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Miriam's Song (the Song of the Sea) - Exodus 15 - Some archaic linguistic markers

Main translation pages for Exodus 15.

This page lists the various linguistic markers in the Hebrew text that indicate an early compositional date. These are of several kinds as listed below. The fact that all of them are present, and used consistently with authentic earlier use, strongly confirms that the poetry is archaic rather than merely archaising (ie stylistically imitating earlier poetry but actually written later). Attempts to be archaistic routinely use markers inconsistently, or just pick one indicator rather than several.

Poetry keeps archaic markers more commonly than narrative, since it is built around commonly-recognised conventions of metre and pattern. Hence it is usually impossible for a later copier to alter the language to a more "contemporary" version without spoiling the end-result. So for example Exodus 15 has more archaic markers than Exodus 14 - the narrative description relating to the same event. This might indicate a later time of composition for chapter 14, or it might simply indicate that later scribes copying a document felt freer to adapt the prose vocabulary and syntax without having a detrimental effect.

It is commonly held that a narrative account parallel to a poetic one necessarily originates later - basically, the poetry is seen as a spontaneous response to the events, and the prose as a later, more considered and crafted piece of literature. However, there is abundant evidence from Egyptian sources that twin prose and poetic accounts of an event were developed together, often within the same inscription - for example the Israel Stele of Merenptah. The different medium served a different function but both arose at the same time. Additionally, it is often the case that the poetic account is more elaborate in a literary sense - many pieces of Egyptian poetry, and the major early works of Hebrew poetry, show every sign of being constructed in a careful way making full use of poetic and rhetorical devices. The assumption that prose is more considered and crafted is not valid.

Useful references:
Muilenberg, "A Liturgy on the Triumphs of Yahweh", Studia Biblica et Semitica 1966, pp 233-251
Cross and Freedman, "Studies in Ancient Yahwistic Poetry", Eerdmans 1950
Cross, "Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic", Harvard 1973
Freedman, "Pottery, Poetry and Prophecy", Eisenbrauns 1980, in particular "Strophe and Meter in Exodus 15", written 1974

Energic nun
This indicates the letter nun (n) inserted between the stem of a verb and a suffix to indicate intensity. In later Hebrew this nun assimilated into the suffix to produce a doubled consonant (so -enkah assimilated to -ekkah for example, as in Psalm 121:6) but archaically the original nun is retained.
An example of this in Exodus 15 is:
  • Verse 2: wa’arômemen
Another archaic example is Deuteronomy 32:10
Archaic form of pronominal suffixes
Especially for the 3rd-person plural ending which in later Hebrew is one of -hem or -m for perfect stems, or -âm or êm for imperfects, depending in each case on whether the verb stem + case ending ends in vowel or consonant. However, the archaic form is -mû or môw (the two variants being indistinguishable in the consonantal text). This archaic form is used consistently on all relevant verbs in the Song of the Sea. The only questionable case is the use of ‘alêhem in v16.
Specific examples are:
  • Verse 5: yekaçyu
  • Verse 7: yô’kemôw
  • Verse 12: tiblâ‘êmôw
Enclitic mem
An enclitic particle is one appended to another word as a contraction of a longer qualifying word. So in English, adding -'ll or 've onto words are examples, since these are abbreviations of will and have respectively, but making a plural -s is not, since the 's' is not an abbreviated form of anything else. Akkadian and Ugaritic use enclitic -ma and -m respectively in a variety of ways. Specifically in Akkadian it can indicate emphasis (anaku=I, anakuma=I myself) or when used to join two verbs indicates causal or logical sequence (hence a translation like then or so that is usually appropriate). Ugaritic seems to have used it often (shortened from -mi) as a convenient functional sound to separate two similar vowels or consonants, but also to indicate causal relationship. In archaic Hebrew.
Examples of this in Exodus 15 are:
  • Verse 9: timelâ’êmôw (the suffix is out of place on this word and does not belong)
  • Verse 9: tôwrîyshêmôw (the suffix is out of place on this word and does not belong)
Case endings on nouns or adjectives
These were present in Akkadian and other Semitic languages, but later Hebrew dropped all case endings. Archaic Hebrew retained them in places.
Examples of this in Exodus 15 are:
  • Verse 6: ne’dârîy (genitive)
  • Verse 10: ’addîyrîym (genitive)
Poetic metrical structure
Ugaritic and archaic Hebrew used a simple metrical structure built around blocks of 2 or 3 stresses in a thematic line. The Ugaritic epics are more consistently built of pairs of 3-stress lines, and the mixed 2/3 stress examples appear more commonly in the non-epic cycles. Later Hebrew poetry used more complex metrical patterns, or specific structures such as the Lament (Qinah) pattern with alternating lines of 3 then 2 stresses. Exodus 15 is built around the mixed 2/3 metrical pattern, as described more fully on a companion page.
Specific words associated with early writing
A considerable number of words used in archaic poetry fell out of use in later poetry, despite the fact that words appear (in all languages) to persist in formal poetric contexts longer than narrative or (where the comparison can be made) ordinary speech.
Examples of this in Exodus 15 are:
  • Verses 6 and 11: ’âdar as a verb in the Niph‘al form (be great/high/noble) occurs only in these two places. The Pi‘el form ("make glorious") appears in Isaiah, in a passage consciously harking back to the giving of Torah. Derived adjectival or nominal forms occur more diversely through the Old Testament.
  • Verse 5: yekaçyumű has retained an older form with yodh as the final root consonant (k.ç.y), rather than he as that used in later Hebrew (k.ç.h) or 'aleph in Aramaic.

As a general point, the absence in Hebrew poetry in general, and the archaic poems in particular, of the definite article ha-, the direct object marker ’eth, and the relative pronoun ’asher, should be noted. In the case of Exodus 15, this leaves verses 19 and 20 open to debate. Should these be considered parts of the poem, bridging the declaration of Yahweh's reign with the recapitulation of the refrain, or as a prose block separating the two? This problem is considered in more detail on a companion page.