Does Paul Interpret Moses Allegorically? A Few Lexical Notes on Galatians 4:24

allegoryNow this was written allegorically: these women are two covenants.
One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar.[1]
– Galatians 4:24 –

What does ἀλληγορούμενα mean in Galatians 4:24?

To answer the question about the lexical meaning of ἀλληγορούμενα is difficult, because it is only used once in the New Testament. That being said, I think we can say a few things, acknowledging that this word and its immediate context (Gal 4:21–31) is a hotbed for interpretive disagreement. That said, here are a few notes on the matter which came from a recent Sunday School class.

  • First, “allegorically” does not mean what Philo and Origen meant when they spoke of allegory. Paul’s use of the word is different than the classical understanding of allegory. And thus we must look to the surrounding context to understanding his usage. Even better we need to read Genesis 16–21 through the lens of Galatians 4:21–31 to best understand how Paul is reading Moses.
  • Next, following Ardel Caneday and Steven DiMattei, I take Paul’s use of ἀλληγορούμενα to mean “speaking allegorically” (like in the NASB), not “this may be interpreted allegorically” (like the ESV). Why? Because “examination of ancient sources shows that the predominant use of the verb ἀλληγορέω among ancient authors is with the sense “‘to speak allegorically’, in which case it is usually the original author or the personified text itself which speaks allegorically” (Caneday, citing DiMattei, p. 54). Even more plainly, Steven DiMattei concludes his technical study of ἀλληγορέω in Paul’s era saying, “In light of this precision, I cannot see how Paul’s participial use can possibly mean anything but ‘are spoken allegorically'” (p. 107).
  • Third, this reading also finds support in the way Paul points to the Old Testament Scriptures no less than four times in Galatians 4:21–31. In other words, when Paul says he is “allegorizing” (a present passive participle), his whole argument is rooted in the Old Testament text. As Caneday carefully explains (72n31), Paul is grounding his “allegory” in the text of Moses; he is not creating an allegory, but highlighting the symbol-laden history of Sarah and Hagar.
  • Finally, with these contextual observations in place we consider various definitions of ἀλληγορέω, which provide some help in defining the word. In my estimation, the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT) is most helpful.

BDAG: “to use analogy or likeness to express someth[ing]”[2]

DBL: “take figuratively, make an allegory”[3]

Lidell: “to speak so as to imply something other than what is said, to interpret allegorically”[4]

Louw & Nida: to employ an analogy or likeness in communicating—‘to speak allegorically, to employ an analogy, to use a likeness.’ ἅτινά ἐστιν ἀλληγορούμενα· αὗται γάρ εἰσιν δύο διαθῆκαι ‘this incident can be taken as a kind of likeness: the two women stand for two covenants’ Ga 4:24.[5]

TDNT: Büschel suggests two meanings from classical Greek (namely, “Cynic-Stoic philosophy”): “a. ‘to speak allegorically,’ and b. ‘to explain or denote allegorically.’” Therefore, something can be written allegorically (i.e., the author can intend to speak symbolically, allegorically) or the reader can interpret something figuratively. The difference between allegory as a writing style and allegory as an interpretive style is significant, and importantly, TDNT observes of Galatians 4:24: “The former meaning fits Gl. 4:24: ἅτινά ἐστιν ἀλληγορούμενα· αὗται γάρ εἰσιν δύο διαθῆκαι. That is, the OT story of Sarah and Hagar is allegorical.”[6]

In the end, I believe Paul is not interpreting Moses allegorically (i.e., he is not creating an allegory or using the allegorical method to combat the Judaziers). Rather, he is reading the historical narrative of Sarah and Hagar observing Moses “allegorical” (read: symbol-laden) explanation of this story. This seems to do best justice to the way the word is being used; it makes good sense of the context; and it upholds Paul’s faithful reading of Moses.

Paul is not devaluing Moses’ authorial intent. Instead, he pays hyper-textual attention to the story of Hagar and Sarah, and he shows the Galatians and us how throughout covenantal history there has been a divide between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent—or in this case, the offspring according to the flesh and the offspring according to the Spirit.

For More Help: Three Articles on Galatians 4:21–31

For the interested Bible student, this cursory approach to Galatians 4 won’t be enough. So you may find help in three articles. These articles show how Paul is faithfully reading Moses and applying it to Christ and the churches in Galatia. If this passage interests you, these are necessary articles to read.

To select one of these articles, here is Ardel Caneday’s conclusion to his illuminating study.

Where exegetes locate the apostle Paul’s warrants for his claim that Scripture’s Abraham narrative entails an allegory, whether (1) inscribed in the text of Genesis, (2) formulated by Isaiah’s use of the narrative, or (3) forged by the apostle out of his revelatory-enhanced interpretive insight, is not only disputed but raises valid concerns if Christian faith cannot trace or reproduce his exegesis. Thus, how exegetes represent what they think the apostle Paul is doing by citing Scripture the way he does in Gal 4:21–31, if not careful, may result in unintended consequences. In particular, to claim that Paul is engaged in allegorical interpretation, though perhaps not intended, at best states the case poorly because it necessarily implies that the apostle generates the allegory in the same way that describing Paul’s use of Scripture in 1 Cor 10:1–11 as typological interpretation attributes too much to Paul. To use such designations as allegorical interpretation or typological interpretation, even if unintended, does at least two things. First, it implies that what Paul now discovers concerning Christ in the Old Testament Scriptures is grounded in little more than his fresh revelatory bias effected by his conversion. Second, it implies that foreshadows of Christ in the Old Testament are rendered so by retrospect after Messiah’s coming, thus inadequately accounting for the fact that foreshadows of the Christ really are there to be seen within the Old Testament, albeit often hidden in plain sight, yet capable of being recognized, if one has eyes with which to see.

Fear to be associated with the Alexandrian and later allegorical schools of exegesis begets innovative exegetical efforts to dodge acceptance of Paul’s words at face value in Gal 4:24, that those things he references in Genesis are actually written allegorically. This essay proposes that how Paul structures his argument in 4:21–31, explicitly citing Scripture four times to accent by enclosing his claim that “these things are ἀλληγορούμενα,” compels readers to understand that he means that the Abraham narrative itself is written allegorically. Hence, while Genesis presents the personages and events as real history, also embedded into the text are features that render Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac, with their experiences directed by God’s actions among them, all symbolically representative of things greater than themselves.

What Paul is saying in Galatians 4 is akin to what he writes in 1 Corinthians 10, where he states, “Now these things happened to them typologically, but they were written down for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (10:11). As with Israel’s experiences, so it is with the patriarchs. Under the controlling providence of God, they and their experiences are divinely imbued with figurative significances that foreshadow things to come.

As with the writer to the Hebrews, Paul recognizes that the domestic affairs within Abraham’s household are parabolic. They symbolically represent coming events of vast redemptive significance (cf. Heb 11:19). In 1 Corinthians 10 Paul uses the adverb typologically (τυπικῶς, v. 11) to describe how God providentially brought about the discrete events of Israel’s experiences which are inscribed within Scripture “for us” (10:1-11). Similarly, in Galatians 4 the apostle uses the participle written allegorically (ἀλληγορούμενα, v. 24) to depict how God imbued the features of the continuous narrative of Genesis concerning Abraham and his household with symbolic representation “for us” who are “children of promise in accord with Isaac. This symbolic imbuement, since the gospel was first announced to Abraham, has continuously foreshadowed the coming Seed, calling for belief in God who brings life out of death. . . .

Indeed, Paul’s reasoning from the Scriptures sometimes is hard to understand (cf. 2 Pet 3:16), as his appeal to Scripture’s allegory in Gal 4:21–31 proves to be. This is in large measure due to the nature of Old Testament revelation, which in the very act of revealing the gospel in advance entails concealing of the gospel to await full and clear disclosure in the fullness of time, when Messiah comes. To the degree that Paul’s reasoning from Scripture seems clouded, perhaps to that degree the veil has not yet been fully lifted from the eyes of one’s heart (2 Cor 3:14–15). Thus, grasping how the Old Testament foreshadows Christ and the gospel calls for patience and requires spiritual insight to trace Paul’s reasoning from the Scriptures. It also calls for diligence like the Bereans show as they eagerly welcome the Word but also examine the Scriptures daily to see if what Paul teaches is true (Acts 17:10).

Paul reserves the allegory to serve as the capstone of his argument in Gal 3:1–5:1, thus expecting his readers to trace his reasoning from the Scriptures. Sarah and Hagar with their respective sons, born in vastly different ways, allegorically prefigure two distinctly different covenants and those who trace their spiritual descent from them. Either one’s lineage traces to Isaac through promise or to Ishmael from the law covenant. Because the Judaizers trace their lineage to the Sinai covenant, they are children of the slave woman with Ishmael. They are children of Sinai, heirs of the Mosaic law covenant. Their lineage is according to the flesh. By stark contrast, believers in Christ, in accord with Isaac, are born through promise, born according to the Spirit. They are children of the promise, the true seed of Abraham because they belong to Christ, Abraham’s Seed to whom the promises were spoken (Gal 3:29, 16). (pp. 65–67, emphases mine)

If this conclusion is helpful, I urge you to take time to read the whole thing.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

[Photo Credit: “Save the Allegory,” a Slate article on a dying art form. If you care about understanding allegory, you should read this piece].


[1] The ESV implies uncertainty in how to read the Genesis narrative (“this may be interpreted . . .”). The NASB is much better, when it simply says, “Speaking allegorically . . .” It is better and more in step with the convention of the day to read Paul as saying that Moses wrote Genesis allegorically, not that Paul interpreted it allegorically. Paul’s words need explaining, but “written allegorically” fits the Paul’s language and better upholds Moses’ authorial intent, which Paul aims to uncover, not overshadow with allegory.

[2] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., Bauer, W., & Gingrich, F. W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 46). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[3] Swanson, J. (1997). Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament) (electronic ed.). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

[4] Liddell, H. G. (1996). A lexicon: Abridged from Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English lexicon (p. 37). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

[5] Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996). Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: based on semantic domains (electronic ed. of the 2nd edition., Vol. 1, p. 390). New York: United Bible Societies.

[6] Büchsel, F. (1964–). ἀλληγορέω. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 1, p. 260). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

[7] Ardel Caneday, Covenant Lineage Allegorically Prefigured: ‘Which Things are Written Allegorically,” SBJT 14.3 (2010): 50–77. Accessible:

3 thoughts on “Does Paul Interpret Moses Allegorically? A Few Lexical Notes on Galatians 4:24

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