If you really want to delve into a book and get to grips with its message and the way that the message is communicated, there is no better way to do it than to identify the motifs and follow them as they weave through the text. A motif is an idea or unit of meaning (a concept, metaphor, or a component of the plot) that is repeated several times, sometimes in different forms, throughout the literary work and contributes to the meaning. It is possible to talk about two different kinds of motifs, the motif that appears within one piece of writing, and the motif that may repeat itself in multiple pieces of writing, possibly connecting the different texts but not necessarily. Each kind is used slightly differently, so in this article we will focus on the first kind: the motif within one work.
The thread in the tapestry
The motif is designed to help the reader to understand the message of the work. It is a kind of “repetition”. This repetition is not necessarily expressed with the same word. Different words, symbols, or descriptions can represent the motif throughout the same piece of writing, be that writing a poem or a book. An example of this is the motif of ‘the city’ in the book of Isaiah, that is expressed with different words (city, town), with different names (Zion, Jerusalem, Ariel), different metaphors (prostitute, mother), etc. This repetition may sometimes be simple but generally emphasizes aspects that relate to the same idea, and may include change and development through the work.
There are works in which there is a dominant motif or several motifs that come together in a prominent way. For example, in the book of Hosea there are two dominant motifs: the agricultural motif and the motif of ‘relationships’ (husband and wife, God and His people). In other works there can be a tapestry of motifs, in which case there is no prominent motif that stands out above the rest. A good example of this is in the book of Isaiah, in which many motifs come together and contribute to the meaning. Motifs such as ‘the city’, ‘relationships’, ‘the king’, ‘the servant’, ‘the hand of the Lord’, ‘the closing and opening of eyes and ears’, and more. In any case, to follow after one or multiple motifs can show us what the text is trying to express to us. Or one could say that the motif is like a thread in a tapestry. A first glance at the tapestry will only give a general impression, but if one finds the thread at one end and follows it through, much will be discovered about the texture of the tapestry. In this way, following the motif will show us a lot about the meaning and message of the work.
Finding the motif and following after it
As the reader, following the motif can be an adventure full of discovery. The first step is to identify that a certain idea repeats itself several times throughout the work. In order to do this, it is recommended to read over the work multiple times from beginning to end. From the first reading we should be able to see the general picture, but if one reads while asking the question, “are there things that repeat themselves?” then we should start to notice different elements that we might have already seen but not necessarily connected. When we take note of these different things, marking them either in written form or in thought, we will be prepared for further readings. In these further readings we can both check our initial thoughts about repeated elements whilst also noting additional elements that connect to them which we may not have seen in the first reading.
When we have identified the existence of a repeated motif, we can start to look deeper into two main aspects of the motif that are important for understanding it’s contribution to the work:
- The use of the motif in each situation that it appears.
- The general effect or message of the motif in the way it appears and develops throughout the whole of the work.
It is important to realize that the way to understand the general meaning of the motif (2) is to first dig deep into each situation in which the motif appears (1). In other words, the first stage for understanding the contribution of the motif to the general message of the work is to clarify the part that the motifs play each time they appear. Once we have done this, we will be able to look at the connection between those individual appearances and consider the development or change in the use of the motif throughout the work. This can enable us to understand the heart of the message.
There are a few questions that should help us in this process of discovering motifs, and to understand their place and importance in the work:
- What kind of connection is there between the first appearance of the motif and its last appearance?
- How often and where does the motif take place? – through the whole work, or emphasized only in a certain section of it?
- What are the different expressions of the motif? How, or even do, these expressions change throughout the work?
These questions are closely related to each other and do overlap, but each question has its importance and contribution to understanding deeply the usage, place, and importance of the motif in a certain work.
To demonstrate the importance of each of these questions, I will give an example for each one separately (even though this may feel artificial as the questions are deeply connected to each other):
1. What kind of connection is there between the first appearance of the motif and its last appearance?
The first question can direct us to important points of the message. An example of this is in the book of Isaiah. One of the most important motifs of the whole book is the motif of ‘the city’. When we check the kind of connection between the first appearance of this motif and the last appearance, we’ll find something very interesting. In chapter 1, the city appears for the first time, and is described as a city that was once faithful but has become a harlot (Is. 1:21). It is described there as a city that was full of justice but now murderers, and that its wealth has become worthless and its leaders rebellious and immoral (1:22-23). Opposed to this is the last appearance of the same motif, the city (that is now mentioned as Jerusalem) is turned into a place full of consolation, joy, and honor (66:10 and onwards). The position of the city has completely changed. The faithful city that had turned itself rebellious in the beginning of the book is found at the end of the book as the city that rebellion had made it, consoled and belonging to God. The first and last appearances of this motif display a complete reversal from one to the other end of the book. From here, the question is raised in the mind of the reader: “How did this reversal take place?” This question drives us to discover it’s answer in what we find between these two markers – in the body of the book.
2. How often and where does the motif take place? – Through the whole work? Or is it emphasized only in a certain section of it?
The second of these questions is important in order to find the boundaries in which the motif actively functions within the work. The emphasis is on the “active function” because there are also situations in which the motif may appear but not have an important role in the overall message of the work. An example of a motif which actively functions in the entire book is the motif of ‘the city’ in the book of Isaiah (as already mentioned). Another motif that actively functions throughout the entire book of Isaiah is the motif of ‘sons’. Like the motif of ‘the city’, the motif of ‘sons’ appears for the first time in Isaiah 1 (v.2-3) and for the last time in the last chapter (Is. 66:8-9). Similarly to the motif of ‘the city’, the relationship between the first and last appearances demonstrates a reversal. In chapter 1, it is written about sons whom God had raised but who had rebelled against Him. In chapter 66, the comforted Zion ‘gives birth’ to sons as a fulfillment of the good work that God had started. The boundaries in which these motifs are active include the entire book.
Two examples, also from the book of Isaiah, of motifs that appear especially in a certain part of the book, even though they play a role in the overall message of the book, are the motifs of ‘the king’ and of ‘the servant of the Lord’. The motif of ‘the king’ in the book of Isaiah includes three sides: God the king, the king from the house of David, and the kings of the nations. It is especially interesting to take note of the relationship between God the king and the king from the house of David. The motif appears for the first time in the declaration of the death of the king from the house of David (Uziah) in Is. 6:1. In the same chapter, the prophet sees God in His temple, and calls Him “the King” (v.5). A comparison and tension are created between the “king” who is flesh and blood, mortal, from David’s bloodline, and between God the “king”. There is an interesting relationship between the two from chapter 6 and onwards until the last mention of King David in chapter 39 (v.3). From there onwards, the character of the king from the house of David is not mentioned again. Here the focus turns to another character – the servant of the Lord. God names two specific people as “my servant” in chapters 20 and 22 (Isaiah in Is. 20:3, and Eliakim the son of Hilkiah in Is. 22:20), and David as “my servant” in chapter 37 (v.35), but the motif appears mainly between chapters 41 (v.8) and 53 (v.11) in which is the last appearance of the (singular) servant of the Lord. In these chapters it’s clear that the servant is identified with Israel and Jacob, however at times the servant is not necessarily Israel, and sometimes it is even clear that this servant is bringing Israel back, and therefore could not be Israel (Is. 49:6). In the continuation of the book, the singular (“my servant”) becomes plural (“my servants”). There is much food for thought here but one thing that stands out is in terms of the borders being defined in the book. In chapters 6-37 the emphasis is on the character of the king from the house of David, and in chapters 41-53 the emphasis is on the character of the servant of the Lord. It is even more interesting to see the correspondence of these characters in the overlapping chapters, for example in Is. 37:35 where David, the king, is called “my servant”. Not only this, but there are parallels between the descriptions of the two characters – “the king” and “the servant of the Lord”. They are both anointed with God’s Spirit, and both perform God’s will and judgement (Is. 11:1-5, 42:1-4). Therefore, as we are following these motifs, it is important to notice these details that connect the range of their appearance and the way that the different motifs are not identical but may overlap.
3. What are the different expressions of the motif? How (or do) these expressions change throughout the work?
Alongside the two previous questions it is important, as previously mentioned, to check the motif’s different expressions and the way that it changes or develops throughout the work, or the part of the work in which the motif appears. The objective of both questions is the same – to learn more about the way that the motif serves the message and its expression. For example, we can look at the motifs that were already mentioned beforehand. As I described earlier, the motif of ‘the king’ in the book of Isaiah includes three focuses: the king from the House of David, God the King, and the kings of the nations. In each one of these focuses we can identify a few other elements or emphases. In the framework of the “king from the House of David”, for example, we see how their weakness is referred to along with God’s displeasure with them (Is. 6:1, 7:13, 14:28, 39:3-7). However we also see God’s faithfulness to protect the king from the House of David (Is. 7:2-9) and to raise up, in the proper time, “a shoot” who would reign forever and renew all things (Is. 9:5-6, 11:1-10). This contrast between God’s displeasure with the kings from the house of David on the one hand, and the promise to the king from the house of David that will bring the future promise of peace to the world on the other hand, should raise an important question in the mind of the reader about the identity of said promised king. Furthermore, the relationship between both of these also fits into a wider picture of the comparison between man and what man does (even if the man is a king from the house of David) and between God and what God does (in His faithfulness to His promise to David). At this point, the element of “God the King” enters the picture and is emphasized (Is. 6:5, 24:23, 33:22, 41:21, 43:15, 44:6, 52:7). There is a tension in chapter 6 that is caused by the comparison between the mortal king from the house of David and the holy “king” whose glory fills the whole world. But surprisingly, there are some points of contact between the promise of a perfect king from the house of David and the declaration that God is the King. These points of contact are related to the ambivalence regarding the identity of the king (Is. 32:1, 33:17) or in a surprising intertwining (Is. 9:5-7, 11:10). If we take Isaiah 11 for instance, the character mentioned in Is. 11:1 as “a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse and a branch from his roots will bear fruit”, is mentioned in verse 10 as “the root of Jesse”. Therefore, we discover that the one who descended from Jesse (“a shoot/branch from his roots”) is at the same time “the root” – the one who gave life to Jesse! From all of this, the question rises again as to the identity of the promised king. The element that emphasizes that God is the King has an important connection to another element of this motif – the kings of the nations. This element also has some different nuances to it – God in His power will work through the kings of the nations (Is. 7:17, 8:17, 45:1-6), but also in the first part of the book of Isaiah, the pride of the kings is emphasized and then also their humbling by the hand of the Lord (Is. 7:5-6, 10:12, 14:4,11, 19:1-15, 24:21, 36:2-20), while in the last part of the book the kings of the nations will honor or serve the Lord, His servant, and His people (Is. 49:23, 60:3, 10-11, 16, 62:2). It seems, therefore, that what is said about the kings of the nations plays an important role in emphasizing the power of God the king and His promise to the king of the house of David.
An example from Psalms
These questions can help us, as mentioned, to identify the motif, to follow it within the same work and to start to understand its importance and its contribution to the message of the work.
Psalm 29 is a clear and simple illustration of the way that the motif works. For now we will look at some of the main motifs in the psalm.
A Psalm of David.
1 Ascribe to the Lord, O sons of the mighty,
Ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
2 Ascribe to the Lord the glory due to His name;
Worship the Lord in holy array.
3 The voice of the Lord is upon the waters;
The God of glory thunders,
The Lord is over many waters.
4 The voice of the Lord is powerful,
The voice of the Lord is majestic.
5 The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
Yes, the Lord breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon.
6 He makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
And Sirion like a young wild ox.
7 The voice of the Lord hews out flames of fire.
8 The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
The Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
9 The voice of the Lord makes the deer to calve
And strips the forests bare;
And in His temple everything says, “Glory!”
10 The Lord sat as King at the flood;
Yes, the Lord sits as King forever.
11 The Lord will give strength to His people;
The Lord will bless His people with peace.
The psalm is divided into three parts: an opening of two verses, each of which is made up of two versets, the main body of the psalm, and the ending, which is also made up of two verses, each of which is made up of two versets. It is immediately clear that the body of the psalm is built upon the repetition and emphasis of the motif of ‘the voice of the Lord’. The opening and the ending have between them a common motif of ‘the Lord’s sovereignty’ and His name appears once in each verset. However in the opening there is a call to the “sons of the mighty” to give to the Lord honor and to bow down to Him, while in the ending the Lord gives strength to “His people” and blesses them. The Psalm therefore goes from a recognition of God’s sovereignty and strength to the fact that He gives His strength to His people. The connection and change are emphasized by the repetition of the Lord’s name and of His strength (verses 1, 11).
Between the opening and the ending, the term “the voice of the Lord” is the backbone of the body of the Psalm which describes God’s strength as a storm. This motif expresses the subject of the opening and ending. Another motif also connects them – “the glory of the Lord”. This motif appears first in the opening, in the call “Ascribe to the Lord the glory due to His name” (v. 2). If we check where else this motif is to be found, then it is found in the beginning of the body of the Psalm: “The God of glory thunders” (v. 3) and in the closing words of the body of the Psalm: “And in His temple everything says, ‘Glory!’” (v. 9). The motif of “glory” therefore opens and closes the body of the Psalm and connects it to the opening. So, the three motifs that we found (“God’s sovereignty and strength” in the opening and ending, “the voice of the Lord” representing his strength, and “the glory of the Lord”) define together the main direction of the Psalm and fit together in a way that presents a clear and strong message.
Observing the motifs is an important tool to be utilized in order to delve into the internal “fabric” of the work to make clear it’s meaning. With this, it is important to understand that this is one tool in our “toolbox” of literary tools to help us as the readers to understand how to hear what the text wants to say to us. The work’s structure is also important, as are repetitions of other sorts. If we, as readers, are sensitive to the different motifs, together with the other literary elements, we will be able to hear the heart of the message of the text.