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Bible: The Old Testament

Analysis of Major Characters

Character List

Themes, Motifs & Symbols


In the Old Testament, God is unique, sovereign, and unchanging. He differs from Greek gods, whose faults and quarrels cause events. His unchanging nature is hinted at by his names. In biblical Hebrew, God is called “YAHWEH,” meaning “to be.” This title is similar to the title God uses with Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” However, the God presented in Old Testament does contradict himself at times. In the course of two chapters in Exodus, God threatens to destroy the Israelites, relents, and then pronounces himself loving, forgiving, and slow to anger. God grants himself the power of self-description; he is whoever he says he is.

Each biblical writer gives God human characteristics. For example, God speaks. We do not know how his listeners recognize that it is he who is speaking or what he sounds like, but God certainly embraces the ability to articulate his intentions through the human convention of language. Also, God assumes human form. He appears as an angel, as a group of three men, and as a mysterious army commander. In a sense, God takes on human qualities like a costume that can also be taken off, since his specific appearances do not offer a complete picture of him. Still, these manifestations suggest that there is a fundamental humanity to the personality of the Hebrew God. God casually walks in the garden with Adam and Eve. He even physically wrestles Jacob and allows Jacob to beat him. These humble and endearing qualities of God contrast his later appearances as a pillar of fire and a thunderous mountain. The more extreme manifestations are, like the human manifestations, only a part of God’s character rather than his sole mode of existence.

God’s initial interaction with humankind is unsolicited. Noah, Abraham, and Moses do not ask God to form a relationship with them. Even when God is unseen, his immense power over human fate lurks beneath the events of the Old Testament narrative. On the surface, the characters’ experiences are filled with suspense. The characters submit to chance and have a desperate, irrational faith in God. When God speaks or appears, we realize he has been in control all along, and the fear or suspense seems unfounded, trite, or comical. Amidst the gravity of human events, God’s willingness to cause momentous events in order to teach a lesson shows him to be a strangely playful character.


Moses is one of the few characters whose complete biography is described by the biblical narrative, and the early events of his life characterize him as a product of his circumstances. Born in Egypt, Moses is raised by Pharaoh’s daughter, who takes pity on the abandoned Hebrew baby. After an impulsive murder, Moses flees west, where he begins a life as a shepherd and stumbles into God in the form of a burning bush. He reluctantly agrees to return to Egypt and demand the Israelites’ release, but agrees to little more. Each event in the journey from Egypt to Mount Sinai, where God delivers his laws to the Israelites, propels Moses further into the roles of prophet, priest, ruler, and savior of Israel.

Moses’ most heroic virtue is his steadfast obedience, and it might be said that a passive quality permeates each of his miracles. Ten plagues strike Egypt because Moses simply appears in Pharaoh’s court to request the release of the Israelites. With the help of his rod, or divine staff, Moses parts the waters of the Red Sea merely by outstretching his arms. Later, the beleaguered Israelites defeat a mighty army when two men help Moses raise his hands for the duration of the battle. The image of a stationary man bringing about overwhelming physical feats is striking. Moses himself is far from passive or reticent, yet he represents a prototype of the biblical hero whose greatness lies not in self-assertion but in obedience to God.

Moses is a compelling figure because he possesses human faults. He is passionate and impulsive. Descending from Mount Sinai, Moses knows ahead of time that the people are worshipping a golden idol, because God has warned him of this fact. Upon seeing the people, Moses angrily breaks the stone tablets inscribed with God’s laws. God seems to value this passionate quality in Moses, for Moses is an effective mediator between God and the Israelites. He prays with a sense of urgency, unafraid to ask God to refrain from divine retribution and willing to accept the blame for the people’s actions. His earnest attention to the present situation and to God’s demands earns Moses the opportunity to speak with God face to face. Yet his passion remains his weakness. God commands Moses to produce water from a rock by speaking to it, but, irritated with the people’s complaints, Moses hits the rock with his staff. This act of negligence bars Moses from entering the very promised land to which he has guided the Israelites for almost half a century.


David is a strong but unassuming shepherd who becomes God’s choice to replace Saul as king of Israel. He is humble yet self-possessed, readily dismissing human opinion. His humility becomes clear early in his youth, when he kills the giant Goliath with a sling stone, declining the opportunity to use Saul’s royal armor. As king, his foremost quality is obedience to God. For example, when his wife expresses embarrassment at David’s dancing while he marches into Jerusalem, he rebukes her, boasting that he will embarrass himself so long as it pleases God.

David’s mercy to others displays his selflessness—a product of his strenuous commitment to ethical ideals. His sense of propriety is striking when he refrains from killing Saul while Saul has his back turned. David scorns the easy opportunity to attack because he feels it would be morally wrong to strike God’s current anointed ruler. As king, David forgives the kingdom’s traitors, and executes the traitors of his enemies. When his own rebellious son dies, David cries aloud in public, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom!” (2 Samuel 18:33). His weeping suggests the depth of a father’s blind love for his son.

David’s mercy may also be interpreted as a product of his political aspirations. David refuses to kill Saul because he senses that whatever standards he imposes against the current king may one day be used against himself as ruler. Moreover, seeds of revolt have already been planted in the northern tribes of Israel by David’s reign, and the kingdom’s unity may be on shaky ground. King David shows mercy to his traitors, especially Absalom, because he wishes to quell emotions and court the graces of all his subjects. By this reading, David appears to be a pragmatist—one who acts not out of his or her ideals, but on the basis of what is practical or expedient. However, the Old Testament ultimately seems to suggest that David’s religious ideals do not conflict with his pragmatism.

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not sure about the Analysis

by JEDI1016, September 01, 2012

The section that quotes 1:27-29 relies heavily on the use of the semicolon in the passage. however this is not punctuation that exists in Hebrew and would not have been in the original. in particular its not aplicable to "man and woman he created them" because the 'them' is actually singular in Hebrew and therefor should be translated "Man and woman he created it (humanity)" so its not even the same kind of binary described in the analysis.


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by GrammarJunkie18, July 11, 2013

You keep repeating that Gd appears in different forms and can be physical, while in fact the Old Testament itself says that He sent an angel, or made something appear, etc. Also, the Bible specifically says that He is not physical. In chapter 4 of Deuteronomy, Moses says to the Hebrews: "And you shall watch yourselves very well, for you did not see any image on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire," then goes on to explicitly say not to make any image of Him because He doesn't have one! I just don't see how ... Read more


29 out of 46 people found this helpful

song of solomon

by pastorluke, December 22, 2013

The bible states that you are not to focus on words of no value and look at the big picture 2 Timothy 2:14
[ Dealing With False Teachers ] Keep reminding God’s people of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen.. The reason for this was the attempted forced paganism of the church by deception. The Bible interprets itself as intended and todays false interpretations and nit picking are very troubling and indicative of corruption. Here, watch this for how the ... Read more


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