From:  Petersen, David L.  “A Thrice-Told Tale: Genre, Theme, and Motif.”  Biblical Research 18 (1973): 30-43.

Please note that most of the italicized words below are English transliterations of the Hebrew words, some of which I've translated; the bold hot-link numbers in parenthesis are links to endnotes (click on the number to jump to the endnote page); and the numbers in red brackets refer to the upcoming page number of the article.  The latter will help for citation purposes. 


A Thrice-Told Tale: Genre, Theme, and Motif
by David L. Petersen

[30]    Genesis chapters 12, 20, and 26 have long served as whetstones on which various techniques of higher criticism have been sharpened (1). Hence it seems altogether appropriate that new modes of biblical interpretation be exercised on such belabored texts to find if something new may yet be said. The purpose of this study is twofold: (1) to revise our concept of genre classification, and (2) to argue that the interpreter should use the categories of theme and motif as aids to the understanding of these texts.
        Form-critics have asked two questions of our texts: how do we characterize the genre of the narratives, and what was the genre's original setting in life? Gunkel and Koch represent this position. According to Gunkel's analysis, Gen. 12 was a saga; 20, a legend; and 26, a narrative without obvious form-critical characteristics. Gen. 12 was a saga because it appeared ancient and profane as well as being a short piece; whereas 20 was a legend because it was longer. and concentrated on things religious-as Gunkel put it, "it extols only God and his help (2)." For Gunkel, these categories of saga and legend represented a natural development in a community's literary production, saga an earlier, legend a later form.
        Koch begins his consideration of these texts with the rather puzzling assertion, "obviously all three are of the same type (3)." But he [31] modifies his position by arguing, with regard to Gen. 20, that "the saga
has now become a legend about the prophets" (4). Basing his analysis on the Geistesbeschaftigung theory of Andre Jolles, Koch proceeds to argue that the saga reflects a familial-nomadic society whereas the
legend represents a national or settled milieu (5).
        When Gunkel, and even more Koch, begin to talk about the texts as saga or legend, they end up talking about the distinctions in the types of communities which produced the literature rather than talking about the literature itself. For example, arguing that the saga represents the style characteristic of a nomadic life, as opposed to legend, that of the monarchic period, Koch offers the following statement about the meaning of our texts: they relate the contrast between the hardy Israelites and "the soft lascivious people of the land (6)." His interpretation is based less on the narrative than on a deduction about what communities who wrote or told sagas would probably intend to communicate. One wonders how valuable these categories then become in talking about the meaning of specific texts.
        Such form-critical work is indicative of the problems biblical scholarship is having with the classification of prose narrative texts. Perhaps the most important problem centers on the clarity and utility of terms like saga and legend. C. A. Keller and Ron Hals have convincingly argued that these categories are less than fully useful tools for clarifying Israelite tales (7). I agree and contend that we need to rethink carefully the conceptual basis of prose narrative form-critical procedure.
        It is time to admit that we have been most successful in doing form-criticism when we could isolate structural characteristics of the genre and posit a very concrete setting in life for that genre. For example, [32] the lawsuits of condemnation and warning have both a discernible articulated structure and a specific setting - international legal proceedings (8). The same specificity in structure and setting in life may be observed in the hymn, the lament, the covenant, and the proverb. Each of these genres has definitive characteristics, characteristics determined by the function it fulfilled in a particular social institution. The genre itself constituted a mode of the institution's performance (9).
        Problems arise when, as with many tetrateuchal narratives, we have been unable to discern the definitive characteristics of a genre type or unable to discover a setting in life, For example, Gunkel and Koch have appealed to the story-telling institution of the nomadic society as the particular setting in life for the wife-sister tales (10). That such societies had an oral literature is obvious. But when one compares the wife-sister episodes with putative Late Bronze epic-like material, e.g. the Song of Deborah, one is hard pressed to discover significant formal similarities. Simply stated, the wife-sister texts do not now constitute the product or immediate residue of the oral storytelling institution (11).
        Gunkel and Koch are quite correct in viewing these texts as lineal descendants of the story-telling institution. And that very fact creates a particular problem for the form-critic. The problem in classifying prose narrative texts results from our failure to observe a fundamental distinction between the sorts of social institutions creating, preserving, and revising genres. Those genres which we have most easily defined are derivative of the cult, the school, and the law court. Those texts [33] which present us with the greatest problems of classification represent the story-teller and his descendant, the literary institution.
        Written and oral genres constitute the performance of numerous social institutions. Just as various institutions have different goals and functions, so too, the texts which are produced by the institutions are different in aim and function. Non-literary institutions function to administer justice, to further analysis, to convince a person, while the literary institution has as its primary aim the assemblage of language in a pleasing and artful fashion (12). The purpose of the literary institution is different in kind from that of non-literary institutions which also produce texts.
        This essential distinction in a social institution's constitutive performance must be reflected in our analysis of the genre produced by such institutions. I will argue that genre labels for the texts from the literary institution yield less about the meaning of a text than do labels for texts from non-literary institutions. For example, if I am told that a text is a treaty between Judah and Assyria, the genre label describes the essential meaning of the text. The text inaugurates or confirms an international suzerain-vassal relationship. If, on the other hand, I am told that a text is an episode in a saga about Abraham, I am less sure about the episode's essential meaning. The genre label "saga" tells me less about a specific saga than does the genre label "treaty" for a particular treaty.
        To work with the wife-sister texts, we must revise our form-critical theory to take account of texts which are products of the literary institution or something very much like it (13). A genre label for such texts functions as a preliminary label requiring immediate revision. Such labels do not explain how the genre works as literature. We must conceive of these genre labels as heuristic devices - ways of helping us to meet the author - and then we must be ready to move beyond the genre label once we have begun to interpret the text.
        The genre label is a preliminary hermeneutical tool which helps us narrow down our meaning expectations to those which might have [34] been expressed by the author. To use Hirsch's example, calling Paradise Lost a Christian-humanist epic is a 'preliminary exercise -- classification by means of a genre label. One must then search for the intrinsic genre-"that sense of the whole by means of which an interpreter can correctly understand any part in its determinacy (14)." As such, the intrinsic genre of a text is not liable to simple labels or formcritical rubrics. Once we study the text and discover its particular meaning, its intrinsic genre, to say Paradise Lost is a Christian-humanist epic would be an inadequate statement about its genre. The label would serve only as a preliminary guide for yet another reader.
        I propose to label Gen. 12, 20, and 26 as episodes in the patriarchal saga (15). That would be enough of a limitation to keep us from thinking that these tales are prophetic biographies or cosmogonic myths. But the task of interpretation as the search for determinacy in meaning remains. As Hirsch puts it, one could reasonably call Byron's Don Juan an epic, but the interpreter or the historian has done very little when he calls Don Juan an epic (16)." So too we have done very little in labeling the wife-sister texts as epic or saga.
        Moving beyond the preliminary genre label of the patriarchal narratives, I now will attempt to discern the intrinsic genre of the individual wife-sister texts (17). Syntax provides the best clue about the limitations of the episodes. Gen. 12:10 begins the tale and also commences with an initial disjunctive clause, "When there was famine in the land . . . ." Clearly this clause initiates the Yahwist's first rendition of the tale. The narrative proceeds up through 13 :l because (1) Gen. 13:2 is yet another initial disjunctive clause; (2) 13:1 includes the phrase hu' we' ishto (he and his wife) which is central to the tale; and (3) the travel agenda is necessary to deposit Abraham back in the Negeb.
        With the Elohistic account in Gen. 20, such distinctions are more problematic. One might, with Noth, regard 20:1a as J and 20:1b as E, or preferably, both as E (18). Whichever option one adopts, it is clear Luke [35] that the author is identifying Abraham as dwelling in a new place, Gerar, instead of Mamre in 18:1, or Beersheba, the usual locus of Abrahamic traditions (19). The episode ends with the last verse of chapter 20.
        Though more syntactically complex than 12:10, Gen. 26:1 is also an initial disjunctive clause serving to introduce the Isaac-Abimelech incident. I am unable to designate a clear terminus to the tale which begins in 26:1. The wife-sister motif has been assimilated into a series of incidents concerning Isaac's sojourn in Gerar - a series which continues through Gen. 26:16 when Isaac moves to the valley of Gerar. On the basis of the other tales, we expect some mention of the patriarch accumulating wealth; and we do find that feature in 26:12-14. Hence I include vv. 12-16 as a part of the narrative since it functions as a development of Abimelech's apodictic protection of Isaac.
        To proceed I shall be consciously text-bookish in defining motif and theme. Lack of precision in using these terms has hindered otherwise important studies (20). Thrall and Hibbard define motif as a "simple element which serves as a basis for expanded narrative, or less strictly, a conventional situation, device, interest, or incident employed in folklore, fiction, or drama (21)." The musical arts offer a helpful analogy. The recurrent motif in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is comprised of smaller discernible units. But the motif itself is a building block out of which a larger work is constructed.
        A problem central to this study is, what constitutes the wife-sister motif? May it simply be described as mistaken identity? I contend that a motif implies an incipient plot just as Beethoven's musical motif represents a basic melodic pattern. Thrall's and Hibbard's example of a motif is the fairy music motif in the Elfin Knight: the sound of the knight's horn causes the maiden to fall in love with the unseen hero. Likewise the wife-sister motif implies more than just calling someone's wife his sister. One may identify the following features inherent in the patriarchal wife-sister motif: (1) travel to a place in which the husband and wife are unknown (if such travel were not present, the ruse could not be undertaken) ; (2) a claim that the man's wife is his sister; (3) discovery of the ruse; (4) resolution of the [36] situation created by the false identity. The motif comprises more than just its label.
        How is this motif used in the biblical texts? To address this question, I shall utilize the concept of theme. Again appealing to Thrall and Hibbard, I define theme as "the central or dominating idea in a literary work . . . the abstract concept which is made concrete through its representation in person, action, and image in the work (22)."
        Using these categories, I will begin with the Yahwistic tale in Gen. 12. The author's setting the story in Egypt is itself of great importance. Only in this version is Egypt the scene of action and is wealth acquired prior to the discovery of the ruse. Acquiring wealth is part and parcel of being in Egypt. The patriarchs are recorded as viewing Egypt as a source of aid in times of trouble, e.g. Gen. 26 : 2 ; 42 :1-2. But Egypt was also a land of problems; Abraham lost his wife. The analogy with the sojourn of Israel in Egypt is too obvious to require explication. Hence the setting in Egypt interjects an ambiguous tone to the story.
        Of our four dramatis personae, only two are allowed speeches. In the first speech, we hear Abraham's plan to protect himself from the repercussions of Sarah's beauty. The patriarch is presented as shrewd planner, out to save his hide. In order to accomplish this self-preservation, Sarah is directed to respond to queries about their relationship by saying, "He is my brother." With this directive, the narrative picks up speed. The couple enter Egypt; the Egyptians note her beauty, just as Abraham had predicted, and praise her manifest charms to Pharaoh. And then, in contrast to the full description of Abraham's planning and the entry into Egypt, the narrator summarizes very succinctly the events which follow, "and the woman was taken into Pharaoh's house." We hear nothing of Abraham's reaction. Was this development a part of his plan - having his wife end up as part of Pharaoh's retinue? Here much is left unsaid. There are no parting words or glances. The neutral and colorless language of the narrator is in obvious, contrast to the presumed emotions of the actors: Sarah's dismay, Pharaoh's pleasure, and Abraham's conflicting feelings. The narrator emphasizes this neutrality by using the term ha'isha, v. 15, "the woman," to denote Sarah who had before been, 'isto, v. 11, "his wife." Abraham himself had provided the possibility for such neutrality [37] in his planning when he told Sarah she was an 'isha yepat mar'eh v. 11, a good-looking woman (23).
        In his flat description of the events, the writer has suggested that Sarah was taken fully into Pharaoh's house. Pharaoh knew Sarah. This development suggests that Abraham had lost control of his plan. It had worked only too well. The sagacious patriarch preserved himself only to lose his wife to another man.
        Almost as an addendum, the author comments that Abraham did indeed profit from the arrangement. He had sheep, oxen, he-asses, men-servants, maid-servants, she-asses, and camels. The prolixity
of the list is in obvious contrast to the one thing Abraham was now missing, the one thing that the Yahwist accounted to be the pinnacle of the created order, woman as wife. Here again the author's style has been circumlocutory, to emphasize the lack of a wife by offering a list of other possessions.
        Such is the end of Abraham's plan. His life had been saved, it had gone well with him, and Sarah was now treated as someone other than his wife.
        For the Yahwist, this was an impossible state of affairs. Therefore the narrative switches from a history under the control of Abraham's plan, 12:10-16, to a history under the control of Yahweh's plan, vv. 17-20. Yahweh takes the initiative by plaguing Pharaoh because of Sarah, Abraham's wife. From Yahweh's and the Yahwist's perspective, Sarah had not become Pharaoh's wife or even "the woman." She was still Abraham's wife.
        Again, what the narrator does not tell us is extraordinary. We never hear how Pharaoh discovered the ruse - whether it was from his diviners, an accidental discovery, or a message from Yahweh. Whatever the method, the Yahwist was not interested. Yahweh acted and Pharaoh knew what it meant.
        As a consequence of Yahweh's action, we have our second dialogue which is really another monologue. Abraham stands before Pharaoh as Sarah had stood before Abraham. Forthwith Pharaoh riddles him with three questions and a summary judgment. Pharaoh knows who is responsible. Sarah is not accused; rather Abraham is culpable. Why did you? Here Abraham stands alone, in contrast [38]
both to Yahweh's plans and to Pharaoh's understanding of proper behavior. And Abraham does not respond. For the writer, Abraham's plan had no legitimate excuse. Hence with two short imperatives, Pharaoh ends the scene - qah walek v. 19. "Take and go." His underlings execute the orders. 
        Abraham leaves with both wife and possessions in hand. No longer an active agent, he is ordered about. Pharaoh dispenses, and administrators scud him on his way. Here again the Yahwist is laconic. When did Yahweh stop afflicting Pharaoh? How did Abraham and Sarah feel about their reunion? We are not told. Rather the picture is of Abraham being set on a burro along with everything that he had accumulated and pointed toward the Negeb. Only in the travel narrative, Gen. 13:1, does Abraham assume control again, "Abraham went up, he and his wife (24)."
        What may now be said about the thematic usage of the wife-sister motif ? The theme may be encapsulated as "the divergence between Yahweh's and man's plans." This narrative comprises two phases, one of which depicts the working out of Abraham's plan, and the other, the working out of Yahweh's plan. In both plans, Abraham got wealth. In only one did he keep his wife. Man's having a wife is again, as in the Yahwistic creation narratives, the direct result of Yahweh's action.
        Moving ahead to Gen. 20, we find the motif used in a different setting. In this second telling, Abraham and Sarah become involved with Abimelech and Elohim. Once the travel itinerary has set the geographical setting in Gerar, this author plunges into his version of the wife-sister motif. The immediate contrast with the cool, calculating Abraham of Genesis 12 could not be more apparent. With no apparent forethought, he blurts out about Sarah, "She is my sister." Forthwith Sarah becomes part of Abimelech's harem. What took the Yahwishtic writer six verses to describe, the Elohist has summarily depicted in two short sentences. Even with the stop in action represented by the dream dialogue, the writer reveals the ruse - the false identity - in the third verse of his narrative. By the end of v. 3, the wife-sister motif has been all but exhausted; only the resolution remains.
        The dream dialogue serves two functions. It occurs at a very [39] propitious place in the chain of events. Abimelech had taken Sarah for his own. Were the night to pass without intervention, Sarah would have been Abimelech's wife in more than just name. Hence, the dream, so common to the Elohistic narratives, does more than serve as a characteristic mode of communication. It has a virtual deus-ex-machina function.
        The dream episode also allows the author to introduce one of his major themes. Abimelech protests his innocence - he does not deny having taken the woman but instead argues that he acted in good faith. Elohim is not overly impressed by the argument. For the writer the issue is sinning against Elohim. Even though Abimelech had acted in good ,faith and had been misled by both Abraham and Sarah, had he touched Sarah, it would have been a sin against Elohim. Intention is not the dominant concern here. The sin is apparently in the action. But because of Abimelech's apparent innocence, Elohim did not let him touch Sarah. With an admonition to restore the man's wife because he is a prophet and will intercede for Abimelech, the dream dialogue comes to an end. The dream opens and closes with Abimelech being threatened with death.
        With the morning, and with Abimelech's servants now every bit as afraid as Abimelech must have been, the writer introduces the second dialogue, this time between Abimelech and Abraham. Abimelech questions Abraham, berating him for creating this precarious situation. In these prolix speeches, the participants are twice introduced, vv. 9a and 10a. Abimelech continues to repeat himself. And it is within these speeches that we first discover that Elohim has done more than just appear to Abimelech in a dream. "A great sin" has been brought against Abimelech's kingdom. What this great sin is, we are not yet told. We do know Abimelech was not guilty in Elohim's eyes.
        In Abraham's response (vv. 11-13 ) we find that Abraham, too, was not guilty. He replies that he did, after all, have a motive behind the verbal ejaculation in v. 2. The reason is "surely there is no fear of Elohim in this place and they will kill me because of my wife." At this point in the explanation, Abraham is culpable. The use of raq (only) demonstrates the contrast between Abraham's expectations and the fact that Elohim was indeed feared by Abimelech and his servants. Abraham has underestimated the scope of Elohim's influence and power.
        But imbedded in Abraham's primary rationale, we learn that [40] Sarah is indeed his sister (20:12). Just as Abimelech had protested his innocence to Elohim, Abraham now protests his innocence to Abimelech, his claim was not in fact a lie. These two explanations end the confrontation.
        After the protestations of innocence by Abimelech and Abraham, the resolution begins. Abimelech gives Abraham gifts, free choice of land in which to dwell, and, on behalf of Sarah, one thousand pieces of silver. More important than the quantitative response of Abimelech is the tone of his reply. "Behold, I have given your brother one thousand pieces of silver," v. 16. Abimelech reverts to the nomenclature with which the episode began and which Abraham had defended as entirely correct. Even with the payment and the promise of land rights, the issue of who is right and who is wrong, who was the ultimate perpetrator of the sin, is left sardonically ambiguous.
        To fulfill the promise of Yahweh in v. 7, Abraham intercedes for Abimelech. And it is here, in retrospect, that we first learn that Abimelech had in some way been afflicted along with the more general plague of closed wombs. So ends the story.
        One narrative technique is here used with great effectiveness, the flash-back. In the first case, the author allows the action to proceed apace in v. 2. Abraham says Sarah is his sister but offers no reason for the statement. Then in vv. 11-13 we are presented with the rationale behind the statement. This technique allows the author to unfold the plot immediately so that he may concentrate on an issue beyond the simple narrative structure.
        I think we may point to two themes in Gen. 20, one secondary and the other primary. First, I will term the secondary theme the "dialectic of sin." The writer was faced with the fact of an Elohim-caused plague. And since Elohim did not act capriciously, someone must have acted so as to bring on the plague. The first apparent culprit is Abimelech, but he is cleared by Elohim of having acted sinfully. In fact, Elohim kept him from sinning. Abraham too is given an "out" by the writer - Sarah was indeed his sister. Hence any charge of prevarication is illegitimate. The only person left is Sarah, who could hardly be accused of perpetrating the plan (25). No one could be singled out as guilty, and yet it is quite clear that Elohim had been seriously affronted. Thus is the dialectic of sin.'
[41]   The primary theme, I would call "the fear of Elohim." This theme is, as Wolff has most recently shown, a keystone to the entire Elohistic enterprise (26). In our text, the theme receives two unusual twists. The patriarch is depicted as one who does not believe that there is fear of Elohim outside the Israelite community, while it is the king, the foreigner, who matter-of-factly acknowledges Elohim's authority. Secondly, as a demonstration of the theme, it is very unusual for a non-Israelite to receive a message dream. According to Oppenheim's analysis, the symbolic dream is most often accorded to non-Israelites whereas the message dream is reserved for the Israelite (27). Both these twists, the patriarch doubting Elohim's dominion and the foreign king receiving a message dream, suggest that the writer was intent on demonstrating the fear of Elohim with an almost sardonic tone.
        The final exemplar of the wife-sister motif appears in Genesis 26. Just as the author of Gen. 20 wanted us to know that he was aware of the previous use of the motif (v. 13, "at every place to which we come"), so the Yahwist in 26:1 also alludes to the former famine in the time of Abraham (26:1, "besides the former famine"). By such an allusion the reader immediately understands that one is to leave the land under conditions of famine. Here follows a speech which sticks out like a prolix sore thumb. It does indeed include a retelling of the patriarchal promise replete with late royal connotations (28). But its introduction is important, for the speech starts this episode off in a different direction from that of the other Yahwistic version. The writer of this speech was aware that Abraham had gone down to Egypt and wanted to distinguish sharply this episode from Gen. 12.
        The narrative using the motif is exceedingly brief. When asked about his wife, Isaac responds, "She is my sister." Following this statement, we immediately receive the justification for his action. Isaac could think quickly on his feet. The writer then chooses to point out that the action had no dire consequences - either for the patriarchal couple or for those in the land. "After along time," the ruse is whimsically revealed. Abirnelech happens to look out of a window and to see Isaac fondling his wife. The word play, v. 8, yishaq mesaheq (Issac was "playing with/fondling") suggests the fortuitous character of the revelation.
[42]    What follows is an almost perfunctory dialogue between Isaac and Abimelech. Isaac defends his action as necessary and Abimelech reproves Isaac for the potential dangers of the situation he created. But the language is conditional, "it would have been easy . . . ; you would have brought guilt . . . ." Nothing really happened.
        In this light, what follows seems a bit out of character. Abimelech apodictically protects the position of Isaac and his wife. We might have expected a curse. But the neutral language, "this man and his wife," is used to protect the patriarchal couple. Whereas in Gen. 12 such language characterized the nature of the sin, this language is protection in the form of a threat of death to the Gerar population. Just as Elohim warned Abimelech of his death, mot tamut/you shall surely die (Gen. 20:7), here Abimelech states to his countrymen the penalty for touching either Isaac or Rebekkah, mot yumat/he shall surely die.  The death penalty which was used in Gen. 20 to restore Abraham to his wife becomes in Gen. 26 the means by which Isaac and Rebekkah achieve special status among the Gerarites. This apodictic statement by Abimelech I take to be the climax of the episode. For it is on the basis of this threat that Isaac then sows, reaps, is blessed by Yahweh with riches, is envied by the Gerarites for his wealth, and therefore is ejected from the land. He is ejected not because he perpetrated the ruse but because he had become wealthy (29).
        The particular emphasis which characterizes this version of the motif is the attention given to the relationship between the patriarchal couple and the Gerarites. The emphasis is not on Isaac's relationship to Rebekkah or. Isaac's relationship to the king. Rather the author is interested in discussing the way in which the patriarch functioned within a foreign context. Isaac dwelled there a long time. Abimelech was a foreign king. The danger was from one of the people. Isaac is protected from the people. He sows among the people and they envy him.
        On the basis of this consistent emphasis on Isaac's existence on foreign soil, I would argue that the theme is patriarchal success in a foreign context. The emphasis here on wealth for wealth's sake is stronger than in the other versions. The redactor has emphasized the ultimate origins of this wealth in the blessing of Yahweh, vv. 3 and 12. Yahweh will bless him if he stays; he stayed, therefore Yahweh [43] blessed him. The wife-sister motif is used to trigger the apodictic protection by the foreign king which results in wealth and success for Isaac.
        In conclusion, I have proposed a revision in the way we use genre labels in prose narrative form-criticism. We must pass beyond a preliminary label "episode in the patriarchal saga" to a fuller understanding of a text by studying plot, character, setting, and theme. To use Hirsch's term, we must become involved in the intrinsic genre, the particular determinacy of these three texts by asking, what is the thematic singularity of each of these tales which incorporate the wifesister motif? Having identified these themes, I think we may firmly deny Koch's assertion "that the divergencies of the three narratives do not seem to have arisen intentionally (30)." Rather these texts represent literary works in which several authors used the wife-sister motif to present themes of importance for themselves and for their society.