Words And Reason: Biblical Allusions

by Cynthia Clampitt

Cynthia Clampitt
Cynthia Clampitt

Northrop Frye, professor and author of literary theory and criticism wrote: “the student of English literature who does not know the Bible does not understand a good deal of what is going on in what he reads. The Bible is clearly a major element in our own imaginative tradition, whatever we may think or believe about it.” E. D. Hirsch, author of the Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, is even more emphatic: “No one in the English-speaking world can be considered literate without a basic knowledge of the Bible.” Only reading the Bible will really give you all possible allusions, but I hope to share at least a few of them with you, as well as some common phrases and ideas that are part of our language.

Beelzebub In the Old Testament, Beelzebub is a prince of the devils. His name translated is “Lord of the Flies,” which was used as the title of a novel by William Golding. (The name also appears in shortened form in the classic John Collier short story, “Thus I Refute Beelzy.”)

A house divided against itself cannot stand When Abraham Lincoln spoke these words during the American Civil War, he was quoting a verse in the Gospel of Matthew.

Doubting Thomas Of the 12 Apostles (or, to be perfectly correct, 11 remaining apostles, as Judas was gone by this point), Thomas was the one who did not believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. When Jesus later appears to Thomas, Thomas immediately declares that he now believes, but Jesus said there is greater blessing for those who believe without seeing. The expression “doubting Thomas” is still used to describe people who refuse to believe anything, even from extremely reliable witnesses, unless they see it for themselves.

Going the second mile In the time of Jesus, a Roman soldier could make any citizen of a subjugated country drop whatever he was doing and carry the soldier’s gear for one mile. Jesus tells his followers that they should do more than is required; they should carry the load the second mile. Today, “going the second mile” describes anything that is more than what was required or expected.

Daniel was one of the major prophets of the Old Testament. In addition to prophecies relating to the fall of Babylon and the later rise of the Roman Empire, the book of Daniel also includes many end-time prophecies that we most commonly encounter today in movies about the end of the world. Daniel was one of the many Israelites taken into captivity by the Babylonians. There are several important stories associated with Daniel, all of which have given us some phrase or idea still used today:

Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar The Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, had a dream, which Daniel interpreted. In the dream, there was a great statue of metal, but the statue had feet of clay, which were easily shattered. “Feet of clay” is used now to describe someone once held in high regard or in an important position who shows a disappointing weakness.

Daniel and Belshazzar Belshazzar, son of Nebuchadnezzer, gave the famous feast at which a mysterious hand appeared and wrote on the wall. Daniel was brought in to interpret the writing, which said that the king had been judged and that the kingdom would be divided between the Medes and the Persians. That night, Belshazzar was killed and Darius the Mede and Cyrus the Persian divided the kingdom. Today, seeing “the handwriting on the wall” means seeing the signs that something is doomed.

Daniel in the Lions’ Den After Belshazzar’s death, Daniel became an official in the court of Darius. When Daniel refused to obey a law that required that everyone worship Darius alone, the king had Daniel thrown into a den of lions. The next day, Darius calls into the den, “has your God been able to deliver you from the lions?” Daniel responds that he has, indeed, been kept safe, and Darius restores Daniel to his position of power. Today, a person who is surrounded by problems may be compared to Daniel in the lions’ den.

Melville’s Moby Dick is also rich with allusions, from the sailor Elijah who denounced Captain Ahab (startling to the characters who knew that the prophet Elijah in the Bible foretold the destruction of the evil King Ahab in 1 Kings) to the last page, where a ship named the Rachel is looking for her children (Matthew 2:18).

East of Eden, in addition to being a novel by John Steinbeck, is where Cain settled after murdering Abel. (Genesis 4: 16)

This is just the tip of the iceberg, but there will be more in coming months.

BIO: Contributor Cynthia Clampitt is a freelance writer, food historian, and traveler. She loves history, geography, culture, literature, and language—and the place where all of these intersect. She is the author of the award-winning travel narrative, Waltzing Australia, and keeps two blogs, http://www.theworldsfare.org and http://www.waltzingaustralia.com.