The Bible and Literature

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  • 0:03 Allusions
  • 0:42 Common Biblical Allusions
  • 1:56 Biblical Allusions in…
  • 4:38 Biblical Allusions in Poetry
  • 6:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Debbie Notari
In this lesson, we'll explore the idea of allusions in literature, particularly allusions to the Bible. When we understand the stories in the Bible, we'll recognize references to them in other types of literature we read.


Allusions are references in one piece of literature to stories or events in older pieces of literature such as mythology, Shakespeare, or the Bible. Most often, the titles of the referenced stories or events aren't named. To catch or understand the allusion, we have to have a working knowledge of the story or event to which the author is referring. Because many people over multiple cultures have read the Bible, it is understandable that such allusions are common. Let's explore how biblical allusions are used in literature and examine a few examples.

Common Biblical Allusions

Some of the most common biblical allusions are used in everyday instances, such as referring to someone as a prodigal son, or someone who has lost his or her way. The term comes from a parable told by Jesus in Luke 15:11-32, in which the youngest son of a wealthy farmer demands to have his inheritance early so that he can spend it as he likes. He squanders his inheritance and returns home much humbler than when he left. His loving father is so glad to see him that he runs down the road to welcome him with open arms. This parable is meant to illustrate God's great mercy to human beings.

Another common allusion has to do with the Garden of Eden. When we hear the term forbidden fruit, for instance, we think of something that is a temptation, or something that could get us into trouble if we partake of it. The term originated in the book of Genesis, where Eve succumbs to the trickery of the serpent and literally gives a piece of forbidden fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil to Adam. Based on Adam's decision to eat the fruit with Eve, sin comes into the world, and with it, death.

Biblical Allusions in Literature

Again, if we understand the allusion, we gain more insight into its use. For instance, if we understand the story from the book of Jonah in the Old Testament, we will recognize allusions to Jonah in other pieces of literature. Jonah is told by God to go to the city of Nineveh and preach there, encouraging the people to turn away from their wicked deeds. Jonah refuses and boards a ship going in the opposite direction. God causes the ship to pass through a terrible storm. Jonah, aware that the storm is from God, jumps overboard to save the others on the ship. A great fish, perhaps a whale, swallows Jonah, and he is stuck in the whale's stomach for three days. After that time, Jonah is basically thrown up on shore. Then he travels to Nineveh, preaches, and the city repents of its evil deeds.

An allusion in literature might refer to the story of Jonah by using a phrase such as 'in the belly of the whale.' To be in the belly of a whale would be the most helpless of positions! If we know the story of Jonah, we immediately make the connection. Another allusion to Jonah would be the story Pinocchio, in which the title character is similarly swallowed by a great fish, or whale, before he becomes good.

A further example of an allusion is the idea of the Promised Land. In Exodus, God delivers the Hebrews from Egyptian rule, and they spend many years wandering in the desert, hoping to reach the Promised Land, a land that flows with milk and honey (Ex. 33:3). In John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family sees California as a Promised Land, a lovely place far from poverty and despair.

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