7. The Royal Battle Pattern in the Biblical Tradition

The royal battle pattern exalts the king, who acts with and for the divine hero. By virtue of his kingship, the king already possesses the call and commission, so there is no need to seek another hero. Even so, the consultation of the deity for a sign of favor is a standard motif of the ancient Near Eastern narratives. In the Book of Chronicles, this takes the form of the king’s prayer. The Books of Kings make the prophet into a central character who speaks and acts for the Lord. The prophet’s role grows as he becomes locked in a comic conflict with the king of Israel—the comedy achieved mainly at the expense of the king who is no longer identified with the Lord.

7.1. The Royal Battle Pattern: King Saul against Nahash: 1 Samuel 11

The story of Saul’s triumph over Nahash in 1 Samuel 11 provides an example of a hero who answers the call for help at his own initiative, as in the royal battle pattern.[1]  Within the larger narrative, Saul is already king, and the story recounts an army’s victory as is typical of the royal pattern. The story opens with the enemy’s threat: a siege of Jabesh‑gilead by Nahash the Ammonite (11:1a). The Hebrew word naḥaš means “snake” and suggests a connection to Tiamat and Leviathan. [2]

The people attempt to sue for peace, but their helplessness is exposed by the enemy king’s outrageous demands: the gouging out of their right eyes—a mark of shame. The people ask for seven days and send a messenger through Israel with a general call for a hero. When the news reaches Gibeah of Saul, the people there show their helplessness by weeping. Returning from plowing, the absent hero hears threat and general call, and “the spirit of God came upon Saul in power¼and his anger was greatly kindled” (11:5‑6). No human leader commissions him; rather, “the spirit of God” comes upon him as in the divine commission for the great judges, and, as Joachim Vette argues, the motif ties Saul to that tradition.[3] With the spirit comes anger, the typical image of the hero’s righteous indignation.

Saul prepares for battle in a dramatic call and commission to muster Israel while messengers announce to Jabesh‑gilead the imminent arrival of help. With dramatic irony, the people of Jabesh tell Nahash that they will capitulate on the morrow to raise the enemy’s false confidence. Victory, flight, and destruction follow in quick succession. The recognition picks up a detail from 10:27; the people want to kill the men who opposed Saul’s kingship. However, the magnanimous hero allows them to go free (death episode denied; 11:12‑13). The hero is then recognized and receives his reward: Samuel accompanies Saul to Gilgal, where the hero’s kingship is “renewed.” The story ends with the sacrifices to the Lord and with a feast.

The story shows Saul standing squarely within both the heroic and royal tradition as the strong hero carrying out the deity’s will. This one bright moment attests to Saul’s heroism before his character unravels in the larger story. Even so, the people of Jabesh do not forget this heroic victory. After Saul’s death at the hands of the Philistines, they come and gather his bones with those of his sons and carry out the required funeral rites for the hero who once saved them (1 Sam 31:11-13).

7.2. The Royal Battle Pattern in Joshua 1-12

Interestingly, Joshua 1‑12 offers some of the clearest examples of the royal pattern.[4] As stressed in Chapter 3, this pattern combines the human hero and the fearless leader into the single character of the king, and this change shapes the movement of the royal pattern. Joshua, of course, takes this role.[5] The Book of Joshua opens with a divine call and commission in which the Lord charges the hero‑leader with an office and not merely for a single battle (Josh 1:1‑9). The Lord’s speech contains motifs proper to the Bible (promise and observance of the law), but there also appear the traditional motifs connected with the divine commission: encouragement and the assurance of divine presence and aid.[6] A divine commission to Joshua with its attendant motifs reappears for each of the major battles except for the first attempt against Ai, which fails because of Achan’s sin.[7] The opening chapter ends with Joshua calling and commissioning Israel (Josh 1:10‑18), a motif that reappears for the various battles.[8] André Wénin argues that this narrative complex divides into two sections, Joshua 2-8 and 9-11, each beginning with a story of deception followed by victories. He sees the covenant at Mount Ebal (8:30-35) serving as a bridge between the two, with Joshua 12 summarizing the conquests.[9] From the perspective of the battle narrative, Joshua 1-12 can be outlined as follows:

  • 1:1-9 — divine call and commission of the hero‑leader.
  • 1:10‑18 — call and commission of Israel by Joshua.
  • 2:1‑24 — spy episode[10]
  • 3:1‑4:24 — journey, modeled on the crossing of the Red Sea with its roots in the fight between the storm and the sea.
  • 5:1 — the enemy’s reaction of helplessness
  • 5:2-15 — motifs completing the transition: circumcision of the new generation, the cessation of the manna, and Joshua’s vision of the commander of the army of the Lord telling him to take off his sandals similar to the story of Moses and the burning bush in Exod 3.
  • 6:1‑7:1 — the battle of Jericho.
  • 7:2‑3 — spy episode.
  • 7:4‑5 — the battle against Ai with its: initial failure because of sin.
  • 7:6‑26 — a death episode in which Achan is killed for taking plunder contrary to the ban.
  • 8:1‑35 — the second battle against Ai and victory.
  • 9:1‑27 — the deception of the Gibeonites (comic relief).
  • 10:1‑27 — the battle against the five Amorite kings.
  • 10:28‑43 — battle reports.
  • 11:1‑15 — the battle against Jabin.
  • 11:16‑23 — battle reports.
  • 12:1‑24 — a list of Joshua’s victories.[11]
  • It would also be possible to isolate smaller motifs of the battle pattern, just as K. Lawson Younger has done in his careful analysis of Josh 9-12 and its relationship to his pattern of the historical conquest accounts from the ancient Near East.[12]

Although the Joshua tradition conforms to the royal pattern, there is a difference in tone and emphasis. Joshua is not exalted like the kings of the ancient Near East but is continually subordinated to the Lord, the divine hero‑leader. As the divine hero, the Lord is manifest in the tumbling walls of Jericho and other miraculous events.[13] As the divine leader, he also controls the action to an extent not seen in the royal narratives; there, the point of view is always that of the king. Moreover, all plunder belongs to the Lord alone according to the ḥerem or ban—another indication of the Lord alone as the hero. Whatever its historical reality, here, the ban serves a literary function. [14] Finally, Joshua is one of the flattest major characters in the Old Testament. He is the perfectly obedient vassal of the Lord, carrying out everything commanded him, like Moses, “the servant of the Lord” (Josh 1:1 and often). Everything that this hero-leader does points to the Lord. The Book of Joshua exalts not Joshua but the Lord, Israel’s true hero‑leader.

7.3. The Royal Battle Pattern in the Books of Chronicles

The Books of Chronicles offer three battle narratives that appear only in abbreviated parallels in the Book of Kings: 2 Chr 13:1-22; 14:9-15 and 20:1-30. These stories are pious versions of the battle pattern.  In general, the Chronicler heightens the piety of the good kings of Judah through their prayer to the Lord or in speeches to the army. This narrator also minimizes the human involvement in the battle to celebrate the Lord as the unquestionable hero. Thus the Chronicler trades narrative tension for a more explicit didactic function.

7.3.1. King Abijah of Judah against King Jeroboam of Israel: 2 Chronicles 13

In 2 Chronicles 13, King Abijah and the army Judah are caught between the army of Jeroboam I. Then “the people of Judah raised the battle shout. When the people of Judah shouted, God defeated Jeroboam and all Israel before Abijah and Judah” (13:15). This story finishes in traditional fashion with “five hundred thousand picked men” of Israel slain and the death of the enemy king announced (13:20). The narrator devotes the largest part of the narrative time to Abijah’s speech indicting Jeroboam, which ends with the warning: “O Israelites, do not fight against the Lord, the God of your ancestors; for you cannot succeed” (13:4-12). As discussed above, the battle in the ancient Near East serves as a trial by ordeal.[15] The outcome represents not a consequence of military might or skill but a judgment by the deity against the unjust party. Abijah’s speech provides the justification, and the victory condemns the bad King Jeroboam of Israel.

7.3.2. King Asa of Judah against Zerah the Ethiopian: 2 Chr 14:9-15

In 2 Chr 14:9-15, King Asa of Judah goes out against Zerah the Ethiopian. The narrator gives the largest part of this short narrative to a prayer by Asa stating that “in your name we have come against this multitude” and praying: “let no mortal prevail against you.” The next sentence follows the tradition: “So the Lord defeated the Ethiopians before Asa and before Judah, and the Ethiopians fled” (14:12). The story reiterates the theme of the Lord as the hero and clearly subordinates the monarch to his God.

7.3.3. Jehoshaphat against the Moabite and Ammonites: 2 Chr 20:1-30

In 2 Chronicles 20, messengers report to King Jehoshaphat of Judah that the Moabites and Ammonites, traditional enemies, have come with a great multitude. Contrary to the royal pattern, “Jehoshaphat was afraid.” Immediately the pious king goes to the house of the Lord to seek help from the divine hero, and the largest narrative block is devoted to Jehoshaphat’s prayer (20:5-12), which he ends by acknowledging that “we are powerless” (20:12).

“Then the spirit of the Lord came upon Jahaziel…, a Levite of the sons of Asaph,” who urges the troops in typical fashion. “Do not fear,” and he ends by reasserting the theme found in Exod 14:14: “This battle is not for you to fight; take your position, stand still, and see the victory of the Lord on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem” (20:17). On the morning of the battle, King Jehoshaphat exhorts his troops to believe in the Lord and in his prophets. He appoints singers to sing of the Lord’s steadfast love. “As they began to sing and praise, the Lord set an ambush against the Ammonites, Moab, and Mount Seir, who had come against Judah, so that they were routed,” and “all helped to destroy one another” (20:22-23). After three days of taking great plunder, they recognize the Lord as the hero both on the battlefield and then in Jerusalem with the whole people. Again the Chronicler gives us a good and pious king who recognizes the Lord as the hero.

7.4. Good Kings in the Books of Kings

The battle narratives in the Books of Kings continually revise the traditional motifs and patterns even as they reiterate the ancient theme of the Lord as the hero. David is, of course, the ideal king for the Deuteronomistic Historian. He fulfills the role of the good hero and then good king in 1 Sam 19 through 2 Sam 8, which culminates in the taking of Jerusalem (2 Sam 5) and subduing the Philistines along with Moab and Edom and thereby winning a name for himself (8:13). Interestingly, neither Kings nor Chronicles tell a battle story for Solomon. For the Deuteronomist, only Hezekiah and Josiah measure up to the ideal of David, but their wars break from the traditional pattern with the reality of defeat except for Sennacherib’s flight in 2 Kings 19. I shall consider them all below as part of the movement from traditional to realistic narrative. Of the other battle narratives in the Books of Kings, only two present a good king.

7.4.1. Elisha strikes the Syrians blind: 2 Kgs 6:8-23

In this battle narrative, Elisha first plays his expected role as prophet and then takes the hero’s role, which properly belongs to the king. The prophet tells the unnamed king of Israel to avoid the king of Syria trying to make war, and he obeys. The story’s real tension arises when the Syrian king sets out to capture the prophet, Elisha. When the enemy shows up and surrounds the city, the prophet responds to his servant’s fear: “Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them.” (6:16). Elisha opens his servant’s eyes so that he can see the divine army that has mustered around the prophet. Then as the hero, Elisha strikes the enemy but not with a sword; rather, he strikes them blind and tricks them so that they follow him into Samaria. Once inside, he opens their eyes, and the king of Israel asks whether he should kill them. The prophet-hero commands that the enemy share the feast, which is a traditional part of the recognition. Afterward, he sets them free and so puts an end to the Syrian raids. The story offers a fresh and pacific twist on the traditional pattern.

7.4.2. Jehu overthrows the House of Ahab: 2 Kings 9

The story of Jehu overthrowing Joram mixes traditional motifs with realistic elements. The story begins with a divine commission. The prophet Elisha sends a young prophet to secretly anoint and commission Jehu to “strike down the house of your master Ahab” (9:1-10). When Jehu’s army learned what has happened, they proclaim, “Jehu is king,” a motif that traditionally belongs to the recognition of the hero after the victory (9:11-13). Jehu prepares for war by issuing orders and mounting his chariot for the journey. These motifs alternate with a report about Joram, the enemy king, to create the impression of simultaneous action. Rather than being a fearful antagonist, Joram is recovering from wounds inflicted by the king of Aram. This wound could signify his weakness, or it could be a realistic detail or both.

In the royal tradition, messengers often carry messages back and forth to illuminate the thematic content of the battle. Here Joram twice sends a messenger to inquire if Jehu comes in peace. Both times Jehu makes no reply but has the messengers join him. The watchman reports to Joram that the messenger “reached them, but he is not coming back,” and then he reports, “It looks like the driving of Jehu son of Nimshi; for he drives like a maniac” (9:20).

Joram, with the King of Judah, goes out to meet Jehu, who finally answers the inquiry of peace with an indictment. At this, Joram attempts to flee, but the hero, in traditional fashion, pierces his heart with an arrow (missile), causing Joram to sink in his chariot. Jehu has the dead king’s body desecrated by casting it on the property of Naboth to fulfill a prophecy (9:23‑26). In another digression from the tradition, the narrator tells us that Jehu has the king of Judah killed as well (9:27-28). The typical regnal formula about Jehu’s kingship follows.

The battle narrative ends with Jezebel’s death and a banquet celebrating the victory. Though presented as a great, two-dimensional villain, Jezebel takes on the gravity of the psychological realism with her role in the death of Naboth (1 Kgs 21). Here she adds to that mimetic portrayal. She does not run or panic but puts on her make-up and confronts Jehu with a sarcastic question: “Is it peace, Zimri, murderer of your master?” (9:31). Jehu shows no mercy and has her thrown from the window. Even at the banquet, he adds his own realistic touch by sending out servants to bury her, as he says, “for she is a king’s daughter” (9:35), but they find only “the skull and the feet and the palms of her hands” as Elisha had prophesied.

The presence of these non-traditional realistic elements gives this story the ring of history. While those questions are larger than this methodology, this approach can help in sorting out those questions.

7.5. The Conflict between King and Prophet in the Books of Kings

Aarnoud van der Deijl, in his analysis of nine stories in the Books of Kings, develops his own “morphology” of biblical war stories in those books.[16] His analysis focuses particularly on the scene of counsel and the appearance of the prophet as a central character. As van der Deijl shows, the prophet receives the largest share of narrative time in these stories.[17] In four narratives, the narrative tension shifts from the battlefield to the conflict between the prophet and the bad king of Israel. This shift is so prominent in three stories that they share more with comedy than narratives of heroic victory.

Christopher Booker points to identity as the critical element of comedy. Its tension arises with confusion about identities, and its resolution comes with the revelation of the true identities of the characters and their situation.[18] The last three stories, especially, displace the traditional expectations of character. The conflict between good and evil moves from outside “our” community to inside it. Even so. The central role of the Lord as the hero remains, though emphasized in different ways. The prophet becomes the manifestation of God rather than the king. In 2 Kgs 3 and 6-7, the tension resolves with a miraculous event, as at the Red Sea or Jericho. Thus, they continue to assert the basic theme of the biblical battle tradition.

7.5.1. King Ahab triumphs over Ben-hadad: 1 Kgs 20:1-21,22-43

This story in 1 Kings 20 divides into two stories. The first, a battle narrative, ends with the king of Israel granting terms of peace to the enemy king instead of taking his life. This story gives rise to the second story, a conflict between king and prophet.

After Ben-hadad of Aram musters his army and besieges Samaria, he makes outrageous demands for the king’s gold and silver, his wives and children. Ahab gives in and so shows himself fearful and weak. Going further, Ben-hadad extends the demands to Ahab’s servants. The king of Israel consults the elders and all the people, who counsel against capitulations. When Ahab refuses the second demand, Ben-hadad makes the traditional boast of false confidence, and Ahab replies with a proverb: “One who puts on armor should not brag like one who takes it off” (20:11). The drunken Ben-hadad then commands his army to take their positions for the fight.

A prophet, like a hero, appears and delivers an oracle from the Lord, indicating how the battle should proceed. The king of Israel executes the plan, causing the Arameans to flee and inflicting “a great slaughter.” Even so, the prophet tells the king to strengthen his position because Ben-hadad will return in the spring as if the victory were a false resolution.

Ben-hadad’s servants inform him that Israel’s “gods are gods of the hills” and give the enemy king bad counsel to fight a second time in the plain. Being an enemy king, “he heeded their voice, and did so” (20:25). A prophet brings another oracle containing the hand-formula and the theme of the Lord as the hero (20:28). The battle takes place on the seventh day with the Israelites killing “one hundred thousand Aramean foot soldiers”; with the rest fleeing while a wall fell on “on twenty-seven thousand men that were left” (20:30). At this point, the story takes a realistic turn. Ben-hadad hides in the city of Aphek, and, on the good counsel of his servants, he sues for peace, including his own life. In the end, he and the king of Israel make a covenant.

Deception makes its way into the story at this point, but not to deceive the enemy. Instead, a prophet has himself wounded—a scene memorable—and then disguises himself to trap the king, much as Nathan traps King David with a story after the death of Uriah (2 Sam 12:1-15).  Here the prophet tells the king that he was guarding a prisoner of war with the condition that he would forfeit his life if the prisoner escaped, and he claims that the prisoner has escaped. The king of Israel says that he should forfeit his life as was the condition. The prophet, taking off the disguise, turns the judgment on the king: “Thus says the Lord, ‘Because you have let go out of your hand the man whom I had devoted to destruction (ḥērem), therefore your life shall go for his life, and your people for his people’” (20:42).

Initially, the capitulating Ahab receives help in the form of good counsel from God, but the second story introduces tension between the prophet and the king. This conflict is not new. From their first appearance, Elijah and Ahab are always in conflict. Here the wounded prophet delivers a death sentence against Ahab that moves the story beyond comedy. This conflict between king and prophet becomes the central tension in the three battle stories which follow.

7.5.2. The King of Israel and Micaiah: 1 Kings 22 // 2 Chr 18:1-34

The conflict between prophet and king takes center stage in 1 Kings 22, a parody of the royal battle tradition. The story opens with the bad king of Israel and the good king of Judah playing their traditional roles. The story eventually identifies Israel’s king as the petulant Ahab and Jehoshaphat as Judah’s good king. After agreeing to go to war, Jehoshaphat insists on consulting the deity for a commission. This scene takes up the largest part of the narrative and raises questions of identity between true and false prophets (22:5-28). The king of Israel gathers about four hundred prophets—a number reminiscent of Elijah’s contest (1 Kgs 18:19, 22), and they give the traditional affirmation with the hand-formula; “Go up; for the Lord will give it into the hand of the king” (22:6, 12, 15). Strangely Jehoshaphat asks if there is not another prophet though we are not told why—an interesting gap in the story. The king of Israel admits that there is one other prophet, Micaiah: “but I hate him, for he never prophesies anything favorable about me, but only disaster” (22:8).

The storyteller shows his mastery by telling a story within the story, complete with its own call narrative. The Lord issues a general call to entice Ahab, and a spirit volunteers. Then the Lord asks the question: “How”? And the spirit responds that he will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all the king’s prophets. The story ends abruptly with Micaiah slapped and put into prison until, as the king of Israel says: “I come in peace.” Micaiah replies: If you return in peace, the Lord has not spoken by me” (22:28). This comedy turns on the questions of the identity: the identity of the true prophet and also the true king.

There follows the preparation for war, which may include the arming of the hero. Significantly, the king of Israel disguises himself while encouraging Jehoshaphat to wear the royal robes of Israel. The Syrians believe the ruse and pursue Jehoshaphat until he identifies himself. Even so, “a certain man drew his bow and unknowingly struck the king of Israel” (22:34). Though they prop him up in his chariot, the cry goes out to retreat at sunset, for Ahab is dead. The enemy king, of course, should die the traditional death, but here the king of Israel fulfills that motif and shows himself to be the real enemy king. As a result, there is no plunder or recognition of the victor. Instead, “the dogs licked up his blood, and the prostitutes washed in it, according to the word of the Lord that he had spoken” (22:38). The royal battle narrative has become a comedy, and its climax reveals the true and false identities.

7.5.3. The Deception of Moab: 2 Kings 3

In 2 Kings 3, King Jehoram of Israel invites King Jehoshaphat of Judah along with the king of Edom to join him in putting down the rebellion of Mesha, king of Moab. As in 1 Kings 22, the kings of Judah and Israel play their traditional biblical roles of the good and the bad king. After seven days without water, the mistrustful king of Israel complains: “Alas! The Lord has summoned us, three kings, only to be handed over to Moab” (3:10). The good king of Judah asks whether there is a prophet to consult, and a servant of the king of Israel, not the king himself, names Elisha “who used to pour water on the hands of Elijah.”

The prophet meets the mistrustful king of Israel with an ironic rebuke inviting him to go “to your father’s prophets or to your mother’s.” Still, because of the good Jehoshaphat, the prophet sends for a musician, and “the power of the Lord” takes hold of him and reveals an oracle. The Lord will end the drought and miraculously bring enough water to fill the wadis and provide drink for all though they will “see neither wind nor rain.” Besides that, the Lord will hand over Moab.

And so it happens: the water comes, and in the early morning light, the Moabites see the water as red and conclude that Israel and Judah have slain each other. Again the deception motif appears, and it brings Moab full of false confidence to the camp of the Israelite army, which rises against the unsuspecting Moabites who flee. The Israelites pursue the enemy and work the traditional great destruction on the enemy until the king of Moab offers his firstborn son as a burnt offering on the wall. “And great wrath came upon Israel, so they withdrew from him and returned to their own land” (3:27b).

This story, with its prophet-king conflict, follows the traditional pattern with one addition. Israel’s bad king becomes the real enemy because he is unwilling to trust in the Lord even though human power offers no solution. The prophet’s inquiry and then his prediction underscores the theme of the Lord as the hero. The traditional victory and rout follow. The traditional death of the enemy hero comes with the king of Moab offering his firstborn son as a burnt offering. While the Canaanites practiced child sacrifice, its use to halt the battle is unexpected, and its desperation belongs to realism rather than the tradition.[19]

7.5.4. Benhadad’ Siege of Samaria: 2 Kgs 6:24-7:20

Benhadad’s siege of Samaria provides another wonderful comedy. The story begins with the enemy besieging “our” city and causing a great famine resulting in outrageous prices for donkey heads and pigeon dung. The threat reveals “our” helplessness. When two women beg the king for help, he answers: “Let the Lord help you. How can I help you” (6:27)? The impotent king hears the argument of two women about the eating of their children. The same motif appears in Lamentations 4:10, which is full of tragedy.  Here it is melodrama and an occasion for the king to blame the prophet, Elisha. He dispatches a servant to bring back the prophet’s head but then goes himself and hears Elisha’s prophecy that food will be cheap on the next day. “The captain on whose hand the king leaned” challenges the prophecy, and Elisha predicts that he will see it but not eat of it. As in 1 Kings 22, the traditional scene of consulting the deity has been turned upside down.

Four lepers now replace the hero going forth to meet the enemy. Despairing of life in the city, they journey to the enemy camp to see what fate may hold. Miraculously they find the enemy has dispersed. At first, they enjoy a victory feast and begin to plunder the camp until they realize that “what we are doing is wrong” (7:9). So returning to the city, they announce the victory. The bad king suspects a trap and scouts to see what has happened. They return with the same news of victory, and the people rush from the city to plunder the camp and have their own victory feast of cheap food. As predicted by Elisha, the king’s servant is trampled at the gate and so sees but does not eat. Instead of the death of the enemy hero or king, this story gives us the death of “the captain on whose hand the king leaned” because he did not trust the word of the prophet. The central tension has shifted from the enemy outside to the enemy inside, from the enemy’s physical threat to a lack of faith and hope in the Lord as the hero.

7.6. Footnotes to Chapter 7

[1] For a discussion of the historical issues of this text, see Diana Edelman, “Saul’s Rescue of Jabesh-Gilead (1 Sam 11:1-11): Sorting Story from History,” Zeitschrift für altentestamentlichen Wissenschaft, 96 (1984) 195-209.

[2] Cf. C. Grottanelli, “The Enemy King is a Monster: A Biblical Equation,” Studi Storico‑Religiosi, 3 (1979) 5‑36. Grottanelli discusses the serpentine qualities of Nahash, whose name means “snake” in Hebrew and relates them to roots in the battle stories of the mythic mode.

[3] The coming of the Spirit as a sign of divine commission is found also in Judg 3:7‑11; 6:34; 11:29; 13:25; 14:6,19; 15:14. Joachim Vette has recently argued that this motif ties Saul to the great judges and makes him, and not Samuel, the last great judge if also at the same time the first king; “Der Letzte Richter? Methodische Überlegungen zur Charactergestaltung in 1 Sam 11,” Communio Viatorum, 51.2 (2009), 184-197.

[4] A similar complex of stories reflecting the royal pattern is recounted for Judas Maccabeus in 1 Macc 1:1 –9:22 (compare with 2 Macc 8‑15). Noteworthy in these stories are the following: 1) the commission of Judas by his father Mattathias (1 Macc 2:49‑68); 2) the use of the rededication of the temple as an act re‑establishing the social and religious order after the victory (1 Macc 4:36‑61); and 3) the defeat resulting from the breaking of the leader’s command (1 Macc 5:18‑19,55‑62, compare with Patroclus’ fate in Iliad XVI). Unlike Josh 1‑12, which tells a story of conquest from the Lord’s perspective, 1 Macc 1‑9 recounts a war of redress from the hero’s point of view. In this, Judas is exalted as the hero, and his religious zeal is equated with patriotism. Finally, 1 Macc 1‑9 reflects a heightened realism resulting from a stronger allegiance to history than seen in Josh 1‑12.

In 1 Macc 9‑16, the story of Jonathan and Simon, the allegiance to history can be seen in the political machinations and the hero’s death by treachery; still, traditional motifs continue to appear and shape the story. For example, the battle with Demetrius (10:67‑89) may be outlined as follows: enemy threat and challenge, the hero’s righteous indignation, muster, fight and victory, enemy’s muster, second fight with a realistic description of ambush, victory and great destruction, the reward of the hero: honor, a symbol of Alexander’s favor, and land.

In 2 Macc 3, the threat of the enemy is cast realistically as an attempt to rob the temple funds; when the people beg the Lord for a hero, a heavenly horseman with “armor and weapons of gold” ends the threat and demonstrates yet again that the Lord is the hero (3:39). The book’s realism reaches its height in the accounts of martyrdom (2 Macc 6‑7), but the book ends with a great victory and the beheading of the enemy leader. Again the narrative is a mix of realism and traditional motifs.

[5] Already in Exod 17:9‑10, Moses commissions Joshua to fight the battle; likewise, in Num 31:1‑54, Moses commissions Israel, but he does not go into battle himself. In smaller narratives, Israel is designated as the hero; cf. Num 21:1‑3,21‑31,33‑35.

[6] Josh 1:5‑7,9; cf. also Deut 31:7‑8,14,23

[7] Josh 6:2‑5. commission and battle plan; 8:1‑2. encouragement, commission, and hand‑formula; 8:18. commission and hand-formula; 10:8. encouragement and hand-formula; 11:6. encouragement, hand-formula, and commission.

[8] Josh 6:6‑7, 10, 16‑19; 8:4‑8.

[9] André Wénin, “Joshua 1-12 comme récit” in The Book of Joshua, edited, by Ed Noort (Leuven: Uitgeverij Peeters, 2012) 109-136, esp. 132.

[10] Cf. also Num 13‑14; 21:32; and below in Josh 7:2‑3. C. Gordon cites the spies in the Odyssey IX 83‑104 and X 102; “Homer and the Bible,” HUCA 26 (1955) 43‑108, esp. 86.

[11] The list of victories is also found in 2 Sam 8 and in the “King of Battle Epic.”

[12] Younger, Ancient Conquest Accounts, 199-237.

[13] In Josh 10:11‑14, the Lord takes the role of the divine hero by throwing down hail, by holding the sun and moon still, and by fighting for Israel. Also, Josh 10:42; 11:6. Beyond the Joshua tradition, two major examples of the Lord as the divine hero are found in Exod 14‑15 and in 1 Sam 7:3‑14. Von Rad adds Deut 1:30; Josh 10:14, 42; 11:6; 23:10; Judg 20:35; 1 Sam 14:23; Holy War, 45. I would add Judg 4:14, but this may not constitute a complete list.

[14] For a discussion of the theological and ethical questions around the ban in the Bible, see Susan Niditch, War in the Hebrew Bible, 28-77. She deals with it under two headings: the ban as God’s portion and as God’s justice. Much of the scholarly discussion wrestles with the paradox between the ban’s devotion of everything to destruction and the Bible’s “life-affirming ethic” (28-29). In a culture where war was often waged to take booty, one would have to think long and hard before setting out for a war that would bring no material gain. The reason for the war would have to be a good of such importance that one was willing to risk one’s life for the value alone.

[15] For battle as a trial, see above §3.5.2.

[16] Van der Deijl has examined in great detail nine stories in 1-2 Kings, not all of them strictly battle narratives: 1 Kgs 12; 20:1-22; 20:23-43; 2 Kgs 3; 6:8-23; 6:24–7:20; 18:13–19:9a; 19:9b-37. He has identified “a limited number of the types of events that …occur in the war stories investigated.” These are as follows: 1. occasion; 2. negotiation; 3. counsel; 4. decision by the king; 5. prophetic appearance I; 6. divine intervention; 7. declaration of war; 8. mustering; 9. battle; 10. flight; 11. prophetic appearance II; Protest or Propaganda. 268. From my perspective, the pattern reflects the dominance of a scene of counsel, which plays an important role in these narratives because of the conflict with the prophet. Moreover, although van der Deijl isolates many pieces, his synthesis is difficult to follow.

[17] Van der Deijl, Protest or Propaganda. 283.

[18] Booker, Seven Basic Plots, 109. Hagan, “Basic Plots,” 208-209.

[19] See Niditch’s discussion of the Rabbinic interpretation of this passage in relation to the sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22); War in the Hebrew Bible, 42-46.


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Mighty in Battle by Harry Hagan, OSB, © Saint Meinrad Archabbey, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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