Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Song of the Sea: What is it really about?

As you may have noticed, the Song of the Sea says nothing about the sea being split. Though its purported to be a hymn celebrating a dramatic and miraculous rescue, read on its own terms the song says nothing about this. We're told the Pharaoh and his captains sank in the depths of the sea (Verses 4 and 5) but that's about as close as it comes to describing the events of Exodus 14. There's nothing in the song about a splitting sea, or the Israelites walking across on dry land, or indeed about any miracle at all.

In fact, as James Kugel points out, citing research by Frank Cross and David Freedman, the song could just as easily be about an event that happened far offshore, or as verse 8 says at "the heart of the sea" where a blast of wind from God's nose (verse 8) brought up a wave that capsized the boats or barges, casting the soldiers into the sea (verse 4) causing the Egyptians to go "down in the depths like a stone (verse 5) and "sink like lead in the mighty waters" (verse 10). As Kugel points out, "if the Egyptians had been pursuing the Israelites on a dry path in the midst of the waters, then there was nowhere for them to go down, or to sink - they were already on the bottom of the sea bed."

Other curiosities: (1) When Joshua reminds the people about the rescue at the Sea (Josh 24: 6-7) he also makes no mention of a split sea, or a walk across the sea bed. In this version of the story, the miracle was a sudden darkness the permitted the Israelites to sneak away before a surge of water swamped the Egyptians. Joshua says nothing about any other miracle. (2) The song speaks of future events, including the reaction of Edomites and Canaanites, and the establishment of a temple on "a mountain in your territory." (3) The definite article appears nowhere in the song, suggesting to scholars (along with other clues) that the Song of the Sea is preserved from a very early stage of Hebrew (it has been established that Hebrew, at first, had no definite article, i.e. "the" in English or ha in Hebrew.)

How is all this explained? According to Cross and Freeman (via Kugel) the Song of the Sea was a well known hymn, sung perhaps in the Temple, that at some point was inserted into the Torah and paired with the narrative account in Exodus 14.  An indication that the song is something known that was attached to the Exodus story at some later date can be found in the opening line: that was when, the opening line says, this well known song was first recited.

[This post relies heavily on James Kugel]

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