The Biblical Reference in The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes Of Wrath film premier
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There is a Biblical reference in Revelations to the grapes of wrath that appears to be the earliest known source or inspiration for John Steinbeck's famous novel, The Grapes of WrathThe passage is sometimes referred to as "The Grape Harvest."

Revelation 14:17-20 (King James Version, KJV):

17 And another angel came out of the temple which is in heaven, he also having a sharp sickle.
18 And another angel came out from the altar, which had power over fire; and cried with a loud cry to him that had the sharp sickle, saying, Thrust in thy sharp sickle, and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth; for her grapes are fully ripe.
19 And the angel thrust in his sickle into the earth, and gathered the vine of the earth, and cast it into the great wine press of the wrath of God.
20 And the winepress was trodden without the city, and blood came out of the wine press, even unto the horse bridles, by the space of a thousand and six hundred furlongs.

With these passages, we read about the final judgment of the wicked (unbelievers), and the complete destruction of the Earth (think Apocalypse, end of the world, and all the other dystopian scenarios). So, why did Steinbeck draw from such violent, destructive imagery for the title of his famous novel? Or, was that even in his mind when he chose the title?

Why Is It So Bleak?

With Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck created a novel set in the Depression-era Dust Bowl of Oklahoma. Like the Biblical Job, the Joads had lost everything under disastrous and inexplicable circumstances (the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, where crops and the topsoil literally blew away). Their world had been obliterated/destroyed.

Then, with their world torn apart, the Joads packed up all their worldly possessions (like Noah and his family, in their infamous Ark: "Noah stood on the ground looking up at the great load of them sitting on top of the truck."), and were forced to set off on a cross-country trek to their Promised Land, California. They were searching for a land of "milk and honey," a place where they could work hard and ultimately fulfill the American Dream. They were also following a dream (Grandpa Joad dreamed that he'd have as many grapes as he could eat when he reached California). They had very little choice in the situation. They were escaping from their own very-certain destruction (like Lot and his family).

The Biblical references don't stop with their journey toward the Promised Land either. The novel is infused with Biblical allusions and innuendo, though Steinbeck often chooses to slant the imagery to fit his own literary vision for the novel. (For example: Instead of the baby being the representative Moses who will lead the people to freedom and the Promised Land, the little rain-soaked body heralds news of utter devastation, starvation, and loss.)

Why does Steinbeck use Biblical imagery to infuse his novel with symbolic meaning? In fact, the imagery is so pervasive that some have called the novel a "Biblical epic."

From Jim Casy's perspective, religion offers no answers. But Casy is also a prophet and Christ-like figure. He says: "You don't know what you're a doin'" (which, of course, reminds us of the Biblical line (from Luke 23:34): "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do."

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Lombardi, Esther. "The Biblical Reference in The Grapes of Wrath." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Lombardi, Esther. (2020, August 28). The Biblical Reference in The Grapes of Wrath. Retrieved from Lombardi, Esther. "The Biblical Reference in The Grapes of Wrath." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).