic representations of Christ, they often skip over the real meanings of significant symbols.

For example, the four major colors found in the tabernacle were red, white, purple, and blue. Without doing any apparent research into the significance of these colors in religious settings in the ancient Near East, Talbot concludes that “the blue speaks to us of our Lord’s deity, for blue is the heavenly color.”[8] DeHaan and Simpson concur, writing that the blue color points to Christ’s heavenly origin.[9]

Note their apparent line of reasoning. Blue is the color of the sky. Another term for sky in the Bible is the heavens. Jesus is from heaven. Blue must refer to his heavenly origin. Thus, they have come up with a “spiritual” meaning for the symbol blue. They are in the ballpark but not exactly on target. They have simply relied on their intuition and imagination instead of research into the background of color symbolism in the world of ancient Israel.

What did blue symbolize in the ancient Near East? How can we find out what it meant? Let’s do some research. A good reference work to check when studying symbolic words is the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, edited by Ryken, Wilhoit, and Longman. Their discussion of the symbolic use of blue in the Ancient Near East is significant:

In ancient thought the sky was believed to separate the place of the gods from the human realm. Therefore blue, the color of the sky, could appropriately suggest the boundary between God and his people and symbolize his majesty. Like purple, blue was an expensive dye and thus connoted wealth and prestige. Blue was the dominant color of the vestments of ancient Israel’s high priest (Ex 28). The high priest wore an outer garment of solid blue over the white robe of the priesthood. He was the boundary between the human and divine realms, moving in both as he ministered in the Holy of Holies.[10]

As you can see from this explanation, we do not have to allegorize or use our imaginations to find significant spiritual symbolism from the color blue in the tabernacle. The tabernacle was the location of the presence of God; he lived among his people like a king lived in his palace. Thus, to use the most expensive dyed material (blue and purple) to signify his majesty seems appropriate. The sky connotations are also significant. The point of using the large amount of blue material in the tabernacle was not to point to Jesus’ heavenly origin, but rather to underscore the concept of the boundary between the holy God and sinful humanity—a boundary that normally separates humanity from the divine, but a boundary that is crossed by God through his dwelling in the tabernacle. This was the place where Israel approached God himself. The blue color reminded them of his majesty, and it reminded them that they were crossing over a mystical threshold to encounter the living God, who chose to dwell among them. There is no need to allegorize such a significant meaning as this.

What can we conclude from this? As you seek to determine the meaning of a biblical passage, avoid the temptation to allegorize. Don’t try to read Christ back into every rock and tent peg in the Old Testament lest you missthe actual meaning that God is trying to convey to you. Use the Interpretive Journey; it will help you to stay on track. We certainly want to affirm that there are numerous legitimate connections between Christ and the Old Testament. These generally fall into the categories of prophecy and typology. We will discuss prophecy later in the course. Let’s turn here to typology.

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