Allegory at Work

Examples of Origen’s allegorical Scripture interpretation abound in his writings, particularly in his commentaries and homilies. For instance, in his 27th homily on the book of Numbers, he describes growth in the spiritual life based on the 42 stopping places of Israel in the wilderness mentioned in Numbers 33.

Origen begins by asking why the Lord wanted Moses to write this passage down: “Was it so that this passage in Scripture about the stages the children of Israel made might benefit us in some way or that it should bring no benefit? Who would dare to say that what is written ‘by the Word of God’ is of no use and makes no contribution to salvation but is merely a narrative of what happened and was over and done a long time ago, but pertains in no way to us when it is told?”

Exodus redux

For Origen, because the Bible is the inspired Word of God, it is never merely concerned with mundane matters of history and factual occurrences. Rather, it expounds the mysteries of God in Christ and gives direction to the spiritual life.

Hence, the Christian interpreter must probe the text in various ways in order to uncover its true and deepest significance. According to Origen the stopping places of the wandering Israelites are recorded in Numbers so that we come to understand the long spiritual journey that we face as Christians. And thus we must not “allow the time of our life to be ruined by sloth and neglect.”

Further, each stopping place has some particular spiritual significance until the sojourn ends on the banks of the Jordan, making us aware that the whole journey takes place and “the whole course is run for the purpose of arriving at the river of God, so that we may make neighbors of the flowing Wisdom and may be watered by the waves of divine knowledge, and so that purified by them all we may be made worthy to enter the promised land.”

Self-serving senses

Another example is found in Origen’s eleventh homily on Joshua, which deals with the five kings who attack Gibeon in chapter ten and end up hiding in the cave at Makkedah after the Lord’s lengthening of the day and the destruction of their armies by Israel.

“Now these five kings indicate the five corporeal senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell; for it must be through one of these that each person falls away into sin. These five senses are compared to those five kings who fight the Gibeonites, that is, carnal persons.”

As to their choice of refuge: “That they are said to have fled into caves can be indicated, perhaps, because a cave is a place buried in the depths of the earth. Therefore, those senses that we mentioned above are said to have fled into caves when, after being placed in the body, they immerse themselves in earthly impulses and do nothing for the work of God but all for the service of the body.”

By John R. Franke

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #80 in 2003]

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