Jamie Haffner



Reading the Bible as Literature: An Introduction. Jeanie C. Crain. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010. 22-42.


Chapter 7 of “Reading the Bible as Literature: An Introduction” tackles the complex topic of themes and motifs in the Bible.


Dr. Crain begins the discussion of Biblical themes by clarifying her purpose. She acknowledges the difficulties of distinguishing between theological and literary ideas in the Bible and the controversy of studying Biblical themes. The object of identifying themes is not to water down the Bible to solely a classification of thematic patterns, but to organize literary and theological trends throughout both the New and Old Testaments that unify the Bible as a whole (p. 129).  


Dr. Crain then clarifies the definitions of ambiguous words used in thematic analysis. Most notably is the difference between theme and motif, which is defined as a difference of degree. Motif is a more concrete idea of recurrent patterns, while theme is more abstract, dealing with ideas and can be described as “the main emotional, analytic, and perceptive core of a text” (p. 130).


The debates about thematic analysis involve whether focus should be on the text or on the historical and social connections of the time. Many have argued whether theme actually exists in the text, the reader, or the culture of the writing. The definition of where themes exist could influence the interpretation of the text. Some dangers of thematic analysis include the possibility of misinterpretation based on reader bias or cultural differences, overlooking important details, and premature isolation of the main point (p. 131).


After solidifying the prior knowledge base, Dr. Crain delves into the examples of theme and motif in the Bible. There are ten main Biblical themes discussed in this chapter: relationship to God and with other human beings, the Shema, relationship based on promise and obligation, Noahic Covenant, Abrahamic Covenant, Mosaic Covenant, Davidic Covenant, God’s mercy, God’s justice, and the heroic quest (p. 132)


The first two themes are identified as the relationship of humans to God and of humans with other humans as described in the Decalogue and the Shema. The obtainment of the Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments, is presented twice in the Old Testament with only minor variations. The Ten Commandments can be categorized as proscriptions against crimes against God and crimes against society (p. 133). These appear repeatedly throughout the text. Many parables and stories in the Bible surround people who are given the choice to either uphold or break these laws. In the New Testament, Jesus discusses the Ten Commandments and interprets them to address not only physical actions, but also thoughts and intents. The Shema, a profession of faith in God, is a prominent Biblical theme. The Shema focuses on the oneness of God, which is apparent in the Pentateuch and transferred through the New Testament. The Shema unifies the text before and after the Decalogue in a focus on the responsibility to teach future generations (p. 137).


The next five themes involve the repetition of covenants between God and humans. Covenants based on promise and obligation, as well as covenants of grant are repeated themes throughout the Bible. The Noahic Covenant presents the theme of humans following through with the stipulations of the covenant and God rewarding those actions. The Abrahamic Covenant emphasizes the everlasting promise of God and presents the motif of the “barren” wife and circumcision (p.140). The Mosaic Covenant emphasizes God’s grace and the “continuity in the life cycles” (p. 140). This presents Israel’s history as either a cycle of deliverances or a cycle of punishments, depending upon one’s perspective. The Davidic Covenant establishes God’s promise to forever keep David’s descendents on the throne of Israel, which is interpreted in the New Testament to be fulfilled in Jesus.


God’s mercy and God’s justice are also prominent themes in the Bible. God’s mercy is showcased again and again through his unconditional love. A related theme is also of the petition for people to reciprocate with love for God based on serving and obedience. God’s justice is also an apparent theme that creates strain with the descriptions of God’s mercy. God’s justice appears when Israel breaks the stipulations of the covenant or when individual people are disobedient. Throughout the Bible this tension between God’s mercy and his justice is a unifying theme (p. 145).


The final major theme discussed in this chapter is the heroic quest. The heroic quests of the Bible follow sequences of other literature involving a separation, initiation, and return. The hero quests present other themes of expulsion from an ideal home, wandering, journeys, and of first-born rejection. The heroic quests and the themes they encompass are great unifying themes across the whole Bible.


Chapter 7 is an excellently survey of the major themes and motifs of the Bible. Dr. Crain prefaces the chapter with a clarification of her purpose to compliment Biblical study and discourage the overgeneralization of categorization. She follows with concrete definitions and an analysis of the opposition to and traditional interpretations of thematic analysis. This supports her viewpoints while acknowledging other perspectives that exist.


The ten themes chosen were of significant importance and their repetition can be easily identified throughout the Bible. I found the themes of the Decalogue, the Shema, and the heroic quests to be some of the most prominent themes and also the most helpful in seeing the Bible as a unified whole. The descriptions of the covenant themes were slightly unclear. I had difficulty identifying the major themes presented by each covenant, but with some digging I was able to uncover their contributions.


Overall, this chapter is very useful for gaining insight into the important themes and motifs of the Bible. The concepts were prefaced with important background knowledge necessary for understanding thematic analysis. Each of the ten themes discussed was prominent and unifying to the Bible as a whole and was amply supported with details and references to the Bible. This chapter was an excellent conclusion to “Reading the Bible as Literature: An Introduction” because of the correlations that were made between Biblical themes and literature, as well as the thematic analysis that encourages a unified view of the Bible.