rivers of eden, allegorical interpretation

Allegorical Interpretation, Ancient Jewish Modes

rivers of eden, allegorical interpretation

It can’t mean what it says. It must be a symbol, a code, with a secret spiritual message. In fact, the Bible must be filled with code language. Allegory and allegorical interpretation is where “the prima facie meaning must normally be pushed aside, even counted as offensive, to make room for the intended spiritual meaning underlying the obvious,” says Richard Longenecker (Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period).

You may recognize the technique. Even Rashi will do it at times. Edom stands for Rome which stands for Christianity, the persecutors of the Jewish people (in Rashi’s time Jews were severely endangered by the Christian population). Christian preachers do it, especially with the “Old Testament,” which contains (from their point of view) much that is offensive and “opposed to grace.”

How many sermons have given an allegorical meaning the five smooth stones David picked up in 1 Samuel 17:40 to fight Goliath with? Discipleship. Scripture. Worship. Prayer. Giving to the church. That’s what the text really means (insert any five items that fit your agenda).

The ancient master of allegorical interpretation was Philo of Alexandria (25 BCE – 50CE). He sought to make Jewish thought agreeable to the majority Greco-Roman population. He strove to beautify, in his own way, the world of Jewish belief. He objected to passages in which God appears as a human being or any anthropomorphic references at all. He found in the Hebrew Bible a large collection of symbols, often with philosophical and ethical meaning.

He has a philosophical party with the verse that says “it is not good for man to be alone” (Gen 2:18). It becomes an occasion for him to discuss his philosophical belief in the Infinite Simplicity of God (God doesn’t actually have attributes, but those things that seem like divine attributes are actually his nature and not things independent of his being — if it hurts your head to think about, you’re not alone).

So Philo says (Legum Allegoriae, II) the verse implies a deeper message: it is good for God to be alone, because he is infinitely unique, in a class by himself. But human beings are not alone. God is alone, a single being, says Philo. But we humans are compound beings, having souls with rational and irrational parts. This is what Genesis means when it says “it is not good for man to be alone.” Phil goes on to get a lot of philosophical mileage from this in a very fun passage.

Or there is the example of the four rivers in Genesis 2, the rivers in Eden (Legum Allegoriae, I). The river that goes forth from Eden is “generic goodness.” The four rivers that branch from it (Piston, Gihon, Tigris, Euphrates) all get allegorical meanings based on either their Greek or Hebrew spelling. The are the four ethical attributes: prudence, courage, temperance, and justice.

Allegory is often a way people try to get something deeper from the Bible, or something more practical. The existence of allegorical interpretation points to a human need which people try to fill from the Bible. But the Bible, in many cases, is a disappointing repository of seemingly outdated and irrelevant histories, poems, sayings, and rituals.

Many intelligent people avoid reading the Bible. Its easier to maintain faith when we don’t trouble ourselves with the difficult text of the Bible. It’s easier not to face unseemly items in its pages: slavery, genocide, polygamy, violence, retribution.

I guess it’s obvious I don’t think allegory is the solution. Nor do I think the Bible should be relegated to the irrelevant pile. But this article is not about me offering my way of looking at it.

Allegory in some cases is a biblical genre, such as the Vineyard metaphor for Israel. Some people dislike allegory intensely and it is a literary debate whether allegory is a worthy genre. There are categories of allegory and much fine literary discussion about them. The bottom line, it seems, like allegory or not, it is at times an effective way to present an idea.

But finding allegories where they don’t exist is a rather unsatisfying pursuit. The chief value in reading allegorical material about the Bible, such as the work of Philo, is for the philosophy and ideas. You may wish to meditate on prudence, courage, temperance, and justice. You may enjoy the cleverness of getting philosophical ideas like Infinite Simplicity from sentences of scripture about humans being alone.

In the endless struggle to relate the Bible to life, allegory is one approach. Some find it preferable to a literal reading. But as we saw in the previous article in this series, there is more than one way to do literal. And there are other reading strategies to consider in coming articles.


  1. Hi Derek, been lurking for a little bit, glad to read some of your insights again.
    Wonder if you can comment on the common Christian mechanism of substituting “unbelievers” for Gentiles, particularly in the the Gospel of Matthew (See Matt 4:15, 5:47, 6:7, 18:17, 3 John 1:7). Is the substitution warranted? How can a spiritual lesson in each passage be maintained if one does not do this?

    1. Jonathan,

      It is true that in these verses the word “Gentiles” is used on a negative manner.

      In Matthew 5:47 the word stands for people who do not have the revelation of Torah. Yeshua is not necessarily denigrating Gentiles, but rather using one of his opponents’ arguments against them. Some Jewish leaders were of the opinion that Jewish people are superior because of having received Torah. Now, we don’t have to read Yeshua as agreeing with them (his actions toward Gentiles show he does not agree with them — yes, even in the story of the Canaanite woman). He says, “If you great only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even Gentiles do the same?” He is criticizing his audience, subverting their perceived superiority. It would be like saying to a Christian, “You love your friends. Don’t unbelievers do the same? How is your faith improving you?”

      Anyway, I think these uses all need case by case examination and simply substituting “unbelievers” misses the specific point each reference has.

  2. Only tangentially related to the OP but I thought I’d take the opportunity to ask you this question, Derek.

    I’m wondering, are there incidents WITHIN Tanakh itself, where a prophet will cite an event in Israel’s formative history (or quote another prophet), and then reinterpret it and/or expand upon it to cast it in a prophetic light (as the NT writers do)?

    I know this happens in Genesis 49 and the book of Hosea. I’m wondering however if this happens in other places that you might be aware of.

    1. In other words, will they take an event in Israel’s past history and give it prophectic meaning, which on the surface seems unrelated (or only loosely related) to the original prophecy or event.

    2. Merrill,

      The most famous example of what you are asking about is Daniel 9’s reuse of Jeremiah’s 70-year exile prophecies. Daniel turns it into 70 seven-year periods.

      Other examples abound, such as prophecies in Isaiah that were originally about the Assyrian threat (c. 700 BCE) and were re-preached about the Babylonian threat (c. 600 BCE).

      1. Thanks so much Derek! This dispels the objection by anti-missionaries that the NT writers are inventing and then applying fictitious meaning to various OT passages. If the OT writers do this under inspiration of the Spirit, then why can’t the NT writers?

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