Gideon’s Motif

This post first appeared on ‘More Than Writers’, the blog of the Association of Christian Writers.

There’s something odd in the biblical story of Gideon. Every time something important happens, a certain motif emerges.

It’s almost as if it is deliberate.

We meet Gideon as he is hiding under an oak tree in a narrow winepress, furtively and no doubt uncomfortably trying to thresh wheat out of sight of the invading forces. It is rather important to him that he isn’t found. Chaff is getting between his toes and the stalks are tickling his ankles.

This is the moment an angel appears and tells him that despite appearances, Gideon is a mighty warrior and God intends to use him to save Israel from the enemy.

Gideon is a little doubtful. He wants a sign and brings the visitor an offering: a goat and some hastily made bread.

A little later, having torn down his father’s false altar and received God’s Spirit, he summons some warriors and considers how he will know for sure that God is committed to saving Israel through him. He comes up with a plan and lays out the fleece of wool. Where? On the available threshing floor: the place wheat is usually smashed up to release the ears of grain. Twice he does this – once he asks that the fleece will be wet with dew in the morning while the rest of the area is dry. A second time he asks that the fleece will be dry and the threshing floor wet. Both nights God delivers.

Later, having laid off most of the volunteer army before the battle has even started, Gideon again fears how events will play out. By night he and a servant creep to the edges of the enemy camp and overhear a Midianite retelling his strange dream – a round barley loaf had tumbled into the camp and destroyed it. The enemy soldiers themselves interpret this as meaning that God has given Gideon victory. Cheered enormously, Gideon readies his men. They gather their trumpets, jars and torches and in one co-ordinated move wake the Midianites and cause no small panic.

In the ensuing chase from the camp, Gideon’s men are joined by others and he wins a massive victory. His men have worked hard, but now they are exhausted and hungry. Gideon asks for bread from the people of Succoth and Peniel. The detail matters as the locals are not inclined to help and there are nasty consequences.

This is not the entirety of the story of Gideon. For the rest, read Judges 6-8. There are some delicious details in there and some wonderful irony in the telling.

But it’s this motif that really gets me. This recurring idea of bread in various forms. Bread as life, as sacrifice, even as weapon. Gideon is associated with bread. It’s a clever little story-telling device, perhaps initially subconscious, later integrated into the story, tying parts together and drawing out other connections.

Sandwiched into the story (do humour me), using a motif is not as overt or overarching as a theme, but usually points towards it to help the reader see the purpose of the tale or its central message. The theme in Gideon’s tale could be: ‘God will save his people’. Looking at the detail of the barley loaf, ancient listeners might well have made the connection with Passover, which happens around the barley harvest. A feast of rescue, by God’s hand. Barley is also the cheaper grain, used by the common people and for animals. Did you know, barley flour does not contain much gluten and therefore is more likely to crumble than wheat? The tumbling round loaf in the dream would have crumbled as it hit the camp. This too would have gone through the ancient mind. It was cheap bread, not the noble wheat used for special occasions or people. Even tiny little Gideon could be used by God.

Another connection also makes a fascinating link. The only other times barley loaves are mentioned in the Bible are when Elisha feeds a hundred men with twenty barley loaves (2 Kings 4) and Jesus feeds five thousand plus with five small barley loaves and two small fish (John 6). Unexpected rescue, unexpected provision multiplied from something insignificant, unexpected saviour.

Is this motif idea something we can use in our own writing?

Finding motifs and symbols to lead to larger story themes is a great way of enriching a passage. In more recent literature you might consider how light and dark are used, or weather conditions or even colours. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby uses the colour green to great effect andChinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart plays on a motif of sacrifice. What motifs have you used or could you use?

We see the device elsewhere in Old Testament narratives too, and this enriches how we read.

Consider stones within the story of Jacob. If you just read his story, you’ll see the motif recurring. Stones are a powerful metaphor for God, so what is going on there?

What about spears? Which king of Israel do you associate with spears, and are they mentioned in ways which elevate him or reveal his true colours? *

Another motif you might spot in the book of Judges is fire. Which judge was associated with stories containing fire? *
(A clue for the original listeners to tie these together is in his name, which sounded like the word for the sun.)

The more you look, the more you see. And then you may start seeing connections with other passages, which sometimes throw a whole new light on how you read things.

The Bible truly is rich in narrative details. If you are interested in reading more on this fascinating topic I do recommend Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative, but if you are stuck for time, watch BibleProject’s Design Patterns in Biblical Narrative (6 minutes) for how word motifs carry across different texts.

And happy motif writing!

* The answers are King Saul and Samson. Do explore these characters in relation to the motifs and see whether you agree.

Bread and barley images from Pixabay

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