Torah Portion of the Week: Echoes of an Earlier Age

Ariel Seri-Levi
'Crossing of the Red Sea' by Cosimo Rosselli, between 1481 and 1482.
'Crossing of the Red Sea' by Cosimo Rosselli, 1481-1482.Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Ariel Seri-Levi

As they stand in utter astonishment in the face of the great miracle God has wrought for them, Moses and the Children of Israel burst out in song. The poem or song that expresses their praise for God, the Song of the Sea (Shirat Hayam, Exodus 15:1-18), is the final scene in the drama of the Exodus from Egypt. It is also the climax of the reading of the Torah in the synagogue on the seventh day of Passover.

Biblical scholars believe that most of the Bible’s poems represent the earliest stratum of Hebrew literature. The composition of the Scripture’s prose sections was a complex process and included, among other things, the insertion of ancient texts into a new narrative framework. The early dating of the Bible’s poetic passages is attested to by their archaic style, by the allusions to beliefs and myths that were excluded from the canonical prose text, and by the poetic passages’ links to literary compositions of cultures that preceded the Israelites’ appearance. Their unique rhythm and meter enabled these passages to be taught and orally transmitted over the generations until they found their place in the written biblical text.

An example of the early stages of the Hebrew language can be seen in the verse, “Thou in thy love hast led the [or, this] people that [‘am zu’] thou hast redeemed” (Exodus 15:13). What is the meaning of the words “am zu?” The noun “am” (“people”) in Hebrew, is masculine, and the term “this people” should be written “am zeh,” whereby the demonstrative adjective, “zeh,” is in the masculine. But the demonstrative adjective “zu” (to be precise, “zo”) is in the feminine. The word “zu” is attached, despite its apparently feminine form, to a masculine noun in a poem by the great Hebrew poet Shaul Tchernichovsky, “I Believe” (“Ani ma’amin,” also known by its first words, “Sachki Sachki”): “Play, play, with these dreams that I [zu ani], the dreamer, am speaking.” There are those who mistakenly correct the text, making it read “zeh ani” in place of “zu ani,” in order to match the pronoun’s gender to that of the noun “dreamer” (“holem”).

Apparently, in the linguistic-historical stage reflected in the term “am zu” in the biblical verse above, the word “zu” is not a demonstrative pronoun at all, but rather the subordinate conjunction “that,” rendered in modern Hebrew by the prefix “sheh.” In the classical prose of the Bible, the conjunction used is “asher”; the Song of the Sea, however, preserves the conjunction’s ancient form, “zu.” Thus, the phrase “am zu ga’alta” should be translated not as “this nation, which you redeemed” but rather as “the nation that you redeemed.” And the proper translation of Tchernichovsky is: “Play, play with these dreams that I, the dreamer, am speaking.”

The glory of an earlier age envelops not only the poem’s language but also its content, which reflects the pre-monotheistic stage in the Israelite religion. In that stage, the Children of Israel still did not believe that the God of Israel was the sole deity, but rather that he was the best of all the gods, and for that reason deserving of devotion. This stage in the Israelite religion is expressed in text “Mi kamokha”: “Who is like unto Thee, O Lord [literally, ‘YHWH’ – the given name of the God of Israel], among the mighty? Who is like unto thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?” (Exod. 15:11). If there is no one like the Lord among the gods, this does not mean that the Lord is the only god. Rather, it means that one must assume the existence of other gods – precisely like the phrase that the male narrator in the Song of Songs assigns his beloved, “fairest among women” (Song of Songs 1:8). That compliment is based on his recognition of the existence of other women.

The myths of the cultures preceding the Hebrew people’s appearance described the battles of the gods against the forces of the sea, which themselves were considered godlike entities. These battles never entirely disappeared from the biblical text, and they reverberate in the Song of the Sea. Ostensibly, in the biblical poem the power of the forces of the sea is diminished, and they are reduced to the level of the forces of nature that are under God’s absolute control: The enemy is no longer a mythological sea creature but rather a human army. Nonetheless, the Israelite army is not mentioned here at all, and one can at times get the impression that the God of Israel is fighting not the enemy of the nation he protects but rather his own enemy.

The Lord is “a man of war” (Exod. 15:3), and his weapons are his pride and his rage: “And in the greatness of thine excellency thou overthrowest [or, destroyest] them that rise up against thee; thou sendest forth thy wrath, it consumeth them as stubble. And with the blast of thy nostrils the waters were piled up – the floods stood upright as a heap; the deeps were congealed in the heart of the sea” (Exod. 15:7-8).

Against whom is this man of war fighting? The first part of the verse apparently refers to human enemies – “them that rise up against thee” – and who will be destroyed and consumed by the fire of God’s wrath. However, the commonly encountered biblical phrase “haron af” (literally, wrath of the nostrils), which likens God’s rage to a fiery, destructive force, is broken down here into “thy wrath” and “the blast of thy nostrils.” While God’s wrath perhaps destroys the human enemy, “the blast of thy nostrils” is certainly directed not at a foreign army but rather at the very forces of the sea: “the waters,” “the floods” and “the deeps.”

The “deeps” of the ocean were previously mentioned as the instrument for drowning the enemy: “Pharaoh’s chariots and his host hath He cast into the sea ... The deeps cover them” (Exod. 15:4-5). Now the depths themselves are likened to God’s enemies and the force of his wrath freezes them and causes them to stand upright. Although it could be argued that the freezing and the forcing to stand upright are simply functional actions designed to enable the Israelites to pass through the parted waters of the Red Sea, that passage is not mentioned in the Song of the Sea, and God’s control of the waters appears to be a goal in itself.

While the Song of the Sea was apparently written before the story of the Exodus from Egypt was, both the poem and story were composed when the Israelites were already resident in the Promised Land and the Temple was standing. Although the events depicted in the Torah (not its writing, but rather the period it describes) are cut off with Moses’ death and do not include the nation’s entry into the Promised Land, the Song of the Sea continues the narrative to its happy ending: “Thou bringest them in, and plantest them in the mountain of thine inheritance … the sanctuary, O Lord, which Thy hands have established” (Exod. 15:17).

The narrator who incorporated the poetry of the Song of the Sea in the Bible’s prose narrative is responsible for a serious spoiler here. There is an obvious paradox between the narrative framework and the poem’s content: The poem could not by any means have been uttered at the time and place it ostensibly was proclaimed, according to the narrative sequence. Moses, who was not permitted by God to enter the Promised Land, could not have thanked God for the nation’s entry there or for the erection of the Temple – events that would occur many years after the Exodus and after Moses’ death.

We cannot assume, however, that the narrator was oblivious to this fact; similarly, it is inadvisable to describe the process of the Torah’s composition as a sequence of errors, but rather as what it was: a delicate, impressive work of art. The narrator could have dispensed with the Song of the Sea, or cut it off at the place required for the purposes of the narrative; instead, the presentation of the poem in its entirety was apparently more important to the narrator than adherence to the chronological sequence of events.

Apparently, the earliest readers of the story of the Exodus in the Torah were also not troubled by this chronological leap. They were already residents in their own land and were worshipping God in his Temple; thus, they already knew how the narrative of the Exodus would end. That’s why this spoiler did not detract from their enjoyment of the narrative – and perhaps even added to it. The Song of the Sea enables readers to catch a glimpse of the story’s happy ending and to recall the ultimate goal of the Exodus – a goal that has in fact been achieved.

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