I’m sure you recognize these iconic fingers. This pose has been satirized, recreated, and reinterpreted in art, T.V., and cartoons. I bet you recognize the sound of these, as well: “A guy walks into a bar…”, “It was high-noon as the tumbleweed slowly rolled through the dusty town…”, and “Once upon a time…”. Whether you realize it or not, these are all triggers for motifs. A motif is a writer’s modus operandi: it flavors the way they recount a story. Motifs are employed because they carry certain literary baggage. They are a writer’s way of nodding in subtle tribute to literary heritage. Sometimes the motif is of the author’s own making; sometimes the author merely enters into a familiar motif to add their own narrative twist.
Motifs are an important element of any good writer’s literary toolbox. They are also essential for textual depth, for joke telling, and for satire. The Bible itself is chock full of recurring motifs used and abused by the various authors of Scripture. We are all pretty familiar with many of these whether we know it or not: covenants, new creation, deliverance from slavery, exile, etc.
Perhaps one of the best inventors and employers of motif was the man Moses himself. The themes and elements of his Torah would shape the way the whole rest of the Bible would be narrated–including the life of Jesus. Let’s just look at the book of Genesis. Do any of these ring a bell?
- Egyptian Vacations: Perhaps ‘vacation’ is the wrong term, but beginning with Abram and Sarai, God’s people stuggled with a bizarre attraction to the land of Egypt. After Abram and Sarai return from Egypt, his grandson Joseph is shipped to Egypt, and by the end of Genesis, the entire family of Israel is dwelling there (See Gen. 12:10-20; Gen. 37:28-ff; and Gen. 45).
- Famine: Famine becomes a recurring motif in Moses’ narrative. God’s curse on the land in Genesis 3 sets a pattern of famine which forces each patriarch to seek food outside of the land of promise (Abram to Egypt–Genesis 12:10; Isaac to the Philistines–Genesis 26:1; Israel to Egypt–Genesis 42).
- Husband/Wife Role Reversal: This is an interesting one, but I think it holds water. The fall of man occurred in Genesis 3 when Adam choses to passively follow the instructions of his wife. We see a very similar circumstance in Gen. 16:2-3. There we find Abram passively following Sarai’s instructions to disregard God’s promise and to impregnate her slave girl Hagar. A less clear use of this motif might be when Rebekah tricks her husband Isaac into blessing Jacob instead of Esau (Gen. 27:8-10).
- Sister Wives: The patriarchs must have had smoking hot wives. However, they had a pattern of fearing that foreign kings would kill them to steal their wives. So they did the only logical thing: they claimed their wives were their sisters and let the kings take them anyway! (Abram and Sarai with Pharaoh–Gen. 12:13; Abraham and Sarah in Gerar–Gen. 20:2; Isaac and Rebekah in Gerar–Gen. 26:7).
- Shepherding: Many, many, many of the characters in Genesis were shepherds. ‘Nuf said. (Abel–Gen. 4:2; Rachel–Gen. 29:9; Jacob–Gen. 30:31; Joseph and his brothers–Gen. 37:2).
- Meeting Women at the Well: This motif was already well-established in this post. Abraham’s servant finds Isaac’s wife at a well, and Jacob finds the lovely Rachel at a well (Gen. 24:15; Gen.29:10).
- Sibling Rivalry: Just a mention of these names should be plenty evidence of this motif: Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:8); Isaac and Ishmael (Gen. 21:9); Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25:22); Rachel and Leah (Genesis 29:30-30:13); Joseph and his brothers (Genesis 37:8).
- Twins Wrestling in the Womb: This might be considered a subset of motif #7, but it deserves its own mention. Twice in the book of Genesis we find twins struggling with one another for supremacy–in the womb! (Jacob and Esau–Genesis 25:22, 26; Perez and Zerah–Gen. 38:27-30).
- Mistaken Identity: Disguises are common stock in Moses’ narratives. Jacob was tricked by Laban into marrying his eldest daughter Leah, Judah slept with a prostitute–who turned out to be his daughter-in-law Tamar, and Isaac was fooled by Jacob’s costume complete with goatskin and stolen clothes. Lastly, Joseph toyed with his brothers for months before revealing his true identity! (Gen. 29:21-25; Gen. 38:15; Gen. 27:14-25; Gen. 42:8).
How many of these do you recognize elsewhere in the Bible? A good place to start would be in the Gospels…