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David Frankel





When YHWH Went Forth: A New Reading of Psalm 114





APA e-journal

David Frankel





When YHWH Went Forth: A New Reading of Psalm 114








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When YHWH Went Forth: A New Reading of Psalm 114

What did the sea see to make it flee? Who caused the mountains to skip like rams?


When YHWH Went Forth: A New Reading of Psalm 114

Psalm 114, Barcelona Hagadah, 1350, Additional 14761, f. 66 r&v. British Library

An Exodus Psalm?

The opening verse of Psalm 114[1] situates the poem within the context of the exodus from Egypt:

תהלים קיד:א בְּצֵאת יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרָיִם
בֵּית יַעֲקֹב מֵעַם לֹעֵז.
Ps 114:1 When Israel went forth out of Egypt,
The house of Jacob from a people of strange speech.
קיד:ב הָיְתָה יְהוּדָה לְקָדְשׁוֹ
יִשְׂרָאֵל מַמְשְׁלוֹתָיו.
114:2 Judah became his sanctuary,
Israel, his dominion.[2]

The psalm continues by referring to events that follow the exodus story: the splitting of the sea and the Jordan river, and the theophany at Sinai.

תהלים קיד:ג הַיָּם רָאָה וַיָּנֹס
הַיַּרְדֵּן יִסֹּב לְאָחוֹר.
Ps 114:3 The sea saw and fled,
Jordan ran backward,
קיד:ד הֶהָרִים רָקְדוּ כְאֵילִים
גְּבָעוֹת כִּבְנֵי־צֹאן.
114:4 mountains skipped like rams,
hills like sheep.

The fleeing of the sea in v. 3 is often interpreted to refer to the Israelite escape from Egypt and the subsequent drowning of the Egyptians (Exod 14), and the skipping mountains calls to mind the shaking of Mount Sinai before the theophany (Exod 19:18).[3] But this is a far from obvious interpretation.

The story of the sea never speaks about the sea being afraid, and the inclusion of the Jordan river is out of place, since this occurs much later in Israel’s journey, after the Sinai theophany, and right as the Israelites enter the land. Moreover, in this psalm, we hear nothing about the Israelites passing through the Sea, or the Jordan River. Nor, for that matter, do we hear about the drowning of the Egyptians or the conquest of the land. And the Sea isn’t even referred to as “Yam Suf.”

Similarly, the Torah speaks about Sinai shaking (Exod 18:19), but never skipping or dancing. Also, the Psalm says nothing about a revelation or covenant, and the shaking in the Exodus Sinai story is of only one mountain, not “mountains” in plural.

God Is Passing Through

The continuation of the psalm further calls its connection to the exodus story into question. It asks why the sea and the mountains flee, and implies that they are afraid of the divine presence:

תהלים קיד:ה מַה־לְּךָ הַיָּם כִּי תָנוּס
הַיַּרְדֵּן תִּסֹּב לְאָחוֹר.
Ps 114:5 What alarmed you, O sea, that you fled,
Jordan, that you ran backward,
קיד:ו הֶהָרִים תִּרְקְדוּ כְאֵילִים
גְּבָעוֹת כִּבְנֵי־צֹאן.
114:6 mountains, that you skipped like rams,
hills, like sheep?

The (emended)[4] text then answers:

תהלים קיד:ז מִלִּפְנֵי אָדוֹן [כָּל הָ]אָרֶץ
מִלִּפְנֵי אֱלוֹהַּ יַעֲקֹב.
Ps 114:7 From the presence of the Lord of all the land, from the presence of the God of Jacob
קיד:ח הַהֹפְכִי הַצּוּר אֲגַם־מָיִם
חַלָּמִישׁ לְמַעְיְנוֹ־מָיִם׃
114:8 who turned the rock into a pool of water,
the flinty rock into a fountain.

The Sea, the Jordan, the hills, and the mountains—namely, the forces of nature that encompass the land of Israel—respond that they tremble and flee because of the advance of the Lord of all the earth, whose actions, such as turning rocks into pools of water, frighten them. In the exodus story, however, the sea split not out of fear of what God would do to it, but to let the Israelites escape the Egyptians, and the mountain quaked because of YHWH’s heavenly descent. Even the reference in the final verse to turning a rock into a pool of water, which is reminiscent of the Torah stories about YHWH performing this very miracle (Exod 17:1–7, Num 20:7–11), does not mention that YHWH did this to quench the Israelites’ thirst.

In short, the psalm states that the sea flees but the Israelites don’t cross; the mountains skip but the Israelites are not there awaiting a revelation; a rock is turned into water, but the Israelites don’t drink. If the Israelites are the main theme of the psalm, as indicated by the opening verse, it is strange that nothing else is said about them again, but only about these divine miracles.

Where Is YHWH in the Psalm?

Given that the psalm does not describe the exodus or the wilderness journey, why does it open with “when Israel/the house of Jacob left Egypt”? An inverse problem is the absence of any explicit reference to God in the opening verse—he is mentioned explicitly only in v. 7—even though the rest of the psalm is about God, “who causes the sea and river to run and the mountains and hills to skip.”

The second verse highlights this problem: It refers to Judah as קָדְשׁוֹ “his sanctuary” and Israel as מַמְשְׁלוֹתָיו “his dominion.” Who is “He”? The answer is clearly YHWH, but he hasn’t been mentioned.[5] Why speak about YHWH but not mention him by name?[6]

Two further problems plague the psalm’s opening stanza.

From the Exodus to the Temple? “Judah became his sanctuary”[7] is an allusion to the establishment of the Jerusalem Temple. But why would the psalmist describe Jerusalem as YHWH’s sanctuary just as the Israelites leave Egypt? While telescoping of distant events is certainly found in biblical poetry,[8] the claim that Jerusalem was sanctified just when the Israelites left Egypt, seems somewhat extreme.

Israel—people or place? “Israel” appears with two distinct meanings. In verse 1 it refers to the Israelite people who left Egypt. In verse 2 it refers to the territory of Israel[9] that became God’s dominion: “When Israel (the people) went out of Egypt…Israel (the territory) became his dominion” The adjacent use of Israel with these two different referents within one stanza is jarring.

YHWH: The Original Subject of Psalm 114

The textual difficulties discussed above all indicate that the original subject of verse 1 was YHWH:

*בְּצֵאת יְ־הוָה מִמִּצְרָיִם אֱלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב מֵעַם לֹעֵז.
*When YHWH went forth from Egypt, the God of Jacob from a people of strange speech.

The words in italics also seem to be part of the revision,[10] but focusing our attention on the change of the subject from Israel to God, we can see that the reconstruction resolves the many difficulties outlined above.

Israel is a place. In this reading, “Israel” the people is no longer the subject of verse 1, and therefore “Israel” in verse 2 stands alone as a reference to the territory of Israel. We no longer have the same word with two different meanings in a single sentence.

From Outside Judah to Judah. The psalm originally made no reference to the exodus, thus the founding of the sanctuary in Judah occurs at some undefined point in the past and is not anchored to a well-known, political-historical event.

“He” is YHWH. As YHWH appears explicitly in the opening verse, “his sanctuary” and “his dominion” in verse 2 has a clear referent.

No reference to the people of Israel. Israel does not disappear from the psalm; they were never its main subject. YHWH was the central character from the start.

In short, the original psalm did not speak of Israel’s exodus from Egypt. Consequently, it also did not speak of Israel’s passing through the Sea or the Jordan, Israel’s acceptance of the covenant at Sinai, or Israel’s drinking of the water in the wilderness. Verses 3–8 instead depict the responses of nature to the “going forth” of YHWH in verse 1.

Why Change the Subject of the Psalm?

The original psalm reflected an alternative tradition concerning the formation of Judah and Israel: They became YHWH’s people when YHWH entered into the land from outside it.[11] Once the exodus tradition took on canonical status, however, the psalm was adjusted, and the content of the psalm, with its references to the retreat of the Sea and the Jordan, and the conversion of rock into water, was easily adapted to the canonical exodus tradition.[12]

A Similar Transformation in the Targum

An instructive example of this process may be seen in the rendition of the Targum to Psalm 74:13–15.

תרגום תהלים

תהלים עד:יג–טו‎

אַנְתְּ גְזֵרְתָּא בְּעוּשְׁנָךְ מוֹי דְיַמָא

אַתָּה פוֹרַרְתָּ בְעָזְּךָ יָם

אַנְתְּ תְּבַרְתָּא רֵישֵׁי תַנִינַיָא וְשַׁנֵקְתָּ מִצְרָאֵי עַל יַמָא.

שִׁבַּרְתָּ רָאשֵׁי תַנִּינִים עַל־הַמָּיִם.

אַנְתְּ תְּרַעְתָּא רֵישֵׁי גִבָּרֵי פַּרְעֹה

אַתָּה רִצַּצְתָּ רָאשֵׁי לִוְיָתָן

יְהַבְתִּנוּן לְגַמְרָא לְעַם בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל וְגוּשְׁמֵיהוֹן לִירוֹדֵי.

תִּתְּנֶנּוּ מַאֲכָל לְעָם לְצִיִּים.

אַנְתְּ בְּזַעְתָּא מַעֲיָנָא מִן כֵּיפָא וַהֲוֵי לְנַחֲלָא

אַתָּה בָקַעְתָּ מַעְיָן וָנָחַל

אַנְתְּ יַבֵּשְׁתָּא מְגִיזַת נַחֲלֵי אַרְנוֹנָא וּמְגִיזַת יוּבְקָא וְיוֹרְדָנָא דְהוֹן תַּקִיפִין.

אַתָּה הוֹבַשְׁתָּ נַהֲרוֹת אֵיתָן.

Psalm 74:13–15

Targum Psalms

You drove back the sea with Your might;

You cut off the waters of the Sea with Your might;

You smashed the heads of the sea monsters upon the waters;

You smashed the heads of the sea monsters; and you drowned the Egyptians upon the sea.

You shattered the heads of Leviathan,

You shattered the heads of the mighty ones of Pharaoh.

You left him as food to the denizens of the desert;

You left them for destruction to the people of the house of Israel, and their bodies to the jackals.

You cleaved open springs and streams,

You cleaved open a spring from the rock and it became a stream;

You dried up mighty rivers.

You dried up the ford of the streams of Arnon and the fords of Jabbok and the Jordan that were mighty.

While the psalm alludes to an ancient myth in which God (’Elohim) destroys the monsters of the water and then creates the inhabitable world, the Targum rereads this as an account of the exodus and the wilderness stories.

The sea, in the sense of “seas/oceans” becomes the Sea that blocked the Israelites’ path upon leaving Egypt, and Leviathan becomes the mighty warriors of Pharaoh. The releasing of springs becomes an allusion to smiting the rock, and the denizens of the desert, i.e., hyenas, foxes, and such, become the house of Israel, who traveled through the desert.

With the canonization of the biblical traditions, these identifications were perfectly natural. The exegesis of the Targum to Psalm 74 is post-biblical but reflects a tendency already found in some late biblical texts, such as v. 1 of Psalm 114.[13]

Psalm 114 as a Theophany of YHWH

The psalm uses imagery common to other biblical theophany texts, which speak of YHWH’s “going out/forth” from various locations outside the land of Israel, leading to an agitated response by natural or cosmic forces at His approach.[14] For example, Judges says:

שׁפטים ה:דa יְ־הוָה בְּצֵאתְךָ מִשֵּׂעִיר
בְּצַעְדְּךָ מִשְּׂדֵה אֱדוֹם
אֶרֶץ רָעָשָׁה
גַּם־שָׁמַיִם נָטָפוּ….
Judg 5:4a O YHWH, when You came forth from Seir,
Advanced from the country of Edom,
The earth trembled;
The heavens dripped…

Flight of the River and Sea

The flight of the Jordan and the sea from YHWH recalls the account of creation in Psalm 104, which declares about the primordial waters:

תהלים קד:ז מִן־גַּעֲרָתְךָ יְנוּסוּן
מִן־קוֹל רַעַמְךָ יֵחָפֵזוּן.
Ps 104:7 They flee from your roar,
rush away from the sound of your thunder.

Psalm 77 is similar:

תהלים עז:יז רָאוּךָ מַּיִם אֱלֹהִים
רָאוּךָ מַּיִם יָחִילוּ
אַף יִרְגְּזוּ תְהֹמוֹת.
Ps 77:17 The waters saw you, O God,
the waters saw you and trembled,
yea, the deeps shook.

A more specific parallel to Psalm 114 appears in the psalm in Habakkuk 3, which describes God coming forth to battle from his residence in the south:

חבקוק ג:ג אֱלוֹהַ מִתֵּימָן יָבוֹא
וְקָדוֹשׁ מֵהַר־פָּארָן….
Hab 3:3a “God arrives from Teman,
The Holy One from Mount Paran.”[15]

Habakkuk 3:6 and 10 describes earthquakes and rain in the context of a conflict between YHWH and two bodies of water:[16]

חבקוק ג:ח הֲבִנְהָרִים חָרָה יְ־הוָה
אִם בַּנְּהָרִים אַפֶּךָ
אִם־בַּיָּם עֶבְרָתֶךָ
כִּי תִרְכַּב עַל־סוּסֶיךָ
מַרְכְּבֹתֶיךָ יְשׁוּעָה.
Hab 3:8 Are You wroth, O YHWH, with Neharim (River)?
Is Your anger against Neharim,
Your rage against Yam (Sea)—
That You are driving Your steeds,
Your victorious chariot?

The pairing of River and Sea as a divine opponent is part of the Canaanite mythology that Israel inherited: In the Ugaritic Baal cycle, the god Baal confronts the forces of chaos, represented by the parallel names Prince Yam and Judge River.[17]

As in Habakkuk 3, the imagery of the sea and the Jordan fleeing in Psalm 114:3 and 5 draws on mythic depictions of a battle between a YHWH and the pairing of River and Sea.

Mountains Dance

The motif of the “dancing of the mountains” also belongs to the context of theophany and divine battle. Psalm 29, for example, depicts a theophany in which the storm god thunders over cosmic waters and continues eastward to assault the ancient mountains:

תהלים כט:ו וַיַּרְקִידֵם כְּמוֹ עֵגֶל לְבָנוֹן
וְשִׂרְיֹן כְּמוֹ בֶן־רְאֵמִים.
Ps 29:6 He caused Lebanon to dance like a calf,
Siryon like a young wild ox.

Psalm 29 refers to the dancing of the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon Mountain ranges in the extreme north. By comparison, Psalm 114 refers to the dancing of the mountains and hills in general.[18]

The geographical places noted are reminiscent of Numbers 13:29. There the scouts report:

במדבר יג:כט עֲמָלֵק יוֹשֵׁב בְּאֶרֶץ הַנֶּגֶב וְהַחִתִּי וְהַיְבוּסִי וְהָאֱמֹרִי יוֹשֵׁב בָּהָר וְהַכְּנַעֲנִי יֹשֵׁב עַל־הַיָּם וְעַל יַד הַיַּרְדֵּן.
Num 13:29 Amalekites dwell in the Negeb region; Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites inhabit the hill country; and Canaanites dwell by the Sea and along the Jordan.

The scouts are noting that the entire land is filled with inhabitants. Psalm 114 likewise speaks of the entirety of the land. All topographical landmarks, the Mediterranean (not “Yam Suf”!), the Jordan, and the hill country in between, flee or shudder when YHWH comes to establish his sanctuary in Judah and his dominion in Israel.[19]

Rock Turns to Water

The characterization of YHWH as the one who turns rock (tzur) and flinty rock (challamish) into water describes YHWH’s great power. Tzur is not necessarily a small rock, in fact, it is often paired with harim “mountains” and geva‘ot “hills”:

איוב יד:יח וְאוּלָם הַר נוֹפֵל יִבּוֹל
וְצוּר יֶעְתַּק מִמְּקֹמוֹ׃
Job 14:18 Mountains collapse and crumble;
Rocks are dislodged from their place.
במדבר כג:ט כִּי מֵרֹאשׁ צֻרִים אֶרְאֶנּוּ
וּמִגְּבָעוֹת אֲשׁוּרֶנּוּ…
Num 23:9 As I see them from the top of the rocks (i.e., mountain tops),
Gaze on them from the hills,

In Deuteronomy 32, the phrase challamish tzur alludes to the rock found in the mountainous regions of the land:

דברים לב:יג יַרְכִּבֵהוּ עַל־בָּמוֹתֵי אָרֶץ
וַיֹּאכַל תְּנוּבֹת שָׂדָי
וַיֵּנִקֵהוּ דְבַשׁ מִסֶּלַע
וְשֶׁמֶן מֵחַלְמִישׁ צוּר.
Deut 32:13 He set him atop the highlands,
To feast on the yield of the earth;
He fed him honey from the crag,
And oil from the flinty rock.

The characterization of YHWH as the one who transforms the tzur, taken as a collective noun, into water pools, does not refer to a single rock in the Sinai Wilderness, but to the mountains and hills of Judah and Israel.[20] Verse 8 thus answers the question of verse 6 as to why the mountains and hills are trembling: They tremble because they stand in imminent danger of disintegration, which will indeed happen when YHWH turns them into water pools.

Kingship and Temple Building in Theophanies

Verse 2 highlights YHWH’s kingship and the building of his temple: הָיְתָה יְהוּדָה לְקָדְשׁוֹ “Judah became his sanctuary” alludes to the theme of temple founding, and יִשְׂרָאֵל מַמְשְׁלוֹתָיו “Israel became his dominion” alludes to the theme of divine kingship. These two themes often feature in theophanies and divine battles in the ancient Near East.

In Enuma Elish, a Babylonian myth, the battle between the god Marduk, and the goddess Tiamat, who symbolizes the primordial waters, culminates in the establishment of Marduk’s kingship over the gods and the building of the Ésagila temple in Babylon. Similarly, the victory of Baal over Yam in the Baal cycle culminates in the enthronement of Baal and the building of his palace.

A host of biblical theophany texts also connect to the themes of kingship and temple.


Deuteronomy 33 is most relevant for the theme of divine kingship.[21] Verse 2a reads:

דברים לג:ב …יְ־הוָה מִסִּינַי בָּא
וְזָרַח מִשֵּׂעִיר לָמוֹ
הוֹפִיעַ מֵהַר פָּארָן
וְאָתָה מֵרִבְבֹת קֹדֶשׁ…
Deut 33:2a …YHWH came from Sinai,
He shone upon them from Seir;
He appeared from Mount Paran,
And approached from Ribeboth-kodesh.

This is our familiar theme of the divine exodus. Though much of what follows verse 2 is rather obscure, the statement of verse 5 is quite clear:

דברים לג:ה וַיְהִי בִישֻׁרוּן מֶלֶךְ
בְּהִתְאַסֵּף רָאשֵׁי עָם
יַחַד שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Deut 33:5 Then He became King in Jeshurun,
When the heads of the people assembled
The tribes of Israel together.

Here, then, we have a text which speaks of YHWH coming to the Israelites from his distant abode, to be enthroned in “Jeshurun” (an ancient name for Israel) as divine king.[22]

Temple Building

Psalm 76 connects theophany to the theme of founding a temple:

תהלים עו:ב נוֹדָע בִּיהוּדָה אֱלֹהִים
בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל גָּדוֹל שְׁמוֹ.
עו:ג וַיְהִי בְשָׁלֵם סֻכּוֹ
וּמְעוֹנָתוֹ בְצִיּוֹן.
Ps 76:2 God became known in Judah,
His name is great in Israel.
76:3 Salem became His abode,
Zion His den.

Not only does this psalm refer to the establishment of God’s (’Elohim’s) temple in Zion, but it places this event within the context of his theophany in Judah and the acclaim he achieved in Israel. This double focus on Judah and Israel, with implicit supremacy given to Judah in the realm of the sacred, is particularly close to the idea expressed in Psalm 114:2, “Judah became His sanctuary, Israel His dominion.”

In sum, Psalm 114, in its original form, speaks of the initial establishment of the territory of Judah as YHWH’s sanctuary and the territory of Israel[23] as his kingdom. While the psalm clearly echoes the battle with chaos at creation, it is set in historical time. There is no mention of the primordial waters or of the mythic figures of Sea and River. Instead, we find the (Mediterranean) Sea, the Jordan River, and the mountains in between, all closely associated with the territory of Judah and Israel.

The context of the theophany of Psalm 114 is thus national and territorial rather than cosmological. The psalm represents a distinct and alternative tradition concerning the initial formation of Israel. Rather than depicting the Israelites as entering the land and conquering it after having left Egypt, Psalm 114 depicts YHWH as entering the populated territories of Judah and Israel and establishing his new sanctuary and regal domain there.

YHWH’s Original Home

This psalm most likely recounts YHWH’s “change of address” from his ancient abode to his new one in Judah.[24] In the original context of theophany and divine battle, the sea, the Jordan, the mountains, and the hills metaphorically represent the enemies opposing YHWH’s reign in the land. As YHWH enters, his opponents retreat.

Psalm 68, which places YHWH’s sanctuary in the Jerusalem mountains (v. 30), and describes YHWH’s decision to move from his old residence at Sinai to his permanent one in Zion, is similar to our psalm:

תהלים סח:יז לָמָּה תְּרַצְּדוּן הָרִים גַּבְנֻנִּים
הָהָר חָמַד אֱלֹהִים לְשִׁבְתּוֹ
אַף יְ־הוָה יִשְׁכֹּן לָנֶצַח.
סח:יח רֶכֶב אֱלֹהִים רִבֹּתַיִם
אַלְפֵי שִׁנְאָן
אֲדֹנָי בָם סִינַי בַּקֹּדֶשׁ.
Psa 68:17 Why so hostile, O jagged mountains,
toward the mountain God desired as His dwelling?
Indeed, YHWH shall abide there forever.
68:18 God’s chariots are myriads upon myriads,
thousands upon thousands;
the Lord came from Sinai into his sanctuary.[25]

A Temple Psalm about Renewal and Fertility

When was psalm 114, in its original form, recited? Some of its features suggest that we are dealing with cultic liturgy.[26] Perhaps the most important clue is the temporal shift in the middle of the psalm. Whereas verses 1–4 speak of an event that occurred in the ancient past, the psalm speaks in the present beginning with verse 5.

The sea, Jordan, hills, and mountains are not asked why they fled or trembled in the past, but why they do so presently. Similarly, according to verses 7–8, the hills and mountains tremble presently from the deity who is now approaching and is about to turn them into water pools.

This shift from the past to the present indicates that the psalm seeks not only to mark and celebrate Israel’s ancient foundation in history, but also to re-experience it in the present. In the words of Erich Zenger, “the subject is now the continuing effects, or the making present, of the history of origins in the present time.”[27]

This would offer great encouragement to those who recited the psalm: If the opponents of YHWH retreated in terror when YHWH first came to Judah and Israel to establish his reign, a reenactment of that event would usher in a renewed retreat of real or potential enemies.

In this context, we may perhaps also understand the reference to YHWH turning mountains into water pools as an allusion to YHWH’s provision of water and the land’s fertility.[28] If the mountain ranges of Judah and Israel became pools of water when YHWH first made these regions his, a reenactment of that moment would mean a renewal of the land’s water and fertility.

Renewal and actualization lies at the heart of the cultic recital of Psalm 114.


September 24, 2021


Last Updated

June 4, 2024


View Footnotes

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).