Toward the end of the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:1-18), after the Egyptians had drowned in the Red Sea and after God’s power had stricken fear in the hearts of the nations of the world, the complete redemption awaiting the Children of Israel is described: “Thou bringest them in, and plantest them in the mountain of thine inheritance, the place, O Lord, which thou hast made for thee to dwell in, the sanctuary, O Lord, which thy hands have established. The Lord shall reign for ever and ever” (Exod. 15:17-18).
God will bring his children to their land, where he will build his home – the Temple. From this point onward, God will rule the world forever.
A slight historical problem confronts the homilist who seeks to interpret these verses. During the period of the sages, when these verses came under scrutiny, God’s house was no longer standing: The Great Temple in Jerusalem already lay in ruins. Although the Bible presents historical testimony about the Children of Israel’s arrival in the Promised Land and the construction of the Temple, the sages felt that the words “The Lord shall reign for ever and ever” did not express their own reality: God’s house had not yet been rebuilt and Gentiles ruled the persecuted Jewish minority in the Holy Land.
How could the homilist deal with the seemingly immense historical gap between the biblical text and the political reality in which the sages lived at the time?
In his 2008 article “Can the Homilists Cross the Sea Again?” Ishay Rosen-Zvi describes the sermons in the Mechilta Shirata – which is part of the Mechilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, and which presents the Tannaitic homilies on the Song of Songs – as a consistent interpretive attempt to deal with the apparent gap between the omnipotence of God, who punishes the Gentiles as depicted in the biblical text, and the bleak reality confronting the homilists.
According to Rosen-Zvi, a professor of Talmud at Tel Aviv University, the sages feel that they are experiencing a catastrophic historical lacuna – a seeming gap between, on the one hand, God’s early revelation as witnessed by the Gentiles and as expressed in the Song of the Sea, and, on the other hand, God’s future revelation, which will, of course, take place any moment. The sages seclude themselves within the walls of their academy of Talmudic studies and read the Torah’s verses describing God’s bloody revenge on the world’s nations, which, if they were to hear about the power of God’s hand, would immediately beat a quick retreat.
For example, the verse “The Lord is a man of war; the Lord is his name” (Exod. 15:3) is perceived by the homilist as a unique expression alluding to various verses in the Bible wherein God reveals himself as a “man of war” – that is, someone who is using different weapons, such as a sword, armor, a helmet, a javelin, and a bow and arrow.
And yet, the homilist points out, God does not require any weapons because he can avenge himself alone vis-a-vis the world’s nations. “Then,” asks the midrash, “why does the Bible refer to all these weapons separately? Because, if the Children of Israel require God’s assistance, he will wage war against their (and his) enemies. Woe are the world’s nations because God who created the universe with his words will fight them” (Mechilta de-Rabbi Ishmael: Section 4).
According to this midrash, the Gentiles pay close attention to what is written in the Song of the Sea, whose phrasing is intended to spark fear in their hearts. Nonetheless, the extent of this poetic weaponry in the war against the nations is tested by the ending of the Mechilta Shirata.
“It is written, ‘the place, O Lord, which thou hast made for thee to dwell.’ The Temple is much loved by God, who created the universe with his words. When God created the universe, all he used were words, as it is written, ‘By the word of the Lord were the heavens made’ [Psalms 33:6]. When God wanted to build the Temple, it is as if he carried out some kind of action to construct it, because it is written, ‘made.’
“Woe are the world’s nations – what do they hear? Since they heard that the Temple’s construction is referred to as an actual action, they rose up and destroyed it, as it is written, ‘who said: ‘Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof’” [Psalms 137:7]. In this connection, what does the Bible say? ‘The Lord doth roar from on high, and utter his voice from his holy habitation; he doth mightily roar because of his fold’” (Jeremiah 25:30). (Mechilta Shirata, Section 10, amended according to the suggestions of the editor of the Mechilta, H.S. Horovitz).
The redemption of the Children of Israel will culminate in God’s construction of the Temple. The first part of the midrash focuses on the unusual verb pa’alta (made), which is contrasted with “the word of the Lord,” a phrase that the Psalmist uses to describe the Creation. Thus, the Temple is presented as being more precious in God’s eyes than the entire universe. Whereas God created the world with words, he constructed the Temple with his own hands.
The second part of the midrash is not backed up by a literal reading of the biblical text, and so it is here that the sages soar to new heights in their depiction of the ruins of the Temple in their day: The world’s nations heard with their very own ears that God preferred the Temple to the entire world and that is why they stood up and destroyed it.
In contrast with this action, the homilist presents Jeremiah’s prophecy for the world-to-come, where God “doth mightily roar because of his fold” and avenges himself on those who destroyed his Temple. Although the Song of Songs initially strikes fear in the hearts of the Gentiles, this epic poem, toward its conclusion, reveals to them how precious the Temple is to God, and thus they decide to destroy it.
The midrash now proceeds with the conclusion of Rabbi Yossi of the Galilee, who refers to the problematic verse that ends the Song of the Sea: “The Lord shall reign for ever and ever”: “It is written, ‘The Lord shall reign for ever and ever.’ Rabbi Yossi of the Galilee says: If Israel had said on the shores of the Red Sea, ‘The Lord reigned for ever and ever,’ no nation and no culture (literally, language) could ever have ruled over them. However, Israel said, referring to the future, ‘The Lord shall reign for ever and ever’” (Mechilta, ibid).
Rabbi Yossi is very precise in his phrasing: God is not a king in the present tense, but rather a future king who will rule. In any event, it does not appear to Rabbi Yossi that God is presently ruling. The criticism is directed against Rabbi Yossi’s ancestors, the poets who sang the Song of the Sea and who betrayed their readers by not paying sufficient attention to their future situation.
Initially, the homilists blamed the Song of the Sea for having presented the Temple as a highly suitable site for destruction; however, had the poets sung the Song of the Sea properly, with the correct measure of historical and national responsibility, the sages would not have suffered.
Since the poets failed to do so, Rabbi Yossi, or the editor of the Mechilta Shirata, have no choice but to abandon the midrash that interprets the Song of the Sea – that is, to ignore the poem and to turn to God directly. The homilist tells God that he must now fulfill the promise contained in the words, “The Lord shall reign for ever and ever.”