A student of the scriptures must understand that the 66 unique books that make up the Holy Bible contain several different types of genres or writing styles. The writer of Hebrews explains that God deliberately spoke in the past “through the prophets at many times and in various ways” (Hebrews 1:1).
Literary Devices in the Bible
So, what kind of literary devices does the Bible have? Some of the main groups are:
- Historical or Narrative Books (such as Genesis and the gospels)
- Wisdom and Lyrical Books or Poetry (such as Psalms and Proverbs)
- Epistles or Letters to individuals and churches (such as Ephesians and James)
- Apocalyptic or End-times Prophecy (such as Revelation)
If we look a little closer, though, we can see that even within these main genres we can find more specific sub-categories of writing, such as genealogies or lineages, parables, laments, confessions of sin, prayers, psalms or songs of praise, dictation from God, instructions from Jesus (such as the beatitudes), sermons, laws, government documents, and more.
In Don Carson’s article on Literary Structures in Scripture, we read that:
God displays his providential wisdom in providing us with a Bible made up of all these literary genres, and more. The diversity constitutes a great advantage, for each genre has a slightly different way of appealing to us, of making its impact on us. Together they do even more than instruct our minds: they fire our imaginations, prompt us to meditate, call up mental pictures, invite us to memorize, appeal to our emotions, shame us when our thoughts or actions are tawdry and unworthy, and make our spirits leap for joy… God in his perfect wisdom gave us the fundamental texts, the books of the Bible, in spectacularly diverse forms. Nothing about Bible study is boring or mechanical. Here we come into contact with the instructing, evocative, creative, incredibly rich mind of God.
So, when we read, study, and teach the Bible, we must be careful to do so with the right perspective on how it was written. If we do not know or pay attention to the genre of a passage, we run the dangerous risk of applying it to our lives wrongly or teaching it to others wrongly. This can result in unhelpful and unnecessary doctrines or even heretical beliefs. As Mike Gilbart-Smith wrote in his article on rightly studying Scripture:
Too many sermons ignore the genre of a passage, and preach… all [of them] alike as a series of propositional statements. Whilst all preaching must convey propositional truths, they should not be reduced to them. The literary context of the passages should… not… be flattened in preaching.
Therefore, a message from the Song of Solomon, which is rich in poetry and symbology, must be taught and applied differently than a message looking at the narratives of Jesus’ miracles in the Book of John, and both of those must be taught and applied differently than a study on Paul’s direct instruction on living a godly life in his letter to the believers in the Colossians churches.
This does not take away from the unity and central gospel message of the Bible at all. Instead, it adds a helpful diversity that allows us to see the same overall message in different lights and through the different lenses of the authors.
What Is Allegory and Is it Used in the Bible?
This brings us to the core question of this article, which is: Does the Bible contain allegory? And the simple answer is: Yes, it does! However, we must also understand that the Bible itself is not allegorical, in the same way, not all of it is poetry, narrative, etc. There is a very crucial distinction here.
According to Dictionary.com, an allegory is a “representation of an abstract or spiritual meaning through concrete or material forms.” An allegorical story can be interpreted to show a hidden moral or political meaning. In order to best understand an allegory, you have to read it in a symbolic or figurative way.
For example, in Judges 9, a man named Jotham tells a story about a time when trees gathered together to anoint an olive tree as a king over them. It is obvious from the context that his tale is nothing more than a fable. A fable is a story that teaches a moral lesson with animals or other objects that represent people.
Another example would be the many parables of Jesus that he taught to illustrate (and often explain) important aspects of God’s character, man’s responsibility, and the Kingdom of God. In fact, Jesus often taught his listeners by telling them allegorical stories.
As we have already said, however, not all of the Bible is allegorical, and we cannot read it all in an allegorical way. By this, I mean that if we read the Old Testament narratives of how God led the Israelites out of slavery, through the wilderness, and into their “promised land” in the Book of Exodus as allegory, then we run the risk of treating it all as mere fantasy or fairy tale instead of fact.
If the disastrous consequence of that is not obvious, consider taking the same approach to the story of Creation in Genesis 1-3. If God did not actually create the earth or if he did not really make men and women or react to their sin in the way that the Bible clearly describes, then we are left up to our own assumptions about God’s purposeful design for the earth, humanity, marriage, family, and life itself.
In reality, to consider something as allegory that is in fact narration discredits its validity and removes the foundational belief that the Bible is inerrant truth. This is, sadly, a very common mistake that people make when studying Scripture.
On the other hand, if we do recognize that the events in Exodus and Genesis did take place at a past time with past people, then we can begin to notice patterns of how God works, examples of human behavior, and even common symbols in the text. This healthy approach can and should lead us to make careful applications from the text to our lives today.
So, sticking with the same examples of Genesis and Exodus specifically, when we study Scripture rightly, we can make application by making sure our marriage matches up with God’s created design and purpose, by confessing our sins of idolatry, and by being encouraged by God’s continued presence and provision. As you can see, there is a vast difference between reading a passage as allegory and simply making allegorical applications of a factual text.
What Does This Mean?
Reading and studying Scripture in a contextually faithful way that recognizes the types and modes of literature that it was written in is not just something that scholars or preachers need to do well.
It is an exercise that every believer who desires to understand God’s Word rightly must do. It is one of the many ways that we are to “Do [our] best to present [ourselves] to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15, ESV).
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Robert Hampshire is a pastor, teacher, writer, and leader. He has been married to Rebecca since 2008 and has three children, Brooklyn, Bryson, and Abram. Robert attended North Greenville University in South Carolina for his undergraduate and Liberty University in Virginia for his Masters. He has served in a variety of roles as a worship pastor, youth pastor, family pastor, and most recently as the Lead Pastor and Planter of Village Church in Churchville, Virginia. He furthers his ministry through his blog site, Faithful Thinking. His life goal is to serve God and His Church by reaching the lost with the Gospel, making devoted disciples, equipping and empowering others to go further in their faith and calling, and leading a culture of multiplication for the glory of God. Find out more about him here.