A Literary Study of Battle Narrative in the Ancient Near East and in the Bible

Harry Hagan, OSB

This monograph surveys the ways that the ancient Near East and in the Bible tell stories of battle to illuminate their typical patterns and motifs. This study does not presume or argue for a historical connection between these texts. Rather, it points out the recurring elements that appear in battle stories across time and culture. By understanding the typical, a reader is able to follow a story more easily, and, more importantly, the reader is able to see how a story alters expectations or breaks with them to tell its own particular story.

After an opening chapter clarifying some literary terms, this monograph divides into two parts. Part One deals with two forms of the battle narrative in the ancient Near East (ANE): the heroic pattern and the royal pattern. The heroic pattern tells of a community, attacked by an enemy, that calls and commissions a hero who then defeats the enemy. Six stories and their heroes serve as the basis for the heroic pattern. The royal pattern celebrates the victories of kings with their deities. Unlike the heroic pattern, the king is already the designated hero but is not present when the enemy threatens the kingdom. This pattern celebrates the relationship between the king and his deity.

Part Two surveys the battle narrative in the Bible, mainly the Hebrew Bible with the important addition of the Book of Judith for the heroic pattern. The story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17 closely follows the heroic pattern except that David is not the traditional strong man but an unexpected hero, which is the hallmark of biblical battle narratives. Judith’s triumph over Holophernes also follows the classic pattern except for the adaptations made for her as an unexpected hero. The Book of Judges likewise contains a number of battle narratives with unexpected heroes. The royal battle narrative is represented particularly by Joshua as the designated hero. The Books of Kings adds the prophet as a new character representing the Lord, and the central conflict shift from the fight against foreigners to the conflict between the king of Israel and the prophet. The Story of the Red Sea (Exod 13:17–14:31) is arguably the most important biblical battle narrative, there the Lord God acts alone as the hero against a human enemy.

In the traditional battle narrative, the hero and “our” side always win, but the tradition eventually gives way to the realism of war and defeat. This break can lead to tragedy as in the story of Saul or to the history of the fall of Samaria and Jerusalem to foreign powers. The traditional motifs and patterns continue to shape these stories, but they do no lead to the traditional ending.

This monograph seeks to provide a clearer understanding of the tradition so that readers can better appreciate the individuality of each story.


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Introduction by Harry Hagan, OSB is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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