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The Prophet Job and Other Great Motifs for Life

How the Trial of Job Forms a Master Motif Akin to Other Great Life Motifs

by Scott Cherry

The story of Prophet Job is a 'macro-motif' because it encompasses lesser motifs and creates a cast, or a mold, for them and their respective elements. And in the previous paragraph, I called it a ‘meta-motif’ because it is one that provides the theoretical framework for messiah-ness in the Tanakh.[1]  For these reasons we can also call it a ‘master-motif’ because it serves to control the way the various micro-motifs found throughout the Tanakh come together and form the composite of the messiah, or messianic composition. I think it’s true that you cannot see it accept in retrospect, but that’s true of many things. But as soon as the present became the past and contributing events became history, people could begin looking back on them, and the potential to see the messianic motifs was activated. It’s possible, if not probable, that years later Job’s friends and other contemporaries could look back on his crisis and see the archetype.

So, what is this archetype, or Motif? In simple terms, it is that of falling then rising, of losing then winning, of suffering then coming through it, and of dying then rising. The well-known myth of the phoenix comes to mind. (Here again, “myth” does not have to mean something untrue but a “symbolic narrative.”)[2] It seems to emerge especially in the Greek and Egyptian collections, but one source attributes it to Arabia.[3] The phoenix was a singular, exotic, bird with magic powers. There has only ever been one at a time, and it cannot be killed. Well, like Fawkes in the Harry Potter films, it actually could be, but it would not stay dead. It will always come back alive. Depending on the provenance of the particular legend, the lifespan of a phoenix was 500 years or more, at the end of which, in many versions, it would burst into flames and burn to ash. But soon after, a new one would rise out of the ashes to take its place. Many other cultures have had the phoenix in their folklore as well. It has commonly symbolized multiple things including renewal, the sun, time, life in Paradise, Christ, certain aspects of Christian life, and resurrection in general.[4] “Some scholars have claimed that the poem De ave phoenice may present the…phoenix motif as a symbol of Christ's resurrection” Very interesting.

The suffering-hero or heroine motif has always been prevalent in our collective imagination to the present day. Stories that contain it span across cultures and have easily found way into literature and movies. Possibly the most famous example is Cinderella which has had multiple versions over the millennia, and eventually reached its height of popularity through Charles Perrault in 1697 and the Brothers Grimm in 1812. You know the story: Due to her father’s remarriage to a nasty new wife with equally nasty daughters, a previously happy young girl—Cinderella—is plunged into a life of humiliating servitude and affliction. With the help of her fairy godmother, she is discovered by the prince who marries her. Thus she emerges from her period of suffering in victory and splendor. In a word, she is redeemed. Among others, there are several versions of the Cinderella story contained in the medieval Arabian Knights collection but with a different name, or none at all.[5] Sometimes the central figure is a male. It doesn’t matter. Thus we can speak of the ‘Cinderella Motif’ even when there are minor variations, as long as the same essential contour of descent-to-ascent, or suffering-to-redemption is present. I encourage you to read more about the history and variations of this fascinating folktale using the Wikipedia link below (136).  

Another, more modern example of this Motif I want to highlight is from just the last century—The Lord of the Rings trilogy by English author J.R.R. Tolkien (1954/1954). An epic novel of high fantasy, in 2003 the BBC named it Britain’s best novel of all time. The plot is very complex but has a very simple plotline, or contour. A happy young fellow from a happy place was thrust into a situation where the whole world needed saving, and apparently only he could save it. Yes, in the end Frodo succeeded, but to do it he had to descend; he had to give up everything and be willing to die for a higher cause. He could not have known if he would ever return. Hardly could he have foreseen that he must go down into the depths of evil, darkness, danger, and privation before any hope of success could become possible. But with a noble heart he embraced the mission and left everything behind to carry a cursed ring back to the mountain where it was forged, to destroy it. Along the arduous journey he was tested to the extreme, suffered severely, and faced death multiple times. But with the help of his friends and what many would recognize as divine assistance, he prevailed.

[1] Wikipedia: Any subject can be said to have a metatheory, a theoretical consideration of its properties, such as its foundations, methods, form and utility, on a higher level of abstraction.


[2] See also






[5] Also known as One Thousand and One Knights, a collection of medieval folktales of Arabic, Egyptian, Indian, Persian, and Mesopotamian origins.


  • 23 June 2021
  • Author: Scott Cherry
  • Number of views: 1467
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