Friday, January 14, 2011

Thoughts on Pharaoh's song

When he realizes the Israelites are gone and not coming back, Pharaoh bursts into song. Sort of. As recorded in the Bible, when Pharaoh tells his courtiers that the escaped slaves are pinned down, he is speaking in verse.

In English, Pharaoh words mean something like: "They are wandering aimlessly in the land; the wilderness has shut them in."(NASB) or "They are confounded in the land, the wilderness has closed round them" (Alter).

In Hebrew the line is: נְבֻכִ֥ים הֵ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ סָגַ֥ר עֲלֵיהֶ֖ם הַמִּדְבָּֽר or nevukhim hem ba'arets, sagar 'aleihemn hamidbar.

As Alter points out these are "two semantically complementary clauses with three nicely scanning beats in each". Alter goes on to say, that this is evidence of the kings "regal confidence" but I think there may be something else to it.

Above, I wrote that Pharaoh spoke "to his courtiers" about the Israelites and this is based on Rashi and most of the English translations, of the full verse which reads: וְאָמַ֤ר פַּרְעֹה֙ לִבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל נְבֻכִ֥ים הֵ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ סָגַ֥ר עֲלֵיהֶ֖ם הַמִּדְבָּֽר׃. At first glance, however, the verse itself seems to say something else, telling us that Pharaoh spoke לִבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל, which translates most obviously as "to the Israelites." As Rashi and the rest realize Pharaoh can't be speaking "to the Israelites" who are by now almost a week into their escape. Rashi's solution is that the lamid prefix [=לִ] also means "about", and though this is grammatically sound, I think it robs the verse, and indeed the whole story, of some literary grandeur.

Pharaoh's one line poem marks the beginning of the Exodus' final chapter, a chapter that ends with the Song of the Sea. As Pharaoh will soon discover, the Israelites are not wandering aimlessly, but are bait in a trap. Alter is right that given all he has experienced at the hands of God Pharaoh is foolishly overconfident. Though this fatal overconfidence is certainly indicated through his style of speech, a literary observation is that Pharaoh's song stands in opposition to the song the Israelites will sing after the king is vanquished. As the text tells us though its ambiguous use of the lamid prefix, Pharoh is singing TO the Israelites... only his song is cut short - its merely one verse - and it will soon be emphatically answered at the Sea, when the victorious Israelites answer Pharaoh's arrogance with a much longer song of their own, a song that even opens with a brilliant pun on the Hebrew word for arrogant.

** Interesting side note: Rashi solves the lamid prefix problem by translating the verse as "about the Israelites" TPJ reads it as most of us would, i.e., as "to the Israelites" and even supplies their names! According to TPJ, at this moment Pharaoh is speaking to none other but Datan and Aviram.

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