BIBLIOTHECA SACRA 161 (April-June 2004):163-78.

         Copyright © 2004 by Dallas Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.    

 

 

 

             OLD TESTAMENT POETRY AS

       A VEHICLE FOR HISTORIOGRAPHY

 

 

                                          Michael A. Grisanti

 

 

IN THE PAST FEW DECADES the literary nature of the Bible has

received significant attention.1. Bible students have gained an

appreciation for the biblical writers as literary artisans or

craftsmen. Writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the

biblical writers made use of literary features characteristic of given

genres, rhetorical structures, stock expressions, word pairs, figura-

tive language, and communicated God's message with vividness,

clarity, and impact. Scholars have proposed various literary ap-

proaches to aid in understanding the Scriptures,2 and this article

addresses one area of this discussion, involving questions like the

following. Can literary artifice or craft describe historical person-

ages and events or must they be regarded as fictional? Is there any

room for hyperbole in an Old Testament narrative that describes a

historical event? How does one understand poetic passages that

describe historical events? What evidence is there for the historic-

ity of the prose and poetic accounts in Exodus 14-15? What princi-

ples should be kept in mind when dealing with historical and poetic

material?

 

Michael A. Grisanti is Associate Professor of Old Testament, The Master's Semi-

nary, Sun Valley, California.

            1 For an overview see Tremper Longman III, Literary Approaches to Biblical In-

terpretation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), 58–87; and Iain W. Provan, "Ideolo-

gies, Literary and Critical: Reflections on Recent Writing on the History of Israel,"

Journal of Biblical Literature 114 (1995): 585–606.

            2 A few examples of these literary approaches are (a) New Criticism (e.g., Adele

Berlin, Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative [Sheffield: Almond, 1983];

and M. Weiss, The Bible from Within: The Method of Total Interpretation [Jerusa-

lem: Magnes, 1984]); (b) structuralism (Robert Polzin, Biblical Structuralism:

Method and Subjectivity in the Study of Ancient Texts [Philadelphia: Fortress,

1977]; and E. V. McKnight, Meaning in Texts [Philadelphia: Fortress, 19781); and (c)

deconstructionism (J. D. Crossan, Cliffs of Fall: Paradox and Polyvalence in the

Parables of Jesus [New York: Seabury, 1980]; and Peter D. Miscall, The Workings of

Old Testament Narrative [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983]).



164                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 2004

 

                           NARRATIVE AND HISTORICITY

 

The growing recognition of the need to regard biblical narratives as

literature has led to a greater emphasis on the creative art of the

biblical authors. At the same time many scholars date these narra-

tives fairly late, creating a significant chronological gap between

the alleged events described in the narratives and the time of their

composition. Although these narratives give the impression that

they speak of the past, many scholars regard them as "historicized

fiction," viewing them as "stories" rather than historically reliable

accounts.

            According to Millard a "story" can signify "a narrative, true or

presumed to be true," or "history . . . as opposed to fiction," or "a

recital of events that have or are alleged to have happened," or "a

narrative of real or, more usually, fictitious events, designed for the

entertainment of the hearer or reader."3 Millard observes that this

last definition is probably the most widely accepted meaning for

the word among critical scholars today.4 Scholars have proposed

various terms to describe Old Testament narratives, some of which

are "historicized fiction" or "fictionalized history,"5 "storicized' his-

tory,"6 and "fictive imagination."7

 

THE IMPACT OF IDEOLOGY8

 

Some writers claim that since biblical narratives are ideologically

biased they cannot be presenting history.9 Lemche plays history

against ideology when he affirms that "the traditional materials

about David cannot be regarded as an attempt to write history, as

 

            3 A. R. Millard, "Story, History, and Theology," in Faith, Tradition, and History:

Old Testament Historiography in Its Near Eastern Context, ed. A. R. Millard, James

K. Hoffmeier, and David W. Baker (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1994), 37.

            4 Ibid.

            5 Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic, 1981), 25, 33-34,

41.

            6 W. Randolph Tate, Biblical Interpretation: An Integrated Approach, rev. ed.

(Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1997), 83.             

            7 Burke 0. Long, "Historical Narrative and the Fictionalizing Imagination," Vetus

Testamentum 35 (1985): 405.

            8 John Bimson frames the discussion of the historiographical nature of Old Tes-

tament narratives by examining the impact of ideology, genre, and mythology ("Old

Testament History and Sociology," in Interpreting the Old Testament: A Guide for

Exegesis, ed. Craig C. Broyles [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001], 134-37).

            9 For example Gosta W. Ahlstrom, The History of Ancient Palestine (Minneapolis:

Fortress, 1993), 375-76.

 



     Old Testament Poetry as a Vehicle for Historiography         165

 

such. Rather, they represent an ideological programmatic composi-

tion that defends the assumption of power by the Davidic dynasty,

and it must have had one particular group of readers in mind, who

required to be convinced of David's innocence."10 Along a similar

line Ahlstrom suggests that ideology and facts and/or objectivity

are mutually exclusive. "Biblical historiography is a literary phe-

nomenon whose primary goal is not to create a record of factual

events. Rather, it is a form of writing steered by, the writers' idea

that the events being described were expressions of the divine will.

. . . biblical historiography is dogmatic in character. . . Because

the authors of the Bible were historiographers and used stylistic

patterns to create a ‘dogmatic’ and, as such, tendentious literature,

one may question the reliability of their product."11 Ahlstrom also

writes, "Biblical historiography is not a product built on facts. It

reflects the narrator's outlook and ideology rather than known

facts. . . . Most of the writings about the premonarchic time are of

dubious historical value."12 In another work Ahlstrom suggests

that "biblical narrators were not really concerned about historical

truth. Their goal was not that of a modern historian—the ideal of

objectivity’ had not yet been invented. In writing their ‘historiog-

raphy’ they maintained that their view of the past corresponded to

Yahweh's view. Sometimes their historical novels are no more than

that: novels."13

            The question is whether narratives with a didactic or propa-

gandistic intent can also be viewed as history writing. Younger and

Millard demonstrate that a definition of history that excludes

ideological or propagandistic tendencies is unrealistically narrow.14

Examining a number of historiographic records from various an-

cient civilizations, Chavalas concludes that "the fact that a work is

propagandistic does not preclude it from having historical value."15

 

            10 Niels Peter Lemche, Ancient Israel: A New History of Israelite Society (Sheffield:

Sheffield, 1988), 53 (italics his).

            11 Gosta Ahlstrom, "The Role of Archaeological and Literary Remains in Recon-

structing Israel's History," in The Fabric of History: Text, Artifact, and Israel's Past,

ed. Diana Vilander Edelman (Sheffield: Sheffield, 1991), 118.

            12 Ibid., 134–35.

            13 Ahlstrom, The History of Ancient Palestine, 50.

            14 K. Lawson Younger, Ancient Conquest Accounts: A Study in Ancient Near East-

ern and Biblical History Writing (Sheffield: Sheffield, 1990), 31–35; and Millard,

"Story, History, and Theology," 54–60.

            15 Mark Chavalas, "Genealogical History as ‘Charter’: A Study of Old Babylonian

Period Historiography and the Old Testament," in Faith, Tradition, and History:

 



166                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April—June 2004

 

In fact one could ask if "it is even possible, much less desirable, to

write history apart from some angle or point of view that informs

the historian's thesis. Historiography reflects intention, and inten-

tion requires selectivity and purpose."16 Rather than something to

avoid, it is important to recognize that biblical history does not

have to be without bias to be regarded as history writing.17

 

THE IMPACT OF GENRE (AESTHETICS)

In the opinion of various scholars literary craft and an accurate

historical representation are incompatible. This unfortunate con-

clusion arises, at least in part, from the association of biblical lit-

erature with modern literary theories. To secular literary theorists,

literature is art, created for its own sake and not for any purpose

external to itself. In other words, according to some, "literature has

nothing to do with reality—past, present, or future."18 Ramsay as-

serts that "the telling of a story does not in and of itself constitute a

claim that the events narrated actually happened. The story has a

world of its own, whether based on actual events or not. As a story

it is not dependent on its correspondence with actual historical re-

alities."19 Others contend that the biblical writers' obvious concern

for literary artistry (displaying traits normally associated with fic-

tional narratives—plot, dialogue, point of view, and characteriza-

tion)20 demonstrates that biblical narratives were meant as literary

pieces rather than historiographical material.21 Davies contends

that the literary nature of biblical narratives precludes their his-

torical viability.

 

Old Testament Historiography in Its Near Eastern Context, 107.

            16 Garnett H. Reid, "Minimalism and Biblical History," Bibliotheca Sacra 155

(1998): 407.

            17 Younger, Ancient Conquest Accounts, 33; cf. John Goldingay, "That You May

Know That Yahweh Is God—A Study in the Relationship between Theology and

Historical Truth in the Old Testament," Tyndale Bulletin 23 (1972): 82—84.

            18 Tremper Longman III, "Storytellers and Poets in the Bible: Can Literary Arti-

fice Be True?" in Inerrancy and Hermeneutic: A Tradition, A Challenge, A Debate,

ed. Harvie M. Conn (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 143.

            19 G. W. Ramsay, The Quest for the Historical Israel: Reconstructing Israel's Early

History (London: SCM, 1982), 123 (italics his).

            20 John Bimson, "Old Testament History and Sociology," in Interpreting the Old

Testament: A Guide for Exegesis, ed. Craig C. Broyles (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001),

135.

            21 Philip R. Davies, In Search of "Ancient Israel" (Sheffield: Sheffield, 1992), 122;

cf. John Van Seters, In Search of History: Historiography in the Ancient World and

the Origins of Biblical History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983), 311,

319.



     Old Testament Poetry as a Vehicle for Historiography       167

 

            History is a narrative, in which happenings and people are turned

            into events and characters. . . . Whenever we try to describe the past

            we indulge in story-telling. . . . All story is fiction, and that must in-

            clude historiography. The historian may like to invest trust in these

            stories, but should never avoid the question "why is this story being

            told?" The answer can never be "because what it describes happened,"

            for not only is that untrue . . . but the fact of something happening

            does not of itself provide an adequate reason for telling it. Literature

            is a form of persuasive communication, and it cannot help conveying

            its author. Most literary critics would accept that . . . most literature

            is ideology. If so, historiography, as a genre of literature, is also ideol-

            ogy. It is not acceptable for an historian to trust the text or its un-

            known author. Credulity does not become an historian. Skepticism,

            rather is the proper stance. . . . What is important is that the histo-

            rian's story must in some way ring true to modern ears.22

 

            Referring to Judges 5 as narrative poetry, Berlin affirms that

narrative is a "form of representation."23 "Abraham in Genesis is

not a real person any more than a painting of an apple is a real

fruit. This is not a judgment on the existence of a historical Abra-

ham any more than it is a statement about the existence of apples.

It is just that we should not confuse a historical individual with his

narrative representation."24

            Many scholars who study narrative or historiographical litera-

ture also make a similar affirmation about historicity. Even though

a biblical narrative lacks the artificiality or heroic elevation of cer-

tain legendary genres and appears to be a "realistic narrative,"

these writers resist the idea that the narrative world depicted in

these passages has anything to do with the "real" world of the past.

It delineates a “‘fictive world,’ entire in itself and referring only to

itself. Its integrity must not be compromised by seeking to relate it

to anything outside itself. Text and history must be kept apart.”25

For example Nelson creates a gap between what the canonical text

says and what may have actually happened. Concerning Jeroboam I

he writes, "Historically the narrator may be doing Jeroboam a

grave injustice; canonically the anachronistic evaluation is fully

justified."26 Thompson defines historiography as "a specific literary

 

            22 Davies, In Search of "Ancient Israel," 13-14 (italics his).

            23 Adele Berlin, Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative (Winona Lake, IN:

Eisenbrauns, 1994), 13 (italics hers).

            24 Ibid.

            25 Iain W. Provan, 1 and 2 Kings, New International Bible Commentary (Peabody,

MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 6.

            26 Richard D. Nelson, First and Second Kings (Louisville: John Knox, 1987), 81.

Just before this statement Nelson affirms that he has no idea whether what the

 



168                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April–June 2004

 

genre relating to critical descriptions and evaluations of past real-

ity and events, in contrast to more fictional varieties of prose," but

then he states that the Old Testament contains no historiographi-

cal accounts at all.27 Thompson distinguishes between salvation

history ,(which he says never happened and is only a literary form)

and actual history.28 Many writers distinguish between "historical

Israel," discernible by uncovered artifacts and datable inscriptions,

and "biblical Israel," the Israel described in the Old Testament.29

For these writers the "biblical Israel" is only a literary construct

that has "some points of contact with the past, but is so ideologi-

cally slanted that it cannot serve as a starting point for serious his-

torical enquiry. It must be set aside, as we attempt to replace fic-

tion with facts—as a truly critical scholarship takes over from a

scholarship compromised by religious sentiment."30

            In response Provan affirms that biblical historiographical nar-

ratives (1 and 2 Kings in particular) seek "to tell us, not about a

fictive world, but the real world that God has made and in which

God acts."31 He adds, "There appear to be literary conventions gov-

erning the use of names and numbers, for example, that must be

taken into consideration when attempting any correlation between

text and history where these phenomena are concerned. To fail to

take the historiographical impulse seriously overall, however, is to

fail to take the book seriously. That failure is as profound as the

failure to read the book as a book. It will not do--at least if one

thinks it important that texts and their authors should be treated

with respect."32

            The literary craft of the Bible does not in itself argue against

the truthfulness or historicity of the events and people it describes.

As Millard points out, "The history writer is only as limited as the

 

narrator records about Jeroboam I is "based on genuine annalistic sources or is pure

fiction."

            27 Thomas L. Thompson, Early History of the Israelite People from the Written and

Archaeological Sources (Leiden: Brill, 1992), 373.

            28 Ibid., 328.

            29 Some of the scholars who take this approach are Davies, In Search of "Ancient

Israel"; Giovanni Garbini, History and Ideology in Ancient Israel (New York: Cross-

road, 1988); Lemche, Ancient Israel: A New History of Israelite Society; and Thomp-

son, Early History of the Israelite People from the Written and Archaeological

Sources.

            30 Provan, 1 and 2 Kings, 7.

            31 Ibid.

            32 Ibid.

 



      Old Testament Poetry as a Vehicle for Historiography     169

 

repertoire of his genre as any other artist is, namely, by the con-

straints of the primary materials. The writer's store of language,

experience, and imagination can all contribute to enriching the

narrative without smothering the reality of the events he describes

or detracting from it."33 Sternberg demonstrates that ideology, his-

tory, and literary aesthetics come together in Old Testament nar-

ratives.34

 

THE IMPACT OF RECORDING DIVINE ACTIVITY

Various scholars argue that the biblical narratives' concern for re-

cording divine activity precludes one from utilizing those narra-

tives as a legitimate historical source. For example Ahlstrom

writes, "Since the biblical text is concerned primarily with divine

actions, which are not verifiable, it is impossible to use the exodus

story as a source to reconstruct the history of the Late Bronze and

Early Iron I periods. The text is concerned with mythology rather

than with a detailed reporting of historical facts. As soon as some-

one ‘relates’ a god's actions or words, mythology has been writ-

ten."35 Ahlstrom then cites the Kadesh Inscriptions of Rameses II,

which present the Egyptian pharaoh (and the god Amon) as a pow-

erful victor when the battle might have been a near-disaster for the

Egyptians. Ahlstrom contends that this biased reporting of the bat-

tle indicates its mythological rather than historiological function.36

            However, notwithstanding Rameses' open reliance on divine

help and the biased (propagandistic) purpose of the inscriptions

and accompanying sculptures, Egyptologists accept Rameses' re-

cords as primary documents in reconstructing a major episode in

Egyptian military history.37 Bimson concludes that references "to a

deity, even to a divine intervention and causation, should therefore

be seen as cultural or religious encoding; they tell us nothing about

 

            33 Millard, "Story, History, and, Theology," 48-49.

            34 Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative (Bloomington, IN: Indiana

University Press, 1985), 1-57.

            35 Gosta W. Ahlstrom, Who Were the Israelites? (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns,

1986), 46; cf. idem, The History of Ancient Israel, 28.

            36 Ahlstrom, The History of Ancient Israel, 29.

            37 Robert Drews, The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catas-

trophe ca. 1200 B.C. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 130-34; and

R. O. Faulkner, "Egypt: From the Inception of the Nineteenth Dynasty to the Death

of Ramesses III," in The Middle East and the Aegean Region c. 1380—1000 B.C.,

CAH 2/2, 3d ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), chap. 32, sec. 6.

 



170          BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April—June 2004

 

the historicity of the event so encoded."38 Millard adds that the

presence of a "report of divine communication does not invalidate

the accompanying episodes in biblical or other ancient texts any

more than it does in the story of Joan of Arc."39

            Some authors suggest that the word "fiction" can be used to

describe the work of a biblical writer whose narrative is not the

event itself but serves as an account of that event.40 However, as

Long suggests, the terms "artistry" or "craft," not "fiction," should

be used to describe the biblical writers' creativity and selectivity in

relating various historical events.41 Of course any reference to a

biblical writer's creativity does not imply that he inserted informa-

tion that was not true historically. As with all Scripture written by

human authors, the Holy Spirit made use of their personalities and

writing styles in the process of inspiration.

 

OLD TESTAMENT NARRATIVES AND TRUTH

Are Old Testament historical narratives to be regarded as "true"?

Most nonevangelical scholars maintain that the Bible's historical

narratives, while fictitious, are nonetheless "true." As Reid points

out, "This oxymoron, that an event can be true yet not true, is ex-

plained by redefining what ‘true’ means. To a minimalist, a histori-

cal event is not ‘true’ in that it conforms to the real or actual but

that it conveys teaching—it presents ‘truth.’”42 Minimalists Ord

and Coote contend that "many biblical stories are like Animal

Farm. They are true, though not historically accurate or factual.

They are concerned with proclaiming a message, not with provid-

 

            38 Bimson, "Old Testament History and Sociology," 137. Concerning "cultural or

religious encoding" see Younger, Ancient Conquest Accounts, 36.

            39 Millard, "Story, History, and Theology," 43. Prior to this statement Millard de-

lineated Joan of Arc's reliance on visions and voices (idem, 42-43).

            40 See the discussion in V. Philips Long, The Art of Biblical History (Grand Rapids:

Zondervan, 1994), 62-63, 86.

            41 Ibid., 63, 86.

            42 Reid, "Minimalism and Biblical History," 396. Reid defines "minimalism" as

follows: "Their method is primarily nontextual; they admit deriving a minimum of

credible history from the biblical materials themselves. The Bible is primarily fic-

tion, as they view it, consisting of myth and legend. Instead they appeal to what

they see as more objective, scientific sources of historical data, namely, the results

of archaeology and social science. Their ideology in turn rests on a philosophical

hermeneutic inclined toward discounting the Bible as a reliable source in matters

historical" (ibid., 394-95). Some scholars who have been described as minimalists

are Gosta Ahlstrom, Robert B. Coote, Philip R. Davies, Niels Peter Lemche, Thomas

L. Thompson, John Van Seters, and Keith W. Whitelam.

 



       Old Testament Poetry as a Vehicle for Historiography        171

 

ing us with a chronology of events from the history of Israel or, the

life of Jesus of Nazareth. We must learn to read them not as his-

tory but as message."43 In that perspective, for example, Exodus

14-15 tells a story of release from bondage that, they say, "presents

truth but does not narrate history; its effect is to produce faith, yet

its content does not provide fact."44 In other words there is no nec-

essary connection between the events portrayed in a biblical narra-

tive and the actual history of that time. Davies suggests, "Where

this sophistication has percolated into university and college cur-

ricula, it is now much easier for a student to appreciate that the

deity who destroys Sodom and Gomorrah and the fish that swal-

lows Jonah are each characters in a narrative constructed by an

author, and, as the phrase goes, any resemblance to real or actual

persons or events may be purely coincidental."45 Lemche, another

minimalist, affirms that "it is a fact that the history of Israel as

told by the Old Testament has little if anything to do with the real

historical developments in Palestine until at least the later part of

the Hebrew monarchy. [It] should be argued that from a histo-

rian's point of view we have to consider the historical literature of

the Old Testament a poor source of historical information."46

            In contrast to this perspective evangelicals affirm that the

biblical narratives present events and characters to the reader as

"true" history, conveying truths and conforming to reality.47 As

Merrill writes, "If the story as a whole is to be taken seriously as

portraying facts, the persons and events to which it attests must

also be taken seriously. That is, it must be seen as a true story, a

narrative not only reflecting perception about events but one that

recounts with accuracy and integrity the events as they actually

happened."48 As Sailhamer proposes, "The authors of the biblical

narratives intended to write history and not fiction. Their aim, as

they imply throughout, is to record what actually happened in hu-

man history."49

 

            43 David R. Ord and Robert B. Coote, Is the Bible Really True? (Maryknoll,,NY:

Orbis, 1994), 33; cf. 120.

            44 Reid, "Minimalism and Biblical History," 397.

            45 Davies, In Search of "Ancient Israel," 12.

            46 Niels Peter Lemche, "The Old Testament —A Hellenistic Book," Scandinavian

Journal of the Old Testament 7 (1993): 182.

            47 Reid, "Minimalism and Biblical History," 400.

            48 Eugene H. Merrill, "Old Testament History: A Theological Perspective," in New

International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, ed. Willem A.

VanGemeren (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 1:20.

            49 John Sailhamer, Introduction to Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zon-

 



172                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 2004

 

                        HISTORICITY AND EXODUS 14-15

Various scholars refer to the unknown location of sites mentioned

in Exodus 14:1-2 as an obstacle to historicity. Although the precise

route of the Exodus has vexed many Bible students, solving that

problem is not necessary in order for one to accept the historicity of

the place names mentioned. Others have asked where all the

horses used by the Pharaoh's forces in pursuing Israel came from

in light of the fifth plague in which "all" livestock died (9:6).50

            The answer might be found in Exodus 9:20-21, which reads,

"The one among the servants of Pharaoh who feared the word of

the LORD made his servants and his livestock flee into the houses;

but he who paid no regard to the word of the LORD left his servants

and his livestock in the field." These verses imply that many slaves

and livestock were saved during the seventh plague because some

Egyptians feared God and took appropriate action in light of the

warnings that had been given.

            In summary the first objections to the historicity or accuracy of

the account found in Exodus 14 are somewhat inconsequential. A

feasible answer for those concerns is available. For many, however,

a major obstacle to accepting the account in Exodus 14 as historical

is the astounding nature of the crossing itself. The idea of a group

of people (whatever the size) being able to cross a large body of wa-

ter on dry land with the water piled up as walls on both sides of

their route seems to them simply incomprehensible. The subse-

quent destruction of the pursuing Egyptian force is also amazing

and the presence of chapter 15, with its poetic rendering of the

events, adds to the problem for some.

 

THE COMPLEMENTARY NATURE OF EXODUS 14 AND 15

In discussing Judges 4-5, Younger considers the prose/poetic phe-

nomenon in various ancient Near Eastern texts. He compares poetic

accounts with prose annalistic accounts of three Assyrian rulers51

 

dervan, 1995), 54.

            50 The NET Bible note on the word "all" in this verse reads: "The word ‘all’ clearly

does not mean ‘all’ in the exclusive sense, because subsequent plagues involve cat-

tle. The word must denote such a large number that whatever was left was insig-

nificant for the economy. It could also be taken to mean ‘all [kinds of] livestock died’"

(p. 134).

            51 Tukulti-Ninurta I, Tiglath-pileser I, and Shalmaneser III (K. Lawson Younger

Jr., "Heads! Tails! Or the Whole Coin?! Contextual Method and Intertextual Analy-

sis: Judges 4 and 5," in The Biblical Canon in Comparative Perspective, ed. K. Law-

son Younger Jr., William W. Hallo, and Bernard F. Batto [Lewiston, NY: Mellen,

1991], 110-16).

 



      Old Testament Poetry as a Vehicle for Historiography        173

 

and three Egyptian rulers.52 Younger observes,

               Ancient scribes could write different accounts about the same ref-

            erents. But difference in purpose could determine differences in detail

            (e.g., the lists of Hittite allies in the Kadesh inscriptions), and in the

            selectivity of the events narrated (e.g., the Shasu spies in the

            Ramesses' Bulletin). If the scribes' purpose was to praise the king

            and/or the gods, poetry naturally offered a medium to heighten the

            emotions of the praise through rhetorical embellishments. Hence, di-

            vine activity and praise of the deities is encountered more often in the

            poetic versions. Poetic versions, in fact, also provide a very suitable

            ground for legal legitimation (cf. the Tukulti-Ninurta Epic and the Is-

            rael Stela). But in most instances the poetic (or more rhetorical) text

            also added significant historical details so that the complementary

            nature of the accounts is manifest.53

 

            Commenting on Judges 4 and 5, Younger points out that the

song (the poetic account) "provides an emotional and more figura-

tive account with special themes and purpose."54 As in Judges 4

and 5, the narrative record of the crossing of the Red Sea (Exod.

14) has several points in common with the poetic account and also

various points of divergence.55 The points of divergence arise from

the selective presentation of the biblical narrator (Moses) and are

not meant to be understood as contradicting the details in the cor-

responding prose account.

            Whereas Exodus 14 narrates the crossing of the Red Sea (af-

firming the event), Exodus 15 has a different purpose. Through

poetic vividness, the songs that Moses and Miriam sang exalt

Yahweh as the all-powerful God who intervened on behalf of His

people. The descriptions in that chapter, though founded on a his-

torical event, are meant to focus attention on God. The statements

in chapter 15 are true, even though God's right hand, for example,

did not literally appear to vanquish the Egyptians (vv. 6, 12).

            Just as the pairing of poetic and prose narratives in various

ancient Near Eastern settings does not cause historians to question

the historicity of a given campaign or person, so the complemen-

tary nature of Exodus 14 and 15 should not occasion that under-

standing either. In addition to recognizing the connection in Old

Testament accounts between truth and historicity, one must also

give attention to the intent of a given passage.

 

            52 Thutmose III, Ramesses II, and Merneptah (ibid., 117-27).

            53 Ibid., 127.

            54 Ibid.

            55 Richard D. Patterson gives some examples of these similarities and dissimilari-

ties ("Victory at Sea: Prose and Poetry in Exodus 14-15," Bibliotheca Sacra 161

[January-March 2004]: 42-54).

 



174                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April June 2004

 

THE PARADIGMATIC FUNCTION OF THE CROSSING OF THE RED SEA

The fact that several biblical writers referred to the crossing of the

Red Sea argues for its actual occurrence in time and space; this

miracle serves as a paradigm for salvation and deliverance

throughout the Bible.56 Here are just a few examples of later texts

that draw on the crossing of the Red Sea as a paradigm. In Joshua

3-4 the crossing of the Jordan River demonstrated to the Israelites

that Joshua, their new leader, was a leader like Moses and was

worthy of their submission. The Jordan River, at flood stage, was

an insurmountable obstacle through which God led them after He

parted the waters (3:13-17). The miraculous transit across the

Jordan River was a kind of reenactment of the crossing of the Red

Sea.57

            The prophet Isaiah described God's promise to return Israel to

the land of promise with abundant allusions to the Exodus event

and the crossing of the Red Sea in particular. For example Isaiah

43:16-17 states, "This is what the LORD says, the one who made a

road through the sea, a pathway through the surging waters, the

one who led chariots and horses to destruction, together with a

mighty army. They fell down, never to rise again; they were extin-

guished, put out like a burning wick" (NET Bible). Through the use

of Exodus terminology, God was telling His people, in effect, "I did

it before, and I'll do it again."58

            In Isaiah 51:9-10 the prophet used Exodus imagery to depict

God as the one who is able to bring this deliverance about. "Wake

up! Wake up! Clothe yourself with strength, O arm of the LORD!

Wake up as in former times, as in antiquity! Did you not smash the

Proud One? Did you not wound the sea monster? Did you not dry

up the sea, the waters of the great deep? Did you not make a path

through the depths of the sea, so those delivered from bondage

could cross over?" (NET Bible).

            The prophet's reference to the "Proud One" ("Rahab"59 in some

 

            56 Peter Enns provides a lengthy and helpful overview of the role of the Exodus

event as a salvation paradigm throughout the Old and New Testaments (Exodus,

New International Version Application Commentary [Grand Rapids: Zondervan,

2000], 279-89). See also F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Development of Old Tes-

tament Themes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), 32-50.

            57 Enns, Exodus, 280.

            58 Ibid., 281.

            59 A note in the NET Bible on Isaiah 51:9 states: "The title bhr, ‘proud one’ (some-

times translated as a proper name, ‘Rahab’ [cf. New American Bible, New American

Standard Bible, New International Version, New Revised Standard Version]) is

used here of a symbolic sea monster, known elsewhere in the Bible and in Ugaritic

 



       Old Testament Poetry as a Vehicle for Historiography     175

 

translations) refers to a symbolic sea monster cited in various an-

cient Near Eastern creation accounts. In those accounts the sea

was a symbol of chaos, and the gods needed to bring the sea under

control in order for the world to enjoy stability.60 At the very least

the wording of this verse clearly alludes to the Israelite crossing of

the Red Sea recorded in Exodus 14.61

            The use of the crossing of the Red Sea as a paradigmatic event

in these three passages (as well as several others not cited here).

argues for the historicity of that event. An event that never hap-

pened can hardly serve as a paradigm that would encourage and

challenge later generations.

 

WHAT ABOUT HYPERBOLE AND OTHER FORMS OF ARTISTRY?

 

Hyperbolic language is dramatic language that adds to the vivid-

ness of the biblical writer's description of an event. Hyperbole does

not refer to unwarranted exaggeration that does not correspond

with or accurately represent reality. Nor does authorial creativity

imply activity by the writers of Scripture independent from the

overseeing and guiding ministry of the Holy Spirit. Linguistic art-

istry on the part of the biblical authors corresponds with and accu-

rately represents the reality of a given historical event.

            Judges 5, for example, provides a poetic description of Deborah

and Barak's victory over Sisera and his Canaanite forces. Verses

19-21 read, "The kings of Canaan fought at Taanach near

Megiddo's springs, but they carried off no treasures of battle. The

stars fought from heaven. The stars in their orbits fought against

Sisera. The Kishon River swept them away that ancient river, the

Kishon. March on, my soul, with courage!'' (New Living Transla-

 

myth as Leviathan. This sea creature symbolizes the forces of chaos that seek to

destroy the created order. In the Bible ‘the Proud One’ opposes God's creative work,

but is defeated (see Job 26:12; Ps 89:10 [ET]). Here the title refers to Pharaoh's

Egyptian army that opposed Israel at the Red Sea (see v. 10, and note also Isa 30:7

and Ps 87:4, where the title is used of Egypt)" (p. 1266).,

            60 Robert B. Chisholm Jr. writes, "In myth Leviathan represents the sea and those

forces of chaos that oppose Baal's royal authority. In the Old Testament this sea/sea

monster symbolism is applied to those forces, both cosmic and historical, that op-

pose the Lord's kingship and seek to destroy the order He establishes. The battle

with the sea/sea monster motif is associated with the Lord's victories over chaos at

creation and in history (cf. Pss. 74:13–14; 77:16–20; 89:9–10; Isa. 51:9–10). His

subjugation of these forces demonstrates His kingship and sovereignty (Pss. 29:3,

10; 93:3–4)" ("Theology of Isaiah," in A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, ed.

Roy B. Zuck [Chicago: Moody, 1991], 321–22).

            61 Enns suggests that Isaiah 51:9 also alludes to God's creative work (Exodus,

282–83).

 



176         BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April—June 2004

 

tion). According to the biblical poem the overflowing Kishon River

swept away Sisera and his Canaanite army and chariots (v. 21).

One pictures a great river at flood stage wreaking havoc and de-

struction on everything in its path.

            However, the Kishon River was a fairly small waterway (which

could be called a stream) and the narrative in Judges 4:16 indi-

cates that the Canaanite soldiers were killed when "Barak chased

the enemy and their chariots all the way to Harosheth-haggoyim,

killing all of Sisera's warriors" (NLT). No doubt many chariots be-

came stuck in the water-logged ground of the Jezreel Valley while

some were destroyed by Israelite forces later in the battle. Why

then did the writer of Judges 5 describe the flooding of the river in

this fashion? Was he departing from the truth? Was' he describing

a legendary event that never happened? No, he uged hyperbolic

language to heighten the drama and vividness of God's interven-

tion on behalf of His people.

            Was a biblical author "at liberty to reconstruct the words of

conversations he was not present to hear or even the thoughts of

persons which presumably had never been shared?"62 Merrill pro-

poses that historians "must frequently reconstruct settings in

which events occurred, including conversations and introspections

that most likely could or would have taken place. This is almost

always necessary in order to transform the raw facts of what hap-

pened into a good story. The raw facts alone often do not make a

story that lives and breathes. To use Alter's terminology, ancient

historians used conventional ‘type-scenes’ to form matrices against

which the past must be understood."63 Lest one conclude from this

that biblical "history" is not reliable, Merrill argues that the above

conclusion

            does not annul the integrity of the record, for facts in any case must

            be interpreted by the reader as well as by the historian. Every mod-

            ern observer of the past is free and indeed obligated to "fill in the

            blanks," for no historical account can be complete. The Old Testament

            narrative may appear to be an exception to this inasmuch as it is

            revelation—inspired literature whose veracity is bound up in that

            dogmatic claim. But inspiration does not mean a sort of dictation

            where the human authors were simply automated writers. The bibli-

            cal text consistently shows the marks of its human authors, with

            endless differences of literary technique and style. Thus, biblical his-

 

            62 Eugene H. Merrill, "History," in Cracking Old Testament Codes: A Guide to In-

terpreting the Literary Genres of the Old Testament, ed. D. Brent Sandy and Ronald

L. Giese Jr. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1995), 103.

            63 Ibid., 103-4 (italics his).

 



      Old Testament Poetry as a Vehicle for Historiography       177

 

            tory is not precluded from critical analysis nor even from the possi-

            bility that some imagination was at work in its composition. But

            imagination is not synonymous either with error or lack of facticity.

            Though humanly unaware of all the ingredients of the original scene

            he described, the biblical historian, like any other, reconstructed the

            complex of events but . . . in such a way as to reflect accurately the

            acts, words, and even thoughts of the protagonists.64

 

            In using hyperbole and other artistry the biblical authors' lit-

erary craft does not detract from or conflict with an accurate depic-

tion of the events or persons in question. In fact their careful pres-

entation of a given event and their use of artistic poetic language

contribute to the vividness and drama of the narrative.

 

PRINCIPLES IN APPROACHING POETIC NARRATIVES

 

Four suggestions may be offered on how to interpret biblical nar-

ratives written in poetic style.

            First, understand the differences between prose and poetic ma-

terial. There is no reason to reject the historicity of the events in

Exodus 14, nor should one ignore the close relationship Exodus 15

has with the preceding chapter. The vivid and colorful language of

chapter 15 does not prevent it from having a solid historical

grounding in the events described in chapter 14. Also one should

not press the language of poetry through the grid of prose. The lan-

guage in Exodus 15 does not have to correspond in every detail to

the prose description in Exodus 14.

            Second, do not discount the selectivity and creativity of a bibli-

cal writer in crafting a given narrative or poetic account. Through

selectivity, word choice, or points of emphasis, a writer can give a

particular slant to his presentation of an event or person. The

author's description may not be exhaustive, but it will be accurate

in what it presents. On occasion a biblical writer may include a

conversation or thought process that is understandable and fitting

in light of the subject matter, even if those thoughts were not spo-

ken to the biblical writer. The Holy Spirit inspired the biblical

authors to use words for the greatest dramatic, emotional, and rhe-

torical effect so that in the end the reader is left in awe of what

God has done. Allowing for this reality, the interpreter must be

cautious in identifying these kinds of' phenomena.

            Third, do not assume that poetic patterns rule out chronological

sequence. In Genesis 1 literary artifice is evident in the parallelism

between the first three days of creation and the last three. Some

 

            64 Ibid., 104.

 



178                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 2004

 

scholars reject the possibility that the days of creation mirror what

actually happened, basing some of their conclusion on the poetry

and literary artistry of the passage.65 Literary artistry and/or po-

etic structure do not, in themselves rule out chronology (or his-

toricity).

            Fourth, be cautious. As evangelicals affirm the inspiration and

inerrancy of God's Word and wrestle with the relationship between

historicity and literary craft in Old Testament narratives, and as

they seek to treat the biblical literature fairly, they must always be

careful in what they regard as part of the literary craft.

 

                                           CONCLUSION

 

Exodus 14 and 15 function as a literary duet, describing one of the

most momentous events in the history of God's chosen people.

Chapter 14 describes the Israelite crossing of the Red Sea in clear

narrative style. Chapter 15 views the same event, but with a much

more vivid and impressionistic flavor. One need not question the

historicity of the narrative account of this event. Although the

event itself is stupendous and almost incomprehensible, the bibli-

cal narrator depicts it as historical reality. The prose of chapter 14

communicates the drama of the moment, paving the way for the

marvelous intervention of Yahweh, Israel's covenant-keeping God.

Then chapter 15 describes that event as a celebration of Yahweh's

victory over His enemies and over the elements. The juxtaposition

of this poetic account next to the narrative account helps bring to

light the importance of giving attention to a passage's form or

genre in the interpretive process. The unique wording found in the

poetic passage is not meant to contradict the narrative account;

instead it adds beauty and luster to the reader's appreciation of

that impressive event. Readers must be careful to give due consid-

eration to the historicity of the narrative passage as well to treat

fairly the poetic passage that accompanies it.

 

            65 Meredith Kline, "Because It Had Not Rained," Westminster Theological Journal

20 (1958): 146-57; and Mark Futato, "Because It Had Rained: A Study of Gen 2:5-7

with Implications for Gen 2:4-25 and Gen 1:1-2:3," Westminster Theological Jour-

nal 60 (1988): 1-21.

 

 

This material is cited with gracious permission from:

Dallas Theological Seminary

            3909 Swiss Ave.

            Dallas, TX   75204

            www.dts.edu

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:  thildebrandt@gordon.edu