Prose and Poetry or Narrative Prologues and Poetic Epilogues

Some OT scholars make hay with the seeming discrepancies between Exodus 14 (the exodus narrative proper) and Exodus 15 (the poetic or hymnic reflection on the exodus).  For example, they discuss the history, authorship, and date of the two chapters.  It is true: on close reading of the two texts, one can see some differences such as how the Egyptians drowned, how the Lord did his work, and how the people passed through on dry land.  These “oddities” are what caused the older critics to snip the text up into different pieces.  Some older critics say that Ex 15 is a late poem which has features of both “J” and “P;” this accounts for some of the oddities.

An alternative way to answer these “oddities” is by utilizing the basic point that Richard D. Patterson made in his article, “Victory at Sea: Prose and Poetry in Exodus 14-15” (Bibliotheca Sacra 161, Jan-Mar 2004).  Patterson first shows several older Egyptian texts that are very similar to Ex 14-15 in this way: there is prose about a battle by a great Pharaoh, then there is a poem about the Pharaoh’s prowess on the battle field.  Patterson then notes several places in the Pentateuch that follow this pattern.  His main emphasis is relationship between the narrative in Ex 14 and the poetic response (a sort of victory psalm) in Ex 15.  There are similarities (theme and vocab) and differences (cf. above) between the two, but this type of relationship between prose and poetry in ANE/OT texts is not abnormal.

How then do we deal with those differences?  “One must deal with the final form of the full story…including the use of poetry set within the flow of the narrative” (p. 50).  Furthermore, “the literary constraints attendant to the genres of prose and poetry inevitably require that each should be evaluated on its own terms.  The victory song of 15:1-18 should not be pressed with a literalistic hermeneutic and the prose narrative should not be expected to contain all the sensational features of the poem” (p. 52).  Though Patterson says more, notice these two. 1) We have to deal with the text as is, despite what one may think about history and author (cf. Childs in Exodus, p. 248).  2) Since they are different genres,  they need to be interpreted (evaluated) on their own terms.  In other words, of course poetry is going to be different than narrative!

Let me use Enns’ similar comments in his Exodus commentary to bolster what Patterson said.

“If we go through this song, as many have done, with a fine-toothed comb, looking for possible discrepancies with the narrative of chapter 14, we will find them; but in doing so we will have misread the song.  It is a modern Western penchant to require complete ‘consistency’ between accounts, but the biblical authors are not so concerned.  We must resist the temptation to impose our modern expectations on a text, which ancient texts are not always prepared [or meant to – spl] to shoulder” (p. 297).

The “oddities” are not insuperable or contradictory, but Ex 14 and Ex 15 give us different perspectives on the same event.  Ex 15 is “a poetic expression of what we have seen in narrative form in 14:14: ‘the LORD will fight for you.’  The battle is God’s; hence, from his vantage point, there is no struggle” (Enns, 305).  In other words, Ex 15 is different in genre (it is a poem with poetic features) and perspective (it is from heaven’s point of view) than Ex 14.  This accounts for the differences, not an amalgamation of textual snippets.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

2 Replies to “Prose and Poetry or Narrative Prologues and Poetic Epilogues”

  1. F. M. Cross has a superb essay on the Song of the Sea which is well worth a read, it can be found in his Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic.

    He demonstrates that the song reflects archaic Hebrew and should be dated early, and that it probably originated at the cultic shrine of Gilgal and stems from the Exodus-Conquest celebration captured in Psalm 114 and from which Joshua 3-5 grew (see here).

    I am fascinated by verse 17

    You will bring them in and plant them
    on the mountain of your inheritance—
    the place, LORD, you made for your dwelling,
    the sanctuary, Lord, your hands established.

    Cross argues that this should be translated in the past tense, but either way my own question concerns whether this is redactional.

    But anyway, read Cross!


  2. Nice . . . thanks, Shane. It’s always great to have that kind of reminder regarding out desire to make the text fit our own modern assumptions.

    Richard, thanks for plugging Cross. He and Friedman are really solid in their volume on Hebrew Poetry. While they are completely correct to recognize the song of the sea as archaic poetry (see Hurvitz for these categories), I don’t like how they’ve imposed their metric analysis on the text and snipped it up to fit their approach to line forms. MP O’Connor has what I find to be a more compelling approach.

    Of course you’re referring to Hebrew Myth and Canaanite Epic . . . but I just thought I’d jump on board and talk Cross for a couple of minutes! I need to just break down and buy that volume . . . i’ve read enough of it and will continue to do so (along with his volume on Canon) . . . anyway . . . time to put it back on the Amazon wishlist!


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