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).

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