August 19: Exodus 15:6-8

Exodus 15:6-8

The third and fourth stanzas of the Song of the Sea are longer than the first two (cf. the previous notes on stanzas 1 and 2), each being made up of five 2-beat couplets. Together they serve to narrate the event at the Sea in poetic form, corresponding to the prose account in chapter 14 (vv. 21-29). They expound in greater detail what was stated only briefly in the first two stanzas.

Stanza (vv. 6-8a):

“Your right (hand), YHWH,
is mighty in (its) power;
your right (hand), YHWH,
broke (the) enemy apart!

In (the) greatness of your rising,
you broke (those) standing (against) You!

You sent out your burning (anger),
(and) it devoured them as stubble;
with (the) blowing of your nostril(s),
(the) waters were piled up (together)!”

This stanza can be divided rather clearly into two bicolon-pairs surrounding a central couplet (all with 2-beat [2+2] meter). The bicolon pairs contain a strong (synthetic) parallelism, in which the second line (and second couplet) builds upon the first.

The first two couplets evince the kind of repetitive parallelism that is typical in Canaanite poetry of the period. The motif of God’s “right (hand)” (/ym!y`) symbolizes strength—especially strength in battle that leads to victory. This is further emphasized by the combination of the verb rd^a* (“be mighty, great, magnificent”) with the noun j^K) (“firmness, strength, power”). The focus on the “right hand” of YHWH also signifies that victory was achieved by He alone, without use of human intermediaries (or their technology).

This is stated more pointedly in the central couplet, where the victory over the Egyptians was achieved through the “greatness” of the “rising (up)” of YHWH Himself. The noun br^ fundamentally denotes an abundance or increase, either of size, extent, or number. The root hag, meaning “rise, raise (high)”, was used in the opening couplet of the Song; YHWH is to be raised high (i.e. exalted) in praise because He has raised Himself victoriously in battle against His enemies. This victory is expressed in the second lines of the second and third couplets, using two verbs with a similar meaning: Ju^r* (“break in pieces”) and sr^j* (“break/tear down”). The “enemy” is defined as those who “stand (against)” God, in the sense that they are hostile to His people.

The final two couplets relate how YHWH achieved this victory. Couplet 4 describes this figuratively in terms of the fiery anger of God that consumes (vb lk^a*, “eat, devour”) His enemies. In the ancient Semitic idiom, this “burning” (/orj*) is often located in the nostril(s) ([a^) of God—an image presumably related to the idea of an angry snorting bull, or something comparable (°E~l as a bull was an ancient religious symbol). Such powerful ‘snorting’ from the nose/nostrils fittingly conveys the key image in the climactic couplet—that of a great blowing wind (j^Wr) from God. This wind was central to the nature-miracle that took place during the event at the Sea (according to the traditional account). It was the effect of the wind upon the sea-waters that resulted in the wondrous event, summarized in the concluding line:

“(the) waters were piled up (together)”

The verb used is <r^u*, an extremely rare root in the Old Testament. Apart from its use in the Song here, it is attested only by the related noun hm*r@u& (“pile, heap”, as of grain, rubble, etc). The basic image is that of a great mound of water, perhaps meant to resemble a giant tidal wave. The antiphon-response in verse 8b gives a bit more clarity to what is envisioned.

Response (v. 8b):

“(The) flowing (water)s stood (up) like a mound,
(the) deep (place)s churned in (the) heart of (the) sea!”

Following the poetic pattern of the Song, this antiphonal couplet is a 3-beat (3+3) bicolon. It expounds the statement in the final line of the stanza, regarding the effect of the powerful wind from YHWH upon the Sea. The noun dn@ (n¢¼) in the first line is somewhat problematic, since the other occurrences of it in the Old Testament (Josh 3:13, 16; Psalm 33:7; 78:13) are likely dependent upon its use in the Song. Evidence for a proper determination of its meaning is thus slight, but the basic denotation of “mound, hill” would seem to be confirmed by the cognate word nadd in Arabic (cf. Cross, p. 128).

Also difficult is the verb ap^q* in the second line, as there are only three other occurrences in the Old Testament (Job 10:10; Zeph 1:12; Zech 14:6). Based on the context of these passages the meaning is thought to relate to creating/producing a thickening or condensation of liquid. The idea of “churning” is perhaps an accurate denotation.

Together, these two lines depict the immense power of what took place in the Sea. The wind pushed the waters up—effectively stopping their flowing and damming them up, so that they piled up into a great mound of water. Deep within the water itself this resulted in a turbulent churning as wave after wave was pushed back upon itself.

In the next note, we will look at the fourth stanza (vv. 9-11) which is clearly related closely to the third, both poetically and in terms the poetic narrative. As the third stanza emphasizes the pushing back of the waters, so the fourth climaxes with the moment when these waters are released again and fall upon the Egyptians.

References marked “Cross” are to Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History and Religion of Israel (Harvard University Press: 1973).

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