Enthroning God in the Temple with the Song of the Sea
Although the Song begins with YHWH’s miraculous defeat of Israel’s enemies and the sinking of Pharaoh’s chariots in the sea, it continues by describing Israel’s entrance into the land, and the Song’s denouement is the establishment of a temple. These points suggest that even though, in its current context, the “Song of the Sea” (Exodus 15:1b-18) is presented as the song that Moses sang as a paean of praise to God immediately following Israel’s miraculous redemption at the sea, its inclusion in the exodus account is secondary.
An Enthronement Hymn: Identifying the Song’s Genre
The Song, presented as a spontaneous outburst of praise for a salvific act of God, appears to be an “enthronement hymn.” This follows a recognizable Semitic pattern in which a god follows up a battle with his enthronement as king. Frank Moore Cross summarizes this theme as follows:
[T]he principal hero is a Divine Warrior, Yahweh of Hosts by name, who called the nation into being, led them to victory over their enemies with many marvels, and revealed himself as their ruler.
In both the structure of the great complex of tradition and its individual poetic units therein [in the Song], a familiar mythic pattern may be discerned. The Divine Warrior marched forth in wrath to win a crucial victory—at the sea, or in variant tradition by cleaving through Sea—and then led a triumphal procession to his mountain, where he appeared in glory, constructed his sanctuary, and established his kingdom.
A similar if not identical pattern of themes is found in the mythic cycle of Ba‘l in Late Bronze Age Canaan (Ugarit) and in the classic Akkadian cosmogony known as Enūma eliš.
Let’s look at the two examples mentioned by Cross.
Epic of Baal
In the Ugaritic Epic of Baal, written in the early 14th century B.C.E., the storm-god Baal (i.e., Master, a popular epithet for the storm god, Hadad/Adad) battles the sea god, Yamm and the god of death Mot, to establish his kingship. The account calls Baal’s abode Mount Ṣapon (=צפון, the term for left or north in west-Semitic) and has vivid descriptions of his various battles and enthronement (column V, p. 160):
Baal seizes the sons of Athirat (=Asherah, the wife of El, Baal’s mother)
The mighty he strikes with a mace,
The attackers he strikes with a weapon,
The young of Yamm (=god of the sea) he drags to the earth.
Then Baal [is enthroned] on his royal throne (=כסא מלכותו),
[On the resting place], the throne of his dominion.
In the Babylonian creation epic, Enuma Elish (early to mid- 2nd millenium B.C.E.), the god Marduk—the patron god of the city of Babylon—defeats the great primordial mother goddess Tiamat, and uses her body to create the world:
Face to face they came, Tiamat and Marduk, sage of the gods.
They engaged in combat, they closed for battle.
The Lord (=Bel=Baal=Marduk) spread his net and made it encircle her…
He shot an arrow which pierced her belly,
Split her down the middle and slit her heart,
Vanquished her and extinguished her life…. (p. 253)
The Lord trampled the lower part of Tiamat,
With his unsparing mace he smashed her skull… (p. 254)
At this point in the epic, Marduk establishes a place for the gods to live and be worshipped in the heavens:
He crossed the heavens and sought out a shrine…
He founded cult centers for Anu, Ellil, and Ea,
He fashioned stands for the great gods. (p. 255)
Finally, after creating the earth, Marduk establishes a place for himself to dwell and rule:
I shall make a house to be a luxurious dwelling for myself,
And shall found his cult center within it,
And I shall establish my private quarters and confirm my kingship….
I hereby name it Babylon (bāb-ili, “gate of gods”), home of the great gods.
We shall make it the center of religion. (p. 259)
The Enthronement Genre
To be sure, the Song of the Sea is not identical to these ANE accounts. The ANE examples refer to “events” in mythic time, in which gods battle other gods, whereas YHWH is battling humans in the historical period. Additionally, the ANE accounts are epic poems as opposed to hymns. Nevertheless, the template is still recognizable: Each text ultimately enthrones the author’s god in the author’s city: Baal on Mount Ṣapon in Lebanon, Marduk in his temple in Babylon, and YHWH in an (unnamed) Israelite Temple.
The fact that an Israelite or Judahite scribe would compose a hymn that participates in the ANE genre of enthronement literature implies that the scribe was familiar with this genre, and tailored it to fit the Israelite historiography and the Israelite conception of YHWH. This should not be surprising, as we know from other examples in biblical literature that Israelite Temple or court scribes were familiar with the ANE literature and literary conventions. They would have been able to draw on such tales to produce Israel’s deity’s story.
An Ancient Temple Psalm
Having established the Song as an enthronement hymn, originally composed for a temple, can we go further and suggest where and when it was written? No scholarly consensus exists concerning the date of the composition of the Song, nor are there any definitive indications in the text itself. Nevertheless, certain indications point to a relatively early date (early monarchic) and to the Jerusalem Temple.
Linguistic analysis – Many scholars have noted that the Hebrew of the Song of the Sea is archaic. This means that its composition likely predates the composition of the main sources of the Pentateuch (JEPD). Since the earliest of these sources (J and E) were likely composed no later than the mid-First Temple period, the Song of the Sea should be dated to the early monarchic period (if not before).
Parallel with Solomon’s Prayer – Verse 17 of the Song of the Sea contains a striking literary parallel with King Solomon’s dedicatory prayer at the Temple’s inauguration found in 1 Kings 8:13 (=2 Chron. 6:20).
|Song of the Sea||Solomon’s Prayer|
תְּבִאֵמוֹ וְתִטָּעֵמוֹ בְּהַר נַחֲלָתְךָ מָכוֹן לְשִׁבְתְּךָ פָּעַלְתָּ יְהוָה מִקְּדָשׁ אֲדֹנָי כּוֹנְנוּ יָדֶיךָ.
בָּנֹה בָנִיתִי בֵּית זְבֻל לָךְ מָכוֹן לְשִׁבְתְּךָ עוֹלָמִים.
|Exod 15:17 You brought them and planted them in Your own mountain, a place You made for your dwelling, O YHWH, the sanctuary, O YHWH, which Your hands established.||1 Kings 8:13 I have now built for You a stately House, a place where You May dwell forever.”|
These are the only two instances in the Bible in which this phrase appears, suggesting either that one is aware of the other or that these songs come from the same milieu, namely the Jerusalem Temple. Although no agreement exists on the date of this particular section of Solomon’s prayer in Kings, Mordechai Cogen argues that it is an early hymn that predates its use in the book, similar to what has been suggested for the Song of the Sea, which also predates its context in Exodus.
Legitimizing Jerusalem and the Davidic Line
As portrayed in 1 Kings, the Temple’s construction gave God’s final stamp of approval to the legitimacy of the Davidic dynasty and of Solomon as the valid and rightful heir to the throne. The utilization of the popular ANE trope of a powerful god capping off a successful campaign with the establishment of a temple residence—tying the establishment of Jerusalem with Israel’s mythic past—would have been particularly apropos for Solomon.
Solomon’s International Style
Biblical literature describes Solomon as a ruler with strong international ties and tastes:
- He employs Phoenicians for his building projects, including an architect named Hiram (7:13, 40, 45).
- He is allies with King Hiram of Tyre (5:11-26, 9:11, 14, not the same as the architect).
- He marries foreign women (11:1), including Pharaoh’s daughter (9:24).
- He builds temples to foreign gods (11:7-8).
- He has an international reputation (10:23-25), and is visited by the Queen of Sheba (10:1).
How much of this is history, how much myth, and how much propaganda is hard to say. Nevertheless, archaeologically speaking, the physical description of the temple structure in Kings matches other temples in that time, such as the structures found in the Aramean towns of Tell Tayinat and Ain Dara. This implies that the construction of the Jerusalem Temple was done in accordance with an international koiné. Similarly, Solomon’s commissioning his composers to write an enthronement hymn for the Jerusalem Temple, which would make use of a popular ANE genre while fine-tuning it to the Israelite national story and its patron God, YHWH, would fit the pattern noted above.
YHWH Reigns Forever – In Jerusalem
Enthronement literature can be a useful tool for establishing the legitimacy of a Temple or city by associating it with the patron god, who makes his (or her) home there. The proclamation of the final verse of the song, which states: “YHWH will reign forever and ever!” (ה’ ימלך לעולם ועד) (v. 18), emphasizes how the deity will now rule for all eternity from this new home that He built. Such a rhetorical strategy would make good sense if the song was composed as a hymn of dedication for the inauguration of the Temple. The success of this endeavor is clear from the fact that the Song was chosen by the biblical authors to cap off Israel’s greatest story, the exodus from Egypt, and was put into the mouth of its greatest prophet, Moses.
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February 6, 2017
January 19, 2021
Rabbi Daniel M. Zucker, D.D. is the rabbi of Temple Hatikvah (Flanders, NJ) and President and CEO of Americans for Democracy in the Middle-East. He holds an M.A. in Hebrew Letters, a Doctor of Divinity (Honoris Causa) from JTS, and rabbinic ordination from HUC-JIR. A sampling of Zucker’s many articles on the Middle-East can be found on his blog, and he is the author of “He Said: ‘It’s an Event not Pure, for it’s not Pure!’ (I Sam. 20:26b) A Political Analysis,” published in JBQ (2016).
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