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Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols


Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Problem of Evil

The Old Testament both raises and attempts to answer the question of how God can be good and all-powerful yet allow evil to exist in the world. From Adam and Eve’s first disobedient act in the garden, each biblical book affirms that human evil is the inevitable result of human disobedience, not of God’s malice or neglect. The first chapters of Genesis depict God as disappointed or “grieved” by human wickedness, suggesting that the humans, rather than God, are responsible for human evil (Genesis 6:6). Later books, such as Judges and Kings, show God’s repeated attempts to sway the Israelites from the effects of their evil. These stories emphasize the human capacity to reject God’s help, implying that the responsibility for evil lies with humanity. Judges echoes with the ominous phrase, “The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord . . .” (Judges 3:12).

The most troublesome challenge to God’s goodness, however, is the existence of natural evil, which is the undeserved destruction and pain humans often experience. God repeatedly instructs the Israelites to destroy entire cities, killing men, women, and children in the process. The Book of Job directly questions God’s implication in natural evil. God punishes Job harshly for no other reason than to prove to Satan that Job is religiously faithful. In the end, God declares to Job that God’s powerful ways are beyond human understanding and should not be questioned. The book implies that God sometimes uses natural evil as a rhetorical device—as a means of displaying his power or of proving a point in a world already tainted by human corruption.

The Possibility of Redemption

God typically responds to human behavior with retributive justice, meaning that people get what they deserve. God punishes the evil and blesses the righteous. The theme of mercy and redemption, which develops throughout the biblical stories, contrasts with this standard of retribution.

Redemption appears in two forms in the Old Testament. Sometimes, one person forgives another by simply forgetting or ignoring the other’s offense. When Jacob returns to his homeland after cheating his brother, we expect hatred and vengeance from Esau. Instead, Esau welcomes Jacob with a joyful embrace, reversing Jacob’s expectations no less than Jacob has already reversed Esau’s fate. Similarly, King David treats his enemies with kindness and mercy, a policy that often seems shortsighted in its dismissal of traditional justice.

Another form of redemption involves the intervention of a third party as a mediator or sacrifice to quell God’s anger with the wrongdoers. Moses’s frantic prayers at Mount Sinai frequently cause God to “change his mind” and relent from destroying the Israelites (Exodus 32:14). In the Book of Judges, Samson sacrifices his life to redeem the Israelites from the Philistine oppression brought on by Israel’s incessant evil. These human acts of redemption mirror God’s promise in the religious laws to forgive the people’s sins on the basis of ritual animal sacrifices and offerings.

The Virtue of Faith

In the Old Testament, faith is a resilient belief in the one true God and an unshakable obedience to his will. The models of biblical faith are not those who are supported by organized religion but those who choose to trust in God at the most unpopular times. Part of the virtue of true faith is the ability to believe in God when he remains unseen. The Israelites betray their complete lack of faith when they complain after God repeatedly shows himself and displays miracles during the exodus from Egypt.

Noah, Abraham, and Elijah represent the three main heroes of faith in The Old Testament. Each demonstrates his faith in God by performing seemingly irrational tasks after God has been absent from humankind for an extended period of time. God has not spoken to humans for many generations when Noah obediently builds a large, strange boat in preparation for a monumental flood. Abraham similarly dismisses the idols and gods of his region in favor of a belief that an unseen and unnamed deity will provide a promised land for his descendants. Centuries later, the prophet Elijah attempts to rejuvenate faith in God after Israel has worshipped idols for decades. Like Noah and Abraham, Elijah develops a faith based on his ability to communicate directly with God.


Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The Covenant

God’s covenant with humankind incorporates both his promise to grant Abraham and Abraham’s descendants a promised land and the religious laws given to the Israelites. The covenant resembles ancient legal codes and treaties in which a lord or landowner specifies the conditions of a vassal’s service and vows to protect the vassal in return. The biblical covenant, however, represents not just a contractual agreement but also a passionate, tumultuous relationship between God and humanity. God’s covenant passes to Abraham’s descendants, unifying the lives of seemingly disparate people within a developing story. The biblical writers suggest that this story is not theirs but God’s—a means for God to show his purposes and his values to humankind by relating to one family.

The covenant is a unifying structure that allows the human characters to evaluate their lives as a series of symbolic experiences. At first, the signs of the covenant are physical and external. God relates to Abraham by commanding Abraham to perform the rite of circumcision and to kill his son, Isaac. In Exodus, God shows his commitment to the Israelites by miraculously separating the waters of the Red Sea and appearing in a pillar of fire. The religious laws are also symbols of the covenant. They represent customs and behavioral rules that unite the lives of the Israelites in a religious community devoted to God. Moses suggests that these laws are to become sacred words that the Israelites cherish in their hearts and minds (Deuteronomy 11:18). The covenant thus shapes the personal memories and the collective identity of the Israelites.

Doubles and Opposites

At the beginning of Genesis, God creates the world by dividing it into a system of doubles—the sun and the moon, light and dark, the land and the sea, and male and female. When Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, and when Cain kills his brother Abel, good and evil enter the world. From this point on, the Old Testament writers describe the world as a place of binary opposites, or sets of two basic opposing forces. These forces include positive and negative, good and bad, and lesser and greater. These distinctions characterize the ethics of the Israelites. The laws in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy outline the criteria for being ceremonially clean or unclean, and for choosing obedience over disobedience.

Biblical writers frequently challenge these distinctions. As twins with opposing traits, Jacob and Esau represent ideal character doubles. When Jacob steals Esau’s inheritance right, the younger son triumphs over the older son by dishonest, rather than honest, means. The reversal of fortune portrays God’s covenant with humankind as a preference for the unexpected over the conventional, as well as God’s willingness to accomplish his ends by imperfect means. The epic of Samson similarly blurs the line between weakness and strength. Samson, the icon of human strength, conquers the Philistines only after they bring him to his weakest by shaving his head and blinding him. Such stories question the human ability to tell the difference between good and bad.


The geography of the Old Testament determines the moral and religious well-being of the Hebrew people. The biblical authors circumscribe the spiritual story of Abraham and his descendants within a physical journey to and from the promised land. In a sense, the flow of the narrative can be summarized as a constant yearning for the promised land.

Displaced in Egypt, the Israelites grow in number without a religion or national identity. The journey with Moses to the promised land defines Israel’s religion, laws, and customs. In Joshua, Judges, and the first book of Samuel, Israel’s struggle to secure its borders mirrors its struggle to enjoy national unity and religious purity. David and Solomon’s kingdoms represent the height of Israel, for Israel establishes a religious center in Jerusalem and begins to expand its territory. The division of the nation into northern and southern kingdoms represents the fragmentation of the promised land and, by implication, of God’s promise to Israel. The ultimate exile into Assyria and Babylon denotes Israel’s religious estrangement from God.


Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The Fertile Ground

The fertility of the earth symbolizes the quality of life of those who inhabit it. The garden paradise of Adam and Eve represents the ideal abundant existence for humanity. When God pronounces his curse to Adam, he curses the ground, vowing that humans will have to toil to produce food from the earth. God similarly destroys the ground when he sends the great flood. After Noah and his family emerge from the ark, however, the moist and fertile earth symbolizes the renewal of human life. When Joshua investigates the promised land in Numbers, he praises the region as a fruitful land that “flows with milk and honey” (Numbers 13:27). Biblical poetry frequently uses the image of fertile ground as a metaphor for human flourishing. In the Song of Solomon, a verdant, overgrown garden symbolizes the sexual maturity of a young woman. In Psalm 23, the psalmist emphasizes the herding culture of the ancient Hebrew people, characterizing God’s peace as a shepherd who guides a sheep to green pastures.

The Ark of the Covenant

The Ark of the Covenant is Israel’s chief symbol of God. The Israelites fashion the golden vessel at Mount Sinai according to God’s instructions. The Ark contains a copy of the religious laws as well as a container of the heavenly food, manna. God’s spirit or presence is said to reside between the two angels on the lid of the Ark in a space called “the mercy seat.” The Ark’s power is immense. When the Israelites carry it into the battle at Jericho, it ensures victory. When it is mistreated, or dropped, or when it falls into the wrong hands, the Ark proves fatal to its handlers.

The Ark symbolizes the totality of all the symbols of God’s covenant with the Israelites—it even represents God himself. As such, the Ark’s location at each moment indicates Israel’s commitment to the covenant. When the Ark does not have a permanent home or resting place, Israel’s religious life remains disorganized. In the Book of Samuel, the Ark is actually stolen by the Philistines, representing a spiritual low-point for Israel. Israel’s treatment of the Ark is thus emblematic of their reverence for God.

Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs & Symbols Quiz

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Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs & Symbols Quiz



In each book of the Old Testament, the existence of human evil is ultimately illustrated to be the result of ___.
God’s anger
God’s neglect
Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs & Symbols Quiz

Themes, Motifs & Symbols QUIZ

Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs & Symbols Quiz

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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


38 out of 56 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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