The Complexity of Biblical Allusion

There is no question about the fact that the book of Deuteronomy is full of literary allusion. But there is a serious problem, even a paradox, of understanding how that allusion works. To begin with, if we assume that Deuteronomy was written by Moses — with some editorial emendations added later — we have to expect that literary allusions would be to previously written Scripture. And indeed that is what we find. In Deuteronomy, Moses frequently alludes to Genesis through Numbers — though the last parts of Numbers are written about the same time as Deuteronomy, at the end of the 40-years wilderness wandering.

Calum Carmichael even says that all the laws of Deuteronomy are related to the narrative of Israel’s history. Before looking into the details of Carmichael’s approach, we can begin by saying that on the surface, the claim seems plausible — even if “all” seems a bit much. We should take it for granted that Moses meditated deeply on the history of the world recorded in Genesis 1-11 and the history of Abraham and his seed, including the sojourn in Egypt and the wandering in the wilderness that he himself experienced. Many of the laws in Deuteronomy point back to the history of Israel, some of them quite explicitly. Looking for and considering historical allusions to the pre-Mosaic and Mosaic eras is clearly essential to understanding the instruction of Deuteronomy.

That does not seem complex. The problem is that books from Joshua to Kings, the Psalms and the Prophets, all contain numerous links to Deuteronomy. What is this thought to mean? Here is Carmichael.

“As a prophet Moses anticipated Israel’s future problems — for example, the false testimony that resulted in the death of the innocent Naboth, just as he anticipated the people’s request for a king. What I am saying, of course, is that the Deuteronomist, living after these events, is Moses. Just as critics readily recognize the Deuteronomist’s hand in the presentation of the account of Naboth’s death, so we should go further and recognize that the Deuteronomic laws themselves are the collected judgments of the Deuteronomist upon events before Moses’s life time, during it, and after it. Fictionally, in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses delivers a farewell address. In doing so, he proceeds in a way that is characteristic of this literary convention: he looks back both on his own life as Israel’s leader and on Israel’s life before he became leader, and he also anticipates Israel’s future. Only those events in his life time are explicitly referred to in order to sustain the fiction.”1

Unless we believe that the Bible has been inspired by the Holy Spirit, apparent strong connections between the laws and instruction in Deuteronomy with post-Mosaic literature might seem to suggest that Deuteronomy was written later than most of the other books of the Bible. But, of course, that perspective assumes that the Bible could not have been inspired and that prophecy itself is not really possible. To state it most bluntly, it assumes that Jesus is not the Son of God and that He did not really rise from the dead.2

It also ignores what is historically a perfectly normal phenomenon. If Moses really was who he claimed to be and if Israelites after Moses did have the books of Moses in their possession, godly Israelites would be meditating on the books of Moses: “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day.” (Psalm 119:97) Rather than undermining the historicity of Moses, allusions to Deuteronomy in post-Mosaic literature should be seen as evidence that Deuteronomy was highly regarded throughout the old covenant era — not to mention Jesus and Paul. After all, it was the last words of the greatest of the prophets, Moses! How could later writers not reflect upon and allude to him? Thus, hypotheses — there are too many to even list — that try to force the books of Moses into the mold of a post-enlightenment, anti-prophetic approach are to a large degree a work of supererogation. Even without presupposing the inspiration of Scripture, it should be obvious that Moses would dominate Israelite literature. But, of course, the problem of prophecy would remain. Since I do believe in the inspiration of Scripture, I have no problem taking the text as Truth.

So how should we think about allusions to Deuteronomy in the post-Mosaic era? Quite simply, they constitute commentary and application of Moses’ instruction. This is not exactly the same as if these were written at the same time or before Deuteronomy, but for our understanding, the actual literary differences may not be as great as we might think. Authors from Joshua to Malachi sought to understand and apply the instruction of Deuteronomy to their own day. Their allusions and elaborations help us to understand the meaning of the law as given by Moses centuries before.

How can that be, since they write so much later? The answer, for Christians, of course, is that the same God inspired both. God, who spoke through Moses, graced us with His own commentary on what He meant to say through Moses in the books that followed. So, literary allusion to Deuteronomy in the book of Isaiah, reflects backwards in history to a time some 700 years before Isaiah, but for us, Isaiah provides insight into the Mosaic revelation. What did Moses mean? Read Isaiah! Of course, we cannot stop with the Writings, the Psalms and the Prophets. There is one more step. We cannot understand Deuteronomy apart from Jesus and His apostles.

Where does all of this lead? We come to the conclusion that we need to read Moses as Scripture inspired by the same Holy Spirit who inspired the prophets who succeeded him and even more importantly as inspired by the Spirit who indwelt Jesus to fulfill all that Moses had written. Post-Mosaic allusions to Moses, therefore, function to reveal the original intention of the Holy Spirit. Deuteronomy was not a pseudonymous production of a post-exilic author. Rather, the Holy Spirit who inspired Deuteronomy had the whole of Israel’s history and its fulfillment in Jesus wholly in mind as He guided Moses.

Although Moses himself was limited to Mosaic and pre-Mosaic revelation, the Spirit who guided him inspired him to write material that transcended Moses’ perspective. David, Isaiah, Jeremiah and others saw in Deuteronomy, key revelation for their own times. More importantly, Moses spoke much more of Jesus than he himself could have imagined.

There is deep irony here. Scholars doing literary analysis who do not believe that the God of Israel created the world or that He has and still does direct world history look for literary connections throughout Biblical books. Why? Because they are scholars and that is the kind of thing that scholars do! So, they see all sorts of allusions to “Moses” and describe how they work in terms of their own anti-Biblical theories of authorship and chronology. However, in spite of themselves, they do offer insightful or provocative commentary that can help the believer in Jesus to read the Torah of Moses with deeper understanding because the connections really are there!

Needless to say, that does not mean we could or would endorse everything someone like Calum Carmichael has to say, but it does mean we can and should use his works to help us think.

Ralph Smith is pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church. 

References   [ + ]

1. Calum Carmichael, “Biblical Laws of Talion,” Hebrew Annual Review 9 (1985) 107- 26.
2. I assume Carmichael is Jewish, so I am not referring to him here.