There are many themes that trace throughout the Old Testament. These themes can be followed and thereby used to assist the reader in understanding the subtleties of the text. They can take the forms of either language repetitions, character traits, or settings and motifs. Two motifs that are excellent tracers of the deeper meaning of this text are those of water and the wilderness. Both of these symbols are used at major junctions in the plot of the story, and both seem to be connected to lifecycle events on the larger scale. Water seems to be intricately connected with the concept of renewal and creation. It seems to emphasize a great shifting in the nature of existence, be it of a group of people or the whole of humanity. Wilderness is similar in that it seems to come up also at times when a great change is to occur.
The difference is that while the change associated with water is fundamental in the workings of the people themselves, the changes associated with the wilderness always seem to be a change in the nature of the relationship between people and God.
The first encounter with water is the very creation of the earth itself. At the beginning of time it seems that all that exists aside from God and nothingness is a great "deep," a great body of water which seems vaguely undefined. We are then told that God divides the water below from the water above and puts the "firmament," or sky, between them. Thus God has created heaven and earth, though the earth lacks land as of yet. God then further divides the water below and puts land in between, and it is once this is accomplished that God produces life, animals, plants and humans. So here is the very first example of water playing a prime role in the change of condition of humanity, the very creation of humanity in this case. And the motif is soon continued with the story of Noah. When God becomes displeased with the ways of man, how he has become corrupt and such, it is water that God prepares to use to wipe out all of humanity aside from the righteous Noah and his family. God is said to open the windows to the waters of heaven, allowing them to inundate the earth and destroy all that he had created. And so once again there is an excellent example of God's use of water to change the condition of humanity. He is unhappy with their activities, and so he destroys them and leaves only the most righteous of men in the great spirit of natural selection.
Examples of this motif then continue throughout the Bible. There are countless significant events that occur at wells. Rebekkah is found at a well, Moses finds his wife, Zipporah, at a well, and Abraham makes a pact with a king on behalf of the plentiful wells that he digs. In addition to wells, there is yet another powerful example of water's influence on humanity, or a group of people, in the story of Exodus. As the Hebrews stand on the brink of destiny, trapped between the onslaught of the great Egyptian army and the impass of the Red Sea, God parts the waters, not only allowing the Hebrews to pass through safely to escape the Egyptians, but also destroying perhaps one of the most powerful armies in the world in one fell swoop. Thus the lives of two great groups of people are changed drastically through God's use of water. The Hebrews escape bondage, and the great Egyptians lose their powerful army as well as a great deal of their wealth which the Hebrews had taken. And so it can be clearly seen how water is a motif, a powerful one that is often used in conjunction with a great change in the lives of a people.
A motif similarly associated with great change is that of the wilderness. However, the difference is that this motif is generally used in conjunction with a great change in the relationship between God and a people, usually the Hebrews. When Cain slays Abel, he is sent to be a wanderer in the wilderness. He has angered God and so is sent away. Also, and one of the more prominent wilderness representations, is when Moses first encounters God in the form of a burning bush. The reader is told that Moses wandered beyond the wilderness in tending his flocks, and it was there that he encountered the bush that burned but was not consumed. Moses goes through a life-altering experience here when he is beyond the wilderness. It is almost to say that Moses' experience is so powerful with God that not only does he go to the wilderness, but he goes beyond it.
This wilderness example is closely followed by perhaps the best known wilderness portrayal of all, the wandering of the Hebrews in the wilderness for forty years. It is here in the wilderness that they receive the Torah and are essentially "married" to God. They become the people of God at Mount Sinai, and something this monumental in the relationship between God and his people could only take place in the wilderness. They then proceed to wander for forty years, slowly learning the laws presented in the Torah, and slowly becoming more and more aware that God is indeed with them until, forty years past, they are ready to take their place as God's people in the land promised to Abraham. Thus, the wilderness plays a powerful role in the development and change in the relationship of God to his people.
And so both of these motifs, water and wilderness, are motifs of development and change. Water is a change in the fundamental development of man himself, as in the great flood or the creation. While the wilderness involves a change in the fundamental relationship between God and the people, as in Moses' case as well as the forty years of desert wandering. A reader of the Bible can therefore be aware of these motifs as he reads and use them as a guide for noting when such a fundamental change is taking place.