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
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
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.
5 Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic, 1981), 25, 33-34,
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
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-
Old Testament Historiography in Its Near Eastern Context, 107.
16 Garnett H. Reid, "Minimalism and Biblical History," Bibliotheca Sacra 155
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),
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,
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
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).
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
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
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
30 Provan, 1 and 2 Kings, 7.
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-
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-
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’"
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,
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.
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
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,
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
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-
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.
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
Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: email@example.com