Motifs in Samuel: Meaning and Significance

Motifs in Samuel: Meaning and Significance

Motifs in Samuel. Samuel anointing David
Join me for a study of motifs in Samuel and see how following a motif can help with the interpretation of a biblical passage.

A number of years ago I wrote a post that pointed out how the recognition and study of motifs within a biblical narrative can contribute to its understanding (see here). In that post I surveyed motifs found in Genesis (the Jacob story), Judges (the Samson story), and Samuel (Saul’s story). I also noted a number of other motifs in Samuel with the promise of one day writing about them further. It’s been a long time coming but that day has finally arrived. This post is an introduction to the topic. I will briefly discuss what a motif is and then note various motifs in Samuel that will be the subject of future posts.

What is a Motif?

If you google a definition of what a motif is you will find this useful definition: “A motif is a recurring symbol which takes on a figurative meaning. … In fact, almost every text commonly uses the literary device of the motif. A motif can be almost anything: an idea, an object, a concept, a character archetype, the weather, a color, or even a statement” ( Bernard Aubert defines a motif very simply as a “recognizable pattern or unit” (The Shepherd-flock Motif in the Miletus Discourse, p. 16–for an online version of this book click here).

Using rope to illustrate a motif
A motif is like different strands of a rope.

Brian A. Verrett points out that “A motif is to be distinguished from a theme. A motif is a thread, and a theme is the rope made of different threads” (The Serpent in Samuel, p. 8, n.54). Rachelle Gilmour states, “In each case the motif is a concrete image that points to an abstract meaning, even if this meaning changes over time or across types of literature. This is typical of the biblical narrative, which in general avoids explicit statements of abstract meaning, using instead a concrete image to represent it” (Gilmour, “Reading a Biblical Motif” p, 32). An example of what Gilmour is saying would be the use of “hand” in the biblical text. Hand is a very concrete image but it points to the abstract meaning of “power.” For example, when the Bible states that Israel was delivered into the hand of the Philistines, this means they were defeated by them and came under their control or power. “Hand” is, in fact, a motif in Samuel that we will be examining.

Motifs in Samuel

Beauty is one example of a motif in Samuel.

Motifs Addressed by Biblical Scholars

Bible scholars have long recognized the use of motifs in Samuel. In my previous post I reviewed a book by Brian A. Verrett entitled, The Serpent in Samuel: A Messianic Motif (see my review here). In his book Verrett seeks to demonstrate that the Samuel narrative repeatedly casts characters as serpents (p. 8). Other motifs in Samuel that have been discussed by scholars include, the exodus, beauty, displaced husbands, food provision lists, and allusions to the patriarchal stories in Genesis. Several, or perhaps all of these motifs, have probably never occurred to a casual reader of the books of Samuel. The value of beginning to recognize these, and other motifs, is the way they enrich the meaning of the narrative. Being sensitive to motifs will also cause the reader to slow down and ask why a certain motif continues to recur. Thus creating a learning opportunity. Searching for motifs also increases the pleasure in reading.

Other Motifs in Samuel

There are many other motifs in Samuel. Here I offer a list which is not meant to be complete by any means. In future posts, I will be examining some of these motifs.

  1. Sword and spear
  2. Heads
  3. Hands
  4. Feet
  5. Eating and not eating
  6. Clothing, especially robes
  7. Dead dog
  8. Angel of God
  9. Seeking and (not) finding
  10. Asking (inquiring)
  11. Shepherd
  12. Rebellious sons

Some motifs found in the books of Samuel also occur in other books of the Bible. My purpose is to narrow the focus to only 1&2 Samuel. I will identify some of these motifs and ask how they function in Samuel. How is our reading of the text enhanced by noticing these motifs and inquiring about their significance? In my next post, we will start from the bottom up. I will be looking at the significance of the motif of “feet” in Samuel.


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