1st Jewish Choir 1312 BCE, James Kugel

MosesThe first instance of a choral performance recorded in the Bible took place in the spring of 1312 BCE as part of the drama of the exodus from Egypt. Pursued by Pharaoh's army, the Israelites were able to pass through the Sinai Peninsula as the Sea of Reeds dried up; the waters then receded, drowning the Egyptian army. At this point the jubilant Israelites burst into song.

According to Zamir Chorale conductor Joshua Jacobson's reading of the verses in Exodus, the ancient Israelite choir had two conductors, both of whom were Levites. The first was Moses, who conducted the basses and tenors: "Then Moses and the men of Israel sang this song to the Lord: I sing to the Lord for He has greatly triumphed…."[1]

The second conductor was his sister Miriam the prophetess, Aaron's sister, who led the sopranos and altos; when she took the drum in her hand, all the women followed her with drums and dances, and the men and women sang antiphonal: "I sing to the Lord for he has greatly triumphed, casting chariots and horses into the sea."[2]

— The editor

Prof. James Kugel, offers a different approach.

graphic Hebrew

The Shirah (Song) in the Liturgy
The Song at the Sea assumed a special place in the Jewish liturgy quite early..... [more]

Exodus 15:20-21 reports that Aaron's sister Miriam sang a song along with all the women at the Red Sea. Much speculation surrounded this song. The only words cited from it, "Sing to the Lord, for He has acted gloriously, horse and rider he has cast into the sea," match almost perfectly the first line of the men's song. Did Miriam thus simply form a women's chorus to sing along with the men, yet separately? Such modest behavior seemed altogether praiseworthy, and a number authors specifically mentioned it:

Philo of Alexandria (c 20 BCE - 40 or 50 CE):
They set up two choirs, one of men and one of women, on the beach, and sang hymns of thanksgiving to God. Over these two choirs Moses and his sister presided and led the hymns.[3]

Ephraem Syrus (309 - 373 CE):
The people were divided into two groups on that day, so that they might sing the wondrous hymn to Him who split the sea and drowned their oppressors on that day. Moses led the men in singing and Miriam, the women.[4]

Horses plunging into the seaOr was that one choir?

Philo: This wonderful sight and experience, an act transcending word and thought and hope, so filled with ecstasy both men and women that, forming a single choir, they sang hymns of thanksgiving to God their Savior, the men led by the prophet Moses and the women by the prophetess Miriam. (Philo, The Contemplative Life, 87)

At the same time ancient interpreters supposed that the Israelite women must have sung their own song, with different words, at the Red Sea. One such text found among the Dead Sea Scrolls apparently contained the words of such a sing attributed to Miriam. Unfortunately, only a fragment of it has survived:

"Reworked Pentateuch" found in the Dead Scrolls:
You have put to shame…
For You are clothed [?] in majesty…
Great are You, savior are You…
The enemy's hope has perished, and he is forgotten…
They have been lost in the mighty water, the enemy…
Praise to the heights… You gave…
Who does gloriously.[5]

[1] Exod. 15:1 [back]

[2] Exodus 15:20-21 [back]

[3] Philo (of Alexandria) (c. 20 BCE - 40 or 50 CE), Moses 1:180.
This Greek-speaking Egyptian Jew is the author of a multi-volume series of commentaries on the Torah. Philo championed the allegorical approach to biblical interpretation that apparently flourished in Alexandria, Egypt. He explained many texts in keeping with then-current Greek philosophical ideas. [back]

[4] Ephraem, Commentary on Exodus 15:3. Ephraem Syrus (309 - 373 CE) was an outstanding poet and biblical commentator of Syriac Christianity. His writings contain numerous parallels to, and developments of, earlier Jewish motifs attested to in both contemporaneous rabbinic writings as well as in the literature of Second Temple Judaism. [back]

[5]4Q364 — Reworked Pentateuch. The nature of the "Reworked Pentateuch" found in the Dead Scrolls is still debated: Are they simply loose versions of the Pentateuch, which happen to change a word or two here or there, or are they explicative retellings intended to comment on the text? In any case, some of their deviations and additions do seem to conform with interpretive motifs attested elsewhere. [back]


Barnes & Noble linkFrom: The Bible as it Was, James L. Kugel, the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass 1997.

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