August 18: Exodus 15:3-5

Exodus 15:3-5

This is the second stanza of the Song—cf. the previous note on the 1st stanza (vv. 1-2).

Stanza (vv. 3-4):

“YHWH (the) man of battle,
YHWH (is) His name!
Pharaoh and his (armed) might
He has thrown in(to) the Sea!
(The) chosen of his third men
are sunk in (the) Sea of Reed(s)!”

The stanza is built of three couplets which develop the seminal statement of the 1st stanza—that YHWH has “hurled horse and ride [i.e. chariot] into the sea”. The chariot-corps represent the aristocratic elite of the Egyptian military, and thus the leading component of Pharaoh’s force. Chariotry was also, at the time, a powerful and revolutionary development in military technology, and one in which Egypt excelled. This second stanza deals with Pharaoh’s military power in a broader (and more comprehensive) sense, with the expressions in the first lines of the second and third couplets:

    • “Pharaoh and his (armed) might” (olyh@w+ hu)r+P^)
    • “(The) chosen of his third men” (wyv*l!v* rj^b=m!)

For the first expression, the line as we have it is actually longer: “(The) ridings [i.e. chariots] of Pharaoh and his (armed) might”. Metrically, this overloads the line and disrupts the rhythm of the stanza. Cross (p. 127), following earlier analysis by W. F. Albright, regards the longer (3-beat) line as preserving a conflate text. If so, then it would seem better to omit tb)K=r=m^ (“[chariot]-ridings of”); doing so clarifies both the rhythm and the parallelism of the second and third couplets. With some hesitation, I tentatively adopt this emendation for the purpose of this study, and this is reflected in the translation above.

The noun lyj@ literally refers to the combined strength or might of the Egyptian military (especially the chariot-corps); it figuratively represents his armed forces as a whole. The word vyl!v* means a third (i.e. of three men), and may have originally referred to the third man in a chariot; however, it came to be used as a more general military term for an “officer” in the army. The “chosen” (rj*b=m!) of these men are the leaders—the best and brightest—of the military, and the term may also refer to their aristocratic status.

The second line of each couplet describes the defeat of Pharaoh’s military by YHWH. The second couplet virtually restates this: “He has thrown in(to) the Sea” = “He hurled in(to) the Sea [v. 1b]”. The details of what happened, known already from the narrative in chapter 14, is noted in the third couplet, which declares the fate of the defeated forces: “(they) are sunk [vb ub^f*] in the Sea of Reeds”. The third stanza (discussed in the next note) will further elaborate on how this took place.

The stanza opened with a declaration of YHWH as a great warrior. This is an aspect of YHWH that set him apart somewhat from the Creator °E~l in Semitic (Canaanite and Amorite) religious thought. There is a strong military component to YHWH’s character and identity in the earlier (pre-exilic) Israelite period. This imagery and symbolism was perhaps at its strongest at the time of the Israelite confederacy (i.e., period of the Judges) and the settlement in Canaan. YHWH functions as a powerful tribal chieftain who leads the people in battle—the expression here is literally “man of battle” (hm*j*l+m! vya!). However, as the Creator God, with control over the natural world, YHWH is able to make use of the forces of nature—especially the storm—to fight the enemies of his people. This is a very old religious-cultural concept, reflected in the ancient expression “YHWH of (the) armies” (toab*x= hwhy). By this is meant the heavenly armies—the sun and moon, forces of the sky and storm, etc—which YHWH can marshal at his command to do battle on behalf of His people. The expression may be a truncated form of a longer (and older) sentence-title, of the Creator God (°E~l) as the One who “causes the (heavenly) armies to be”, incorporating the fundamental (verbal) meaning underlying the name Yahweh. (cf. Cross, pp. 68-71).

The second line of the first couplet makes clear once again the fundamental religious premise of the Exodus narrative—that the name of Creator God is to be recognized by Israel as Yahweh (the tetragrammaton name YHWH). Recognition of this name is a sign that Israel is a people belonging to YHWH, and that they will receive His help and protection in time of need.

There can be no doubt that the battle is effectively between the heavenly armies (led by YHWH) and the human military (led by Pharaoh), and that this contrast is quite intentional. The initial declaration of YHWH as one who is victorious in battle is contrasted with the fate of the Egyptian forces sunk deep down in the waters of the sea. This is stated dramatically in the antiphon-response to the stanza (v. 5).

Response [?] (v. 5):

“(The) deep places have covered them,
they went down in (the) depths like a stone!”

The plural nouns tm)h)T= and týoxm= are virtually synonymous, referring to “deep (place)s” or “depths”, and both can be used specifically for the watery depths of the sea/ocean, which evoke the cosmological motif of the dark primeval waters. This aspect of the imagery in the Song of the Sea will be discussed in the next note (on stanza 3).

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

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