Song at the Sea which is read at the synagogue on Passover is discussed
here by Prof. Everett Fox, translator of the new acclaimed translation of
Genesis through Deuteronomy, The Five Books of Moses (Schocken Books,
1995). In the popup box is Fox's translation of the Song, which "in English
dress, but with a Hebraic voice" looks and sounds very different from conventional
English translations of the Bible.
Moses' famous Song at the Sea provides a
natural boundary in the book of Exodus. It sets off the Egypt traditions
from those of Sinai and the wilderness, and brings to a spectacular close
the saga of liberation. This is borne out even in scribal tradition, still
observed in the writing of Torah scrolls today, where the Song is written
out with different spacing from the preceding and following narrative
A poem is necessary at this point in the story, to provide emotional exultation
and a needed break before the next phase of Israel's journey in the book.
The Song manages to focus the Israelites' intense feelings in a way the
neither the ritual of Chaps. 12-13 nor even the semi-poetic description
of God's miraculous intervention can do. Only poetry is capable of expressing
the full range of the people's emotion about what has happened. This is
similar to the effect of the great poems that occur toward the end of
Genesis (Chap. 49, the Blessing of Yaakov) and Deuteronomy (Chaps. 32-33),
the Song and Blessing of Moshe).
A major concern of the poet is God's kingship, with which he ends the
poem (a one-liner "Let YHWH be king for the ages, eternity!"
contrasting with the doublets and triplets in the body of the poem) This
is no accident, nor is it inappropriate; since Chaps. 4 and 5 the story
of Exodus has revolved around just who shall be king (God or Pharaoh)
and just who shall be served. By the end of Chap. 14 we hear nothing further
of Pharaoh. (Has he drowned or merely been written out of the story? Later
generations of Jews enjoyed giving him a role in the world to come: he
stands at the gate of Hell, admonishing evildoers as they enter.)
The attempts to recover what happened at the sea through the poem are
doomed to failure, considering that the piece is constructed out of two
traditional stories, the victory at the sea and the later conquest of
Canaan (vv.1-12, 13-17). Further, it is set in cosmic terms. The words
"Oceans" (Heb. tehomot, vv.5, 8) and "breath" (ru'ah; v.8) recall the
primeval chaos at the beginning of Creation itself (Gen.1:2). This technique
is characteristic of much of ancient/religious literature; a great event
is told in a way that reflects the beginnings of the gods and the world
(this may include statements about the end of the world as well).
It should be noted that some scholars point out the close resemblance
between God's victory here and scenes in other ancient Near Eastern literature
that portray the triumph of a storm god over a sea god. So however historical
the events in Chaps. 14-15 may have been, in their biblical retelling
they have been patterned after antecedents in myth.
Much has been written concerning the structure of the Song. I will mention
only a few points. The vocabulary of the poem is extremely concentrated.
Major ideas are expressed by clusters of key verbs. Note, for instance,
the grouping of "flung," "hurled," "plunged," shattered," "smashed," "consumed"
a veritable lexicon of military victory. A number of verbs describe
divine leadership ("led," "guided," "brought"), and God's establishment
of the Israelites in Canaan ("planted," "founded"). The fear of the Canaanites
(of Israel and its God) is graphically expanded to "shuddered," "seized
with writhing," "terrified," "seized with trembling," "melted away," "dread
and anguish," and "grew dumb." Finally, there are a number of nouns that
express weight (cf. Heb. kaved, previously discussed): "stone," "dam,"
The overall effect of the poem is of fierce pride at God's victory, and
exultant description of the destruction and discomfort of enemies, whether
Egyptian or Canaanite. This general tone parallels many ancient war poems;
what is characteristically Israelite about it is God's choosing and leading
people. Therefore the least verse goes far beyond the celebration of a
single military victory. The Song constitutes the founding of a theocratic
Scholars have long noted the archaic style of the Song, which uses forms
characteristic of early biblical Hebrew. Its tone is for this reason even
more exalted than is usual in biblical poetry. An imaginative reflection
of the effect can be found in Daiches, who paraphrases the Song in the
style of early English epic poetry.
Two sections have been appended to the end of the poem. First there is
the poetically remarkable summary of the narrative in v.19, notable for
the fact that it is composed wholly from phrases used in Chap. 14. There
follows a woman's repetition/performance of at least part of the Song,
complete with dance. Some scholars see this as the "original" form of
the poem. Of equal interest is the characterization of Miryam as a "prophetess."
But there may be a structural reason for her appearance as well: the enterprise
of deliverance from Egypt began with a little girl at the Nile, watching
through the reeds to make sure her baby brother would survive; it sends
with the same person, now an adult, a "prophetess" celebrating the final
victory at the Sea of Reeds.
new Schocken Books translation of The Five Books of Moses. Printed
with the permission of the publisher and the translator.
Fox holds the Allen M. Glick Chair in Judaic and Biblical Studies
at Clark University in Worcester, MA. He is the author of many studies
on the biblical narrative and its translation and is co-editor of
Scripture and Translation
, a collection of essays by Martin
Buber and Franz Rosenzweig.
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