The bulletin and poetic accounts of the battle of Kadesh (Judges 5)

Judges 4 records in prose the defeat of Sisera, captain of Jabin’s army, at the hand of a Kenite woman. This i followed in Judges 5 by a poetic account of the same event. Differences in style and detail between the two versions have led many scholars to discount the reliability of one or the other account. For instance, Judges 4 mentions only the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulon a having been involved in the battle (Judges 4:6, 10), while Judges 5 also includes Ephraim, Benjamin, Manasseh and Issachar (Judges 4:13-18). Some argue that the two versions stem from separate sources that were later combined by the ancient editor of the book of Judges. This conclusion, however, is unnecessary, as the seeming discrepancies can be explained by other means.

The prosaic and poetic accounts of the same events occurred together in antiquity can be demonstrated by Egyptian literary carvings. In the fifth year of the reign of Egypt’s Rameses II (1275 B.C.), the Egyptian army fought Muwatalliu II of the Hittites at the site of Kadesh near the Orontes River. The Egyptian triumph is depicted in paired wall reliefs that were carved on several Egyptian temples, always accompanied by double inscriptions recounting the heroic role of Rameses II in the victory (although the victory was not as complete as the inscriptions suggest).

One of the two accounts appearing with the battle scenes is known as the Poem, a poetic description of the entire battle with an occasional prosaic section. A prose text (known as the Bulletin) provides supplementary information, namely an account of the pharaoh questioning two Hittite scouts. Like Judges 4 and 5, the Bulletin and Poem recount a military victory in differing forms: one prosaic, the other poetic. In addition, the two works do not repeat precisely the same information but complement one another, with the Poem being more complete or universal account of the battle. The appearance of these two segments, together with the same two battle reliefs on several temples, indicates that they were intended to be read together and had been commissioned and composed at the same time.

Therefore, the fact that Judges 4 comprises a narrative account of the battle against Jabin and Sisera, while Judges 5 is a poetic rendering of the same event, is not a signal that one report is less reliable than the other. It was not uncommon for significant events to be memorialized in a literary, poetic form while also being recorded in more ordinary prose. As the Bulletin account gives more precise information regarding specific events at the Kadesh battle, Judges 4 most likely focuses on the two tribes that provided the most significant military force, even though other tribes assisted in the fight.


 

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