Allusive Torah

In the first part of this essay, I argued that the story of the covenant is what unifies and grounds the laws in the book of Deuteronomy. In the third section of this essay, as part of my argument that Deuteronomy 14:1-21 forms a distinct pericope, I claimed that these verses contain a number of literary allusions. In this section, I hope to demonstrate that Moses really does make these allusions. More importantly perhaps, I address a question that I have hitherto assumed without directly addressing: Could an ancient reader be expected to note the allusions I have been speaking about? Obviously, allusions that would not have been noticed could have no literary purpose. Even if a modern reader might think he finds allusions, for this literary device to have any real meaning, the allusions would have to be identifiable to an ancient reader — though not necessarily to any and every ancient reader.

After all, we should expect that a sophisticated reader like David, having both a poet’s linguistic sensitivity and also musical gifts, would have taken note of aspects of a passage that a less cultured reader would miss. Of course, given the differences in time, language, culture, and music — not to mention spiritual gifts and genius — David would probably note much that a modern reader would miss, also. Still, to some degree, a modern reader can trace how a man like David might have considered a text like Deuteronomy 14:1-21. Though I am going to confine myself to literary allusions in the Pentateuch, David would no doubt have read the passage in the light of the subsequent history as well. That part of his meditation will not be included in our thought experiment.

Is the Bible Really so Full of Allusion?

Robert Alter, a prolific Jewish scholar who has written much about the Bible as literature, affirms that literature is inescapably allusive: “All literature, to be sure, is necessarily allusive: writers are compelled in one way or another to make their text out of antecedent texts (oral or written) because it would not occur to them in the first place to do anything so unnatural as to compose a hymn or a love poem or a story unless they had some model to emulate. In the Hebrew Bible, however, what is repeatedly evident is the abundance of authoritative national traditions, fixed in particular verbal formulations, to which later writers respond through incorporation, elaboration, debate, or parody.”[i]

And again, “Allusion to antecedent literary texts is an indispensable mechanism of all literature, virtually dictated by the self-recaputulative logic of literary expression. No one writes a poem or a story without some awareness of other poems or stories to emulate, pay homage to, vie with, criticize, or parody, and so the evocation of phrases, images, motifs, situations from antecedent texts is an essential part of the business of making new texts.”[ii]

Since we are considering Moses, and since I take it for granted that he was, as the Scriptures present him to have been, the basic author of the first five books of the Bible — though they were updated or edited somewhat by a later prophet or prophets — we have to ask why he would make allusions to material that he himself wrote or edited?[iii] It would not only be to interact with a previously written authoritative tradition — though in his last words, recorded in the book of Deuteronomy, that aspect might be more prominent. For the original editor and author, Moses, literary allusion would have been, among other things, a form of shorthand.

In other words, by alluding to previously written material, Moses sends his reader to the previous texts and invites him to meditate on the two texts together. In this way, he is able to say far more in far fewer words. He is able to communicate a complex and intricate message through apparently simple statements. Of course, this also creates the need for an aesthetically sophisticated reader, for a reader who takes time to meditate and compare, to consider the relationships between history and law and the modifications that necessarily arise as the covenant situation changes. Or, to put it in different words, this form of writing creates the need for interpretation. Getting to the heart of the matter requires intellectual work, pursued in a spirit of humility.

Contrasting Biblical stories with Homer, Eric Auerbach wrote, “It is all very different in the Biblical stories. Their aim is not to bewitch the senses, and if nevertheless they produce lively sensory effects, it is only because the moral, religious, and psychological phenomena which are their sole concern are made concrete in the sensible matter of life. But their religious intent involves an absolute claim to historical truth. . . . The Bible’s claim to truth is not only far more urgent than Homer’s, it is tyrannical—it excludes all other claims. The world of the Scripture stories is not satisfied with claiming to be a historically true reality—it insists that it is the only real word, is destined for autocracy. All other scenes, issues, and ordinances have no right to appear independently of it, and it is promised that all of them, the history of all mankind, will be given their due place in its frame, will be subordinated to it. The Scripture stories do not, like Homer’s, court our favor, they do not flatter us that they may please us and enchant us—they seek to subject us, and if we refuse to be subjected we are rebels.”[iv]

When we read Moses, we have to assume that he believes himself to be exactly what the Scriptures purport him to be, a prophet of God, chosen by Yahweh from his birth to accomplish a unique work in the history of the world. We have to assume that he is not only conscious of this calling, but that, in the power of the Holy Spirit, he sincerely attempted to fulfill it. Part of his work in seeking to fulfill his calling under God would have been to write Scripture, knowing that it is revelation from God through him. Alluding to previous Scripture for the purpose of provoking deeper understanding of Israel’s mysterious and sovereign God would have been a natural part of his literary endeavor, because allusion facilitates the reader’s quest for God through the text He inspired. At the same time, rather than putting everything on the surface, as Homer did, Moses writes so that the text is as much of a paradox as it is revelation. The reader is called to bow before God to know the message, even in its most superficial meaning.

How Are Literary Allusions Established?

There are a number of ways to establish a literary allusion. The simplest is through the use of a key word, a word that is used so rarely or with such a narrow range of meaning that its very appearance in a text would compel an intelligent reader to recall other occurrences of the word, especially the original occurrence. In the passage we are considering, there is an example of just this kind of literary allusion in the use of the word translated “treasured possession.” This rare word, appearing only eight times in the Old Testament (Exodus 19:5; Deuteronomy 7:6; 14:2; 26:18; Malachi 3:17; Psalm 135:4; Ecclesiastes 2:8; 1 Chronicles 29:3), has a very distinct historical significance that no intelligent reader would have missed.

Of course, the quotation of an entire phrase or sentence would establish a literary connection between two passages also. So, in Deuteronomy 14:21, Moses quotes verbatim what he had previously written in two places (Exodus 23:19; 34:26). Since the command itself seems almost odd, its threefold repetition would draw attention and provoke questions, initiating the labor of meditation and interpretation.

No less remarkable in this context is the nearly verbatim repetition of a rather long verse of Scripture previously appearing in the book of Deuteronomy.

For thou art a holy people unto Yahweh thy God: Yahweh thy God hath chosen thee to be a people for his own possession, above all peoples that are upon the face of the earth (7:6)

For thou art a holy people unto Yahweh thy God, and Yahweh hath chosen thee to be a people for his own possession, above all peoples that are upon the face of the earth (14:2).

As is clear from the relatively literal English translation above, the verses quoted diverge very slightly, but the two are so close that the words in Deuteronomy 14:2 inevitably take the intelligent reader back to Deuteronomy 7:6 to consider the relationship between the two texts.

Literary allusion can also be established by closely parallel language employed to treat a clearly parallel topic. Consider the following two laws and note the similarity of the language:

They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard, nor make any cuttings in their flesh. (Leviticus 21:5)

Ye are the children of Yahweh your God: ye shall not cut yourselves, nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead. (Deuteronomy 14:1)

The word translated “baldness” above is used only twice in the Pentateuch, in the two verses above, and only eleven times in the Old Testament (Leviticus 21:5; Deuteronomy 14:1; Isaiah 3:24; 15:2; 22:12; Jeremiah 47:5; 48:37; Ezekiel 7:18; 27:31; Amos 8:10; Micah 1:16). Whatever the relationship of the other passages may be, clearly the two references in the Pentateuch are connected, both by language and content. Leviticus is concerned with mourning by the priests in particular. Deuteronomy treats mourning customs of the people of Israel as a whole. Moses brings the two laws together and invites his readers to consider the relationship between them.

Literary allusion may also be rather more subtle. It does not require common vocabulary, nor does it demand parallel ideas, except in a rather abstract way. When I have taught Deuteronomy 14:1-21 to various groups and asked them what previously written passages of Scripture come to mind, I have usually been greeted with silence. But when I rephrase the question and say, “Moses here says one kind of food is permissible and another kind of food is forbidden. Does that sound familiar?” everyone picks up the parallel passage immediately. It should be too obvious to mention. How could an ancient Israelite reader encountering a passage about forbidden food not think of the story in Genesis 2-3?

Of course, an intelligent reader of Deuteronomy 14:1-21 will naturally recall the same food laws that were recorded in more detail in the previously given Scripture in Leviticus 11:1-47. Since these are the only two passages in the law of Moses that offer a detailed list of what may and may not be eaten, the ancient reader will be drawn to compare them. The second list must be dependent upon the first, but the relationship between the two is not necessarily simple.

To answer the question in the subtitle directly, then, literary allusion can be established in various ways, including a simple key word, a phrase, a quoted verse or partial verse, repetition of similar content, or even by the broad association of a similar idea or theme. Since we are talking about the Bible as a work of art, we should expect to find in it the same kind of subtlety, complexity, and intricacy we see in the beauty of the world God created as a work of art.

Would An Ancient Reader Really Have Seen The Allusions?

To answer this question, we should not be thinking of the “average” reader, but rather a reader like David — a reader who was himself an author, a reader who thought carefully about words and expressions, as well as theological content. David was a theologian, politician, military leader, poet, musician, and shepherd. He performed his work in each of these distinct realms so well that even if his talent had been limited to only one of them, he might have been a historically significant person.

Let us also suppose that David had obeyed the instruction in Deuteronomy 17:18-20 and had written out his own copy of the law of Moses by hand in order to read in the law daily. Even more than simply reading, we have to assume that David gave time to seriously weighing the message of the text. Why must we assume that? Because God commanded Joshua to mediate on the law daily and David himself described the righteous man — not necessarily a king — as one who meditated on the law day and night.

This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth,

but thou shalt meditate thereon day and night,

that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein:

for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous,

and then thou shalt have good success ( Joshua 1:8).

But his delight is in the law of Yahweh;

And on his law doth he meditate day and night (Psalm 1:2).

I remember the days of old;

I meditate on all thy doings;

I muse on the work of thy hands (Psalm 143:5).

To “meditate” on the law apparently involved speaking out loud,[v] repeating what was written in the law. But the process of meditating would have also included weighing and comparing, asking questions and seeking understanding. In that process, noticing similar language and expressions, especially for someone reading the original Hebrew, would be a natural ingredient. Different passages discussing the same or similar topics would obviously be considered together. The fact that Biblical revelation was comprehensively historical would invite an intelligent reader to ask historical questions and seek answers by reading and re-reading the inspired and authoritative history.

It is also commonly assumed that a godly ancient Hebrew like David would have large portions of the law memorized. Repeated reading would result in natural memorization to some degree. But passages of Scripture like Psalm 119:11 suggest that godly people specifically devoted themselves to the task of memorizing Scripture: “Thy word have I laid up in my heart, that I might not sin against thee.”

Thus, a man like David, who would presumably have memorized large portions of Scripture, would note similar language appearing in different places. Meditating on the Scripture, therefore, would have included asking questions about the similarities and repetitions that he could easily recall, without needing to consult a scribe or a scroll.

In conclusion, then, taking David as our standard for the sake of argument, it is not possible to imagine that the author of so many Psalms — themselves filled with allusions to Israel’s history and Scripture — would have been so literarily insensitive that he would have simply not noticed the similarities of language and content which are the means of establishing literary allusion. Neither is it possible to imagine that a theologian and poet who devoted himself to meditate on the Scriptures would not have ask questions about the literary purpose or the theological significance of an allusion. Given the way allusions appear in the Bible, it would be absurd to deny that Moses and other authors intended to communicate by means of these sorts of literary devices, just as it would be absurd to imagine that David or other godly readers simply did not understand what was written. However, it also seems clear from the oldest extant extra-Biblical Jewish exposition of Scripture that methods of discovering allusion and meditating on them were lost in post-exilic times through unbelief. The leaders of the Jews in Jesus’ day no longer understand the Scriptures.

What Allusions are Present in Deuteronomy 14:1-21?

We have already answered this question in part, but it might be helpful to present a summary and clear statement of the allusions in this rich passage. Let me begin by simply listing them.

1. In the words, “Ye are the sons of Yahweh your God,” there is an allusion to Exodus 4:22, where the nation is called the “son of Yahweh.” This, in turn, also provokes questions about what it means to be a son of God and invites us to consider deeper theological themes.

2. In the command not to cut themselves for the dead in the second half of 14:1, there is an allusion to the priestly laws for mourning in Leviticus 21:5-6. The law in Leviticus is immediately followed by a statement that the priests must be holy to God, which is also picked up in Deuteronomy.

3. In 14:2, when Moses declares that the people are a holy people to Yahweh, he repeats almost verbatim what he had written in Deuteronomy 7:6, clearly linking the two passages.

4. The key word usually translated “treasured possession” points back to the story of Israel at Mt. Sinai in Exodus 19:1-6.

5. The list of forbidden and allowed foods in Deuteronomy is a repetition of the list in Leviticus, but there are differences which call for thought.

6. The list of forbidden and allowed foods in Deuteronomy would inescapably remind an ancient Israelite of the story of Genesis 2-3.

7. The law forbidding Israelites to boil a kid in its mother’s milk (Deuteronomy 14:21b) points clearly to the laws in Exodus 23:19 and 34:26, where the identical rule is given.


To restate what is involved in the seven allusions pointed out above, there are allusions here to two stories: the story of the Garden of Eden and the Fall (#6), and the story of the Exodus (#1), with its climax at Mt. Sinai in the presence of the glory cloud of Yahweh (#4). There are also allusions to five other passages of instruction in the law of Moses, Exodus 23:19 and 34:26 (#7), Deuteronomy 7:1-6 (#3), Leviticus 11 (#5), and Leviticus 21:1-6 (#2).

In addition to these seven allusions, each of which is relatively easy to discover, I am inclined to see another more subtle allusion to another story. In order to see this allusion, we have to remember that when Biblical writers quoted a verse or alluded to previously written Scripture, they are not “proof-texting.” In other words, they are not simply trying to prove a point by the authority of Scripture without regard for the larger context or message of the passage they refer to. On the contrary, Biblical writers quote or allude to previously written Scripture with the larger context and message in mind. An allusion to forbidden food, therefore, would not simply be an allusion to the verses in the Genesis story where God commanded man about the trees (Genesis 2:16-17), but to the story as a whole. A godly reader like David would recall and meditate on the story of creation and the fall in order to have a deeper appreciation for the instruction in Deuteronomy 14:1-21.

That being so, I believe that a good case can be made for another allusion, though it is not so directly implied in the text. It seems to me that recalling the list of forbidden foods in Leviticus 11, especially with its language of discerning the holy and common, clean and unclean, would naturally also bring to mind the shocking narrative that immediately precedes the food laws in Leviticus, for the food laws themselves point back to the story of Nadab and Abihu — the sons of Aaron who were judged before God for offering forbidden incense. The fact that their story recalls the story of Adam and Eve makes the association all the more natural and likely.

If I am correct, there are, then, allusions to two main stories and one secondary story, as well as allusions to five laws. In the next part of the essay, I will discuss what these allusions communicate and show how they relate to each other to form a network of allusion aimed to enforce a single message.

Ralph Smith is Pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church, Tokyo, Japan.

[i] Robert Alter, The World of Biblical Literature (New York: Basic Books, 1992) 50. Alter has written extensively on the literary nature of the Bible, including the following titles: The Art of Biblical Narrative (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1981), and The Art of Biblical Poetry (New York: Basic Books, 1985).

[ii] Ibid., 110.

[iii] I refer to Moses as “editing” material because I believe that the book of Genesis was composed by editing writings that had been preserved from the long past. In that sense, when Moses himself began to compose books by the inspiration of God, he would have been interacting with a previously established authoritative tradition.

[iv] Eric Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953) 14-15.

[v] This is implied by the Hebrew word.