If declining biblical literacy is a problem in our time, here’s one solution: Encourage everyone to listen to more rap.
Even casual fans in recent years know about Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks,” which has been called “the closest thing to a twenty-first century religious anthem.” In the first verse, West compares the streets of Chicago to “the valley of the shadow of death” — an allusion to Psalm 23:4. That same image is alluded to in songs by 2Pac, Coolio, Nas, and Puff Daddy. Those might be considered sober biblical allusions, but biblical shout-outs can also be used to assist the genre’s famous braggadocio: West has declared himself Yeezus; J.Cole has called himself “the light-skinned Jesus”; Nas considers himself God’s Son; and Rick Ross boldly named his album God Forgives, I Don’t.
And there’s lots more where those come from. With the help of Rap Genius and YouTube, I’ve narrowed my favorite Bible allusions in rap down to these 15:
15. Beastie Boys: “Shadrach”
Verse-check: Daniel 1-3
For decades, the Beastie Boys have consistently proven that they’re one of the most original — and most successful — hip-hop groups of all-time. In this 1989 single, the Jewish trio describes themselves as the three prisoners who were saved by God from a fiery furnace.
14. Black Star: “Thieves in the Night”
Verse-check: 1 Timothy 6:10
Brooklyn hip-hop duo Black Star consists of two of the best lyricists in rap — Mos Def and Talib Kweli. In “Thieves in the Night,” Talib Kweli drops an allusion to 1 Timothy 6:10, where Paul the Apostle explains that money is the root of all evil. Kweli asks if it’s true — is money really the root of evil, or is it the way we think about money that’s evil?
13. House of Pain: “Jump Around”
Verses-check: Psalms; Luke 15:11-32
Biblical allusions often show up in unexpected places, such as House of Pain’s 1992 hit single, “Jump Around.” Just a few bars after saying that “I’ll serve your ass like John McEnroe” — and I don’t think they mean an act of charity — the hip-hop group drops a “word to your moms” that he has so many rhymes that they outnumber the Psalms in the Bible. Then they jump ahead to the New Testament, where like the Prodigal Son, they’re back, and ready to attack. (Which is not at all why the Prodigal Son came back, but never mind.)
12. Kanye West: “Mercy (ft. 2 Chainz, Big Sean & Pusha T)”
Verse-check: Matthew 13:42
On “Mercy,” along with Big Sean, Pusha T and 2 Chainz, ‘Ye shows no mercy, ruthlessly bragging about his wealth, power, and fame — which isn’t too uncommon for Kanye or rappers in general. The song’s sample is an allusion to Matthew 13:42, in which Jesus describes hell: “Well, it is a weeping and a moaning and a gnashing of teeth.”
11. Killer Mike: “Untitled”
Verse-check: Exodus 3:1-15
Killer Mike is no stranger to biblical allusions. In “Follow Your Dreams,” the Atlanta rapper declares himself to be “Lazarus rapping” because it’s his rebirth. In addition to mentioning Christ and Mary in “Untitled,” Killer Mike drops a more complex allusion to Moses and the burning bush. Crediting God with his success in rap, Killer Mike finds his “burning bush” — a reference to God talking to Moses through a burning bush — through smoking a blunt.
10. Mac Dre in Andre Nickatina’s “Andre-n-Andre”
Verse-check: Genesis 7
The late Bay Area rapper Mac Dre gives us one of the most sacrilegious biblical allusions on this list — and arguably one of the wittiest. Riding a big fancy car — “a big boat” — Mac Dre is accompanied by two women of each race, in the same way “every living thing that breathes” joined Noah on the boat “two by two.”
9. Jay-Z in Kanye West’s “Diamonds from Sierra Leone”
Verse-check: Matthew 14:22-32
Recognizing that Jay-Z is a rap god, it’s only fitting that the legend often refers to himself as “Hova,” which comes from Jehovah. In the remix of Kanye West’s “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” Jay drops a reference to Matthew 14, which describes Jesus and Peter walking on water. Hov knows that in order to do big things, you have to take risks — you have to step out of the boat to walk on water.
8. Pusha T: “Sweet Freestyle”
Pusha T seems to know his stuff when it comes to the Bible. For example, the MC has a diss track called “Exodus 23:1” in which he calls out Lil’ Wayne and Drake for spreading rumors, or violating the title’s verse: “Do not spread false reports. Do not help a wicked man by being a malicious witness.” In his short “Sweet Freestyle,” Pusha T gets even more biblical on us, noting that “[j]ealousy’s a sin,” that “Cain killed Abel,” and that “even Jesus had Judas.”
7. DMX: “Lord Give Me A Sign”
“In the name of Jesus, spread the word / “No weapon formed against me shall prosper” / “And every turn that rise against my judgment, thou shall condemn” / For this is the heritage of the servants of the Lord / “And their righteousness is of me,” said the Lord / Amen, Lord give me a sign”
Verse-check: Isaiah 54:17
One of the best selling rappers of all time, DMX is known for his hard-hitting bangers like “Party Up (Up in Here).” But beyond his hits and his extensive list of encounters with the law, Dark Man X is actually a very religious man. In fact, a few years ago, the rapper was ordained as a deacon by a church in Yonkers. In “Lord Give Me A Sign,” X brings his usual intensity, but the subject matter is far from the material that made him famous. He opens by quoting Isaiah 54:17, before telling his struggles to the Lord and asking for a sign.
6. Common: “G.O.D. (Gaining One’s Definition) [ft. Cee-Lo Green]”
Chicago’s Common discusses a plethora of religious questions and thoughts in his introspective song featuring Cee-Lo Green. Stating that his “bloodline is one with the divine,” Common touches on Jesus, catechisms, Zen, Tao, the Quran, and the Bible. Common, self-proclaimed as “one of Chi-town’s Gods,” ends his verse with specific references to the Book of Revelation.
5. Jay Electronica in Mac Miller’s “Suplexes Inside of Complexes & Duplexes”
“The poetry’s like the poems and psalms of Ecclesiastes / Lightning should strike the stone and then Moses should make a tablet / The Judge will bang the wood up in parliament with the mallet / And yell “Hear, Hear,” finally some order to this rap shit”
On “Suplexes,” Mac Miller, who’s “infatuated” with religion himself, teamed up with hip-hop’s most mysterious MC, Jay Electronica. Jay Electronica opens his verse by comparing his love to his “milk and honey,” which is a phrase taken from Exodus. Throughout the verse, he makes a wide variety of allusions — religious and otherwise. He also compares his poetry to “the poems and psalms of Ecclesiastes,” and I can’t disagree with that; Jay Electronica’s words are so often poetic and profound.
4. Boogie Down Productions: “Why is That?”
Boogie Down Productions (BDP) was led by KRS-One, who literally wrote The Gospel of Hip Hop. Throughout the song, KRS-One asks, “Why isn’t young black kids taught black?” The legendary conscious MC then preaches on the track, arguing that, despite common perception, many famous biblical figures were actually black.
3. Jay Z: “Lucifer”
Right off the bat, the sample on Jay Z’s “Lucifer” (which was produced by Kanye West) alludes to Isaiah 14:12: “Lucifer, son of the morning! I’m gonna chase you out of Earth.” While the song includes a lot of references to the Bible (like Matthew 5:5) and religion in general, Hov is most impressive on the track when he alludes to (and twists) Romans 12:19. Most people interpret Romans 12:19 as a denunciation of seeking revenge — since God has it taken care of — but Jay puts himself on the same level as God and spins the Bible verse as a recommendation of taking vengeance for himself.
2. Lauryn Hill: “Father Forgive Them (ft. Shelly Thunder)”
Lauryn Hill has dropped more than her fair share of biblical allusions, such as referring to Jezebel in her song “Doo Wop (That Thing).” But “Father Forgive Them” is especially packed. Shelly Thunder opens the song with a line from The Lord’s Prayer from Matthew and Luke. Then Lauryn Hill comes in on the hook with an allusion to Jesus’ last words from Luke 23:24 (which is also the origin of the title). Lauryn Hill — long before Pusha T’s “Sweet Freestyle” — also discusses “backstabbers” and their victims like Cain and Abel and Judas and Jesus.
1. Killah Priest: “B.I.B.L.E. (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth)”
Verse-check: Matthew 20:16
The title alone should make it pretty clear that Killah Priest would drop some biblical allusions. In the song’s hook, Killah spits, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first,” an allusion to Matthew 20:16. In the contemplative song documenting his quest for wisdom, Killah also namedrops Solomon, Jacob, and Job, along with a number of allusions to the Five-Percent Nation.