August 23: Exodus 15:12

Exodus 15:12

“You stretched (out) your right (hand),
(and the) earth swallowed them.”

Verse 12 is not a stanza as such, but a single (2-beat) couplet that brings the first part of the Song to a close. The terse synthetic parallelism of the couplet serves as a dramatic climax to the poetic account of the miracle at the Sea. The “right (hand)” (/ym!y`) of God was mentioned earlier in verse 6 (stanza 3), at the beginning of the poetic narration proper. As a symbol it emphasizes both YHWH’s power and the fact that victory was achieved by He alone, without reliance upon any human intermediary (or military technology). The “stretching out” (vb hf*n`) of His hand suggests the divine power in action.

YHWH, as the Creator, does not simply command human armies, but rather the forces of creation itself. The natural world responds to His command and does battle against the enemies of God (and of His people). Typically, this is understood in terms of the forces in the sky (heaven)—sun and moon, wind and storm, etc. However, here it is the earth (Jr#a#) that responds to the command of God’s outstretched hand. From the standpoint of the ancient Near Eastern cosmology, the universe could be divided simply into two parts—the heaven(s) above, and the earth below. The latter includes not only the flat disc (or cylinder) of the earth itself, but all of the space below the earth as well—that is, the underworld, conceived of primarily as the realm of death and the dead. This comprehensive meaning of Jr#a# (°ereƒ, Akkadian erƒetu) is well attested, for example in the Canaanite texts from Ugarit, but also at various points in the Psalms and Old Testament poetry, etc.

While the Sea may allude to the primeval waters, the actual “Reed Sea” where the nature-miracle took place is a body of water in/on the earth. When the waters, which the great wind had piled up, fell back upon the Egyptians (cf. the previous note on stanza 4), it may fairly be said that the earth “swallowed” (vb ul^B*) them. At the same time, as they were drowned to death, they were taken down into the realm of the dead below the earth (Sheol, the underworld); thus, they were “swallowed” by the earth in a double sense.

Coming as it does after the antiphon-response of stanza 4 (verse 11), it is worth considering this couplet in light of that response. The specific point of emphasis in those lines is on how the power of YHWH (over creation), manifest in the miracle at the Sea, separates Him from the other gods worshiped by the nations. There is no sense here of an absolute monotheism, but rather the (rhetorical) question posed reflects the relative monotheism of the early Israelite period. The point is not that no other deity exists, but that YHWH is far superior to all other deities, and that He alone is the Creator. His control of the forces of nature marks Him as the Creator.

The wording of the first two lines, each of which begins with the interrogative “Who (is) like you…?” (hk*m)k* ym!), needs to be considered carefully. The first line reads:

“Who (is) like you among the Mighty (one)s, YHWH?”

The expression “mighty (one)s” is a literal translation of the plural <l!a@ > <yl!a@. It is thus a plural of the noun la@ (°¢l), “mighty (one)”, which is the common Semitic term for deity, and can be used either as a general noun or proper name/title, much like “god/God” in English. None of the “mighty ones” (i.e. gods) worshiped by the other nations can compare with YHWH, the Creator worshiped by Israel. YHWH is to be identified with °E~l, the Creator and Mighty One of ancient Semitic belief. The question in the second line essentially repeats that of the first:

“Who (is) like you, so magnificent among the Holy (ones)?”

This question goes a bit further, suggesting that only YHWH is truly deserving of worship. The passive participle of the verb rd^a* (“be great, mighty, majestic”) connotes the honor that is due to YHWH. As previously noted, the (abstract) noun vd#q) is best understood as a collective term (“holy [ones]”), parallel with “mighty ones” in the first line. It emphasizes the religious/cultic environment in which the deity is revered and worshiped. The root vdq fundamentally implies a distinction, whereby one thing (or person) is separated (or set apart) from another. A sacred space and apparatus is set up for the worship of a particular deity—but YHWH is deserving of worship far more so that any other deity worshiped by the nations.

The contrast between Israel and the nations continues into the second half of the Song, becoming one of its major themes. This will be discussed in the next note.

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