When it comes to adding tools to our Bible study toolbox, a couple of words and ideas need to be touched on. They are called markers and allusions.
Whether it’s the proverbial “X” on a map, our dog marking a tree on our morning walk, or leaving bread crumbs on the trail we are hiking, things get marked for a variety of reasons. We mark to remember or designate. We mark to preserve or communicate. We mark to target or show possession.
The writers of scripture were also prone to “marking”. They marked for many of the same reasons we do. They used geographical markers and generational markers, ethnic and cultural markers. They gave us clues when we weren’t even aware they were giving us clues. Even God used markers. A rainbow in the sky, a cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night were nothing more than markers for the people of Israel.
Here are a few more examples of “markers” used in the Bible:
- Words like statutes, ordinances and laws often reflect religious/covenant markers
- Much of the time, when we see phrases like “from the land of…” the writer is giving us an ethnic marker. “The land of Moab” in the book of Ruth is an ethnic marker. In the NT the word “gentile” is often an ethnic marker.
- “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ…” (Matt 1:1) and the 14 generational blocks in 1:17 are ancestral/hereditary markers
- Hellenistic Jews and native Jews in Acts 6:1 are cultural and ethnic markers.
When we study our Bible it’s important, at a minimum, to be aware of “markers”. It’s even more important, if we spot one, to seek to understand what the marker might mean in order for us to fully know what the biblical text/context means.
Another piece of the interpretive process is something called “allusions”. Not illusions – like something false or misleading—but allusion like an “indirect or casual reference”. We see these a lot primarily in the New Testament when allusions are made regarding something in the Old Testament. Probably the best example of this—and maybe not so indirect—would be the phrase in John 1:1 “In the beginning…” That phrase is an allusion to Genesis 1:1.
Often, the original reader/hearer would make an immediate connection with the allusion. A vivid example is when Jesus said to Nicodemus, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness…” (John 3:14) Nicodemus didn’t need the rest of the story, he knew the rest of the story and knew the connection Jesus was making even though he may not have understood it.
You and I may not be quite as quick to make connections since our understanding of the Old Testament often lags behind our understanding of the New. Nevertheless, allusions are there in abundance and they can add a great deal to our understanding of the biblical text. If you have a good cross-reference Bible, or Study Bible, this can be a great tool in exposing allusions. Your Bible will most likely list the OT passage(s) alluded to in the list of cross references. All you do is follow the trail.
Having said all of this, just a word of caution. Not every key word or unusual phrase we read is a “marker” or an “allusion”.[i]
When we study the Bible it is always best if we operate under the premise; the plain meaning of the text is the meaning of the text. If there is something that might warrant a different conclusion then we can follow whatever that something is. But we don’t go looking for markers or allusions when they are not there.
What a glorious privilege studying the Bible is. We are not simply turning over old dirt in a field already overworked by years of theological and scholarly digging. As N T Wright says in his book Surprised by Scripture, “…The Bible seems designed to challenge and provoke each generation to do its own fresh business, to struggle and wrestle with the text.”
[i] In Galatians 4 Paul talks about an allegory as he tells the story of Hagar and Sarah. That doesn’t mean all of Paul’s references to the OT are allegorical. It simply means he is using that story as an allegory in this situation.