Biblical Allusions and Imagery in Steinbeck\'s The Grapes of Wrath


John Steinbeck always makes it a point to know about his subjects first
hand. His stories always have some factual basis behind them. Otherwise, he
does not believe that they will be of any value beyond artistic impression.
Therefore, most of his novels take place in California, the site of his birth
and young life. In preparation for writing his novels, Steinbeck would often
travel with people about whom he was going to write. The Grapes of Wrath was no
exception to his other works. To prepare for it, he joined migrants in Oklahoma
and rode with them to California. When he got to California, he lived with them,
joining them in their quest for work. By publishing these experiences and
trials of the migrants he achieved an effect that won him the Nobel Prize for
literature in 1962. The writing of The Grapes of Wrath coincided with the Great
Depression. This time of hardship and struggle for the rest of America gave
Steinbeck inspiration for his work. Other peoples\' stories of everyday life
became issues for Steinbeck. His writings spoke out against those who kept the
oppressed in poverty and therefore was branded as a Communist because of his
"voice." Although, it did become a bestseller and receive countless awards, his
book was banned in many schools and libraries. However, critics never attacked
The Grapes of Wrath on the artistic level and they still consider it a
beautifully mastered work of art. More than any other American novel, it
successfully embodies a contemporary social problem of national scope in an
artistically viable expression.1 In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck utilizes
Biblical imagery and allusions to illustrate the struggle of the Joad family as
a direct parallel with that of the Hebrew people.
Steinbeck bolsters the strength of structure and character development
in the book through Biblical allusions and imagery. Peter Lisca has noted that
the novel reflects the three-part division of the Old Testament exodus account
which includes captivity, journey, and the promised land.2 The Joads\' story is
a direct parallel with that of the Hebrews. Just as the Hebrews were captives
of the Pharaoh, the Joads\' are captives of their farm. Both make long and
arduous journeys until they reach their promised land. Israel is the final
destination for the Hebrews and California plays the same role for the Joads.
Hunter mentions several of the parallels in the novel. When the Joads embark on
their journey, there are twelve members which corresponds to the twelve tribes
of Israel who are leaving the old order behind. They mount the truck in ark
fashion, two by two, as Noah Joad observes from the ground. This chapter ten
scene is an allusion to the story of Noah\'s Ark: 3

". . . the rest swarmed up on top of the load, Connie and Rose of Sharon, Pa and
Uncle John, Ruthie and Winfield, Tom and the preacher. Noah stood on the ground
looking up at the great load of them sitting on top of the truck. 4"

Grampa\'s character is an allusion to the story of Lot\'s wife. He is unable to
come to grips with the prospect of a new life, and his recollection of the past
results in his death. Lot\'s wife died in the same manner. She turned into a
pillar of salt when she looked back into her past. The parallel is emphasized
by the scripture verse, a direct quotation from Lot, which Tom uses to bury him
with.5 Uncle John\'s character resembles that of the Biblical character Ananias
because he withholds money from the common fund just as Ananias did. Both
characters are similar in their selfish desires and they each undergo a moment
of grace when they admit to their sins thus becoming closer to God.
Lewis suggests that Tom Joad is an illuminating example of what
Steinbeck considers to be the picaresque saint.7 Tom also serves as a Moses-
type leader of the people as they journey toward the promised land. Like Moses,
he has killed a man and had been away for a time before rejoining his people and
becoming their leader. Like Moses he has a younger brother(Aaron-Al) who serves
as a medium for the leader. Shortly before reaching the destination, he hears
and rejects the evil reports of those who have visited the land(Hebrew "spies"-
Oklahomans going back).8 This parallel ends before the completion of the story
just as most others in the novel do. Many parallels are not worked out
completely and as Hunter notes, the