Moses' famous 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 portions.

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," "lead."

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 people.

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.

excerpted From the new Schocken Books translation of The Five Books of Moses. Printed with the permission of the publisher and the translator.
Everett 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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