Erich Lessing

“For me…is left the bitterness and pain” (Iliad 24.42), mourns Andromache, as painted in 1793 by the French artist Jacques Louis David. Andromache’s words, spoken over the body of her husband, Hector, leader of the Trojan army, recall those of David when he bewails the deaths of Saul and Jonathan in 2 Samuel. A similar dirge is also found in Canaanite epic poetry, recorded on cuneiform tablets discovered among the ruins of the ancient city of Ugarit, in modern Syria. All three poems describe heroes who have died in battle. In all three, Yahweh or other gods participate in wars that help define a new nation. But the epics that first defined Israel—the Book of Jashar and the Book of the Wars of Yahweh—may only be glimpsed in the brief quotations scattered throughout the Hebrew Bible.