The Bible: motifs

A literary technique that biblical authors use extensively is the motif. A motif is a recurring theme or distinctive feature woven through a literary text.

A common motif in the Bible is the barren women.

Esau and Jacob Presented to Isaac (painting ci...

Esau and Jacob Presented to Isaac (painting circa 1779–1801 by Benjamin West) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We first encounter this motif in the story of Abraham and Sarah found in Genesis. In that story, Abraham is promised a son who will become the first of many descendants: a great nation.

The problem is that Abraham’s wife, Sarah, is too old to bear a child. She has never had a child. She is barren.

However, following the promises of God, Sarah becomes pregnant and delivers Isaac. Isaac in many ways has a significant role on the Old Testament story line. He is the father of Jacob who is the father of twelve sons who become the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel.

A significant man is born from a barren woman.

The motif continues in Isaac’s life, when his wife, Rebekah, is unable to conceive until he prayers for her. Then she delivers twins. The reader is ready to see if the barren woman motif is incorporated in this story – and it is. One of the twins is Jacob.

Jacob’s beloved wife, Rachel, also is unable to have children while Jacob’s other wife, Leah, is prolific. But eventually Rachel produces two sons. The oldest is Joseph, who ends of as second in command in Egypt.

From there, he provides protection for his family during a devastating famine. The family of Jacob moves to Egypt and, during their time there, grows from a family to a nation.

So we have three barren women – Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel – all delivering men significant to the history of Israel.

The motif continues with stories of Samson’s mother, Samuel’s mother, and Obed’s mother (Ruth, who had been married for 10 years without offspring). In each case, the son born to the formerly-barren woman had great significance.

Samson became a judge who helped the Israelites overcome Philistine oppressors. Samuel was the last of the judges and the man who anointed King David. Obed was the grandfather of David.

The motif continues into the New Testament. John the Baptist, the last prophet before Jesus, was born to Elizabeth, a barren woman. Each barren woman conceived through a miraculous touch of God.

Consider the birth of Jesus, born to a virgin who conceived through a miraculous touch of God.

In the Bible, the son born in a miraculous way will become a man of significance. Biblical texts use a motif – in this case, the barren woman – to highlight the theme.


One thought on “The Bible: motifs

  1. Pingback: The Bible: an overarching motif | kathybrasby

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