August 20: Exodus 15:9-11

Exodus 15:9-11

This fourth stanza of the Song of the Sea is closely related to the third (vv. 6-8, cf. the previous note), both in terms of its form and content. Both stanzas contain five couplets, in 2-beat (2+2) meter, and provide a poetic account of the event at the Sea (comparable to the prose narrative in 14:21-29). In the climax of the third stanza, the waters are piled up, while, at the same climactic point in the fourth stanza, the waters return back down, drowning the Egyptians in the process.

Stanza (vv. 9-10):

“(The) enemy said:
‘I will pursue, I will reach,
I will divide (the) plunder,
my appetite shall be filled!
My sword I will draw out,
my hand shall drive (them) out!’

(But) you blew with your breath,
(and the) Sea covered them;
they sunk like lead (weight)
in (the) mighty waters!”

It is possible to divide the stanza into two parts: (a) the violent boast of the enemy (3 couplets), and (b) God’s action in response (2 couplets). The arrogant attitude of an enemy possessing superior military capability is expressed through the staccato-like sequence of 1st person imperfect verbs, declaring their aggressive intent: “I will pursue [vb [d^r*], I will reach (them) [vb gc^n`], I will divide [ql^j*] the plunder!” Ultimately, this is an expression of a vicious and ravenous “soul” (vp#n#), a term which here may perhaps better be rendered in the rare (and poetic sense) of “throat” (i.e. that which devours and swallows up); the two meanings are captured well, I think, by the translation “appetite” above.

The same expression of wicked intent is found in the third couplet, where the emphasis is on violence used to satisfy one’s desire. There is a clear parallelism—both synonymous and synthetic—in this couplet; I preserve the Hebrew word order above:

    • “my sword” | “I will draw out”
    • “my hand” | “will drive out”

The “sword” and “hand” both express strength in battle and the ability to conquer (cf. the idiom of the “right hand” in verse 6). There is a conceptual play between the verb qWr (“pour out”, i.e. “draw out”) and vr^y`, the latter having the fundamental meaning of “possess, occupy”, which requires “driving out” the prior inhabitants of a place. Thus, just as the enemy “draws out” his sword, so also he “drives out” the conquered people.

On a minor text-critical point in verse 9, Cross (p. 129) would read the pronominal suffix om– in the verb forms oma@l*m=T! (“will be filled with them”) and omv@yr!oT (“will drive them out”) as a scribal ‘correction’ of a mem [m] enclitic particle. The use of enclitics, frequent in poetry, is often simply a stylistic device (to fill out the rhythm/meter, etc), without have any real grammatical significance. It is far less common in prose narrative, especially as the language developed over time, being preserved for us almost exclusively in the older poetry. It was natural, during the process of transmission, for scribes to mistake an enclitic particle for a grammatical suffix, and there are numerous instances where this appears to have taken place.

The final two couplets of the stanza describe YHWH’s response to the enemy’s boast. It is a poetic account of the nature-miracle at the Sea, parallel to that of the final two couplets in stanza 3 (cf. the previous note). We have the same powerful blowing of a wind/breath (j^Wr) from God, with its effect on the waters. However, there is a clear contrast with stanza 3 as well; there the wind piles up the waters (allowing the Israelites to cross more easily), whereas here the implication is that the same wind now blows in the opposite direction, causing the waters to fall back down as they were before (cp. 14:21 with vv. 27-28). As a result, the waters “cover” (vb hs*K*) the Egyptian forces, effectively drowning them. The idiom of sinking (vb ll^x*) “like a lead (weight)” is equivalent to their going down (vb dr^y`) “like a stone” in verse 5.

Response (v. 11):

“Who (is) like you among the Mighty (One)s, YHWH?
Who (is) like you, so magnificent among the Holy (Ones)?
—being feared (with) shouts (for) doing (such) wonder(s)!”

As in the prior stanzas, the antiphon-response is a 3-beat (3+3) couplet—only here, dramatically, it is expanded into a triplet with the addition of a concluding (4-beat) line, giving added emphasis to the greatness and power of YHWH that achieved this victory. The main couplet itself is simple in its repetitive parallelism, each line beginning “who (is) like you…?” (hk*m)k* ym!). Note how the parallelism is expressed in the remainder of each line:

    • “among the mighty (one)s” | YHWH
    • “among the holy (ones)” | “(you who) are mighty/magnificent”

The participle rD*a=n@ (“being mighty”) must be understood as a descriptive appellation of YHWH (i.e., “you who are mighty”). Similarly the (singular) noun vd#q) has to be regarded here as a collective term (i.e. “holy ones”) comparable to the plural “mighty ones” in line 1 (cf. Cross, p. 129). I render <yl!a@ quite literally as “mighty (one)s”, but the word clearly refers to gods/deities (singular la@, °¢l). <yl!a@ is the more primitive form, which was almost completely replaced in Hebrew by the expanded <yh!ýa$ (°§lœhîm), the older plural being preserved exclusively in poetry (as here). For more detail, cf. my earlier articles on ‘El and ‘Elohim.

The concluding line is constructed of two short parallel phrases, each beginning with a participle:

    • “being feared (with) shouts”
    • “doing wonderful (thing)s”

The first participle is a Niphal passive form, indicating the response of human beings to YHWH; the second is an active form, referring to what YHWH Himself has done. The principal reference of course is to the nature-miracle at the Sea, and how human beings ought to respond to such a miracle. There is a dual-sense to this response, involving the idea of giving a “shout” (root llh). On the one hand, God’s people will shout praise, worshiping YHWH for what he has done on their behalf; the Song itself is such an expression of praise. At the same time, the surrounding nations will cry out more in awe and wonder (the more proper meaning of the verb ar^y`, “fear, be afraid”). The response of the nations will take on greater prominence in the second part of the Song.

The next daily note will be limited to a discussion on the verse 12 couplet, which serves as the conclusion to the first part of the Song. I will also take the opportunity to examine more closely its relationship to the response in verse 11.

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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