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SBL e-journal

DovBear

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2014

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Does God Split the Sea in the Song of the Sea?

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TheTorah.com

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https://thetorah.com/article/does-god-split-the-sea-in-the-song-of-the-sea

APA e-journal

DovBear

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,

,

"

Does God Split the Sea in the Song of the Sea?

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TheTorah.com

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2014

)

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https://thetorah.com/article/does-god-split-the-sea-in-the-song-of-the-sea

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Does God Split the Sea in the Song of the Sea?

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Does God Split the Sea in the Song of the Sea?

Pharaoh's Hosts Engulfed in the Red Sea, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530. Wikimedia

‍Introduction

Az Yashir, the Song of the Sea, has long been a part of the morning service called Pesukei de-Zimrah. It is the only song or hymm from the Torah itself included in this service. Furthermore, it is one of the very few songs included in the Torah at all. Although the Song of the Sea is purported to be a hymn celebrating the dramatic and miraculous splitting of the sea, the text of the poem says nothing about this. The song does tell us that God made Pharaoh and his captains sink in the depths of the sea (vv. 4-5):

ד מַרְכְּבֹת פַּרְעֹה וְחֵילוֹ
יָרָה בַיָּם
וּמִבְחַר שָׁלִשָׁיו
טֻבְּעוּ בְיַם סוּף.
ה תְּהֹמֹת יְכַסְיֻמוּ
יָרְדוּ בִמְצוֹלֹת כְּמוֹ אָבֶן.
Pharaoh’s chariots and his army
He has cast into the sea;
And the pick of his officers
Are drowned in the Sea of Reeds.
The deeps covered them;
They went down into the depths like a stone.

Nevertheless, this is a far cry from events described in Exodus 14. The Song contains no mention of Israelites walking across on dry land or of where the Israelites were or what they were doing as the Egyptian army pursued them. There is no description of the cloud that separated the two camps, or of the east wind separating the waters (14:21). Certainly, there is no reference to Moses, or anyone else, reaching out with his staff over the sea and splitting it (ibid).

Indeed, in the strictest sense of the term, there is no mention of any miracle at all.[1]

Where Are the Egyptians When They Are Drowned?

Possibility 1 – On Ships at Sea

Citing the work of Frank Moore Cross and David Noel Freedman, James Kugel points out that the song can be understood as describing an event that happened far offshore, at “the heart of the sea.”[2]

ח וּבְרוּחַ אַפֶּיךָ נֶעֶרְמוּ מַיִם נִצְּבוּ כְמוֹ נֵד נֹזְלִים קָפְאוּ תְהֹמֹת בְּלֶב יָם.
ט אָמַר אוֹיֵב אֶרְדֹּף אַשִּׂיג אֲחַלֵּק שָׁלָל מְלָאֵמוֹ נַפְשִׁי אָרִיק חַרְבִּי תּוֹרִישֵׁמוֹ יָדִי.
נָשַׁפְתָּ בְרוּחֲךָ כִּסָּמוֹ יָם צָלֲלוּ כַּעוֹפֶרֶת בְּמַיִם אַדִּירִים.
At the blast of Your nostrils the waters piled up,
The floods stood straight like a wall; The deeps froze on the high seas [lit. in the heart of the sea.]
The foe said, “I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil; My desire shall have its fill of them.
I will bare my sword—My hand shall subdue them.”
You made Your wind blow, the sea covered them;
They sank like lead in the majestic waters.

As Kugel points out, “if the Egyptians had been pursuing the Israelites on a dry path in the midst of the waters, then there was nowhere for them to go down, or to sink – they were already on the bottom of the sea bed.”

Possibility 2 – On the Shore

There is another possible understanding of the logistics described above. The Egyptians could have been pursuing the Israelites on the coast, with a tidal wave or some kind of tropical storm destroying the Egyptian army before they could reach the Israelites, dragging their chariots and bodies to the heart of the sea. One support for this possibility comes from Joshua’s final speech to the Israelites (Josh. 24:6-7).

ו וָאוֹצִיא אֶת אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם מִמִּצְרַיִם וַתָּבֹאוּ הַיָּמָּה וַיִּרְדְּפוּ מִצְרַיִם אַחֲרֵי אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם בְּרֶכֶב וּבְפָרָשִׁים יַם סוּף. ז וַיִּצְעֲקוּ אֶל יְ-הוָה וַיָּשֶׂם מַאֲפֵל בֵּינֵיכֶם וּבֵין הַמִּצְרִים וַיָּבֵא עָלָיו אֶת הַיָּם וַיְכַסֵּהוּ וַתִּרְאֶינָה עֵינֵיכֶם אֵת אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי בְּמִצְרָיִם וַתֵּשְׁבוּ בַמִּדְבָּר יָמִים רַבִּים.
I freed your fathers—from Egypt, and you came to the Sea. But the Egyptians pursued your fathers to the Sea of Reeds with chariots and horsemen.They cried out to the Lord, and He put darkness between you and the Egyptians; then He brought the Sea upon them, and it covered them. Your own eyes saw what I did to the Egyptians.

When Joshua reminds the people about the rescue at the Sea he makes no mention of a split sea, or the walk across the sea bed. In his version of the story, the miracle was a sudden darkness that either protected the Israelites or permitted them to sneak away before a surge of water swamped the Egyptians. Joshua says nothing about any other miracle, including a miraculously split sea:

Back to the Future

Another problematic aspect of reading the song in its present narrative context is that the song speaks of future events as if they had already occurred. For example, despite the fact that the crossing of the Sea (wherever it was) was within a three days march from northern Egypt, nation after nation in the Levant appear to have heard of it instantaneously.

יד שָׁמְעוּ עַמִּים יִרְגָּזוּן
חִיל אָחַז יֹשְׁבֵי פְּלָשֶׁת.
טו אָז נִבְהֲלוּ אַלּוּפֵי אֱדוֹם
אֵילֵי מוֹאָב יֹאחֲזֵמוֹ רָעַד
נָמֹגוּ כֹּל יֹשְׁבֵי כְנָעַן.
טז תִּפֹּל עֲלֵיהֶם אֵימָתָה וָפַחַד
בִּגְדֹל זְרוֹעֲךָ יִדְּמוּ כָּאָבֶן
The peoples hear, they tremble;
Agony grips the dwellers in Philistia.
Now are the clans of Edom dismayed;
The tribes of Moab—trembling grips them;
All the dwellers in Canaan are aghast.
Terror and dread descend upon them;
Through the might of Your arm they are still as stone—

How could all these nations have already reacted to the drowning of the Egyptian army when it had literally just happened hundreds of miles away?

Another example comes from the dénouement of the song.

יג נָחִיתָ בְחַסְדְּךָ עַם זוּ גָּאָלְתָּ
…נֵהַלְתָּ בְעָזְּךָ אֶל נְוֵה קָדְשֶׁךָ.
יז תְּבִאֵמוֹ וְתִטָּעֵמוֹ בְּהַר נַחֲלָתְךָ
מָכוֹן לְשִׁבְתְּךָ פָּעַלְתָּ יְהוָה
מִקְּדָשׁ אֲדֹנָי כּוֹנְנוּ יָדֶיךָ.
The peoples hear, they tremble;
Agony grips the dwellers in Philistia.
Now are the clans of Edom dismayed;
The tribes of Moab—trembling grips them;
All the dwellers in Canaan are aghast.
Terror and dread descend upon them;
Through the might of Your arm they are still as stone—

According to this passage, God has a holy abode, a mountain. Upon this mountain is a place that God made for God to dwell in, a sanctuary that God’s hands established. The mountain, of course, is Moriah and the sanctuary is the Temple in Jerusalem, but wouldn’t the escaping Israelites in Moshe’s original audience have been left completely mystified by the mention of a Temple on a mountain?

To help solve this problem, we may turn to King Solomon, and his opening prayer (1 Kings 8:13; 2 Chron. 6:2) upon the dedication of the First Temple:

יְהוָה אָמַר לִשְׁכֹּן בָּעֲרָפֶל.
בָּנֹה בָנִיתִי בֵּית זְבֻל לָךְ
מָכוֹן לְשִׁבְתְּךָ עוֹלָמִים.
The Lord has chosen to abide in a thick cloud:
I have now built for You a stately House,
A place where You may dwell forever.

The term used both by the Song of the Sea and the prayer of Solomon, machon le-shivtecha (a place for you to dwell), appears nowhere else in Tanach. This suggested to Cross and Freedman that Song of the Sea originated as a Temple hymn, written after the building of the Temple by Solomon. This dating removes the problem of the anachronism, and as we shall see solves another problem as well.

Did the Israelites Really Sing this Song?

Chapter 15 of Exodus opens with the phrase:

אָז יָשִׁיר מֹשֶׁה וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת לַי-הוָה
Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord.

As James Kugel quips, “How did they know the words?” [3]

Other than pointing to the obvious problem that the Israelites could not spontaneously sing a song they had never before heard, Kugel’s quip points to what seems to be evidence of an editorial insertion. Perhaps, as Cross and Freedman suggest, there was a Temple hymn about some long forgotten event on the high seas (Exodus 15) during which the waters swamped some pursuers, and also a narrative about the escape from Egypt (Exodus 14). Perhaps these two texts were paired by someone for reasons now lost An indication that this interpretation of events is correct can be found in the poem’s first line, which can be read as an explanation for the decision to put the two texts together. That was when, the introductory verse says, this well known song was first recited.[4]

Published

January 14, 2014

|

Last Updated

September 22, 2019

Footnotes

View Footnotes

DovBear has been blogging at dovbear.blogspot.com since 2004. A member of  the first generation of Orthodox Jewish bloggers, he has published close to 10,000 posts discussing nearly every Jewish topic and generated over 5 million page views. In 2007 several of his earliest parsha posts were assembled into a book.