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Allegory is a sustained description or narration, treating directly of one subject, but intended as an exposition of another, the latter having a more spiritual nature than the former, yet bearing some perceptible resemblance to it. It is a comparison between two different groups of ideas on the basis of something possessed in common. It has for its purpose the illustration or inculcation of a higher truth.

In the Old Testament, allegory with its kindred didactic forms is comprised under the Ḥokmah (Wisdom), literature under the two terms mashal and ḥidah (Ezek. xvii. 2; compare xxiv. 3; Dan. viii. 23). Mashal, now specifically maxim, or gnome, primarily denoted a comparison or simile. Under this older meaning, it was generally rendered in the Septuagint by παραβο;λή (parable). Originally, it was doubtless didactic in purpose, and derived a maxim for the conduct of life from the comparison of two apparently dissimilar objects. Later it was applied to any sententious or pointed saying, and even to obscure prophetic utterances, since these, too, aimed to instruct and usually employed comparison (Num. xxiii. 7, 18; xxiv. 3; compare Isa. xiv. 4; Micah, ii. 4; Hab. ii. 6). Ḥidah, properly a riddle, is used in a wider sense for figurative and significant speech (Judges, xiv. 14; I Kings, x. 1; compare Ps. xlix. 5; lxxviii. 2).


It is somewhat difficult to define the difference between allegory, parable, and fable. The parable and the fable may be considered species of the allegory, for, like it, they represent their subject in an image or in a complete figurative narration or description. The characteristic mark of the fable is that it employs for the vehicle of its expression the improbable, even the impossible—such as reason and speech in animals and plants—and that its lesson is confined to practical worldly expediency. It derives a truth, to be applied to one sphere of thought, by displaying that truth as manifest in a different but comparable sphere. An example is furnished by the more elaborate of the two fables in the Old Testament, that of the trees choosing a king. The valuable olive-tree, the fig-tree, and the vine refuse to be king over the trees, but the worthless bramble accepts (Judges, ix. 8-16). The truth derived is to be applied to Abimelech and the men of Shechem who choose him king. Like the bramble, Abimelech is worthless, and would serve only to set "fire to the other trees," that is, would bring only disaster to the men of Shechem. The second fable (II Kings, xiv. 9-10) is more like a proverb. King Amaziah of Judah challenges King Jehoash of Israel, andreceives for answer a comparison of himself to the weak thistle that woos the daughter of Lebanon, and is trodden down by the wild beast. The similitude between Amaziah and the thistle lies in the fact that each is weak and is punished for presumption; here the resemblance ends.

Parable and Allegory.

In the parable and allegory an actual basis of resemblance and actual points of contact exist between the primary subject and the analogous subject with which it is compared. Thus, each subject may serve as a figure for the other. In the parable the author himself indicates the analogy by placing interpretation next to image; but in the allegory, judgment is not expressed. An index to the meaning is provided by the condition and circumstances of hearer and speaker, and by the individual figures of the image which, as it were, form a veil through and beyond which the mind sees the real object. The interpretations are given, for instance, in the most finished parable of the Old Testament (Isa. v. 1), in the parable of the vine (Ezek. xv.), and in the parable of the poor man bereft of his ewe lamb by the rich man (II Sam. xii.). On the other hand, in the eightieth Psalm, the reference of the vine to Israel (compare Isa. v.) is not definitely indicated, but only understood from the connection. In Jer. ii. 21 the same thought is expressed as in Isa. v. and Ps. lxxx., but here it is in metaphoric form. In the New Testament (John, x.), Jesus' comparison of himself to a vine is also a metaphor, though somewhat lengthy, and often quoted as an instance of mixed allegory. Still more extended are the metaphors in Ezek. xvi. and xxiii. One of the finest pieces of allegorical imagery is the representation of the king of Babylon as an eagle, and the house of David as a cedar (Ezek. xvii. 2-10); but since the interpretation follows it is not strictly an allegory, and metaphors similar to it in character are given in Ezekiel (xix. 1-9; xxx. 2-17). The comparison of Jerusalem to a caldron (Ezek. xxiv. 3-6) is a parable rather than an allegory, and the allegorical description of old age (Eccl. xii. 2-6), in its individual figures, is rather in the nature of an enigma.

  • Lowth, On the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews, lectures x. and xi.;
  • Herder, Geist der Ebräischen Poesie, Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Suphan, xii. 12-14;
  • idem, Briefe über das Studium der Theologie, x. 51 et seq.;
  • French, Notes on the Parables, chap. i.;
  • Gerber, Die Sprache als Kunst, 2d ed., ii. 92, 100, 105, 113, 449, 452, 474, 482-485;
  • E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, pp. 748-754, London, 1898;
  • C. G. Monteflore, A Tentative Catalogue of Bible Metaphors, in Jew. Quart. Rev. iii. 623 et seq.
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