Biblical Motifs

When you listen to a symphony, orchestra, or musical, you’ll notice sequences of notes that are repeated throughout the work. This is known as a motif and is used to remind the audience of specific themes while weaving the music together. The Bible is filled with motifs, more commonly known as “Biblical Design Patterns,” to link stories and images together. Check out these three motifs and begin discovering them for yourself! For a more in-depth study, check out this resource from The Bible Project.

Motif #1 – The Well Betrothal

*Read Genesis 24:1-11.

At this point in the story, a few things are happening:

  1. Man sent to find wife.
  2. In a foreign land.
  3. Arrives at a well.

*Now read the rest of chapter 24.

If we add what happens after verse 11, it’d look like this:

  1. Man sent to find wife.
  2. In a foreign land.
  3. Arrives at a well.
  4. Animals need/receive water.
  5. Woman comes for water
  6. Man asks for water.
  7. Woman gives water.
  8. Woman tells family.
  9. Man invited over.
  10. Marriage.

Without realizing it, we’ve just been introduced to a Biblical motif (a.k.a. Design Pattern)! If you were to keep reading Genesis, eventually, you’d get to chapter 28. 

*Read Genesis 28:1-5, and then Genesis 29:1-2.

Do you see the motif unfolding? So far:

  1. Jacob sent to find wife.
  2. In a foreign land.
  3. Arrives at a well.

*Now read the rest of verses 3-14 and compare our original list to what happens with Jacob.

The story continues with some family drama, but eventually, Jacob marries Rachel. With a few notable differences, the motif unfolds almost exactly the same as it’s first occurrence in Genesis 24! If you kept reading the story, eventually you’d meet a man named Moses. 

*Read Exodus 2:11-15. 

Unlike the previous two characters, Moses isn’t intentionally looking for a wife. But he is in a foreign land and arrives at a well. Let’s see what happens next.

*Read Exodus 2:16-21.

Once again, if you compare this story with the motif it’s almost exactly the same. The Biblical authors have closely tied the image of a well with marriage. This is even used as a metaphor in Proverbs:

“Drink water from your own cistern, running water from your own well.” – Proverbs 5:15

“for an adulterous woman is a deep pit, and a wayward wife is a narrow well.” – Proverbs 23:27

Here the author warns the reader to enjoy the spouse God has given to them as if drinking from a well. He then links the sin of adultery with drinking from other wells.

*Now take everything we’ve learned and read John 4:4-30, 39-42.

How does this story compare to the motif? How does this story tie in the verses from Proverbs?

Even though this story may not end with a physical marriage, it does end with many people trusting in Jesus. Later, in Ephesians 5:22-27, and Revelation 19:7-9, this family of believers (a.k.a. the “church”) is called the bride of Christ. Indeed, this story, and our motif, finds its completion in many people being united to Christ just as a husband is joined to his wife.


The Bible is filled with motifs, more commonly known as “Biblical Design Patterns,” to link stories and images together.

Motif #2  – The Man of Water

Unlike the previous motif, some motifs don’t span many characters over many books of the Bible. Instead, some are only tied to one person or one narrative. Many motifs are also linked through a repeated word or image. Take Moses for example:

*Read Exodus 2:1-10.

Names are really important in the Bible, and in some cases, reveal a motif that will develop throughout a character’s life. Moses is drawn “out of the water” and “water” will continue to show up in his story. 

We’ve already read about Moses at the well drawing “water” for the flocks of his future father in law, but check out these other important moments:

*Read Exodus 7:14-24 (water into blood).

*Read Exodus 14:10-31 (dividing the waters).

*Read Exodus 15:22-27 (waters of Marah and Elim).

*Read Exodus 17:1-7 (water from the rock).

Towards the end of Moses’ story, his greatest moment of failure involves water and ultimately gets him banished from the Promised Land:

*Read Numbers 20:1-13 (striking the rock).

Now, can you think of moments in Jesus life that resemble any of these events? How about the “dividing” of the Red Sea:

*Read Mark 1:9-13.

At the baptism of Jesus, as he comes out of the waters, the heavens are “torn open” and the Spirit descends just as Moses divided the sea and the people passed through. In fact, the Greek translation of the Old Testament (called the Septuagint) uses the word “schizō” in Mark 1:10 for “torn open” and “divided” in Exodus 14:21. It’s the same!

Also, just as Moses strikes a rock and water flows out (Numbers 20:11) Jesus, the “rock” of salvation (Psalm 95:1) is struck on the cross where blood and water flow out of him (John 19:34).

Motif #3  – Time to “Subside”

Throughout the book of Numbers, the Israelites complain (or “grumble”) about their circumstances to God. This eventually reaches a boiling point when a priest named Korah challenges the authority of Moses and Aaron. God gets rid of Korah and comes up with a test to establish once and for all who is in charge of the priests:

*Read Numbers 17:1-5.

You probably wouldn’t pick up on this in English translations, but there’s a motif embedded in this story. At the end of verse five, God says, “and I will rid myself of this constant grumbling” (NIV translation). But in Hebrew, the language this was originally written in, God uses the word šāḵaḵ (pronounced shaw-kak’) which means “to subside.” God will cause the grumblings to subside as a result of this stave experiment. 

[bctt tweet=”The word of God is more intricate than we’ve dared to imagine.” username=”kokomaha”]

But there’s another biblical story where this same language is used:

*Read Genesis 8:1-11.

After the waters of the flood had risen for 40 days and 40 nights, God causes the water to recede. And guess what word is used in Hebrew for “recede”? You guessed it: šāḵaḵ = “subside.”

The author of Numbers is using a motif to make a point. Just as the flood waters rose up and God caused them to subside, so too will he cause the complaining of the Israelites to subside.

But it gets better.

*Read Numbers 17:6-10.

What was the symbol of God causing their grumbling to subside? A budding/sprouting/blossoming wooden staff.

What was the symbol of God causing the flood waters to subside? A bud/leaf from an olive branch.

The word of God is more intricate than we’ve dared to imagine.