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David Frankel





The Song of the Sea and the History of Ancient Israel and Judah





APA e-journal

David Frankel





The Song of the Sea and the History of Ancient Israel and Judah








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The Song of the Sea and the History of Ancient Israel and Judah

Ten observations about the Song of the Sea and what it is really about.


The Song of the Sea and the History of Ancient Israel and Judah

The Song of the Sea, 42v/43r, in the Hebrew Bible


The Secondary Use of the Song of the Sea

The song commonly referred to as Shirat Hayam, the Song of the Sea (Exodus 1b-18), was sung according to the Bible by Moses and the Israelites after they had crossed through the Sea on dry land and witnessed the miraculous drowning of the Egyptians. Verse 19 supports this attribution by supplementing the Song with a prose passage that succinctly recounts the narrative of Exodus 14.

Scholars have long noted, however, that this contextualization of the Song within the narrative flow of the book of Exodus is secondary. The Song could not really have been sung by the Israelites at this juncture since it refers to the journey to the land, the settlement, and the establishment of the Temple.[1] All of these events are depicted as having already occurred. They provide the basis for the thankful proclamation of God’s eternal kingship in the closing, climactic affirmation of verse 18, “May the Lord reign forever!”

It is thus most reasonable to assume that the Song was originally recited in one of the central temples in the land (most scholars assume that the reference is to Jerusalem) and only later attributed to Moses and the Israelites, and situated at the time of the miracle at the Sea. By placing the Song at this juncture, and putting it in the mouths of Moses and the Israelites, the editor depicts the miracle at the sea as such a high point that the people burst spontaneously into song.[2]

A(n Alternative) Narrative about Israel’s Formation

Shirat Hayam is a song of praise that presents us with the outlines of a “narrative” of the formation of Israel as God’s people (cf. v. 16, עַם זוּ קָנִיתָ, “the people you acquired”). But what are the components of that narrative? Most scholars assume that they are more or less identical to the components that make up the “official” national narrative that begins with the exodus and the miracle at the Sea, continues with the wilderness wandering, the crossing over the Jordan and the conquest of the land, and ends, finally, with the building of the Temple.

This reading of the Song is possible. Nevertheless, the poem is often quite vague and sometimes even silent about many details in the story that it recounts or assumes. For example, several scholars have already pointed out that while the Song clearly indicates that the Egyptians drowned in the Sea, there is no explicit indication that the Israelites were thought to have crossed or even entered it, with “walls of water to their right and to their left.” These story elements are clearly mentioned only in the prose verse 19 that follows the Song.[3] The Song itself may simply have imagined the Egyptians drowned by a sort of tidal wave, as they pursued the stationary Israelites.[4]

Finding What You Expect to Find

The editor who placed the song in the narrative and supplied the framing verses (1a and 19) interpreted the song in light of the narrative he knew from Exodus 14; in other words, he found what he expected to find, as have subsequent readers throughout the centuries. Nonetheless, in what follows, I shall read the Song of Exodus 15:2-18 as a self-standing text, independent of its current framework. As such, I will mark ten points which are missed when trying to force the song to reflect the “canonical version” of the escape at the Sea and its aftermath.

  1. The Account of Plagues Doesn’t Anticipate the Sea Escape
  2. No Connection to an Exodus from Egypt
  3. No Mention of Slavery or Leaving Egypt
  4. No Military Conquest of the Land
  5. The Route: Entry from the South
  6. God’s Own Land
  7. God Constructed His Own Temple and Brought His People To It
  8. God’s Strength: The Guiding Ark from the Sea to the Temple
  9. Israel or Judah: Who are YHWH’s People?
  10. The Identity of the Attackers

The Account of Plagues Doesn’t Anticipate the Sea Escape

Before starting on the Song itself, it is worth making a broad observation about the connection between the account of the plagues and the escape at the Sea. Here I refer not only to the victory at the Sea as depicted in the Song, but even to the victory at the Sea as depicted in Exodus 14.

From the dramatic point of view, the entire theme of victory at the Sea (Exodus 14–15) follows poorly after the ten plagues. The story of the plagues comes to a crescendo with the death of the firstborn and the exodus that follows it. After this, the victory at the Sea seems like an unnecessary, second climax.

In the narrative, YHWH prefaces the plague of the firstborns with the statement,

שמות יא:א וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה עוֹד נֶגַע אֶחָד אָבִיא עַל פַּרְעֹה וְעַל מִצְרַיִם אַחֲרֵי כֵן יְשַׁלַּח אֶתְכֶם מִזֶּה כְּשַׁלְּחוֹ כָּלָה גָּרֵשׁ יְגָרֵשׁ אֶתְכֶם מִזֶּה.
Exod 11:1 YHWH said to Moses: I will bring but one more plague upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt; after that he shall let you go from here; indeed, when he lets you go, he will drive you out of here once and for all.

These words bear all the marks of a final climax. This stands in tension with the entire tradition of the victory at the Sea. After all, since the victory at the Sea was a most significant “plague,” there was not “but one more plague.” And since the Egyptians pursued the Israelites and attempted to kill them, the exodus after the plague of the firstborn was not “once and for all.”

Egypt Doesn’t Want Them Back

Psalm 105 describes the plague of the firstborn followed by Israel’s exodus from Egypt:

תהלים קה:לו וַיַּךְ כָּל בְּכוֹר בְּאַרְצָם רֵאשִׁית לְכָל אוֹנָם. קה:לז וַיּוֹצִיאֵם בְּכֶסֶף וְזָהָב וְאֵין בִּשְׁבָטָיו כּוֹשֵׁל. קה:לח שָׂמַח מִצְרַיִם בְּצֵאתָם כִּי נָפַל פַּחְדָּם עֲלֵיהֶם.
Ps 105:36 He struck down every firstborn in the land; The first fruit of their vigor. 105:37 He led them out with silver and gold; None among their tribes faltered. 105:38 Egypt rejoiced when they left, For dread of Israel had fallen upon them.

The Psalm goes on to speak of the wonders in the wilderness without any mention of the victory at the Sea. Indeed, the Psalm precludes the possibility that this victory occurred at the time of the exodus since, according to the Psalmist, the Egyptians were happy to be rid of the fearful Israelites and could hardly have chased after them.[5]

Commemorating the Firstborn but not Victory at the Sea

The Passover meal and the sacrifice of the firstborn are celebrated on the fourteenth of the first month, and this date was determined as the date of the exodus celebrations for all time (Exodus 12:6 ff., 14 ff., 40-42; 13). This makes sense if the death of the firstborn is understood as the plague that ended the Israelites’ slavery. But if the exodus was not yet final at this point, and the most significant Egyptian threat to the Israelites as well the most miraculous act of divine salvation were yet to come, why was this chosen as the main commemoration of the defeat of the Egyptians?

And why is there no concern to educate the Israelite children through a ritual of some sort about the great climactic act of salvation at the Sea the time of the exodus? This is doubly strange when we see that the crossing of the Jordan gets its own commemoration in Joshua 4:5-9, even though it was a lesser miracle and did not save the Israelites from immanent destruction as did the splitting of the Sea.[6]

It stands to reason from the above, that an early version of the exodus tradition did not even speak of the victory at the Sea at all.


No Necessary Connection to an Exodus from Egypt

Just as the plagues don’t seem anticipate the story of the Sea, the Song of the Sea does not seem to know about the exodus. To clarify, there is certainly no question that in Exodus 14, as it exists today, the divine victory at the Sea is integrally related to the exodus from Egypt. But the connection between these themes may not yet have been made when the Song of the Sea was composed. In fact, the Song may be unaware of a tradition in which Israel ever lived in Egypt.

In its original context, it may have thought of Israel as a kind of wilderness group, settled somewhere by the Sea, who were attacked by a passing army. Egypt ruled the Levant for centuries, and often conducted campaigns against local tribes, as depicted in numerous Egyptian texts and artwork.

This understanding of the Song brings it in line with several other biblical texts that similarly allude to Israel’s origins in the southern wilderness rather than Egypt. Most notable among these is the passage in another ancient poem, Shirat Haazinu:

דברים לב:י יִמְצָאֵהוּ בְּאֶרֶץ מִדְבָּר וּבְתֹהוּ יְלֵל יְשִׁמֹן יְסֹבְבֶנְהוּ יְבוֹנְנֵהוּ יִצְּרֶנְהוּ כְּאִישׁוֹן עֵינוֹ.
Deut 32:10 He found him in a wilderness region, in an empty howling waste. He engirded him, watched over him, guarded him as the pupil of his eye.

The poem in Deuteronomy, like our Song, goes on to depict God taking the Israelites from this wilderness and guiding them into rich and fertile land.[7] Psalm 68 also seems to refer to God leading the Israelites to the land from the wilderness (cf. verses 8-9, 18).[8]

Returning to our Song, we should keep in mind that a community of wilderness dwellers has no walls for protection and is therefore highly vulnerable. The statement of verse 9 (“The enemy said…”) reflects the intention of Israel’s would-be attackers to exploit this vulnerability for simple monetary gain. God used the Sea to save Israel from destruction and then brought them to settlement in his Temple/land. None of this bears any relation to the exodus story.

Drowning the Enemy in Battle: A Generic Theme

Several considerations support this thesis. Divine victory through drowning the enemy is a theme that exists independently of the exodus. We find it, for example, in the “Song of Deborah” of Judges 5:19-22, in the context of Israel’s military struggles against Hatzor:

שופטים ה:יט בָּאוּ מְלָכִים נִלְחָמוּ
אָז נִלְחֲמוּ מַלְכֵי כְנַעַן
בְּתַעְנַךְ עַל מֵי מְגִדּוֹ
בֶּצַע כֶּסֶף לֹא לָקָחוּ…
ה:כא נַחַל קִישׁוֹן גְּרָפָם
נַחַל קְדוּמִים נַחַל קִישׁוֹן…
ה:כב אָז הָלְמוּ עִקְּבֵי סוּס
מִדַּהֲרוֹת דַּהֲרוֹת אַבִּירָיו:
Judg 5:19 The kings came, they fought;
Then fought the kings of Canaan,
At Taanach, by the waters of Megiddo;
They got no spoils of silver…
5:21 The torrent Kishon swept them away,
The onrushing torrent, the torrent Kishon…
5:22 Then loud beat the horses’ hoofs,
With the galloping, galloping of his steeds.

Note how this Song parallels ours in multiple ways. Both depict the enemy attacking Israel by the water. Both depict the enemy seeking but failing to destroy Israel or to take booty. Both depict the waters engulfing the enemy. Finally, both refer to the enemies’ horses in the context of their defeat. Since the event referred to in the Song of Deborah has nothing to do with the exodus theme (which the Song never mentions), the same could be true for the Song of the Sea.


No Mention of Slavery or Leaving Egypt

Another set of observations strengthens the thesis that the Song has nothing to do with the exodus tradition. The Song does not mention that the people were slaves. The ideas of “slavery” and “freedom,” so central to the exodus theme, are completely alien to the theme of the Song. Moreover, the Song never states that the people came from Egypt or that they were on the move at all. Neither does it imply that the attacking army was attempting to recapture escaped slaves or avenge themselves.

Let us listen carefully to verse 9,

שמות טו:ט אָמַר אוֹיֵב,
אֶרְדֹּף אַשִּׂיג
אֲחַלֵּק שָׁלָל,
תִּמְלָאֵמוֹ נַפְשִׁי,
אָרִיק חַרְבִּי,
תּוֹרִישֵׁמוֹ יָדִי.
Exod 15:9 The enemy said:
“I will chase, I will catch,
I will divide the spoil,
My desire shall have its fill of them.
I will draw my sword,
My hand shall destroy them.”[9]

While it is true that the enemy of the Song speaks of “chasing” and “catching” a people in flight, the reference is most naturally to Israel’s anticipated flight that the presently planned attack would trigger.[10] No indication is given that the decision to pursue was made back in the land of Egypt in response to a flight that had already begun, as depicted in Exodus 14:5-6.[11]

Most tellingly, the goal of the planned attack, according to verse 9, was simply to kill and take booty. This is what invaders and marauders do all the time. Had the Israelites been thought of as Egypt’s highly valuable runaway workforce, the Egyptians would have expressed the desire to capture and retrieve, not destroy and take spoils. Furthermore, not the slightest hint of the fact that the coveted “spoils” of the Israelites were the Egyptians’ own “borrowed” jewelry and dress ware (Exodus 12:35-36) can be found in the Song.

YHWH Redeems Israel at the Sea not in Egypt

The Song implies that the divine decision to bring Israel to the mountain of his inheritance was taken when he saved them at the Sea. It was only through his act at the Sea that God “redeemed” (v. 13) and “acquired” (v. 16) his people, and it was from the Sea that God brought Israel to the land (vv. 12-13; 17). This implies that before this event, God was not actively involved with Israel and that Israel was not already en route to the land before this.

Such an implication clashes with the exodus narrative, which depicts God sending multiple plagues to Egypt in order to secure Israel’s release, and which presents the exodus from Rameses on the night of the plague of the firstborn as already oriented toward settlement in the land (cf. Exodus 3:8, 17; 6:8) .


No Military Conquest of the Land

The Song describes God bringing his newly acquired people to the land, but with no reference to a military conquest. The only military confrontation referred to is the one at the Sea (verses 2, 4-12). The divine defeat of Israel’s enemy at the Sea is depicted as so earth-shattering that all the nations tremble with fear until the people of YHWH pass them by and arrive at their final destination:

שמות טו:יד שָׁמְעוּ עַמִּים יִרְגָּזוּן,
חִיל אָחַז יֹשְׁבֵי פְּלָשֶׁת.
טו:טו אָז נִבְהֲלוּ אַלּוּפֵי אֱדוֹם,
אֵילֵי מוֹאָב יֹאחֲזֵמוֹ רָעַד,
נָמֹגוּ כֹּל יֹשְׁבֵי כְנָעַן.
טו:טז תִּפֹּל עֲלֵיהֶם אֵימָתָה וָפַחַד,
בִּגְדֹל זְרוֹעֲךָ
יִדְּמוּ כָּאָבֶן,
עַד יַעֲבֹר עַמְּךָ יְ־הוָה,
עַד יַעֲבֹר עַם זוּ קָנִיתָ.
טו:יז תְּבִאֵמוֹ וְתִטָּעֵמוֹ
בְּהַר נַחֲלָתְךָ…
Exod 15:14 The peoples heard, they trembled;
Pangs seized the inhabitants of Philistia.
15:15 Then the chiefs of Edom were dismayed;
Trembling seized the leaders of Moab;
All the inhabitants of Canaan melted.
15:16 Terror and dread fell upon them;
because of the might of your arm
they became still as a stone
Until your people, O YHWH, passed by,
Until the people whom you acquired passed by.
15:17 You brought them in and planted them
on the mountain of your own possession…

These verses imply that the initial victory at the Sea made further military engagement with potential opponents completely unnecessary: all the nations on Israel’s path to God’s holy mountain trembled in terror until Israel settled down. The text thus depicts migration and settlement, not conquest.

Passing By Canaanites

The nations mentioned here are odd: the Philistines, Edomites, Moabites, and Canaanites. While the territories of Edom and Moab are generally seen as outside the realm of Israelite territory, Philistia, and most certainly Canaan, are considered Israelite territories, which Israel is commanded to conquer (as depicted in Joshua 5-12). How, then, can the Song depict the Canaanites as shuddering in fear until the Israelites passed them by?

Ibn Ezra was sensitive to this problem. He argued, in his long commentary, that the “them” of verse 16 refers to the Edomites and Moabites, but not the Canaanites, who were not passed by, but attacked and destroyed.[12] This reading, however, is clearly forced.

The Song suggests a world in which Israel lives side by side with the Canaanites just as it lives side by side with the Philistines, Edomites, and Moabites. Possibly, YHWH is even imagined as King over these cowering nations as well (verse 18). The Song, we should probably assume, is unaware of a divine command to destroy the Canaanites (Deut 20:16-18) and carry out a military take over the “land of Canaan,” in the broad sense of that term. Nor does it recognize the book of Joshua, much of which depicts this conquest.


The Route: Entry from the South

Traditionally, the biblical text depicts the Israelites traveling from Sinai to the Transjordan and entering the land from the east via the Jordan River. Many commentators, both traditional and modern-critical, view the Song similarly, finding a reference to the crossing of the Jordan in verse 16 (עַד יַעֲבֹר עַמְּךָ יְ־הוָה ,עַד יַעֲבֹר עַם זוּ קָנִיתָ), as the root ע.ב.ר can mean “to cross.”[13] But Ibn Ezra’s understanding of the verse, that it refers to Israel’s passing by the nations on the way toward their settlement, is preferable, and it renders the term “until” (עַד) understandable.

Once Israel passes the nations without attacking them, the threat Israel poses dissipates and the nations can relax. If the reference is to the crossing of the Jordan, there seems little reason for the Canaanites or Philistines to cease their trembling! (In fact, Joshua 5:1 pictures the natives trembling as a result of the crossing of the Jordan.)

This reading highlights another odd point about the nations mentioned in v. 15. Israel is supposed to have passed by these nations, but they don’t live in the same place: the Philistines live on the Mediterranean coast, the Canaanites in the Cisjordanian plains, and the Moabites and Edomites in the southern Transjordan. How could the Israelites have bypassed them all at the same time?

Several scholars have seen hints of an ancient tradition of an entry into the land from the South in a few biblical texts (Exodus 17:8-16; Numbers 10:29-32; 14:39-45; 21:1-3).[14] Perhaps the Song of Exodus 15 belongs together with this tradition.[15] The Philistines and the Canaanites represent the peoples on Israel’s western extremity, with the Edomites and Moabites representing peoples on Israel’s eastern front; all four nations tremble until Israel settles in God’s land, the highlands situated between these groups.


God’s Own Land

The Song’s non-military settlement of “Canaan” goes hand in hand with the fact that the territory is never referred to as Israel’s inheritance, bequeathed to it by God. As opposed to the standard conception according to which God promised Israel’s ancestors that their descendants would receive the land as their inheritance, Shirat Hayam speaks of God bringing Israel to his inheritance that was made for his dwelling, where he “plants” his people. This is the clear import of verse 17,

שמות טו:יז תְּבִאֵמוֹ וְתִטָּעֵמוֹ בְּהַר נַחֲלָתְךָ, מָכוֹן לְשִׁבְתְּךָ פָּעַלְתָּ יְ־הוָה...
Exod 15:17 You brought them and planted them in the mountain of Your inheritance, the place you made, O YHWH, for Your dwelling...

God does not take other peoples’ land and give it to Israel. Rather, he allows Israel to dwell with him in a land that is and remains exclusively his.

An analogous description can be found in Jeremiah 2:7:

ירמיה ב:ז וָאָבִיא אֶתְכֶם אֶל אֶרֶץ הַכַּרְמֶל לֶאֱכֹל פִּרְיָהּ וְטוּבָהּ וַתָּבֹאוּ וַתְּטַמְּאוּ אֶת אַרְצִי וְנַחֲלָתִי שַׂמְתֶּם לְתוֹעֵבָה.
Jer 2:7 I brought you to this country of farmland to enjoy its fruit and its bounty; but you came and defiled my land and you made my possession abhorrent.

Again, God’s first and primary relationship is with his land. Only on this foundation does he proceed to save and bring Israel into his land to be with him and to enjoy the land’s bounty.

Parallel to the Garden of Eden

This conception is reminiscent of some traditions regarding the Garden of Eden (Gen 2-3), which is sometimes called the “Garden of God” (Gen 13:10; Ezek 28:13) and, like בְּהַר נַחֲלָתְךָ in the Song at the Sea, is sometimes depicted as situated on a mountain (Ezek 28:14, 16). God does not give the Garden to Adam and Eve as a possession; he only allows them to live there with him in his Garden.[16] Similarly, in the Song, God bring his people to live with him on his “sacred pasture (נְוֵה קָדְשֶׁךָ)” (cf. Jer 31:23).


God Constructed His Own Temple and Brought His People To It

It is widely claimed that the Song’s historical narrative depicts the building of the Temple as the culmination to God’s victory at the Sea. This, it is assumed, is reflected in the final two verses of the Song:

שמות טו:יז תְּבִאֵמוֹ וְתִטָּעֵמוֹ בְּהַר נַחֲלָתְךָ, מָכוֹן לְשִׁבְתְּךָ פָּעַלְתָּ יְ־הוָה מִקְּדָשׁ אֲדֹנָי כּוֹנְנוּ יָדֶיךָ. טו:יח יְ־הוָה יִמְלֹךְ לְעֹלָם וָעֶד.
Exod 15:17 You brought them and planted them in the mountain of Your inheritance, the place you made for Your dwelling, O YHWH. The sanctuary, O Lord, that your hands established. 15:18 YHWH will reign forever and ever.

Echoes of ANE Mythology

This scheme follows a pattern that is attested in Ancient Near Eastern literature, according to which a divine military victory, particularly against chaotic, aquatic forces, results in the construction of the victorious deity’s sanctuary and his enthronement there. The Song’s references in verse 5 to God’s use of wind in his dealings with תְּהֹמֹת (tehomot, “the deeps”) echo the Near Eastern tradition of the mythic battle between the storm deity and Tiamat (cognate of tehom). The Song, which concludes with a proclamation of God’s kingship in the sanctuary that he built, belongs to this same general pattern.[17]

An Ancient Temple Built By YHWH Himself

This common understanding of the Song, however, is problematic. The historiographical books of the Bible separate Solomon’s construction of the Temple and the exodus from Egypt by nearly five hundred years (1 Kings 6:1), whereas the Song seems to depict the redemption of Israel and the settlement in the Temple as closely related, almost as if they were one event. Of course, it is possible that the author of Shirat Hayam, using his poetic license, has telescoped these events. But more likely, he was working with a different chronological tradition.

In my view, the Song assumes that the Temple was built in the ancient past, perhaps long before the victory at the Sea. Verse 17 depicts God bringing Israel to “the mountain of his inheritance” to live with him. The clear implication is that this mountain has been God’s inheritance for some time. The parallel phrases, “the place you made for your dwelling, O YHWH” and “the sanctuary, O Lord, that your hands established” probably also refer to an edifice that existed before Israel’s arrival in the land.

This is supported by verse 13, נֵהַלְתָּ בְעָזְּךָ אֶל נְוֵה קָדְשֶׁךָ, “You guided them by your strength to your holy abode.” An analogous text may be the description in Exodus 19:4 of God bringing Israel to him on Mount Sinai,[18] especially considering the implication in some biblical passages that God’s celestial Temple was located there (cf. Exod 25:40; 26:30; 27:8; Num 8:4).[19]

The unique formulation: מִקְּדָשׁ אֲדֹנָי כּוֹנְנוּ יָדֶיךָ, “the sanctuary of YHWH that your hands established” expresses a mythic conception of God constructing his temple on his mountain with his own hands and then saving Israel and bringing Israel to him. This is a distinct from the tradition that the Israelites built the Temple after their conquest of their land.

God’s People as Foliage in His Garden

The Song’s metaphor of God “planting” Israel in his Temple-Mountain seems to present the Israelites as part of God’s Garden foliage (cf. also Isa 5:1-7). Instructive in this regard is the passage from Psalm 92, which describes God “planting” the righteous in his Temple courtyard.[20] Just as God plants the righteous in his previously constructed Temple in the Psalm, so does he plant the Israelites in his previously constructed Temple-Mountain in the Song.

This fits with the analogy between God’s land in the Song and the Garden of Eden described above. Many scholars have noted that the Garden of Eden is full of Temple related symbolism.[21] Indeed, the tree-filled “Garden/Mountain of God” may refer to a Garden or orchard that is a standard part of temple complexes in the ANE.[22] Again, just as God sets up his garden and then brings Adam into it (Gen 2) so does he establish his Temple-Mountain and then bring Israel into it in the Song.


God’s Strength: The Guiding Ark from the Sea to the Temple

God leads Israel through the wilderness to his land. In the standard biblical conception, God does this with a pillar of cloud and fire (Exodus 13:21-22; 14:19; 23:20; 32:34). Other biblical texts emphasize the place of the Ark of the Covenant in leading Israel (Num 10:33, 35-36, 14:44; Josh 3-4).

According to the “official” version of Israel’s early history, the ark was not constructed until the Israelites arrived at Sinai and received God’s instructions concerning the building of the tabernacle and its various vessels. Nevertheless, I suggest that the Song may allude to the ark leading the people from the Sea to the land (v. 13).

שמות טו:יג נָחִיתָ בְחַסְדְּךָ
עַם זוּ גָּאָלְתָּ,
נֵהַלְתָּ בְעָזְּךָ
אֶל נְוֵה קָדְשֶׁךָ.
Exod 15:13 You led in/with your grace
the people you redeemed,
You guided (them) with your strength
to your holy pasture.”

The divine “strength” sometimes refers to the ark.[23] Some examples from the book of Psalms are:

תהלים קלב:ח קוּמָה יְ־הוָה לִמְנוּחָתֶךָ אַתָּה וַאֲרוֹן עֻזֶּךָ.
Ps 132:8 Go forth, YHWH, to your resting place, You and the ark of your strength.
תהלים עח:סא וַיִּתֵּן לַשְּׁבִי עֻזּוֹ וְתִפְאַרְתּוֹ בְיַד צָר.
Ps 78:61 He gave over his strength to captivity and his splendor in the hand of the enemy.[24]
תהלים צו:ו הוֹד וְהָדָר לְפָנָיו עֹז וְתִפְאֶרֶת בְּמִקְדָּשׁוֹ.
Ps 96:6 Glory and majesty are before Him; strength and splendor are in His temple.[25]

Moreover, it makes perfect sense that before leading the Israelites with his ark, God, as “man of war” would have fought for them at the Sea with or from that same ark, since the role of the ark in divine battle is widely attested (see, for example, Num 10:35, 1 Sam 4:3-9).[26]


Israel or Judah: Who are YHWH’s People?

It is striking that the Song never mentions “Jacob,” “Israel,” or any other clearly Israelite appellation. Only in the secondary prose framework of verses 1 and 19 are the people identified as בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, “the children of Israel.” The Song itself refers to the people only as “the people you redeemed” (עַם זוּ גָּאָלְתָּ, v. 13), “your people, O YHWH (עַמְּךָ יְ־הוָה) and “this people you acquired” (עַם זוּ קָנִיתָ, v. 16). Similarly, the Song refers to God as יְ־הוָה, אֵלִי, and אֱלֹהֵי אָבִי (“God of my father,” v. 2), without tying God to a named group.

In short, the Song never tells us that the group in question is Israel. In fact, I think that it is likely that the Song is not Israelite in its origins, but Judahite, from a time before Judah identified itself as being part of Israel.[27] Following this conjecture, the “father” in the phrase אֱלֹהֵי אָבִי could be Judah.

Does the Term “Israel” Include Judah?

Although according to the biblical narrative, Judah was one of the twelve tribal sons of Jacob, this appears to be a late and artificial construction. The very fact that “Israel” can refer both to the northern tribes and territory exclusively, as well as to Judah and Israel together, points in this direction. Many biblical passages tend to support the idea that Judah was not always a part of “Israel,” and that it did not always refer to itself by that name.[28]

Note, for example, that:

  • The biblical depiction of the United Kingdom under Solomon reports Judah and Israel as separate entities (1 Kings 5:5).[29]
  • When Abner appoints Ishboshet as king after Saul, the text (2 Sam 2:9-10) separates between “all Israel” and Judah.[30]
  • The Song of Deborah in Judges 5, which repeatedly speaks of “Israel,” refers to ten tribes, some of which are praised for joining the battle and others (apparently) castigated for skipping it, but no mention is made of Judah at all.

The Exodus: A Northern Israelite Tradition

That the victory at the Sea was a Judahite and not an Israelite tradition works well with the earlier observation that the Song does not seem to know about the exodus. Various scholars have gathered evidence pointing to the “Israelite” or “northern” provenance of the exodus tradition and that the exodus tradition was appropriated in Judah only at a relatively late stage in the tribe’s history.[31]

A Judahite origin would also accord well with the geography of the Song, since Philistia, Edom, and Moab are all neighbors of Judah, not Israel.[32]


The Identity of the Attackers

Even if the Song does not know about the exodus, it still seems to see Egypt as the enemy from whom the people escaped, since Pharaoh is referenced explicitly:

שמות טו:ד מַרְכְּבֹת פַּרְעֹה וְחֵילוֹ
יָרָה בַיָּם
וּמִבְחַר שָׁלִשָׁיו
טֻבְּעוּ בְיַם סוּף.
Exod 15:4 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.

Nevertheless, I would question the originality of verse 4, which appears to be redactional for a few reasons.

Verse 4 as a Late Redaction

First, verse 4 is the only passage in the Song wherein the enemy is named. All the other verses in the Song speak of the attackers in vague and general terms. Verse 1 mentions “horse and its rider,” verse 6 – “the enemy,” verse 7 – “your opponent,” verse 9 – “the enemy.” The secondary identification of anonymous characters with figures that are familiar from elsewhere is a classical mode of Midrashic exegesis that is widely attested in biblical literature.[33]

Second, the inclusion of chariots (מַרְכְּבֹת) is unique to this verse. סוּס וְרֹכְבוֹ of verse 1 does not imply chariots, unless we choose to change the vocalization to סוּס וְרִיכְבוֹ. But this is most unlikely since רִיכְבוֹ, “his chariot,” always refers back to a human being and not a horse.[34] In other words, while it is normal to speak of a horse’s rider (Gen 49:17; Jer 51:21; Zech 12:4; Job 39:18; Hag 2:22; cf. Amos 2:15), we never find references to a horse’s chariot. This makes verse 4 the only reference to chariots in the Song. It is quite possible, however, that the editor of verses 4 and 19 understood and interpreted verse 1b as a reference to chariots, indicating this interpretation through the word מַרְכְּבֹת.

Third, the verse employs the common Hebrew verb יָרָה, throw or shoot, so as to interpret and clarify the much more obscure term רָמָה of סוּס וְרֹכְבוֹ רָמָה בַיָּם of the original Song (and of Miriam’s Song in verse 21). The phenomenon of secondarily providing more common words for rare and difficult ones is widely attested in the book of Chronicles’ rewriting of its sources and in various other places.[35]

Fourth, the way verse 4 seems to recast verse 1 is reminiscent of how the editor who added verses 19 describes the event. Just as verse 19 interprets the general phrase סוּס וְרֹכְבוֹ רָמָה בַיָּם, “horse and its rider he threw in the Sea” from v. 1 as meaning specifically, כִּי בָא סוּס פַּרְעֹה בְּרִכְבּוֹ וּבְפָרָשָׁיו בַּיָּם…, “for the horse of Pharaoh with his chariot and horsemen entered the Sea…,” so too does verse 4.

Fifth, verse 4’s phrase, “Pharaoh and his soldiers” (פַּרְעֹה וְחֵילוֹ) appears in Exodus 14:4, 9 and 17, and מִבְחַר שָׁלִשָׁיו, “his choice officers,” echoes Exodus 14:7, שֵׁשׁ מֵאוֹת רֶכֶב… וְשָׁלִשִׁם עַל כֻּלּוֹ.

Sixth, verse 4 is the only verse that identifies the Sea as יַם סוּף. Verse 1 mentions “the Sea,” verse 5 – “the deeps,” verse 8 – “water” and “the Sea,” verse 10 – “Sea” and “great waters.” The identification accords with the narrative passages of Exodus 13:18; 15:22 and many others. Though it may well be that the identification of the waters with יַם סוּף accords with the Song’s intention, the fact that this identification is made specifically in the same (and only) verse that names the enemy (Pharaoh) is suspicious. It may be noted that the late Midrashic tendency to identify anonymous characters also applies to locations such as cites, mountains, etc.[36]

Seventh, verse 4 is long, unwieldy, and lacking in meter.[37] If the verse was introduced by the editor who supplied the (clearly non-poetic) summary of verse 19, we may assume that poetic considerations were not in the forefront of his mind.

Thus, it seems likely that verse 4 was added by the same editor who added verses 1 and 19 and reflects the late influence of the narrative of Exodus 14. The original Song may well have thought of a much less organized group of attackers on foot and on horses, without a formally trained army led by Pharaoh, with military officers and great chariots.

If Not Egyptians then Whom?

But if the attackers of the original Song were not the Egyptians, who were they? I think that the most natural assumption is that they were marauders who were nomadic or semi-nomadic inhabitants of the area, on horseback but without chariots.

The text never identifies near what Sea the people dwelt, but the obvious options are either the Mediterranean Sea or the Red Sea. Since God ostensibly takes the people directly from the battle by the Sea through the south of the Cisjordan into his land, the most likely candidate would appear to be the Red Sea’s Gulf of Aqaba/Eilat.

In fact, this gulf is sometimes referred to as יַם סוּף, and is contiguous with Edomite territory.[38] Might we then identify of the would-be plunderers of the Song with clans related to Edom, such as Amalek (cf. Genesis 36:12)? The Amalekites were nomadic marauders of the southern wilderness area, notorious in the Bible for their aggression to Israelite groups.

Of course, this suggestion is no more than a guess. The Song left open the identity of the “enemy,” possibly so that it could be understood as a relevant symbol for multiple contexts. Perhaps it is best if we do the same.

Thinking Outside the Box

In this essay, I have considered what the Song might have meant in its earliest context, before it was integrated into its current narrative context and recast through the insertion of vv. 1a, 4, and 19. I have suggested that the text reflects an independent Judahite tradition, in which YHWH saves the people from an attacking group by miraculously drowning the attackers in the Sea.

Then YHWH leads his people with his ark through the southern region of the Cisjordan into his own land, the Judean highlands, as the neighbors cringe. YHWH’s land was empty of people until Judah was chosen, and once they enter, YHWH establishes them around his primordial temple, from where YHWH will rule for all eternity.

Much of the above is admittedly speculative, but I believe that even if the results are uncertain, such speculation is a fruitful exercise. For it is only by thinking “outside the box” that we can hope to find what Rashbam called (Gen 37:2) פשטות המתחדשים בכל יום, novel interpretations that are constantly renewed through daily Torah study.


January 20, 2016


Last Updated

June 10, 2024


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Prof. Rabbi David Frankel is Associate Professor of Bible at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches M.A. and rabbinical students. He did his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Prof. Moshe Weinfeld, and is the author or The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School (VTSupp 89) and The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel (Eisenbrauns).