The Song at the Sea: What Does it Celebrate?
The Song and the Miracle at the Sea
The rabbinic reconstruction of the chronology of the events of the Exodus, succinctly summarized by Rashi in his commentary on Exodus 14:5, places the miraculous rescue of the fleeing Israelites at the Red Sea on the seventh day of their escape. According to this traditional view, the pursuing Egyptians met their final demise during the night, after which, at daybreak, Moses and Miriam led the Israelites in the hymn known as שִׁירַת הַיָּם – The Song at the Sea (Exodus 15:1–18). As Day 7 of the Exodus corresponds with the seventh day of the Pesah festival, the Rabbis prescribed the biblical account of these events, including the hymn itself, as the Torah reading for the seventh day of Pesah (BT Megilla 31a).
But what does this hymn actually celebrate? The first verse
15:1b I will sing to YHWH, for He has triumphed gloriously;
Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea
makes explicit reference to the miraculous destruction of Pharaoh at the Sea, as do verses 4, 5, 8, 10 and 12 – the last four employing striking imagery:
15:4 Pharaoh’s chariots and his army He has cast into the sea,
And the pick of his officers drowned in the Sea of Reeds.
15:5 The deeps covered them;
They went down into the depths like a stone.
15:8 At the blast of Your nostrils the waters piled up,
The floods stood straight like a wall;
The deeps froze in the heart of the sea.
15:10 You exhaled; the sea covered them;
They sank like lead in the majestic waters.
15:12 You put out Your right hand,
The earth swallowed them.
Similarly, v. 9 alludes explicitly to Pharaoh’s bloodthirsty pursuit. Clearly the more generalized adulation of God as a warrior (v. 3) who smashed His adversaries to bits with his mighty right hand, devouring them with his hot breath as a fire burns straw (vss. 6–7), altogether unsurpassed by any other deities in his awe-inspiring extraordinary deeds (v. 11), taken in context, also refer to the triumphant victory at the sea.
The Song and Later Events
However, after recalling the final descent of the Egyptians into the bowels of the earth (v. 12), the Song leaves behind the miracle at the sea, never to return to it. Instead it moves on to subsequent events. First the Song praises God for leading His people to the land of Canaan:
15:13 In Your love You did then lead the people You redeemed;
In Your might You did guide them to Your holy abode.
The hymn alludes here to God’s providential care for Israel throughout the journey from Egypt to Canaan. It dwells at considerable length on the terror that struck the other nations when they heard of the horrible fate suffered by the Egyptians.
15:14 When the peoples heard, they trembled;
Dread gripped the dwellers of Philistia.
15:15 Next, the clans of Edom became dismayed;
The tribes of Moab—trembling gripped them;
All the dwellers of Canaan became liquefied.
15:16 Terror and dread descended upon them;
Through the might of Your arm they became as still as stone–
Until Your people, O YHWH, had passed through,
Until the people that you redeemed had passed through.
According to the idealized account poetically portrayed here, upon hearing about the Exodus, the Philistines, Edomites, Moabites and the several peoples of Canaan were so paralyzed by their dread of the Israelites’ mighty God that they did not dare to wage war against Him – or them. Instead they froze in place and put up no resistance, thereby ensuring Israel’s safe journey and unmolested passage through their own lands on its way to its destination.
After praising God for not merely bringing His people to His own domain but actually “planting” them there, that is, settling them permanently, there to remain and thrive, the hymn finally reaches its climax. In its final lines, the Song extols God for successfully bringing His plan to its conclusion: the building of the divine abode, the Temple which, in the poetic imagination, He created with His very own hands:
15:17 You brought them and planted them in Your own mountain
The place You made to dwell in, O YHWH,
The sanctuary, O Lord, which Your hands established.
Having completed its account of the people of Israel’s transformation from imperiled fugitive slaves to the permanent inhabitants of God’s own holy mountain, the poem concludes with the earnest prayer
15:18 May YHWH be King for all eternity!
The Song of the Sea or the Song of the Temple?
The historical horizon of the hymn, the dramatic period in Israel’s history that this sublime Song celebrates, thus extends well beyond the time of the Exodus and the deliverance at the Sea. The Song indeed begins with the miraculous, terrifying annihilation of Egypt’s elite forces, devoting to it a full twelve verses. But it then goes on to recount subsequent events. It telescopes the journey through the wilderness, focusing on Israel’s unimpeded progress to, and conquest of, the land of Canaan, and it climaxes in the building of the Temple on God’s holy mountain.
The victory at the Sea is therefore the Song’s starting-point, but it is not its object. The Song is not a hymn of thanksgiving offered at the moment of Israel’s salvation at the Sea but rather a celebration of God’s providential חֶסֶד (lovingkindness), from that time until the present day. The present day, obviously, cannot be earlier than the latest event mentioned: the establishment of God’s Temple on His holy mountain in Canaan, centuries after the time of Moses. The hymn thus celebrates God’s enthronement in His permanent abode, His Temple in Jerusalem, which, for the poet, is the climax and goal of Israel’s election and redemption, the most wondrous stages of which are described in retrospect.
It’s All a Matter of Hebrew Grammar
Numerous translators, and quite a number of commentaries from all periods, have obscured this fact. They have done so by interpreting vss. 13–19 as though they spoke of events still in progress or yet to come. If you compare the translations provided above, which represent my own adaptation of the JPS translation, with the published version of the JPS, you will see that those translators followed this course as well. They have rendered most of the second half of the Song as Moses’ description of the current state of affairs (“The peoples hear, they tremble… All the dwellers in Canaan are aghast… they are still as stone” etc.), and they have interpreted the final verses as Moses’ prediction of what God would do at some future time (“You will bring them and plant them in Your own mountain”).
On initial inspection, there seems to be some linguistic basis for such a procedure. After all, several of the verbs in this latter part of the Song are in the form referred to as the imperfect, which is most commonly used to express the future tense: תִּבְלָעֵמוֹ in v. 12; יִרְגָּזוּן in v. 14; יֹאחֲזֵמוֹ in v. 15; תִּפֹּל, יִדְּמוּ and יַעֲבֹר (twice) in v. 16, and תְּבִאֵמוֹ וְתִטָּעֵמוֹ in v. 17. Maybe interpreting all of these as Moses’ prophetic predictions of what would happen next is correct?
Those familiar with Biblical Hebrew grammar and style, however, will immediately recognize that this is impossible. In biblical poetry, the imperfect (or prefixed) form of the verb very often indicates actions completed in the past. That this is the case here can be demonstrated conclusively in at least three ways:
- First, the parallelism: תִּבְלָעֵמו in the second part of v. 12 is parallel to (actually, the result of) נָטִיתָ in the first part of the verse; יִרְגָּזוּן in v. 14 results from שָׁמְעוּ and is parallel to אָחַז; יֹאחֲזֵמוֹ in v. 15 is paired with נִבְהֲלוּ and נָמֹגוּ, and so forth. In all of these cases, the parallel verbs, all of which are in the perfect (or suffixed) form and unambiguously indicate the past tense, determine the tense of the entire verse.
- Second, the statistics: the verbs in the imperfect form are a minority, and when we subtract the poet’s declarations – אָשִׁירָה “I shall sing” in v. 1 along withוְאַנְוֵהוּ “I shall adore Him” and וַאֲרֹמְמֶנְהוּ “I shall exalt Him” in v. 2, as well as the quoted speech of the enemy in v. 9, their number becomes even smaller. The great majority of verbs in the descriptive portions of the poem are all in the perfect, indicating the simple past, and this is decisive.
- Third, verbs in the so-called “future” form occur in the first portion of the Song as well as in the second, yet no commentator suggests viewing them as future tense verbs. The word יְכַסְיֻמוּ in v. 5 clearly means “covered them”; indeed it is paired with יָרְדוּ; the word תִּרְעַץ in v. 6 too is universally acknowledged to mean “You smashed”, just as the three verbs in v. 7, תַּהֲרֹס , תְּשַׁלַּח, and יֹאכְלֵמוֹ, are all recognized as past-tense – as indicated by their counterparts in v. 8: נֶעֶרְמוּ, נִצְּבוּ, and קָפְאוּ.
Evasive Interpretations and Integrity in Exegesis
Linguistically then, there is no justification for reading the Song as if it celebrated the miracle at the Sea as an event that had just taken place and looked forward to Israel’s future progress. The recent event that the Song celebrates is the building of the Temple, presented as the culmination of a process of uninterrupted divine providence that began with the Exodus. Of course, translators and commentators who have concealed this have not done so because of any deficiency in their command of Biblical Hebrew. Rather, the notion that the Torah might contain passages that refer explicitly to events well after the time of Moses as though they belonged to the distant past was simply unthinkable.
The implication, that portions of the Torah did not even exist in Moses’ time and could not have been written by him, was unimaginable. And so it fell to critical scholars to realize that the author of this portion of the Torah’s narrative evidently embedded in his account of the events surrounding the Exodus a poem – most likely not of his own creation – originally designed for a different purpose entirely: to mark the completion of God’s earthly dwelling-place, the Jerusalem Temple. As this Temple psalm began by recalling the miraculous rescue at the Sea, this author (most source critics identify him as J) put it to new use, placing it in the mouths of Moses, Miriam and the Israelites at the time of the Exodus.
Critical scholars have taken their cue on this and similar matters from Abraham ibn Ezra who, in the twelfth century, laid down two iron-clad rules about validity in interpretation: first, that no interpretation that fails to meet the rigorous demands of Hebrew grammar is admissible; second, that no author, not even a prophet, indeed not even God, speaks or writes in the past tense of events that have not yet taken place. Ibn Ezra thus admitted that certain passages in the Torah date from, and pertain to, time periods long after the lifetime of Moses and therefore could not have been written by him – even at God’s own bidding. And while Ibn Ezra did not include the Song at the Sea among the passages he so identified, it is through our own unfailing adherence to the principles of intellectual integrity on which he insisted that we are able to gain a new appreciation for שִׁירַת הַיָּם – both in its original role and in its eventual incorporation within the Torah narrative.
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April 18, 2014
January 12, 2020
Dr. Baruch J. Schwartz is the Avraham Mordechai Shlansky Senior Lecturer in Biblical History at Hebrew University. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. (1988) from Hebrew University. Schwartz writes and lectures on the Priestly tradition and literature in the Torah and on the biblical accounts of the revelation at Sinai. He is especially interested in how academic biblical scholarship and traditional Jewish belief and observance may co-exist.
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