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.


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