Studying Exodus 15 11-21

Who is like You among the gods, O YHWH?
Who is like You, mighty in holiness?
          Fearsome in praise, worker of wonders.

Exodus 15:11

We are studying Exodus 15:11-21, a portion of the “Song of the Sea” for Sunday, September 5. This is the poetic celebration of God’s victory after the children of Israel have escaped the Egyptians by crossing the Sea of Reeds on dry ground. Here are a few notes on this text:

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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The song is the capstone of the long narrative that begins the book of Exodus. We are probably familiar with that story. It begins with the rise of “ a new king … who did not know Joseph” in Exodus 1:8. That king orders all the baby boys to be thrown into the Nile, and oppresses the Hebrews with hard labor. But baby Moses is saved, thanks to the cleverness of his mother and his sister Miriam, and to the collaboration of Pharaoh’s daughter, to say nothing of the grace of God. He grows up, sees the oppression of his people, gets in trouble with the powers that be, has to flee to Midian – where, at a dramatic moment, he encounters the presence of the living God and is called to go back to Egypt and lead his people to freedom. Which he does, after a tremendous display of the power of God, who sends ten plagues on Egypt to convince Pharaoh and his people to do what God, through Moses, is asking of them: “let my people go.”

In the final plague, the firstborn son of every mother in Egypt, including the animals, dies – while the Hebrews and everyone who eats the inaugural Passover meal and puts the blood of the Passover lamb on the doorposts and lintel of their house are spared. Pharaoh lets the Hebrews go. But then, once again, he changes his mind and sends a military force after them. In the final dramatic episode, when it looks like the Hebrews have their back against the impossible obstacle of the Sea, God splits the waters, the Hebrews walk through on dry ground with the water as a wall on either side!

The Egyptians try to follow, but it’s a trap! [God is a good military strategist.] The waters crash down on the pursuing army, and the children of Israel are saved!

Thus YHWH saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared YHWH and believed in YHWH and in his servant Moses.

Exodus 14:30-31

So there’s good reason to give thanks in a dramatic way, and the text lets us know this by having a long poem right here, which marks the end of the story as dramatically as the moment deserves. The text of the poem in Exodus 15:1-18 is followed by a couple of verses of summary and a note that Miriam and all the women sing and dance a victory dance, reprising the first verse of the poem. In a way, then, the rejoicing by the women is presented as a chorus or refrain to the rejoicing in the text.

We might even be inclined to think that in some version of real life the women would have sung this whole song. Especially if we are under the influence of feminist scholarship.

Then begins the even longer narrative of the time in the wilderness, which will take up the rest of the book of Exodus, and all of Numbers, and which is the context for the whole book of Leviticus and the run up to Deuteronomy. That is, the rest of the Torah.

The opening verses and concluding verses of the song are in the lectionary for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, year A. But the song and the narrative immediately before it will be more familiar to anyone who attends Easter Vigil, where it is part of the reading every year. Our text this week includes a few verses that don’t show up in the lectionary. These are the verses that report the impact of the miracle on the peoples of the surrounding area, including the future Philistines.

Some translations name the instrument Miriam uses a timbrel. A timbrel is, in essence, a tambourine, which is how the NRSV translates it. Rashi says this shows that the women were so certain God would do miracles for the people that they had taken these timbrels out of Egypt – so they would have them when it came time to celebrate those miracles.

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CLOSER READING: Robert Alter points out that the “Song of the Sea” “is a rare instance in the Bible of a poem that has clearly marked strophic divisions” (274). We know we are coming to the end of a strophe when we come to a description of the enemy sinking “like a stone” or “like lead,” and then the strophe concludes with an attribution of God’s greatness. If we look at the text that way, verses 1-6 are strophe 1, 7-11 are strophe 2, and 12-18 are strophe 3. Our selected text picks up with the last lines of strophe 2, and continues through to the end, including the narrative summary and the reprise of the opening lines of the song, as Miriam and all the women dance and sing.

The mention of “all the gods” in v11 is a problem for readers, perhaps like us, who imagine that the Israelites never thought there were any other gods besides YHWH. Probably, however, they did think there were other gods, but that YHWH was the supreme one. Certainly, especially after Exodus 20, they were not supposed to worship any of those other gods.

We might think it’s backwards to have “the earth” swallow “them” in verse 12, when we thought it was the sea that swallowed the enemy. Rashi says the reference to earth means they deserved to be buried. Alter suggests it’s a double reference, to the underworld, and also to the land that is the Israelites’ ultimate destination.

Verse 13 in Hebrew has a noticeable parallel pattern:

You led forth / in your steadfast love [hesed] / the people you redeemed
You guided / in your strength / to your holy abode

The holy abode and the redemption relate to one another, with the holy abode acting as the consummation of the redemption.

Verses 14-16 refer to surrounding peoples, presumably who have heard of this great victory and of the God who achieved it. We could say there is an anachronism in the text here, because there are no Philistines in the land of Israel at this time. Or we could say that there is something prophetic about this text. Or, that it’s the version of the song that was recorded after there were Philistines in the land, and it incorporates the current bard’s current situation. The point is that this event made news and the news made everyone who heard of it tremble in awe; the inclusive, awe-inspiring impact is the point. 

The crossing over referred to in verse 16 at first seems to be the crossing of the Red Sea, until we realize that these verses seem to be referring to future events, so probably are talking about crossing over the Jordan into the land of Israel. If so, they link that future crossing to this one, and make crossing over or through water a symbol of redemption.

Verse 17 sets a vision of the land, the Temple mount, and the Temple, in the mouth of the singer, right at the beginning of the wilderness trek. This gives us a picture of a story framed by two awesome victories, engineered by God and expressing God’s eternal rule. Verse 18 makes the rule explicit: YHWH shall be king forever.

In verse 20, Miriam is explicitly identified as a prophet. Rashi says it’s because she had predicted Moses’s birth and his destiny to be the savior of Israel. But it also seems to have something to do with her specific role here. Prophets, especially early prophets, are identified by their ecstatic outbursts; Miriam’s ecstatic singing and dancing here fit that prophetic model.

Overall, we are focusing on this text as an expression of celebration of the mighty acts of God. The mood is overjoyed, and the repetitive substance reflects the effort to comprehend the almost incomprehensible possible impossible event of God’s salvation.

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Alter, Robert. The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary. Vol. 1 The Five Books of Moses. W.W. Norton & Company, 2019.

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women dressed in red and blue holding tambourines and dancing drawn in iconic style

Images: “Torah scrolls in the Reconstructionist Synagogue of Montreal,” by Genevieve2, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Miriam’s Dance, from Bulgarian Tomic Psalter, an image in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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