Notes on the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:1-18)
The daily notes during the month of August are supplemental to the Study Series on “The People of God” —focusing specifically, in the first part, on the Old Testament background for the idea of Israel as God’s chosen people. As discussed in the recent article and notes on Exodus 3, the theme of Israel as the people of God (YHWH) is central to the traditions and narrative in the book of Exodus. Indeed, the Exodus event represents, symbolically, the true birth of Israel as the the people of YHWH. And, as the crossing of the “Reed Sea” is the central episode of Israel’s emergence from out of the bondage and travail in Egypt, it plays a key role in the overall narrative.
The crossing of the Sea episode is narrated in chapter 14, followed by a great poem in chapter 15 (vv. 1-18) which came to be known in Israelite and Jewish tradition as the “Song of the Sea” (<Y`h^ tr^yv!). This conjunction of a battle narrative followed by a poem/ode celebrating victory is similar to the situation in Judges 4-5. There are also contemporary parallels from ancient Egypt, such as in the chronicles of the 13th century Pharaohs Rameses II (against the Hittites) and Merenptah (against the Libyans). However, as Sarna (pp. 75-76) notes, the Egyptian accounts celebrate the accomplishments of a human king (Pharaoh), while in the Exodus narrative it is the victories of God (YHWH) as Sovereign that are to be praised.
All of the objective evidence points to the Song of the Sea as being one of the very oldest poems (and literary pieces) preserved in the Old Testament. The seminal critical study on the Song remains that of F. M. Cross in his Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History and Religion of Israel (Harvard: 1973), pp. 112-44, which is an expanded version of his earlier essay “The Song of the Sea and Canaanite Myth” in the Journal of Theology and the Church 5 (1968), pp. 1-25. His work is based on an earlier study by he and D. N. Freedman, “The Song of Miriam” in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies 14 (1955), pp. 237-50 (republished in Studies in Ancient Yahwistic Poetry, by the same authors). Cross’ orthographic analysis points to an 11th or 10th century date (at least) for the poem being put into written form, and that the poem itself may well date from the 12th century. Most critical scholars generally agree with this assessment.
It is clear that the language of such early poems in the Old Testament, in most instances, is considerably older than that of the accompanying prose narrative. The main reason for this is that poetry, with its specific stylized and formal aspects, is less likely to be ‘modernized’ over time. To the extent that the Exodus narratives (and/or their underlying traditions) derive from the 13th century (the time of Moses), they have been developed, adapted, and modernized during the course of transmission. It is primarily in the early poetry that the older language (and literary/poetic style) has been preserved. This, however, creates certain text-critical problems in our study of the poems. Over time, copyists became less familiar with the older language and style, and there are signs that archaic features in the poetry were misunderstood and (at times) mistakenly ‘corrected’ or given an inaccurate pointing. While we can not always be sure that transmission errors have taken place, the possibility must be considered in any proper critical study of the text.
I will be examining the Song using the same critical-exegetical approach I use in the Sunday Studies on the Psalms, looking at each integral poetic unit—line, couplet, or stanza—in some detail. For the purpose of breaking the Song into multiple daily notes, I will be following the 9-unit division suggested by Cross (pp. 126ff). In simpler terms, the Song may be divided into two main parts: (1) praise for YHWH’s victory over the Egyptians (vv. 1-12), and (2) praise for YHWH Himself and what he has done for His people (vv. 13-18).
Metrically, the Song generally employs a short 2-beat couplet (bicolon) format. The main stanza utilizes this 2+2 meter, followed by an antiphonal (3-beat) response. In the text as we have it, however, the meter is not consistent in this regard. When approaching such situations in early Hebrew poetry, many commentators are inclined to emend the text whenever possible, to restore a more consistent rhythm—based on the fair assumption that the poem would originally have been sung according to a more regular, consistent (performable) rhythm. Such emendation and reconstruction must be approached with great care and caution; I must admit that I am not inclined to reconstruct the text of the Song as aggressively as Cross does.
The Song is set within the context of the prose narrative through the introductory notice of verse 1a:
“Then Moshe sang—and (with him the) sons of Yisrael—this song to YHWH. And he said (this), saying:”
The statement indicates that the Song is in response to the actions of YHWH in delivering the people of Israel from the Egyptian forces (narrated in chapter 14). The nature-miracle at the “Reed Sea” ([Ws-<y~) is the occasion for praising God, and serves as the basis for the ode of praise in verses 1-12.
“(Come,) I will sing to YHWH,
for raised, He (is to be) raised!
(The) horse and its ride [bkr]
He has hurled in(to) the Sea!
Strength and might (belongs to) YH,
He has come to be salvation for me!”
The primary stanza is to be seen in the first two couplets (2-beat, 2+2). The terse, staccato-like rhythm and repetitive parallelism are typical of Canaanite poetry of the period (as glimpsed, for example, in the 14th-13th century poetic texts from Ugarit). Cross (p. 127) would argue that the 3-beat couplet of v. 2a is secondary and not part of the original stanza.
The first couplet is a call to praise YHWH. The imperfect verb form has jussive/cohortative force (“[come,] let me…”). Cross prefers to emend the text here to a simple imperative (Wryv!, “sing!”), which tightens the rhythm and matches the opening of the parallel song in verse 21; he may be correct in terms of the earliest/original form of the poem. The second line utilizes the common Semitic convention of doubling a verb for emphasis, thereby intensifying its force. Usually this is done by adding a cognate infinitive, creating a syntax which is most difficult to render literally in English. Here an approximate translation would be “raised, he is raised”, with a doubling of the root hag (“rise, raise [high]”). It indicates a call to exalt YHWH (in praise), because He Himself is exalted, having raised Himself in might against the enemies of Israel.
The second couplet declares succinctly the victory of God in battle, defeating the Egyptian forces who threatened His people. It summarizes the powerful nature-miracle that occurred at the Reed Sea (as recorded in the tradition), which the Song develops more descriptively in the subsequent stanzas (to be discussed). The Masoretic texts reads obk=r) (“its rider”), which might give one the mistaken impression that it refers to one riding the horse, instead of the person riding in the chariot drawn by the horse. Whether or not Cross is correct that the original text is better vocalized as bk#r# (“ride”), the reference is clearly to the chariot-ride (and the soldier/officer[s] riding in it).
The third couplet is a 3-beat (3+3) colon, which reaffirms the praise that is due to YHWH. It is his strength and might that have led to the victory. There is almost certainly an intentional contrast between the Egyptians’ reliance upon military technology (cavalry/chariotry) and Israel’s reliance upon the power of God. The word hrmz, parallel with zu (“strength”), should be understood as deriving from a separate root rmz with a similar meaning (“be strong, brave”, etc). The comparable ¼mr in Ugaritic is used in a military context (for armed troops, etc), which is very much appropriate here. This root zmr/¼mr occurs frequently in Semitic names, going back to the Mari texts (Zimri-lim, etc). As this root generally dropped out of use in Hebrew, it is easy to see how copyists might have mistaken it here for the more common root rmz meaning “make music”.
The antiphon-response follows in verse 2b:
“This (is) my Mighty (One) [°E~l] and I will glorify Him,
Mightiest (One) of my father, and I will raise Him (high)!”
This is a straightforward 3-beat couplet with clear parallelism. It repeats the identification—so vital to the early Exodus narratives—of YHWH with both: (a) the Creator °E~l (“Mighty [One]”) and (b) the God (°E_lœhîm) worshiped by the ancestors of Israel as Creator and Protector. On this important theme, cf. Part 1 of this Study Series, and the previous notes on Exodus 3:13-15.
References marked “Cross” above (and throughout these notes) are to Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History and Religion of Israel (Harvard University Press: 1973).
References marked “Sarna” are to The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus twm?, commentary by Nahum M. Sarna (Jewish Publication Society: 1991).