The People of God: Israel as God’s People (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this article, we explored how the central theme of Israel as the “people of God” was established in the early chapters of the book of Exodus—especially in the scene of the theophany (manifestation of God) to Moses in chapter 3. There, the Creator (°E~l) revealed and declared His name as Yahweh (YHWH/hwhy, the tetragrammaton name), and affirmed His ancient binding agreement (covenant) with Abraham and the ancestors of Israel. This effectively defines the special place of Israel a people belonging to YHWH, His own chosen people (cf. verses 7-15).

The importance of the theme of the Israelites as God’s people continues throughout the book of Exodus—indeed, it is an idea that binds the narrative, and the message of the book, together. It will be helpful to explore this literary dynamic by looking at how the theme is presented and developed at several key points of the narrative.

The Plagues and Israel’s Freedom (Exodus 4:19-13:16)

A major section of the book of Exodus narrates the great drama of the plagues on Egypt, and how this divine judgment worked to secure Israel’s freedom and release from bondage. In directing Moses on his return to Egypt, YHWH orders him to go before the Pharaoh demanding the release of the people (4:21-23). The wording of the command Moses is to give to Pharaoh builds upon the central theme of Israel as God’s people (cf. above), but with the added motif of a filial relation—that of a father to his son:

“And you shall say (this) to Pharaoh: ‘So says YHWH: Yisrael (is) my first(born) son. And I say to you, you must send out my son and he will serve me; and (if) you refuse to send him out, (then) see! I (will be) slaying your first(born) son.'” (vv. 22-23)

Israel is not only God’s people, but also, figuratively and collectively, His firstborn (rokB=) son. The idea of Israel as God’s son, or child, is found at a number of points in Old Testament tradition (e.g., Deut 32:5-6, 18-20; Hos 1:10; 11:1; Isa 43:6; 45:11; 64:8; Jer 3:19; 31:8 [9]). The specific designation of Israel as God’s firstborn is less common, though it is implied in certain passages—cf. Jer 2:3; 3:19; 31:8 [9], 19 [20]. It is also implicit in the religious concept of the sacredness of the firstborn—as belonging specially to God—and of the principle that Israel is the first, the chosen one, among all the nations (who also could be thought of as His “sons”, but not the “firstborn”). On the consecration of the firstborn (like the firstfruits of the harvest), cf. Exod 22:29; 34:19-20; Lev 27:26; Num 3:40-46ff; 8:16-18; 18:15-17; Deut 12:6, 17; 14:23; 15:19; 21:15-17. On the choosing of Israel among all the other nations, see Deut 14:1-2 (among numerous other passages).

Israel as the firstborn son is particularly important in terms of the Exodus narrative. The entire Plague-narrative cycle is rooted in the climactic moment of the death of the firstborn in Egypt, and this is established already here at the beginning of the narrative in 4:22-23. We can see how carefully the narrative has been constructed, around this key theme, by considering the place of the peculiar episode that follows in 4:24-26. Whatever we make of it in terms of historical tradition (cf. my discussion in the upcoming daily note), its thematic importance is clear enough; note the following points:

    • The episode involves Moses’ firstborn son
    • YHWH is about to kill the firstborn son
    • The blood (from circumcision) protects the child from death
    • The importance of the circumcision ritual

All of these motifs prefigure, and are symbolic of, the events surrounding the Passover and the death of the firstborn of Egypt. It may even be said that this thematic juxtaposition of firstborn-circumcision frames the entire narrative (cf. Sarna, p. 24-5):

    • Israel as God’s firstborn son (4:22-23)
      • Circumcision of Moses’ firstborn, which protects him from death (4:24-26)
        • The Plague-narrative—death of the Egyptian firstborn, and freedom for Israel
      • Circumcision as the mark of belonging to Israel, God’s firstborn (12:43-49)
    • Consecration of the firstborn as belonging to God (13:1, 11-15)

When Moses delivers the message to Pharaoh, given to him by YHWH (in 4:21-23, cf. above), it is stated specifically in terms of Israel as God’s people:

“So says YHWH, (the) Mighty (One) of Yisrael: Send out my people [i.e. let them go]…!” (5:1)

This same directive runs like a refrain through the Plague-cycle (7:16; 8:1, 20f; 9:1, 13; 10:3f, etc), accompanied by the conditional statement to the effect that, if Pharaoh does not send away the Israelites, the people of Egypt will be struck by this terrible plague. The formula in 5:1 repeats the key theme from the chapter 3 theophany—that YHWH, the Creator and true God, is the God of Israel, which means that they are his special people and under his protection (according to the covenant-bond). This is explained more clearly in the word of YHWH that comes to Moses in 6:2-9ff. All of the key points from chapter 3 are stated more succinctly here:

    • YHWH is to be identified with the Creator °E~l (the “Mighty [One]”), by which name the ancestors of Israel worshiped Him
    • He is the same “Mighty One” (God) who established the covenant-bond with Abraham and his descendants
    • The covenant bond included the promise that Abraham’s descendants would come to possess the land of Canaan
    • This promise, along with the divine protection (for Israel) that is part of the covenant bond, means that YHWH must, and will, deliver the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt

All of this is further summarized forcefully in the declaration by YHWH in verse 6:

“I (am) YHWH, and I will bring you out from under (the heavy load)s (you) bear (from the) Egyptians, and I will snatch you away from (your) service (to) them, and I will redeem you with an arm stretched out and with great (act)s of judgment.”

The affirmation of the covenant follows in vv. 7-8:

“And I will take you to (be the) people for me, and I will be t(he) Mightiest (One) [i.e. God] for you…
And I will bring you (in)to the land, of which I lifted my hand [i.e. in an oath] to give it to Abraham, to Yiƒµaq, and to Ya’aqob, and I will give it to you (as a territorial) possession. (For) I (am) YHWH.”

The Passover (chapter 12)

The release of the Israelites is effectively achieved on the night of the “Passover” celebration, according to the tradition recorded in chapter 12. On that very night, the firstborn of Egypt were slain (by God), while the people of Israel, the firstborn of YHWH, were protected and saved from death. This salvation-aspect is summarized in verses 11-13, which appears to function as an exposition of the meaning of the term js^P# (pesaµ): “it (is) a pesaµ to YHWH” (v. 11). From an objective linguistic and etymological standpoint, the precise meaning of jsp remains uncertain and much debated; however, the narrative would seem to adopt the meaning “pass over”, as a reference to the Messenger of Death “passing over” the homes of the Israelites to strike only the Egyptians. Some commentators would define the fundamental meaning as “protect”, according to the usage, for example, in Isaiah 31:5, as well as other factors; this meaning would also suit the context of the narrative. At the earliest level of the tradition, based on the wording in verse 11, it would seem that js^P# was a technical religious term—that is, a specific kind of offering (perhaps made in gratitude of God for his protection)—the exact meaning of which was lost for later generations, replaced almost completely by its association with the Exodus tradition.

Indeed, the importance of the Passover celebration is indicated by its central place in the religious identity of Israel as God’s people. This is abundantly clear from the detail of the instructions given, regarding the celebration of the ritual, in verses 14-20, 24-27, 43ff (cf. also 13:4ff), and it remains a fundamental component of the religious and cultural identity for Israelites and Jews even today. Perhaps no ritual or religious practice emphasizes the communal aspect—the common bond of a people—the way that the Passover celebration does. From the standpoint of the narrative, the night of the Passover marks the very moment when Israel was freed from bondage in Egypt (vv. 41, 51), emerging as people with a new religious identity and consciousness.

The Event at the Sea (chapters 14-15)

The freedom of the people was not complete until their escape from the Egyptian forces, made possible by the ‘event at the Sea’. According to the accounts—both prose and poetic—in chapters 14-15, along with other notices recorded in Old Testament tradition, this involved a nature-miracle performed by YHWH, by which a great wind blew back the waters of the “Reed Sea”, allowing (or making it easier) for the Israelites to cross. When the Egyptians followed in pursuit, the wind blew the waters back to their original position, thus drowning the Egyptian soldiers and chariotry.

Though it is not so stated in the narrative, this event must be understood in terms of the covenant-bond between YHWH and Israel, which involves protection for the people (from their enemies, etc) to be provided by God. It is in the poetic account of 15:1-18, the so-called “Song of the Sea” (sometimes referred to also as the “Song of Moses”), that this covenant-aspect comes more clearly into view, along with the idea of Israel as God’s people. I have discussed the Song in considerable detail in a recent set of daily notes, and will not repeat that here. The first half of the Song (vv. 1-11) deals with the event at the Sea, while the second half (vv. 12-18) describes the effect, or result, of the event—on both the people of Israel and the nations of Canaan. Clearly, the settlement of Israel in the land of Canaan is in view, according to the covenant promise regarding the land (cf. above, on 6:6-8). Just as Israel “crossed over” (vb rb^u*) the Sea to freedom, so, in a similar (symbolic) fashion, will the people “cross over” the Jordan river into the promised land (note the obvious parallel in Joshua 3, along with the apparent allusions to the second half of the Song in Josh 2:9-11).

Here is how this is presented in the refrain of vv. 15-16 of the Song:

“Until your people passed over, YHWH,
until your people whom you created passed over.” (v. 16b)

The temporal preposition (du^, “until”) has a dual meaning: (1) in the context of the miraculous event at the Sea, it refers to the time during which the people crossed, when the power of God kept the Egyptians from being able to act; (2) in the immediate context of the second half of the Song, it refers to the fear and terror that similarly stymies the rulers of Canaan (vv. 15-16a), allowing for the Israelites to enter and settle/conquer the land. On the meaning of the verb hn`q* in the second line, cf. my recent note on vv. 15-16.

The concluding lines of the Song (vv. 17-18, also discussed in a recent note) emphasize even further the special place Israel holds as God’s people. They are to take root in a sacred place where God Himself will dwell—a reference, it would seem, to the Temple sanctuary in Jerusalem, but more fundamentally to the core idea of God dwelling among His people. This theme is developed extensively in the second half of the book of Exodus, focusing particularly on the design and construction of the Tent-shrine (Tabernacle). The book closes with the marvelous and beautiful image of the presence of YHWH, in the form of a great theophanous cloud, residing at the Tent-shrine, and in the midst of the Israelite encampment, all throughout their journeys to the promised land (40:34-38).

References above marked “Sarna” are to The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus twm?, commentary by Nahum M. Sarna (Jewish Publication Society: 1991).

Notes on Prayer: Isaiah 38:1-8ff

Isaiah 38:1-8ff

In the previous study of this series, we looked at the prayer of Hezekiah in Isaiah 37:15-20 (= 2 Kings 19:15-19); today we will examine another instance of prayer, also involving Hezekiah. This time the situation is that of a grave illness experienced by Hezekiah, one which was life-threatening, putting him in danger of death. Such was a relatively common occurrence in the ancient world, when life-spans were considerably shorter, mortality rates much higher, and medical knowledge regarding disease treatment and prevention quite limited by comparison with what is available to us today. Even so, the current pandemic being experienced widely, if to varying degrees, around the world can serve as a reminder that the modern age is not without its own dangers from life-threatening disease.

Hezekiah’s prayer, in this instance, is for healing—surely one of the most common occasions for prayer to God, both in Hezekiah’s time, and even now today. Here is how the historical tradition is recorded in the opening narrative of Isa 38:1-2 (the parallel version in 2 Kings 20:1-2 is virtually identical):

In those days, YHWH-is-(my)-strength [„izqîy¹hû] became weak (with illness) to (the point of) death, and YHWH-saves [Y®ša±y¹hû], son of Amôƒ, the spokesperson (of YHWH), came to him and said to him, “So says YHWH (to you): ‘Give instruction to your house(hold), for you are dying and will not live.'” And „izqîy¹hû turned his face around to the wall and made a petition to YHWH…

In verse 1, I have translated the YHWH names (= Hezekiah, Isaiah), rather than simply transliterating them in English, as a reminder that they are YHWH sentence/phrase names, and indicate how deeply religious devotion to YHWH was woven into the fabric of Israelite society at the time. The name Hezekiah (WhY`q!z+j!, „izqîy¹hû) means something like “YHWH is (my) strength”, or “YHWH gives strength”, possibly in the wish-form, “(May) YHWH give strength”. Similarly, Isaiah (Why`u=v^y+, Y®ša±y¹hû) has the meaning “YHWH is (my) salvation”, or “YHWH saves”, “(May) YHWH save”. These names, in their proper meaning, are significant in terms of the subject and action of the narrative—that is, prayer to YHWH for salvation and strength (i.e. healing) from illness.

The prophet Isaiah—the term ayb!n` literally referring to a spokesperson (for God)—comes to Hezekiah announcing to him that he will die, and will not recover. The implication is that this announcement reflects God’s will and decree regarding the fate of Hezekiah—i.e., this is when his life will end. Faced with the prospect of certain death, Hezekiah makes a plea or petition to YHWH. The verb ll^P*, in the reflexive Hithpael stem, often denotes the specific idea of seeking a judicial ruling (arbitration) on behalf of another person. It came to be used in the sense of the religious devotee seeking arbitration from God Himself (as judge) with regard to a certain situation or set of circumstances (such as a life-threatening illness).

Even though a designated prophet of YHWH had announced that he would not recover, Hezekiah still makes his case to God (the Judge) that he should be healed and allowed to recover. The substance of this petition is given in verse 3:

And he said, “Oh, YHWH, (I would ask that you) remember (the way in) which I have walked about before your face [i.e. before you], in firmness and with a whole heart, and th(at) I have done (what is) good in your eyes!” And „izqîy¹hû wept (with) great weeping.

The opening word aN`a* and the particle an` (attached to the verb rkz) are both particles of entreaty, which are nearly impossible to translate literally in English. I approximate the sense above with “Oh, … (I would ask that you)…”. The basis of the appeal is ethical and religious, rooted in the fundamental idea of faithfulness (to God) and covenant loyalty. According to the ancient concept of the binding agreement (tyr!B=, i.e. covenant bond), especially in terms of a suzerain-vassal agreement, the faithful/loyal vassal is promised protection by the sovereign, which extends to anything that might threaten his life. The king Hezekiah, portraying himself as a loyal vassal of YHWH, asks God to “remember” (vb rk^z`) his years of faithfulness and devotion (to the covenant). This is expressed two ways:

    • The idiom of “walking about” (vb El^h* in the Hithpael reflexive stem), as a reference to a consistent pattern of behavior, over a period of time; the sense of covenant loyalty is further defined by the expressions
      (a) “in firmness” (tm#a#B#), the noun tm#a# connoting a person who is trustworthy and reliable
      (b) “with a whole heart” (<l@v* bl@B=), corresponding to the English idiom “whole-hearted”, though we might also say “with a pure heart”
    • Doing “th(at which is) good” in God’s eyes, more properly implying upright and moral conduct; this alludes primarily to the requirements and regulations of the Instruction (Torah), which effectively represent the terms of the covenant between God and Israel.

This appeal to one’s own faithfulness and righteousness may be somewhat disconcerting to us as Christians, as it seems to resemble, at least on the surface, the sort of prayer uttered by the Pharisee in the parable of Luke 18:9-14 (vv. 11-12). There are other instructions in the New Testament warning against relying upon one’s own righteousness for receiving help/salvation from God. A simple appeal for mercy from God, asking for His favor, would seem to be more fitting (from a Christian standpoint). And, indeed, a heartfelt appeal to God for mercy, more akin to the utterance of the toll-collector in the Lukan parable, is perhaps implied by the notice of Hezekiah’s great weeping that accompanied his prayer.

However, from the standpoint of Israelite religion during the kingdom period, it was the covenant framework which defined how the people (and the king, in particular) related to God. And this covenant between Israel and YHWH was very much understood in terms of the religious and cultural conventions of the time, including the form and function of the ancient Near Eastern “binding agreement”, with its strong ethical-religious and judicial aspects. Any appeal to the covenant would, by its nature, have to be expressed in both ethical-religious and judicial terms.

We find many examples of this throughout the Old Testament, including a number of instances in the Psalms which evince the covenant setting, and also a royal background roughly comparable to the context here in Isaiah 38. There are quite a few Psalms in which the Psalmist (or protagonist of the poem) makes a judicial appeal to God, affirming and defending his faithfulness, and asking God to act on his behalf.  Often the appeal involves deliverance from one’s enemies/adversaries, which can include rescue from the great enemy of all—Death itself. In several Psalms, it is deliverance from a life-threatening illness that is in view; see, for example, Psalm 6 (discussed in an earlier study), as well as the more recent study on Psalm 30. As it happens, the Isaian version of the narrative regarding Hezekiah’s illness, also includes a psalm of this sort (see below).

Following Hezekiah’s prayer, a new word comes to Isaiah, from YHWH, announcing that the king’s fate is changed:

And there came to be a (new) word of YHWH to Y®ša±y¹hû, saying: “You must go and say to „izqîy¹hû, ‘So says YHWH (the) Mighty (One) of David your father: I have heard your petition, (and) I have seen your tears; (now) look! I will again (put) upon your days [i.e. the days of your life] (an addition of) fifteen years'”. (vv. 4-5)

The heartfelt prayer of Hezekiah, with its implicit covenant appeal, results in a change of the divine decree. God has answered his servant’s prayer. Apart from what this means for the individual, in the wider (historical and literary) context of the narrative the change in fate has significance for the community as well. Hezekiah’s illness (with its threat of death), the focus in chapters 38-39, is set parallel to the terrible danger (and threat of destruction) facing Jerusalem from the Assyrian invasion (chapters 36-37). The two are clearly tied together, with the one (Hezekiah’s illness) serving as a symbol for the other (the Assyrian invasion). This is stated precisely, even in the immediate context of our passage, as the prophetic word of YHWH continues in verse 6:

“And, from (the) palm [i.e. hand] of (the) king of Aššûr I will snatch you away, and this city, and I will give (my) protection over this city!”

The righteous/faithful king Hezekiah, who turns to YHWH in prayer and supplication in his time of need, stands for the people as a whole—the faithful remnant of Judah—and the city of Jerusalem. The two go hand in hand—the chosen one (king) and chosen city (Jerusalem)—and both symbolize the faithful ones of God’s people, those who are to be saved and delivered from the danger of death and destruction.

Hezekiah appears to have held a special position in the Isaian tradition, beyond that which we see in the Prophetic/Deuteronomic line of tradition in the book of Kings. There, too, Hezekiah stands as something of a model for the faithful king, loyal to YHWH in the manner/pattern of David (cf. especially the notice in 2 Ki 18:3-7). However, Hezekiah seems to have an even greater significance in the book of Isaiah, especially if, as many commentators believe, it is his reign that is in view in the prophecies of chapters 7-9. At the very least he represents (and symbolizes) the salvation of Judah/Jerusalem from the Assyrian threat, and his recovery from illness clearly is symbolic of the city’s deliverance.

This greater prominence of Hezekiah in the Isaian tradition is also reflected in the psalm of thanksgiving (for deliverance from illness) in Isa 38:9-20. It is not found in the parallel version of 2 Kings, which likely means that it was not part of the original literary work, but was added/included by the author/editor of Isa 36-39. The similarity with Psalms such as 6 and 30, which also deal with the idea of recovery from a life-threatening illness, was noted above. There are a number of themes, images, and points of emphasis in common. I will be discussing this in more detail in the upcoming Saturday Series study (on Isa 38-39).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 30

Psalm 30

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsr (vv. 9-13 [8-12])

This is a psalm of thanksgiving for deliverance from death (possibly due to an illness), and thus has a setting similar to several other Psalms we have examined thus far (e.g., the opening portion of Ps 28, and see especially the earlier study on Ps 6). The poetry of this composition has been particularly admired by commentators. Its meter is irregular, with a 4-beat (4+4) couplet tending to dominate; there are also 4+3 and 3+3 couplets, and at least one 2-beat tricolon. The lines thus tend to be ‘heavier’ (longer) allowing for more detailed imagery and a richer mode of expression.

The superscription marks this Psalm as another musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to David”. It also adds the detail that it is (to be) used for the “dedication of the house” (ty]B^h^ tK^n%j&)—that is, the celebration of the rededication (or consecration) of the Temple, better known as the festival of Hanukkah (transliteration of the noun hK*n%j&). This may be an indication of the relative date of the superscriptions (i.e. after 165 B.C.), long after most of the Psalms themselves had been composed. The reason why this particular Psalm would have been applied to the occasion of the Temple-dedication festival is not at all clear.

Verses 2-4 [1-3]

In the opening stanzas, the Psalmist sings out to God in praise for his deliverance.

Verse 2 [1]

“I will raise you (high), YHWH, for you drew me out,
and did not (let) my enemies take delight from me.”

There is a parallel built into the opening line that is easily obscured in translation. The Psalmist says that he will “raise” God up high (through his praise); this is in response to YHWH lifting him up. The latter verb (hl*D*) specifically refers to drawing up water, lifting it up out of a (deep) well; it is a proper symbol for God delivering the Psalmist out of the “pit” of suffering and death.

As is often the case in these Psalms, the attitude of the Psalmist’s enemies and adversaries plays a role in how and why the protagonist prays to God as he does. It is not always clear whether these nameless enemies are to be taken as real or imagined, actual persons or literary and proverbial figures. Generally, those Psalms which evince a stronger royal background are more likely to refer to actual adversaries; on the whole, they appear to be generalized figures, representing the wicked in contrast to the righteous (i.e., the Psalmist). The Psalmist’s enemies naturally would take delight in his suffering, even as the wicked may do, in various ways, toward the righteous.

Verse 3 [2]

“YHWH, my Mighty (One),
I called to you for help
and you have healed me.”

The meter of this verse can be discerned roughly as 2+2+2, or a 2-beat tricolon (compared with the 4+3 couplet of verse 2 [1]). It summarizes the situation of the Psalm:

    • Line 1: He calls out (in praise) to YHWH, his God (lit. “Mightiest [One]” = “Mighty [One]”)
    • Line 2: In his suffering he had previously called to God for help (vb uw~v*)
    • Line 3: God responded to that prayer and healed him (vb ap^r*), making him whole again
Verse 4 [3]

“YHWH, you made my soul come up from She’ol,
you gave me life (in) my going down (to the) Pit!”

The meter of this couplet (4+3) generally matches that of verse 2 [1] (above). It builds upon the idea expressed in the last line of the tricolon in verse 3 [2]—of how God responded to the Psalmist’s prayer and healed him, presumably from an illness that had left him at the point of death. His soul was on its way down to the realm of death (and the dead), called here by the noun loav= (š®°ôl, cf. the earlier note on the meaning and background of “Sheol”) as well as roB (“pit”). The “pit” is equivalent to the deep place from which the Psalmist was lifted up, like water from a well (in the first line of v. 2 [1], cf. above).

The preformative mem [m] of the Masoretic yd!r=Y`m! (qere yd@r=oYm!) is problematic. Dahood (p. 182) suggests that it should be regarded as an enclitic mem [<] and attached to the previous word. Along these lines, it may be that the MT kethib yd!r=y` is correct, read as a form of the singular participle, i.e. “(in) my going down”. The sense of the line is that YHWH gave life to the Psalmist as he was going down to the Pit.

Verses 5-8 [4-7]

The next section of the Psalm addresses the power YHWH has over life and death. It is right and proper to trust that He will act to bring (and restore) life to those who are faithful to Him.

Verse 5 [4]

“Sing to YHWH, (you) His good (and loyal one)s,
and throw (praise) to (the) remembrance of His holiness!”

This 3-beat  (3+3) couplet is somewhat difficult to translate literally in English; a certain awkwardness is the result, with the rhythm of the lines better captured as follows:

“Sing to YHWH, (you) His loyal (one)s,
and throw (praise), remembering His holiness!”

The adjective dys!j* (related to the noun ds#j#) has the fundamental meaning “good, kind”, but in the context of the covenant-bond often connotes faithfulness and loyalty. Those who are faithful/loyal to YHWH will praise Him for His own goodness and faithfulness. Beyond this, there is the religious context of recognizing what sets YHWH apart from all others, as Israel’s God and the true Creator and Deity over all. This is expressed by the idiom “remember(ing) His holiness [vd#q)]”, which we might paraphrase as “recognizing that He is the Holy One”.

Verse 6 [5]

“For (there is) violence in His anger, (but) life in His pleasure;
at (the) setting (sun) weeping lodges, but at (day)break a cry (of joy).”

This is the first of several long 4-beat (4+4) couplets, tense and full of rich imagery. The contrast is between God’s harsh/violent anger and the grace/mercy he shows to the faithful ones. Even those loyal to YHWH may experience something of His anger—like the protagonist of the Psalm in his suffering and illness—but this does not affect the life that ultimately comes to them in the end.

The parallelism of the first line requires that the noun ug^r# is to be related to <yY]j^ (“life, living”). The problem is that there appear to be several different roots ugr; the noun ug^r# is typically thought to denote a short space of time, something which happens quickly (the sense of ugr I being “act quickly”). However, in a passage such as Job 26:12, ug^r* clearly refers to a violent act, something which is both harsh and decisive, and this appears to be the connotation of ugr here (whether or not ug^r# is the correct vocalization). The noun [a^ literally means “nose, nostril(s)” but is a regular Semitic idiom for anger, presumably drawn from the image of an angry, snorting bull, etc. I have translated it above in the more abstract sense of “anger” so as better to highlight the parallel with God’s /oxr* (“delight, pleasure, favor”).

The comparative contrast between sunset/sunrise and weeping/crying-with-joy is both natural and poignant. It expresses a message of hope and trust that is virtually universal to religious experience among human beings. Even if one has to endure a “night” of suffering, there will be a time of deliverance and release in the “morning”.

Verses 7 [6]

“And I said, in my tranqil (security),
‘I shall not slide for (the) distant (future)!'”

The sense of this couplet is not entirely clear. Presumably, it expresses the idea that the Psalmist’s trust in his own security (given to him by God) was misplaced. That is to say, just because he lived in faithfulness to YHWH, with the security and protection that brings, it did not mean that he would never experience suffering. This issue of the ‘suffering of the righteous’ has a long history in religious thought, being found frequently in ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature; it is, of course, the subject of the great discourse-drama in the book of Job. The Niphal (passive/reflexive) form of the verb fom connotes being “made to slip/slide”; the (misplaced) confidence expressed by the Psalmist can be accurately paraphrased as “nothing will ever make me slip” (i.e. slip from this peaceful and secure life).

Verse 8 [7]

“YHWH, by your pleasure you made me stand for [i.e. like] a strong mountain;
(but) you hid your face (from me), and I was (suddenly) disturbed.”

The illness experienced by the Psalmist is presented as something that came upon him suddenly and quite unexpectedly. Yet now he realizes (and acknowledges) it is a simple fact of the sovereign power of YHWH; all He has to do is turn away His “face”, even for a moment (and for whatever reason or purpose), and suffering is the result. This may happen even to the righteous. As long as the protagonist experiences the pleasure and favor of God, he stands firm and strong like a mountain. The prefixed l= preposition is correctly read here as a lamed of comparison (lamed comparativum, Dahood, p. 183). Dahood also suggests that the verb form T*r=T^s=h! is of a t-infixed (i.e. Hishtaphel) stem of the root rWs (“turn [away]”), rather than a Hiphil form of the root rt^s* (“hide”). The basic meaning would not be too different in either case.

Verses 9-13 [8-12]

In the third (and final) section of the Psalm, the focus reverts to that of the first section (cf. above). Now, instead of addressing YHWH with praise and thanksgiving, the Psalmist prays for future deliverance—that is, to be delivered from any similar (life-threatening) illness and suffering in the future.

Verse 9 [8]

“(It is) to you, YHWH, (that) I call,
and to (you), my Lord, do I ask for favor.”

Here the prayer (vb ar^q*, “call [to]”) is petitionary, with a request that God show favor (lj@) to him (by answering the petition); the verb /n~j* here has the sense of “ask for favor”.

Verse 10 [9]

“What (is) bit off by my tears, in my going down (to) destruction?
Shall (the) dust throw (praise), shall it put your firmness up front?”

This is another instance of a long (4+4) couplet that is packed tight with imagery. In the first line, the idea is that nothing is to be gained by the sorrow and suffering of the Psalmist (i.e. the righteous) if it ends in death. The root ugb denotes “cut off, cut out”, but it can be used figuratively for unjust (or ill-gotten) gain; a comparable idiom in English might be “bite off”, “take a bite”. I follow Dahood (p. 183) in reading ym!D* as derived from <md II (“weep”), rather than the noun <D^ (“blood”). The idea of weeping (i.e. “tears”) better fits the context here (cp. Psalm 4:5). The rhetorical question of lament in the second line is similar to that in Psalm 6:6 [5], to the effect that the dead are no longer able to give praise to God. The noun tm#a# is best understood in the fundamental sense of “firmness” (i.e. faithfulness); to put the faithfulness of YHWH “up front” or “out front” (the basic sense of dgn) means to declare or make it known to others.

Verses 11-12 [10-11]

“Hear (me), YHWH, and show me favor!
YHWH, may you be (One) giving help to me!
(May) you turn my wailing over to whirling for me,
open my loose (garment) and bind me (with clothes) of joy!”

The initial 3+3 couplet, expressing again the Psalmist’s desire to experience God’s favor in the future (by keeping from another bout of severe illness and suffering). The second couplet is yet another long 4-beat (4+4) bicolon, the imagery of which can be difficult to render clearly in English. To begin with, we have the perfect forms of the principal verbs. As the context involves a prayer for future deliverance, it is perhaps best to read these as precative perfects—expressing a wish for what will (or should) happen as though it is something that has already occurred. Unfortunately, this is rather difficult to convey in English syntax, i.e. “O, that you would have turned…”, which is admittedly awkward. The simple translation as a wish, “(May) you turn…”, etc, is perhaps the best solution.
Note: the Qumran manuscript 4QPsr reads the verb forms in verse 11 [10] also as (precative) perfects.

The contrast in the second couplet is between mourning and joyful celebration. The idea of mourning is obviously conveyed by the verbal noun dP@s=m! (“wailing”), but also by the loose/coarse garment (qc^, i.e. ‘sackcloth’) which is worn as a sign of mourning. By contrast, the prayer is that God would turn “wailing” into “whirling” (a similar verbal noun lojm*),  that is, dancing around joyously. In a comparable way, the loose mourning garments are to be replaced by tight-fitting clothes of joy.

Verse 13 [12]

“In response, my inner (parts) will make music to you,
and will not be silent, YHWH, my Mighty (One)—
into (the) distant (future) I will throw (praise) to you!”

The Psalm closes with a tricolon of irregular meter, in which a dual promise of (future) praise to YHWH (lines 1 and 3) bracket a central declaration regarding YHWH as the Psalmist’s God (“Mightiest [One]” = “Mighty [One]”). Such a theological confession may seem obvious, but it was central to the ancient covenant-bond established between YHWH and Israel as His people. YHWH is identified as the true “Mighty One” (indeed, “the Mightiest”), the Creator of heaven and earth. The verb in the central line, <m^D*, is somewhat ambiguous, as both of the main roots (denoting “be silent” and “weep”, respectively) are applicable to the context. The contrast between mourning and joy in the prior couplets (cf. above) would tend to support the latter, but the force of the promise (to praise YHWH) here favors the former—i.e., the Psalmist declares that he will praise God continually, and will not be silent. Perhaps a bit of dual-meaning wordplay is at work.

The two verbs for expressing praise to God are rm^z` (“make music”) and hd*y`, the latter literally meaning “throw” but often used in the sense of throwing/casting praise toward someone. The Masoretes have almost certainly mispointed dbk as dobk* (“weight, worth”, i.e. honor, glory), whereas db@K* is doubtless correct, referring to the liver, i.e., in a figurative sense as the location of deep feeling and emotion (equivalent to the “heart” in English). Some would derive it from the root dbk in the sense of the “heavy” (i.e. large/thick or deep) organ, but this is far from certain. In any case, “liver” sounds most strange in context here, as rendered in English translation; I have opted for the more generic “inner (parts)”, i.e. “inner (organ[s])”, which conveys something of the Hebrew term when used in this way.

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965).




Saturday Series: Isaiah 36-39 (Part 4)

Isaiah 36-37, continued

The traditional narrative of Isaiah 36-37 (on which, see the previous two studies) concludes with an oracle by Isaiah (37:21-35). Actually, it would be more accurate to describe this section as a construct of Isaian material, containing several distinct pieces of tradition. The material may be divided as follows:

    • The narrative tradition in verse 21, which also may be viewed as transitional, joining Hezekiah’s prayer (discussed in a recent note), to the oracle(s) that follow.
    • A judgment oracle (vv. 22-29), directed as a taunt against the king of Assyria (Sennacherib), functioning in the narrative as a parallel to the taunt by the Assyrian official (the Rabshakeh, 36:4-20).
    • A sign oracle (vv. 30-32), indicating that the kingdom of Judah will survive the Assyrian invasion
    • An oracle of exhortation, promising deliverance for Jerusalem and Judah (vv. 33-35)

It is worth looking at the three main oracle portions in some detail, with an eye on the different critical aspects as they relate to each.

The judgment-oracle (verses 22-29)

When considering this Isaian material, we cannot ignore the importance of textual criticism, with the goal of establishing the original text (as far as that is possible), taking into account any meaningful textual variants or differences. As it happens, for chapters 36-39, text-critical study comes from two directions: (1) examination of the major manuscripts and versions, especially the Dead Sea MSS (and the great Qumran Isaiah Scroll [1QIsaa]); and (2) comparison with the parallel version in 2 Kings 18-20. The differences between the Masoretic text [MT] and the Isaiah Scroll are of the most significance, particularly for the oracle in verses 22-29. A number of the readings in the Isaiah Scroll are perhaps to be preferred (see Blenkinsopp, pp. 467-8), and several will be noted below.

In terms of form and genre criticism, these verses can be referred to as a nation-oracle—that is, an oracle of judgment against a particular nation, given in a poetic (or quasi-poetic) form. Such nation-oracles occur throughout the Old Testament Prophets, and are frequent in the book of Isaiah (there is a concentration of them in chapters 13-27). However, here we have a special sub-genre of the nation-oracle: a message of judgment directed specifically against the king or ruler of the nation. Verses 22-25, in particular, represent one of the oldest such examples we have, being roughly contemporary with the oracle against the “king of Babylon” in 14:4-21 (see the earlier study on this passage). As the king of a mighty conquering power, he comes to be the working symbol for the wickedness and arrogance, the worldly ambition and oppression, of the people as a whole. Moreover, it is the king who, in the ancient Near Eastern religious thought, was supposed to embody deity and the manifestation of divine power on earth. Thus, a great world ruler tended (and was expected) to act something like a god on earth; for the Israelite Prophetic tradition, this gross ambition and pretension to deity was more than ample reason for condemnation. This oracle against Sennacherib, along with the oracle in 14:4-21, provides the earliest instances of the “wicked tyrant” motif in the Scriptures (Ezekiel 28:1-19 is another notable example). The motif reaches its peak in the book of Daniel, where the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes is clearly in view. It was through the book of Daniel that this motif would exert a profound influence on the early Antichrist tradition.

The oracle itself begins (v. 22 = 2 Ki 19:21) with a taunt from the city of Jerusalem, which would have been the next target of siege warfare by the Assyrians in their conquest of Judah. Jerusalem is personified as a young girl, a “virgin daughter”. Such scorn and derision coming from a woman would have been particularly galling and shameful for a (male) warrior, especially in terms of ancient Near Eastern cultural standards. The reason for the derision is that Sennacherib’s planned conquest of Jerusalem is doomed to failure, and so the “daughter” has nothing to fear from it. The would-be power and invincibility of the Assyrian empire, as expressed through the king’s ambition for further conquest, is the target of the taunt in verse 23ff (= 2 Ki 19:22ff):

“Whom have you treated with scorn and attacked (with words)?
And against whom did you raise (your) voice high
and lift up your eyes (to the) high place?
(Was it not) against the Holy (One) of Yisrael?
By the hand of your servants you treated the Lord with scorn, and said:
‘With the great number of my riders [i.e. chariots]
I have gone up (to the) high place of the mountains,
(to the) sides of the (snow)-white peaks (of Lebanon),
and I cut (down) the standing cedars (and) chosen fir-trees!
I came to the lodging-place (at) his (farthest) borders,
(to) the thick (forest) of his planted garden!'” (vv. 23-24)

The poetic description emphasizes the arrogance and ambition of the ruler, who, by his actions and attitude, foolishly sought to challenge YHWH Himself. The wording at the close of v. 23 suggests that Sennacherib essentially boasts that he has ascended (and/or is able to ascend) all the way to the Garden of God, according to its traditional/mythic location at the top of the great Mountain. Through his earthly power—by brute strength (i.e. military might) and force of will—he cut his way (using the motif of felling trees) to this highest point. In spite of the ruler’s great boast, his ambitions have been curbed by God (i.e. he has been turned back militarily), leading to his abject humiliation (vv. 21, 27-28). This same imagery is found in the oracle against the “king of Babylon” in 14:4-21 (see above). The Mountain where God dwells is associated with snow-capped peaks of the Lebanon range (verse 8; cp. 37:24), drawing upon ancient Syrian (i.e. northern Canaanite / Ugaritic) tradition. One such designated mountain was Mt. Casius (Jebel el-Aqra±), but different local sites could serve as a representation of the Mountain of God in religious traditions. Indeed, it is the place “appointed” for the divine/heavenly beings to gather, but only those related to the Mighty One (la@, °E~l)—otherwise, it was entirely inaccessible to human beings. This helps to explain the significance of the name /opx* (‚¹¸ôn), essentially referring to a distant and secluded (i.e. inaccessible and fortified) location; directionally, it came to indicate the distant north.

While ascending to the Mountain peak, or so he imagines, the king cuts his way there, felling the tall trees (v. 8; 37:24 par). The cutting down of trees was a suitable representation for the worldly ambitions and grandiose exploits of a king, seen in ancient Near Eastern tradition at least as early as the Sumerian Gilgamesh legends of the late-3rd millennium B.C. (preserved subsequently in the Gilgamesh Epic, Tablets 3-5); and, the “cedars of Lebanon” were among the most valuable and choicest trees a king could acquire. The motif also serves as a figure for military conquest—the ‘cutting down’ of people and cities (vv. 6ff). Ultimately, however, it is the king himself who is “hacked” (vb g¹da±) down to the ground (v. 12). Indeed, instead of ascending all the way to Heaven, he is brought down to the deep pit of Sheol (Š®°ôl)—that is, to the underworld, the realm of Death and the grave. In all likelihood this is meant to signify the actual death of the king, as well as the fall/conquest of his city (and empire); Babylon was conquered by the Persians in 539 B.C.

Clearly, the oracle is satirical—the claims, etc, of the king are ultimately doomed to failure, and, in the end, his ambitions are foolish, and his fate is appropriately the opposite of what he imagined for himself. To some extent, these divine pretensions merely reflect the ancient beliefs and traditions surrounding kingship. Frequently, in the ancient Near East, divine titles and attributes are applied to the ruler; this was true even in Israel (especially in the Judean royal theology associated with David and his descendants), but never to the extent that we see in the surrounding nations. The symbolism and iconography was, of course, strongest where nations and city-states expanded to the level of a regional empire; the king could virtually be considered a deity himself (cf. especially the Egyptian Pharaonic theology at its peak). God’s response to this worldly ambition and quest for power is harsh indeed (vv. 26-29). YHWH emphasizes, first, that the Assyrian successes and military conquests are part of His own plan, devised (and allowed) by Him:

“Have you not heard (how)
from a far-off place I have done it,
shaped it from (the) fore(most) days,
(and) now I have made it come (to pass):
(that) they should be (made) to crash (into) heaps,
(these) guarded (and) inaccessible cities,
and (the one)s sitting (in) them short of hand,
broken and (fill)ed with shame!”

This is a powerful (and accurate) description of the Assyrian conquests, and their effect upon the devastated population. Even the carefully guarded (read 1QIsaa n®ƒûrîm instead of MT niƒƒîm) and inaccessible cities (that is, raised on a hill/tell with walled fortifications) have succumbed to the siege warfare of the Assyrians. The fall of Lachish (see the notice in 36:1-2) is famously depicted on wall-reliefs from the palace of Nineveh (now in the British Museum, see below).

Jerusalem is another such raised walled city, and it would have been the next target of Sennacherib, and the climax of his Judean campaign. The horrors of siege warfare are implied in the closing lines of verse 27, along with the sense of helplessness among the population. The exact idiom used is “short of hand”, meaning without any strength or power—certainly with no way of defending oneself through physical or military means. The experience of siege and conquest leaves a people completely broken (µattû) and filled with shame (bœšû). This same idea is further expressed through agricultural imagery, comparing the people to the grass that is “scorched before the (hot) east wind” (following the reading of the Qumran Isaiah Scroll).

It is the very fact that the Assyrian conquests were predetermined by God, according to His own purpose, that their current intention to conquer Jerusalem is doomed to fail. YHWH declares to Sennacherib that “I know your standing (up) and your sitting down” (reading of 1QIsaa), “your going out and your coming (in)” —that is to say, everything the king says or does. God is also aware of the rage and the arrogance (again following the reading of 1QIsaa) that is essentially directed at Him by the Assyrian. In claiming that the God of Judah is unable to protect Jerusalem from conquest, Sennacherib has wedded his own arrogance (and divine pretension) to the cruel violence of his attacks. Those boasts are primarily what Hezekiah set before YHWH in the Temple, serving as the basis for his prayer—an appeal for God to defend His own honor in the face of an earthly ruler, a wicked tyrant. Ultimately, God’s response to Sennacherib is that He will turn back the Assyrian invasion, leading the king about (like an animal) with a ‘hook in his nose’, forcing him back on the path from which he came (v. 29).

The sign-oracle (vv. 30-32)

The oracle of judgment is followed by a sign (°ô¾) given by the prophet, to the effect that the kingdom of Judah will not be completely conquered or destroyed. A time factor is involved, making this tradition parallel with that of 7:14-16, set during an earlier Assyrian crisis (c. 734-732 B.C.). The point of the sign-message is that the kingdom of Judah (and the regions around Jerusalem) will recover, though not without considerable devastation to the land. Within three years, the people will be able to resume normal agricultural activity—effective planting and harvesting, without any further disruption or threat of invasion from Assyria. This is part of a wider Isaian theme—the faithful remnant that finds salvation and restoration—which would be developed considerably throughout the formation of the book (and its divisions) as a whole. This idea of a “remnant” is expressed here through the verb š¹°ar (“remain, be left over”), used as a substantive (passive) verbal noun— “the (ones) remaining”. This collective group is also referred to as “(the ones) escaping of [i.e. from] the house of Judah”. Thus, there will be a remnant, a residue of Judah that will be saved, spared from destruction, conquest, and exile by Assyria; and this remaining group of those saved will be centered on the capital city of Jerusalem (and its Temple). This conceptual imagery would have a powerful influence on the development of the Isaian traditions over a number of generations.

The oracle of exhortation, promising deliverance (verses 33-35)

The message and themes of the two previous oracles are repeated and confirmed in these closing verses, stating the promise of deliverance for the city of Jerusalem (and the failure of the Assyrian invasion) in no uncertain terms. Some critical commentators have raised the possibility that, in an earlier form and version of this material, verses 33-35 followed immediately after verse 22, thus forming the substance of God’s response delivered through the prophet Isaiah. According to this critical view (see Blenkinsopp, pp. 476-8), the oracle-material in vv. 23-32 is secondary in nature, having been inserted into the narrative from an earlier source. It is certainly possible that any (or all) of the oracles here in vv. 23-35 may have once circulated separately, or as part of different collections; beyond this, any detailed reconstructions of how chapters 36-37 were formed must remain speculative and hypothetical.

To be sure, the message in vv. 33-35 gives a more direct response to Hezekiah and the people of Judah, regarding the Assyrian threat and whether YHWH would rescue them from destruction. Compared with the poetic and rhetorical flourishes of the prior oracle-material, the poetry here is rather simple and direct:

“He shall not come into this city,
and shall not (even) cast an arrow there;
and he shall not go in front of her (with) shield(s),
and shall (certainly) not pour upon her (with) ladder(s)!
(But) in the path (by) which he came, he shall turn (back) in it,
and into this city he shall (certainly) not come!”

There will be no attack, no siege works set up against the city, and, as a result the invader (Sennacherib) certainly will not enter the city itself. This is not necessarily incompatible with Sennacherib’s own boast (in the Assyrian annals) that he shut up Hezekiah in the city “like a bird in a cage”. The Assyrian forces may have set up an initial blockade, preliminary to a full-fledged siege of the city. In any case, it is clear that the invasion ultimately failed and the Assyrian forces returned home without completing the conquest of Judah. Two different explanations for this appear to be preserved in the narrative (compare 37:7 with v. 36f); this will be discussed a bit further in the next study.

Ultimately, the essence of the prophetic message—both in chapters 36-37, and in terms of the book of Isaiah as a whole—is summarized and distilled in the closing lines of the oracle (v. 35), where YHWH speaks directly to His people:

“I will give protection over this city, to bring salvation (to) her,
in response to my (own will) and in response to David my servant.”

The seeds of the future Messianic hope are present here, and an early form of this line of interpretation can be found throughout the development of the Isaian traditions in the generations following the events of 701 B.C. In particular, the so-called deutero-Isaian poems (in chapters 40-55ff) would build heavily upon this thematic matrix, producing prophetic oracles which would extend the idea of salvation and restoration of God’s people to their return from Exile (in the 6th century) and beyond.

References above marked “Blenkinsopp” are to Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 1-39, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 19 (Yale University Press: 2000).

August 27: Exodus 15:20-21

Exodus 15:20-21

In the Exodus narrative as we have it, the Song of the Sea (vv. 1-18) is followed by a brief summary notice (v. 19) of the miraculous event at the Sea—with its effect on the Egyptians and the people Israel, respectively. Then, in verses 20-21, it is recorded how Miriam led the women of Israel in singing and dancing to the Song. Only the first stanza (that is, the first two couplets) is preserved (cp. verse 1), but it is fair to assume that this is an abbreviated, shorthand representation of a longer song. The historical data in vv. 20-21 would appear to be authentic, given the cultural parallels in Judges 11:34 and 1 Samuel 18:6, recording instances of women singing and dancing in response to a military victory led by a hero of the people (Jephthah, David). Here, of course, the underlying idea of the Song is that YHWH, God Himself, is the warrior who achieved victory over the enemies of Israel, and without reliance upon any human intermediary or military technology. Thus, God is the conquering hero greeted by the women in celebration.

The way this material is presented in the book of Exodus has led some critical commentators to posit that we have two distinct lines of tradition preserved, regarding a song that was sung following the event at the Sea. In one line of tradition, the Song is attributed to Moses, in the other, it is to Miriam, who is declared to be a prophet (ayb!n`), like Moses, in her own right (v. 20). In some ways, it is more appropriate that she should be the one inspired to utter this Song. In addition to the example from 1 Sam 18:6ff (cited above), we have the great songs attributed to inspired women in Judges 5 (Deborah) and 1 Samuel 2:1-10 (Hannah), not to mention the oracular utterances in the Lukan Infancy narrative (Elizabeth/Mary, Lk 1:41-55), as well as other examples that could be cited. The parallel with Judges 5 is surely the most relevant, coming as it does after a great victory over the enemies of Israel, won in large measure by the intervention of YHWH, fighting on behalf of his people, utilizing the forces of nature (Judg 4:23; 5:4-5, 20-21). It is said that Barak sang the song, along with Deborah (v. 1), but surely it is Deborah who should be credited, according to tradition, as the inspired author of the song. Much in the same way, Miriam would have been inspired to utter the Song at the sea.

One interesting critical theory is that the older/original tradition attributed the Song of the Sea to Miriam, but that, as the narrative developed, this was shifted over to Moses, who was the more prominent and prestigious figure, and the one deemed more fitting to be associated with the Song itself. If the Song originally developed (and was transmitted) separately, it could have been included at either point in the narrative—that is, attributed to Moses, as the leader of the people, or identified with the tradition of the song uttered by Miriam (v. 21). Some would go so far as to claim that the Song itself came to be constructed on the basis of the two couplets of the “Song of Miriam”, as preserved in the early tradition, with the Song of the Sea being later in composition than the original couplets.

Returning to the actual text, as we have it, following the notice regarding Miriam and the women (v. 20), the couplets comes in verse 21. They are virtually identical with the opening couplets of the Song (cf. the note on stanza 1), the only difference being the form of the initial verb:

“(Come, and) sing to YHWH,
for raised, He (is to be) raised!
(The) horse and its ride [bkr]
He has hurled in(to) the Sea!”

The Song of the Sea in verse 1 begins hr*yv!a*, “I will sing…” or “let me sing…”, while here it is an imperative (Wryv!, “sing!”, “you must sing”). Some commentators would hold that the “Song of Miriam” here preserves the proper (original) verb form for the Song, which fits the terse 2+2 meter better that the imperfect form in v. 1 as we have it. The message of the Song in its opening couplet is the same in either case, giving praise to YHWH for His defeat of the Egyptians through the nature-miracle at the Sea; this miracle demonstrates His power (as Creator) over the entire natural world, but especially the forces of the sky (wind and storm, etc). It was this victory over the Egyptian threat that allowed His people to escape, and, as they ‘crossed over’ the Sea-region, Israel came to be formed as His people in a new way, a process of fulfilling (and re-established) the covenant bond that would find its culmination in the theophany at Sinai (chaps. 19-24) and their eventual settlement in the Promised Land.

August 26: Exodus 15:17-18

Exodus 15:17-18

The final stanza in the second half of the Song of the Sea (and in the Song as a whole) contains three couplets, utilizing the same two-beat (2+2) meter. While the previous stanza (vv. 15-16, cf. the previous note) dealt with the effect of the miracle at the Sea on the surrounding nations (esp. the peoples of Canaan), here the focus is on the result for the people of Israel. The same two themes were introduced and featured in the first stanza (vv. 13-14, cf. the earlier note).

Stanza (v. 17):

“You brought them and fastened them
in the mountain of your possession,
(the) place established for you to sit,
(which) you (yourself) made, YHWH,
(the) Holy Place (for you), my Lord,
(which) your hands did establish!”

The tenses used in this part of the Song pose a certain difficulty for interpretation. Typically, at least in prose narration, the imperfect (and waw-consecutive) verb forms refer to upcoming or future events—i.e., what will take place (in the future). However, in early Hebrew poetry, the so-called imperfect (yaqtul) forms often express the narrative past, as in the older Canaanite dialect-languages (such as Ugaritic), cf. Cross, p. 125. For critical commentators who would view the Song (in the second half) as describing things that have already happened, it is proper to treat these as simple past-tense verbs. Traditional-conservative commentators are more inclined to translate the imperfect forms in the conventional manner, viz. as referring to things—the Israelite settlement/conquest of Canaan—that had not yet taken place when the Song was originally composed. I have generally translated these verbs as past tense, without necessarily making any particular judgment on the absolute age (or historicity) of the Song.

One should also be cautious about giving too specific an interpretation of the “mountain” location referenced in this stanza. The “mountain of God” was a symbol rooted in ancient cosmological myth. In Canaanite religious tradition, the Creator °E~l, connected closely with the majestic expanse of the sky, was thought of as dwelling in (or on) a mountain, which could also be envisioned simultaneously as a great domed tent. The same basic imagery was applied to El-Yahweh in ancient Israel. Any local mountain could be identified—symbolically, and in ritual terms—with God’s mountain dwelling. For the Israelites coming out of Egypt (and other South Semitic peoples of the region), there can be no doubt that Sinai/Horeb was just such a mountain. It is not absolutely certain whether Horeb and Sinai refer to the same mountain location, but at the very least they were related or connected in some way. It was at Horeb that God appeared to Moses, as YHWH, initiating the process of the Exodus for His people (chaps. 3-4); and it was at Sinai that the covenant bond was reaffirmed and re-established, in the manifest presence of YHWH (chaps. 19-24).

In subsequent tradition, the fortified hilltop site of Jerusalem—the most ancient part (i.e. the “city of David” or “Zion”), already built up by the Canaanites (Jebusites) in the Bronze Age—was similarly thought of as the “mountain of God”. This was the location of the Temple-palace complex, and it was the Temple sanctuary in Jerusalem where YHWH would come to dwell in the midst of his people. The same could be said of the earlier Tent-shrine(s), though without any obvious mountain-symbolism that has been preserved. Certainly, the term “holy place” (vd*q=m!) would apply to the Temple sanctuary, but could equally refer to any place where God was present or had his ‘dwelling’.

While there is likely an allusion here to the theophany and covenant-ceremony at mount Sinai, the overall thrust of this part of the Song is on the eventual Israelite settlement in the promised land of Canaan, in fulfillment of the covenant promises. In the 13th/12th century, Jerusalem itself may not have been in view, but the basic idea and imagery (of the mountain of God, etc) would have been easily transferable to a location in Canaan (or of the promised land as a whole). Indeed, within the early Exodus traditions, both through the portable Tent-shrine and the theophanous Cloud, YHWH continued to be present with His people throughout their migratory travels—a process that would continue (and find completion) with their settlement in Canaan. There is no bar against viewing these lines as prophetic of the eventual settlement of Jerusalem (and construction of the Temple), even if the original poem itself may not have been so specific.

I have rendered the second verb in the first line (uf^n`) in the more literal sense of “fasten”, i.e. fix/root in the ground, though it customarily refers to planting—and is thus a general agricultural/horticultural term. This is important from the standpoint of the idea of Israel’s settlement in the land. Only a people settled (fixed/fastened) in a region can establish regular agricultural practice—planting and harvesting, etc. Such agriculture is also necessary for a fulfillment of the land—its fruitfulness and blessing—as a covenant promise from YHWH.

Closing refrain (v. 18):

“(May) YHWH rule as king
for (the) distant future and until (the end)!”

The final stanza does not conclude with a 3-beat response, as in the earlier stanzas; rather, the Song as a whole closes with a short 2-beat couplet. The succinctness of this bicolon cannot be reproduced entirely in a literal translation (cf. above). In this instance, a more conventional rendering may better capture its brevity:

“May YHWH reign
for ever and ever!”

The idea of YHWH as king was not expressed, as such, previously in the Song, though it may be said to be implicit in the contrast between Israel and the other nations (and their gods, cf. verse 11). In particular, Pharaoh and his nobles/officials are brought out in the first half of the Song, and the leaders/nobles of Edom and Moab in the second half (cf. the previous note). The references to the greatness and power of YHWH, and His exalted status, also fit naturally with the idea of God as king. More to the point, His control (as Creator) over the forces of nature, manifest in the miraculous event at the Sea, indicates his Sovereignty over the universe. The verb bv^y` in the second couplet of the stanza (cf. above) is often rendered generally as “dwell”, but more properly means “sit”, and may refer here specifically to YHWH on his seat of rule (i.e., his throne) in his mountain/Temple sanctuary. The same verb may refer to the rulers of Edom/Moab (their ‘thrones’) in a similar way (v. 15).

Ultimately this couplet gives praise to YHWH, recognizing His nature as Creator and Lord over all the world. It is a fitting conclusion to the Song, which so powerfully recounts God’s authority and control over creation itself.

Having studied the Song of the Sea—also referred to as the “Song of Moses” —in some detail, in the next note we will turn to the so-called “Song of Miriam” in verse 21. It is a much shorter poem, and its exact relationship to the longer Song continues to be discussed and debated; it also raises a number of critical questions which are worth considering.


August 25: Exodus 15:15-16

Exodus 15:15-16

The remaining two stanzas of the second half of the Song (vv. 15-16, 17) expound the themes stated in the first (cf. the previous note on vv. 13-14). These express the effect (and result) of the miracle at the Sea—on Israel and the surrounding nations, respectively. The couplets of the first stanza refer to the effect on Israel (as God’s people), emphasizing YHWH’s goodness and loyalty to them, in fulfillment of the covenant bond; this loyalty is demonstrated in the way that He leads/guides them on their way to the promised land (in Canaan). This theme will be developed in the third (and final) stanza (discussed in the next daily note). Here, in the second stanza, it is the effect of the miracle on the nations that is in view. Specifically, the focus is on those nations dwelling in the land of Canaan/Palestine (Edom, Moab), anticipating the Israelite conquest/settlement of the Transjordan regions. This reaction of the peoples of Canaan was introduced in the prior antiphon-response of verse 14 (discussed in the previous note).

Stanza (v. 15):

“So (also) they were terrified,
(the) chieftains of Edôm;
(the) strong (one)s of Mô’ab,
trembling takes hold of them—
they melted (away) completely,
(all those) sitting (in) Kena’an!
(Indeed) there fell upon them
(sudden) dread and terror;
at (the) greatness of your arm
they became silent like a stone!”

As in stanzas 3 and 4 of the first part of the Song (vv. 6-8, 9-10), this stanzas contains five couplets, following the same 2-beat (2+2) meter used throughout. The focus is on those “sitting (in) Canaan” —that is, all the inhabitants of the land, though the verb bv^y` could perhaps be taken (in the more literal sense) of those sitting in the seats of power (i.e. the rulers/leaders). Certainly it is the leaders of Edom and Moab who are in view, with the use of the noun [WLa^, the precise derivation of which remains uncertain but which here seems to refer to the leader of a clan or tribe (i.e. chieftain). Similarly, the noun ly]a^ applies to the leaders of the people; having the fundamental meaning of strength, it can refer specifically to a ram, and, as such, used as an honorific for men of power (nobles, warriors, etc).

Even these great leaders, when they hear of what the God of Israel did at the Sea, are left frightened and terrified, to the point that they “melt away” (vb gWm) completely. It is perhaps best to take lk here in an adverbial sense (i.e., “complete[ly]”); cf. Cross, p. 130. The last two couplets make clear that it is the miraculous nature of the event at the Sea, performed by YHWH’s outstretched arm (“right hand” in vv. 6, 12), which brings about this sudden and complete sense of terror and dread. Faced with the prospect of the power of the God of Israel, they are left silent (vb <m^D*) and unable to boast any longer of their own strength, nor the strength of the deities they worship (cp. the antiphon-response of v. 11).

Response (v. 16):

“Until your people passed over, YHWH,
until your people whom you created passed over.”

In the immediate context of the Song, the reference here is to Israel passing across the Sea, made possible (or at least easier) by the divine wind/breath that blew back the waters. However, it is also clear that the focus in the second half of the Song is on the people being led/guided to the promised land of Canaan; therefore, the use of the verb rb^u* (“cross over”) in this couplet carries a double meaning. This is also true for the adverbial particle/preposition du^ (“until”). The fear/dread that grips the peoples of Canaan will last until Israel crosses over into the land, parallel to the nature-miracle that left the Egyptians stymied and allowed the Israelites ‘cross over’ the Sea. The ancient tradition itself clearly recognized the parallel, with the Jordan river serving as a symbol for the Sea (Joshua 3).

The meaning of the verb hn`q* in the second line remains uncertain, due to the fact that early Hebrew seems to preserve more than one hnq root. It particular, we should distinguish between the root denoting “acquire, purchase” and a more primitive (?) root meaning “make, create” which is less common in the Old Testament. Both root meanings for hnq are attested in Ugaritic, as well as in Hebrew. As it happens, both of these root meanings are also appropriate here in the Song, and it is difficult to decide between the two. On the one hand, the idea that YHWH created Israel (i.e. as His people) is part of the early tradition (cf. Deut 32:6), and would be fitting for the context here. At the same, the emphasis at the beginning of the second half of the Song (v. 13) is on Israel being “redeemed” (vb la^g`)—that is, purchased out of bondage and servitude (in Egypt). I have tentatively opted for the meaning “create”, which seems to more properly reflect the use of hnq in the early tradition (Gen 14:19, 22; Deut 32:6, etc). For other occurrences in a theological context, cf. Gen 4:1; Prov 8:22; in the 8th century Phoenician inscription from Karatepe, Il (= °E~l) is called “creator of (the) earth” (qn °rƒ) just as in Gen 14:19, 22.

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

August 24: Exodus 15:13-14

Exodus 15:13-14

This is the first stanza of the second half of the Song of the Sea. If the subject of the first half of the Song was the event at the Sea itself, the theme of the second is the effect of the miraculous event—both on the people of Israel and on the surrounding nations. These stanzas follow the same pattern as in the first part, with a series of two-beat (2+2) couplets followed by a three-beat (3+3, or 3+3+3) response.

Stanza (v. 13):

“In your loyal kindness you led
(the) people whom you redeemed;
in your strength you carried (them)
to (the) pasture-land of your holiness.”

The nature-miracle at the Sea demonstrated not only the power of YHWH (as Creator), but His concern for His people (Israel). The noun ds#j# here, as frequently in the Old Testament, is specifically related to the idea of the covenant bond. The basic meaning may be “goodness, kindness”, but this must be understood in the sense of the kindness shown to someone in fulfillment of the covenant bond. In such instances it connotes the idea of faithfulness and loyalty. YHWH’s protection and guidance of Israel is part of the binding agreement (tyr!B=, covenant) established with Abraham and his descendants. It is a covenant that will be reaffirmed and re-established when the people reach mount Sinai (chaps. 19-24).

Two verbs are used to express the guidance of YHWH for His people. The first (in line 1) is hj*n` (“lead, guide”) and can be used in the context of a shepherd guiding his flock, while the second (in line 2) is lh^n`, which more properly refers to the idea of shepherding, of leading the animals to water. Thus the motif is that of God as a shepherd for his people—a familiar image in the ancient Near East and the Old Testament, expressed most famously (and beautifully) in Psalm 23 (cf. my earlier study on the Psalm). Similarly, the noun hw#n` refers primarily to the specific pasture land where a flock can graze safely—sometimes to an actual sheep-fold itself, and thus in the more generalized (figurative) sense of an abode/dwelling for people. It must be taken here as a reference to Canaan as the land promised to Abraham and his descendants as part of the covenant agreement.

This land is associated here with the “holiness” (vd#q)) of YHWH, implying that it is the place where God will dwell along with His people. Continuing with the pastoral imagery, it may be likened to a shepherd’s encampment as he tends/guides the flock.

Response (v. 14):

“The peoples hear (of it) and quiver (with fear),
writhing takes hold of (those) sitting [i.e. dwelling] in Pelešet.”

While the event at the Sea results in the people of Israel being guided to their promised land, a blessing due to the covenant bond with YHWH, for the surrounding nations it is a cause for fear. In particular, the peoples of Canaan/Palestine, once they hear of what the God of Israel has done for His people, will shudder (vb zg~r*) with fear and twist/writhe (lyj) in anguish. Clearly this reaction anticipates the Israelite settlement of the land, involving a number of military encounters in which, according to the Israelite tradition (and the Scriptural account), YHWH effectively fought on behalf of His people.

The term tv#l#P= (P®leše¾) is normally understood as a reference to the Philistines and their territory along the coastal plain of Canaan/Palestine. It was the region of Canaan closest to the northeastern border of Egypt, and was notable for its prominent location along the Mediterranean. The expression “way of land of (the) Philistines” was used earlier at 13:17, in reference to the most direct route from northern Egypt (i.e. the Delta region) to Canaan. The Philistines are usually regarded as among the “sea peoples” who invaded Egypt in the early-mid 12th century (during the reign of Rameses III), subsequently settling along the coastal plain of Canaan in the south. There is some evidence for migration and settlement of these “sea peoples” even earlier in the 13th century (in the reigns of Rameses II and Merneptah, cf. Cross, p. 124), so it is conceivable that a reference to “Philistia” could be part of the authentic tradition (deriving from the time of Moses) that underlies the Song.

The reaction of the peoples of Canaan will feature more prominently in the next stanza (to be discussed in the next daily note).

Notes on Prayer: Isaiah 37:15-20

Isaiah 37:15-20

Isaiah 37:15-20 records the prayer of Hezekiah, king of Judah, in response to the Assyrian invasion that took place (under Sennacherib) in 701 B.C. Nearly all of the Judean kingdom fell to Assyria (46 cities and towns are mentioned by Sennacherib in the Assyrian annals), a fact confirmed very much by the context of chapters 36-37 (discussed in the recent Saturday Series studies); cf. especially the notices in 36:1f, 19; 37:11-13, and here in the prayer (v. 18f). There is a parallel version of chapters 36-39 in 2 Kings 18:13-20:19, which raises the strong possibility that both accounts derive from a common (literary) source. The parallel version of Hezekiah’s prayer is in 2 Kings 19:15-19; there are number of variants between the two versions, most of which are quite minor.

Hezekiah’s prayer is a request for deliverance from military attack and destruction (including the horrors of siege warfare), and yet, it is worth noting that the actual petition for deliverance occurs only at the very end of the prayer (v. 20). The rest of the prayer is focused on God (YHWH), and the honor that belongs to Him. This raises an important point, regarding prayer, that is often ignored or neglected by the general populace (including many Christians) today. The tendency is to move immediately to the particular need or concern a person has, without spending any time addressing God with the honor and respect that is due to Him. Such a tendency runs against Jesus’ express instructions in the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:8-13 par), where the petitions regarding personal and communal needs are only made after those which focus on God, His person and His kingdom.

The prayer of Hezekiah needs to be understood within the overall context of chapters 36-37. The threat to Jerusalem is established in 36:1, followed by the taunt-discourse of the Rabshakeh (a high Assyrian official serving in a diplomatic capacity) in vv. 4-20 (cf. the recent Saturday Series study). This discourse introduces a number of themes that are central to the prophetic message in the book of Isaiah. Especially significant is the issue of placing one’s trust in God, in the face of overwhelming danger, rather than relying on other means. The choice is between a political solution—viz., an alliance with Egypt, peace negotiations with Assyria—and trusting on YHWH alone for deliverance.

The message of the Rabshakeh is essentially repeated (in summary form) in 37:10-13, and this second message is properly what Hezekiah is responding to in vv. 14ff. Having received the message, warning of horrific destruction if Jerusalem does not surrender, Hezekiah, it is said, “went up (to) the house of YHWH” (that is, the Temple complex) and spread out the scroll containing the message before YHWH. In so doing, he effectively presented the danger—but, more importantly, the oppressive wickedness of the Assyrians—before God. This is the setting for his petition and the prayer that follows.

Verse 15

“And YHWH-is-(my)-strength made a petition [i.e., prayer] to YHWH, saying…”

I have fully translated the name „izqîy¹hû (WhY`q!z+j!) rather than transliterating it in English (i.e. Hezekiah). Not that this is so important for an understanding of the prayer per se, but simply as a reminder of how the idea of faithfulness and devotion to YHWH was woven into Israelite society during the kingdom period; many names were YHWH-sentence/phrase names. We are not accustomed to names like this in Western society, and they may seem strange to our ears, but the people of the time would immediately have heard and understood their meaning. It is a kind of distortion of the text of Scripture when we transliterate such  names. The idea of trust in YHWH, so essential to the message and theme of the passage, is built into the very name of Hezekiah, filling the role (at least in the book of Isaiah) as the faithful ruler who represents the remnant of people that are to be saved.

Verse 16

“YHWH of (the heavenly) armies, Mighty (One) [i.e. God] of Yisrael, (the One) sitting (upon) the Kerubs—you (are) He, (the) Mightiest (One) [i.e. God], you apart (from all others), for all (the) kingdoms of the earth! (It is) you (who) made the heavens and the earth.”

The prayer begins both with praise to YHWH and with a confession of belief in Him as the one true God and Creator, Sovereign ruler over all the world. His power and rule over all the “kingdoms of the earth” implicitly establishes a contrast between YHWH as King and the wicked tyrant Sennacherib; this contrast is brought out more clearly in the Isaian oracle and taunt (parallel to the Rabshakeh’s taunt) that follows in vv. 21-35.

That YHWH is to be identified as the Creator is clear from the very use of the ancient expression “YHWH of (the heavenly) armies” (toab*x= hwhy), which is presumably based on the idea of El-Yahweh as the one who brought the heavens (and the heavenly/divine beings) into existence; He rules them and has control over them, and they act/fight on His command. For more on the meaning and background of the tetragrammation-name hwhy (YHWH/Yahweh), cf. my earlier article and the recent notes on Exodus 3:13-15. It is also stated here quite clearly that YHWH is the One who “made the heavens and the earth” (cf. the same of the Creator °E~l in Genesis 14:19, etc).

The rule of YHWH as King is symbolized by His ‘throne’ in the Temple sanctuary, flanked as it is by fabulous winged beings (Kerubs, the precise meaning of bWrK= remains uncertain), in a manner typical of kings’ thrones in the ancient Near East (including the Assyrian empire). The might of YHWH extends over all the (human) kingdoms of earth; He truly is the “Mightiest One”, an expression which is a relatively literal rendering of the intensive (or comprehensive) plural <yh!ýa$ (°Elohim, i.e. “God”).

By this point of time in the Prophetic tradition (7th century B.C.), Israelite monotheism had moved strongly in the direction of absolute monotheism—i.e., no other gods exist. While not stately clearly or definitively here, the idea is certainly expressed that YHWH is God “apart from” (db^l=) all others (cf. below).

Verse 17

“Stretch (out) your ear(s), YHWH, and hear; open your eyes, YHWH, and see! See and hear all (the) words of Sennacherib, which he sent to defame (you the) Mightiest, (the) Living (One)!”

Hezekiah calls on YHWH to see and hear what is going on in the current crisis. However, the focus still is not on the immediate need for rescue/deliverance; rather, his appeal is for YHWH to avenge His own honor. The reference, of course, is to the Assyrian message in vv. 10-13, but also (in context) to the taunt-speech of the Rabshakeh earlier in 36:4-20. The purpose of that message was practical—an attempt to gain a peaceful surrender of Jerusalem—but the ultimate effect, in terms of the Prophet tradition, was to insult (i.e. blaspheme) YHWH, the one true God. I have rendered the verb [r^j* as “defame” —that is, to cast blame or reproach upon a person undeservedly.

As I discussed previously, the first half of the Rabshakeh’s message (vv. 4-10) largely echoes the judgment-oracles of the prophets (including Isaiah) against the kingdoms of Israel/Judah, in the sense that the Assyrian conquests are part of God’s decreed judgment, and no attempt to avert it (through diplomatic means, etc) will succeed. It is in the second part of the taunt (vv. 12-20), however, that the message becomes truly insulting to God, suggesting that it is foolish to trust in YHWH, that He cannot protect Jerusalem from destruction, and that there is no possibility for the city to be saved. It is this that Hezekiah presents before YHWH (in the parallel/summary version of 37:10-13), and he calls on God to act in defense of His honor, preserving His name in the face of the tyrant’s boasts. The Isaian taunt-oracle in vv. 21-29 effectively gives YHWH’s answer to Sennacherib.

Verse 18

“Surely, YHWH, (the) kings of Aššur [i.e. Assyria] have made desolate all the (place)s on earth and their lands”

Hezekiah admits the military might of the Assyrians, and their conquests—how they have “made desolate” (vb br@j*) the lands of the surrounding territories. There is almost certainly a bit of wordplay here between the root brj I and that of brj II (meaning “kill/slay [with the sword]”). There is also a dual use of the noun Jr#a# (“earth, land”) which is almost impossible to render effectively in English. A consistent translation would be “…all the lands and their lands”, which sounds quite silly; as an alternative, I make use of the two main denotations of the noun (“earth” and “land”) with the rendering “…all the (place)s on earth and their lands“.

Verse 19

“and have given their ‘mighty (one)s’ in(to) the fire—for they were no (true) Mighty (One)s, but (instead) a piece of work of (the) hands of man, (made of) wood and stone, and (so) they destroyed them.”

Hezekiah also admits the Assyrian boast that the gods of the surrounding nations were unable to protect them from conquest. This is true since, from the Israelite monotheistic (and Prophetic) standpoint, those deities are not true gods at all—that is, they do not exist. This premise is expressed in the standard polemic of the prophetic writings, to the effect that the “gods” of the surrounding nations can be reduced to nothing more than the images used to represent them. Such a caricature of polytheistic religion may not accurately represent what those peoples actually believed, but it demonstrates the essential reality of their religion when compared with the truth of YHWH as the only living God (v. 17). The polemic against idolatry is strongly rooted in the Deuteronomic line of tradition (cf. Deut 4:28; 28:36, 64; 29:16-17), but it is also found in the Isaian oracles (e.g., 2:8; 17:8), becoming even more prominent in the so-called Deutero-Isaian poems (40:18-20; 41:6-7, 21-24, 28-29; 44:6-8, 9-20; 45:16-17).

Verse 20

“And now, YHWH, our Mightiest (One), bring us salvation from his hand, and (then) all (the) kingdoms of the earth will know that you, YHWH (are the One)—you apart (from all others)!”

It is only at the very end of the prayer that Hezekiah actually makes his petition for the city to be rescued from the king of Assyria. Even here, however, this request is couched in the continued appeal for YHWH to defend His own honor. By turning back the Assyrian attack, all of the nations will realize that the God of Israel is the true God, unlike the false (non-existent) idol-deities who could not save their cities and territories from destruction. The exclusivity of YHWH as the only (true) God is affirmed here by a repetition (in abbreviated form) of the wording in verse 16 (cf. above). YHWH is God “apart from” (db^l=) all others.

The effectiveness of Hezekiah’s prayer is indicated by the answer that God gives to it, through the prophet Isaiah, in verses 21ff. This will be discussed further in the upcoming Saturday Series study.


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.