Category Archives: Helpful Suggestions for Bible Study

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.


5 Strategies for Improving Your Bible Study

5 Strategies for Improving Your Bible Study

The following is a guest post by Kaleb Cuevas from Logos:

Perhaps you have committed to a new Fall Bible study at church or are eager to dive into the latest new Bible study resource. Either way, you likely have the best intentions to stick with your new study on a consistent basis and increase their biblical knowledge. However, without the right mindset or frame of reference, you can easily lose interest and motivation.

Here are 5 strategies for helping you stay engaged by bringing your Bible study content to life.

1) Study for the right reasons

It is easy to view Bible study as an intellectual exercise. But acquiring information about the Bible is not a proper end in itself. Paul described the purpose of Scripture: “that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17). If our studies do not equip us for good works, then they are unprofitable studies. As we read the Bible, our goal must be to ultimately apply it to our lives.

2) Consider the historical setting

Contrary to popular belief, the Bible was not written to 21st century Americans. Each book of the Bible was written by a specific person, to a specific group of people, in a specific culture, at a specific time, and for a specific purpose. If we miss these details, we are likely to misunderstand much of what we are reading. Many good study Bibles include much of this information in the introductions to books of the Bible, so we would recommend starting with one of those.

3) Use historical definitions of biblical words

Very few Greek or Hebrew words have an exact English equivalent. So we have to remember that the English words in a translation may not mean exactly the same thing as the original Greek or Hebrew. One way to get around this obstacle is to do a word study, examining every occurrence of a particular word in the Bible to see how it is used therein. However, this method is time consuming, so it might be helpful to acquire a good Bible dictionary that compiles such studies on major words in the Bible. It makes it easy to understand what a given word actually means when used in the Bible.

4) Keep it in context

All too often, we read the Bible as if it were a collection of unconnected verses. A single verse taken by itself can appear to mean something totally contrary to the author’s intent. We wouldn’t skip to a sentence in the middle of Moby Dick and expect it to make sense, so why do we do this with the Bible? One good example is Jeremiah 29:11. This verse is frequently claimed as a promise for God’s specific blessing on an individual. But when we look at the context, we see that God was talking to the Israelites, whom he had sent into exile for their sins. Only after being in exile for 70 years would God bring them back to prosperity. Those are “the plans I have for you” according to Jeremiah’s full context.

5) Understand the genre

The Bible is made up of 66 different books, and they include many different genres of literature. There are epistles and narratives, poems and parables, instances of wisdom literature and apocalyptic literature, and a host of other specific styles. Keeping them all straight can be confusing, but it’s a vital part of understanding what we read. Thankfully, there are tools to help us here as well, books that provide an overview for each book of the Bible—including the genre—along with a number of other important details.

5 Strategies for Bible Study was written by Kaleb Cuevas who is Marketing Manager for Logos Bible Software, a product of Faithlife, which uses technology to equip the Church to grow in the light of the Bible and offers 14 products and services for churches.

Logos Bible Software
If this post on “5 Strategies” has piqued your interest in using Bible study software, you can check out Logos by clicking here.

It’s Not About Me

It’s Not About Me

It is crucial that sound Bible study be about the truth, “not about me”. Poster borrowed from

The final part of Walton’s sound advice (see part 1 here and part 2 here) when it comes to Bible study is labeled “values commitments.” It can be summed up by the title of this post, “It’s not about me.” While the advice given in the previous posts is generally applicable to all Bible study, the context in which Walton presents it is with regards to the place and role of women in leadership and what Genesis 2 contributes to this discussion. The values commitments that Walton lays out are particularly applicable to his discussion of Genesis 2 and the role of women. However, Walton’s advice certainly applies to more than the “role of women in the church” controversy. It is sound advice for any difficult issue we confront, especially when that issue might lead to a power-struggle within the Body of Christ. Here are Walton’s 4 points on values commitments:

  1. We must determine that individual “rights” and the pursuit of them will not take precedence over more important values, as they have in our society at large.
  2.  We must resist any desire to hoard or attain power, though our society and our fallenness drive us to pursue it above all else.
  3. We must constantly strive to divest ourselves of self, though we live in a “What about me?” world.
  4. We must accept that ministry is not to be considered a route to self-fulfillment; it is service to God and his people. (Walton, J. H. (2001). Genesis (pp. 189–190). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.)

Let Me Repeat: It’s Not About Me

The proper approach to Bible Study: It’s not about me; it’s about integrity

If our goal in Bible study is the pursuit of truth, then it goes without saying that personal agendas need to be set aside. I get into trouble when my motive is about proving my point. Emotion and emotional issues can often blind me to what the text is saying. If I’m more concerned about my rights (1 above), my power (2 above), my ego (3 above), or my own fulfillment (4 above), then even if I am technically right on an issue, I am wrong. The path I follow to arrive at my view or conclusion must involve honesty, integrity, and humility as I study and listen to what God’s Word has to say on a particular topic. As Rich Mullins sang back in the 90s “I did not make it, no, it is making me. It is the very truth of God, not the invention of any man” (Creed) I do not have authority over the Word. The Word has authority over me. I do not seek to change the Word. I seek the Word to change me! As Walton makes clear in his final point (4 above), our ultimate goal is not self-fulfillment, but serving God and his people. Because of our humanity, we will never be right about every interpretation of Scripture. However, if we implement Walton’s sound advice, we will be more often right than wrong, and we will certainly reflect the image of Christ as we seek to study, understand, and teach his word.

Maintaining a Godly Perspective When We Disagree

Maintaining a Godly Perspective When We Disagree

Part of maintaining a godly perspective is the ability to agree to disagree.
Maintaining a godly perspective in Bible study means being able to disagree agreeably.

This post on maintaining a godly perspective is a follow up post based on the discussion found in my previous article entitled “Sound Advice for Bible Study.” In that post I shared some of John Walton’s advice (from his Genesis Commentary in the NIV Application series), regarding a sound approach to Bible study. As pointed out in that post, Walton breaks his advice down into three different categories: 1) methodological commitments; 2) personal commitments; and 3) values commitments. Having looked at Walton’s methodological commitments in the previous post, I would now like to examine what he calls, “personal commitments,” of which there are three:

  1. We must be willing to preserve a godly perspective on the issue and accord Christian respect to those we disagree with, refusing to belittle, degrade, accuse, or insult them. Ad hominem arguments and other varieties of “negative campaigning” should be set aside.
  2. We must not allow our differences of opinion to overshadow and disrupt the effectiveness of ministry and our Christian witness.
  3. We must decry the arrogance that accompanies a feeling of self-righteousness and portrays others as somehow less godly because of the position they hold. (Walton, J. H. (2001). Genesis (p. 189). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.)

Reflections on Walton’s “Personal Commitments” When We Disagree

Maintaining a godly perspective includes not belittling or attacking another person for their views.

All three of these commitments are important if we desire to maintain a Christ-like interaction with others. Let’s look at them in order.

Regarding #1, it’s very normal to feel personally attacked (and sometimes the attack is personal!), when a dearly held interpretation or view of ours is challenged by someone else. As Walton shares, however, “We must be willing to preserve a godly perspective….” This includes refusing to engage in personal attacks, even if we perceive the other person has personally attacked us. We should do our best to remain focused on the issue and seek to present biblical (as well as archaeological, cultural, etc.) evidence for our belief and interpretation. When a discussion is downgraded to an argument that involves character assassination, no one wins.

Principle #2 addresses the pragmatic outcome of disagreements that become the pretext for a battleground. Ministry is seriously disrupted and affected. If we respond in an ungodly way it will also certainly affect our Christian witness. This is certainly part of the enemy’s plan. If he can cause Christians to focus on their differences to the point where they fight and divide over them and present a bad image to unbelievers, he has won a major victory. (These observations are presented with the caveat that we are not talking about the foundational truths of Christianity which, if changed, would destroy its distinctive message).

Principle #3 addresses pride. Here is the root problem of all divisiveness over “non-essential” issues in biblical interpretation. A steady, and frequent, dose of humility is always the best remedy when discussing different understandings of Scripture. It is pride and self-righteousness that leads to the personal attacks noted in Principle #1. Pride and self-righteousness also damages our Christian witness and always disrupts effectiveness in ministry. Thus Principle #2 also falls under the umbrella of this third principle.

In the third, and final part, of this series, we will look at what Walton calls, “values commitments.”

NIV Application Commentary on Genesis is available at Amazon USA / UK

Sound Advice for Bible Study

Sound Advice for Bible Study

Sound advice for developing good bible study methods and attitudes over confusing issues or passages is a must!

I am teaching Genesis once again this semester as I do every Fall semester. I absolutely love studying and teaching the Book of Genesis. It is full of many foundational truths and I am always learning something new. However, I must also admit that teaching Genesis is a challenge. There are certain passages that have been interpreted different ways throughout history. As rewarding as Bible study is, we all come upon certain issues or passages with a big question mark? What is this passage about? What does the Bible really teach on this particular issue? Some “experts” say this, some say that. What am I to believe? When we face these questions, we need a solid plan that contains sound advice. Here are some challenging issues and passages in the first six chapters of Genesis alone:

  1. What does the expression “Let Us” mean in Genesis 1:26? (I share at least 5 different views with the class).
  2. What does it mean to be made in God’s Image and Likeness? (There are many views)
  3. What is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? What quality is it that Adam and Eve don’t have, that they have after eating of its fruit? (I share the top 4 views)
  4. Should the genealogies be added together to come up with the date of Creation or are there gaps in them?
  5. Who are the sons of God and the daughters of men? (I share the 3 main explanations)
  6. What do the 120 years of Genesis 6:3 mean? Is God putting an age limit on humankind or is it the time until He sends the Flood?

As you can see, you barely begin reading the first book of the Bible and a lot of questions arise within the first six chapters (and I haven’t included them all)! Beyond the Book of Genesis there are many other issues (and passages) that a sincere studier of the Bible struggles with. If you go to church regularly, or study the Bible regularly the following examples will be familiar to you:

  1. The role of women in the church
  2. Spiritual gifts (for today or not?)
  3. The nature of the millennium (amillennial, premillennial, pre-trib, post-trib?, etc.)
  4. Violence in the Old Testament (short commercial–see my series on this topic here).

Although the main storyline of the Bible is clear–God created the world, humans sinned, God chose Abram and his descendants to bring restoration, Jesus is God incarnate and died for our sins and rose again gaining victory over Satan and the forces of evil–there are a number of passages and topics which remain challenging. What is the way forward with these difficult topics and challenging passages of Scripture?

Sound Advice From John Walton

For more on John Walton see here.

This semester I am working my way through John Walton’s Genesis commentary in the NIV Application series. While reading Walton’s comments on Genesis 2 in the “Contemporary Significance” section of the commentary, I came upon some sound advice for Bible study that I found myself agreeing with. Walton’s sound advice is broken into 3 categories: “methodological commitments,” “personal commitments,” and “values commitments.” In this post I would like to focus on the first category.

By methodological commitments, Walton simply means how should we approach the biblical text? His concern is that we not find ourselves “guilty of dressing up our own desires so that they look like the Bible’s teaching” (p. 188). His sound advice involves 5 principles:

1. We must allow the text to pursue its own agenda, not force it to pursue ours.
2. We must be committed to the intention of the author rather than getting whatever mileage we can out of the words he used.
3. We must resist overinterpreting the text in order to derive the angle we are seeking.
4. We must be willing to have our minds changed by the text—that is at least part of the definition of submitting ourselves to the authority of the text.
5. We must be willing to accept the inevitable disappointment if the text does not address or solve the questions we would like answers to (Walton, J. H., 2001, Genesis, p. 189, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).

I’d like to briefly comment on each of these principles.

Principle 1 is so important. How often have I found myself wanting to “prove a point” and finding a passage of Scripture that supports it. Context doesn’t matter, as long as it supports my point! We can be especially guilty of this if we have grown up in church and we have been taught to look at certain topics in certain ways or to interpret certain passages in certain ways. It’s difficult to break out of this mold, but so essential if our desire is simply to ascertain the truth.

Principle 2 involves a little labor on our part. To understand the author’s intention will involve a little background study of the ancient world, and will involve getting the big picture of what a given biblical book is about. We have to interpret the Bible in the cultural setting of the inspired author and we have to do it within the context of the book.

Principle 3 tests our integrity. OK, here’s what the passage means based on context, cultural setting. wordstudy, etc. But if I “tweak” it just a little I could use it to support my position!

Principle 4 is HUGE! Are we willing to let the Bible change our minds? It could potentially mean letting go of a cherished interpretation I have held since my youth. Is truth more important to me than tradition?

Principle 5 is just as HUGE as principle 4. If we honestly believe that the text leads to a different conclusion than the cherished belief we have held on to for so long, there will inevitably be a sense of disappointment. “Boy, I really wanted the text to back me up on this, but after studying the text thoroughly, I have to admit it doesn’t.” Making that admission is a sure sign of growth, and even more importantly, it is a way of honoring God and His Word!

Next time we will look at Walton’s advice regarding “personal commitments.”

P.S. For those of you who may be wondering, “Where have you been?” This is my first post in nine months. Five of those months have been spent with my mother and helping her through the passing of my dad. It was a special time and I am grateful for it. I am also grateful to be back in York, and as far as this blog is concerned, I’m glad to be “back in the saddle again!