This comparative study of genre has identified the traditional patterns of battle narratives in the ancient Near East to clarify how the biblical stories use and transform the genre. A genre is not a fixed formula but rather a set of traditional possibilities which a master storyteller can elaborate and transform. No story provides the definitive form of the genre, but taken together, they reveal the common expectations.
By understanding the generic shape of the battle narrative, the audience can identify what is specific to each story. Since battle is a common metaphor for life, the battle narrative carries the values and ideals of its narrative world and invites its audience to share this larger vision. Although the traditional pattern claims the traditional storyteller’s allegiance, other forces can reshape the pattern, especially a new commitment to history or politics.
Part I has examined the major literary examples of the battle narrative in the ancient Near East to describe its two basic patterns. First, the heroic pattern tells of a hero called by the leader and community to fight an enemy. In these stories, the hero represents the values and ideals that create a community, and the victory represents the affirmation of that order. Second, the royal pattern tells of a king who combines the roles of leader and hero and, therefore, has the duty to meet the enemy threat. The royal pattern celebrates the relationship between the king and his deity, who must approve the plan and typically fights with the king. These narratives celebrate the existing order of the society represented by both the king and the deity, with their victory having cosmic dimensions.
Part II has explored the battle narratives in the historical books of the Bible. As various scholars, including Manfred Weippert and Sa-Moon Kang, have argued, the biblical tradition reflects the broader ancient Near Eastern tradition in which the deity fights for their nation. However, as I argue, there is a significant difference in these biblical narratives. Exodus 14, the battle against Pharaoh at the Red Sea, has the Lord fighting for Israel, but Exod 14:14 says: “The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” Exodus 14 gives the human characters of Israel no role in the battle and underlines the basic biblical theme: The Lord alone is the hero. Even when human beings participate in the battle, the biblical tradition continually subordinates the human to the divine in ways not found in the larger culture.
The heroic tradition celebrates the hero’s physical strength and appearance, which manifests his intellectual and moral power, but the Bible transforms the pattern in two important ways. First, it celebrates unlikely heroes. In 1 Samuel 17, a boy goes against a giant and brings him down with one blow. The boy’s actions are realistic and believable, but the motif of the unlikely hero, a boy, indicates that an unseen cause is at work. The motif of the unlikely hero appears in the women Judith and Jael, the left-handed Ehud, the frightened Gideon, the outcast Jephthah, and the blind Samson, who though once a manifestation of the physical ideal, has become an unlikely hero through his blindness and imprisonment. Since these unlikely heroes are typically unable to meet physical force in kind, they resort to deception as a critical stratagem that reveals both their intellectual and moral power while pointing to the Lord as the true hero.
The royal pattern appears in Saul’s defeat of Nahash in 1 Samuel 11 and perhaps most clearly in Joshua who carries out the Lord’s will in the conquest of the Promised Land. However, unlike the royal pattern in the ancient Near East, which exalts the deity in order to exalt the king as well, the Book of Joshua subordinates its human hero-leader by making him a perfectly faithful and obedient servant of the Lord. The Chronicler gives us good kings of Judah who subordinate themselves through their piety. In the Books of Kings, the prophet, representing the Lord, becomes a major character in a conflict with the king of Israel. This turns these narratives into comedies that parody the royal battle narrative by undermining the bad king of Israel to exalt the Lord.
The biblical battle narratives use both heroic and royal patterns, but the emphasis is different, and their similarities to the ancient Near East sets the differences in high relief. In the Bible, the Lord is the hero. Human beings may contribute to the victory, but their contribution must never overshadow that of the Lord. This is the traditional meaning of the biblical battle narrative in its context.
Traditional stories with their stock characters are about ideas. The hero represents the values and ideals of the narrative world shared by the storyteller and audience, with the enemy representing the forces of chaos and destruction. The death of the enemy is comic in that it brings about the reestablishment of order and peace. Those who would treat the death of these enemies realistically misunderstand the genre. Some biblical stories, like that of Saul, tell of tragic death and invite us to mourn. However, the Bible’s battle stories mostly tell of the struggle between good and evil.
An audience must be clear about the difference between traditional and realistic narratives. Today our sense of realism, heightened by the evening news and the novel’s dominance, color our expectations and reactions. We expect our literature to be realistic even though much is fabricated from traditional plots. Moreover, we would rather save ourselves than put God to the test. The Bible’s battle stories continually confront us with the Lord as the hero and invite us to join in bringing about the Lord’s victory.