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Miriam's Song (the Song of the Sea) - Exodus 15 - Division study

This page explores the various ways critics have divided up the block structure of this song. Sources are:

  1. Muilenberg, "A Liturgy on the Triumphs of Yahweh"
  2. Cross and Freedman, "Studies in Ancient Yahwistic Poetry"
  3. Cross, "Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic"
  4. Freedman, "Strophe and Meter in Exodus 15"
  5. Fokkelman, "Major Poems of the Hebrew Bible Vol. 1"
  6. Abbott, interpretation developed here and elsewhere

The colour scheme is intended more to visually separate blocks within a vertical line and the individual colours do not necessarily indicate a particular interpretation of the verse(s) involved. By hovering the mouse pointer over a block a fuller description will be seen, eg Muilenberg's HC of verses 2 and 3 is abbreviated from "Hymnic Confession". These descriptions are repeated at the end of the page. Some interpretation of the different divisions is offered at the foot of the table. Each original source contains much more explanation and supporting argument, and should be consulted for more detail.

 Masoretic text Translation 
1. ’ashîyrah laYHVH
kîy-gâ’ôh gâ’âh
çûç werôkebôw
râmâh bayyam
Sing will I to Yahweh,
for he has excelled exalted!
Horse and his charioteer
he threw into the sea.
I I:1 I:1 R S1 R
2a. âzzîy wezimrâth yâh
wayehîy-lîy lîyshûâh
My strength and my music of praise is Yahweh:
he is to me my salvation.
2b. zeh ’êlîy we’anewêhû
elôhêy ’âbîy wa’arômemenhû
This is my El, who I place at my heart,
Elohim of my father - I set Him on high.
3. YHVH ’îysh milchâmâh
YHVH shemôw
Yahweh is a man of war!
Yahweh is His name!
I:1 I:2 O D1
4. markebôth parôh wechêylôw
yârâh bayyâm
ûmibechar shâlishâyw
tubbeû beyam-çuph
The chariots of Pharaoh's force
he cast into the sea,
and the best of his commanders
have sunk into Yam Suph.
5. tehômôth yekaçyumû
yâredû bimetsôwlôth kemôw-’âben
The deeps have spread over them,
they dropped into the depths like stone.
6. yemîynekâ YHVH
ne’dârîy bakôach
yemîynekâ YHVH
tirats ’ôwyêb
Your right hand O Yahweh -
majestic in power!
Your right hand O Yahweh -
it shattered the enemy!
HR I:2 I:3 R (A) S4/R D2
7. ûberôb ge’ôwne
taharôç qâmeykâ
teshallach charône
yô’kelêmôw kaqqash
In your great exaltation
you throw down your rivals,
unleash your burning anger
and consume them like chaff.
8. ûberûach ’appeykâ
neeremû mayim
nitstsebû kemôw-nêd nôzelîym
qâphe’û tehômôth beleb-yam
In the breath of your anger
heaped up the waters -
standing still like a stack the stream,
curdled deeps in the heart of the sea.
9. ’âmar ’ôyeb
’eredôph ’assîyg
achallêq shâlâl
timelâ’êmôw napheshîy
’ârîyq charebîy
tôwrîyshêmôw yâdîy
Said the foe
“I chase, I catch -
divide the spoil
fill up my soul -
I draw my sword,
I ruin him with my right hand!”
EN I:3 I:4 SIB S7 C2
10. nâshaphetâ berûcha
kiççâmôw yâm
tsâlalû kaôphereth
bemayim ’addîyrîym
You blew with your breath,
spread over them the sea,
they submerged like lead
in the waters of majesty.
S8 C3
11. mîy-kâmôkâh bâ’êlim YHVH
mîy kâmôkâh ne’dâr baqqôdesh
nôwrâ’ tehillôth ôsêh-phele’
Who like you among the gods? Yahweh!
Who like you? Majestic in holiness,
astounding in praises, working wonder!
HR R (B) S9/R D3
12. tîythâ yemîyne
tiblâêmôw ’arets
You reached out your right hand,
engulfed they were by earth.
HC I:5 SIIA S10 C’1
13. nâchîytâ bechaçde
am-zû gâ’ale
nêhaletâ beâzze
el-newêh qâdeshekâ
You guide in your kindness
these kinfolk you adopted,
you lead in your strength
to your hearthplace of holiness.
II:1 II:1
14. shâmeû ammîym yiregâzûn
chîyl ’âchaz yôshebêy pelâshêth
They have heard and the nations are shaken:
anguish grips the dwellers of Pelasheth -
S11 C’2
15. ’âz nibeha
’allûpêy ’edôm
’êylêy môw’âb
yo’chazêmû raad
nâmôgû kôl yôshebêy kean
then troubled
the leaders of Edom,
the chieftains of Mo'ab
seized by trembling -
melted away all the dwellers of Cana'an.
16a. tippôl alêhem
’êymâtâh wâphachad
bigedôl zerôwa
yidemû kâ’âben
Fallen upon them
are terror and dread!
At the greatness of your arm
they are struck silent like stone
S13 C’3
16b ad-yaabôr ammekâ YHVH
ad-yaabôr am-zû qânîythâ
while they pass by - your kindred, Yahweh -
while they pass by - these kinfolk you have acquired.
HR II:2 R (C) S14/R D2’
17. tebi’êmôw wetittâêmôw
behar nachalâte
mâkôwn leshibte
aletâ YHVH
miqqedâsh ’adônây
kôwnenû yâdeykâ
You gather them in and root them
on the mountain of your estate,
the foundation of your dwelling
that you made, Yahweh,
the holy place, Yahweh,
founded by your hands.
CEL II:3 E S15
18. YHVH yimelôkâ
leôlâm wâed
It is Yahweh who will reign
always and for ever!
C II:4 E S16
19a. kîy bâ’ çûç parôh
berikhebôw ûbephârâshâyw bayyâm
So went the horse of Pharaoh -
with his chariotry and with his riders - into the sea,
X X X X X B’
19b. wayyâshab YHVH
alêhem ’eth-mêy hayyâm
and Yahweh brought back
on them the waters of the sea,
19c. ûbenêy yisrâ’êl
hâlekhôw bayyabâshâh
bethôwkh hayyâm
but the children of Yisra'el
went on the dried-up land
in the middle of the sea.
20. wattiqqach miryâm hannebîy’âh
achôwth ’aharôn
’eth-hattôph beyâddâh
wattêtse’n kol-hannâshîym ’achareyhâ
bethuppîym ûbimechôlôth
Then took Miryam the prophetess,
sister of Aharon,
the timbrel in her hand,
and followed all the women after her
with timbrels and the dance,
21a. wattaan lâhem miryâm
and she celebrated for them, Miryam:
21b. shîyrû laYHVH
kîy-gâ’ôh gâ’âh
çûç werôkebôw
râmâh bayyam
Sing you all to Yahweh,
for he has excelled exalted!
Horse and his charioteer
he threw into the sea.
IR I:1R I:1R R R

Some amplification of the above

Muilenberg's interpretation (column A) is built around the recognition of three thematic blocks - verses 2-6, 7-11 and 12-16. Each block is in turn divided into three - a "hymnic confession" of the focal theme, an "epic narrative" description, and a "hymnic response". The response he sees as plausibly used in a cultic ceremonial presentation of the event, or in some cases as a battle-shout. The whole is then enveloped between an "introit" at the start, and a "hymnic celebration" + "coda" at the end. His main analytic tools are the style of each block (hence confession, response etc) and the use of key thematic words to demark sections and establish connections between similar sections in different thematic blocks. For example, "like stone" closes both epic narrative sections of the first and third blocks, and "like lead" is close to the end of the middle one. He notes that the divine name Yahweh is not used in the "epic narrative" portions. Along with most other authors, he notes that the third thematic block contains more stylistic and structural divergences than the other two. Some commentators have seen this, along with the differing subject-matter of "the road ahead" rather than "the victory behind", as indicating that this block was added rather later. Muilenberg, however, feels that the coherence of patterning and expressions support a unified composition more strongly. He notes, though does not develop, metrical patterns and the implied connection with Ugaritic poetry.

Columns B and C - the collaborative work of Cross and Freedman, and the later development of this by Cross, focus heavily on metrical considerations, almost to the exclusion of other issues. This led them originally to exclude verse 2 in its entirety as a later insertion (on the basis that the metrical pattern was uncharacteristic of the whole), though Freedman later was happy to accept the second half of the verse. One of their primary interests was to seek to reconstruct the consonantal text appropriate to a composition date of the 12th century BCE, and this line of investigation has tended to obscure other textual features. For example, most commentators (including Cross himself in his later work) have recognised the different character of verses 6, 11, 16b and 18, and have noted them as separate divisions. However, this work has incorporated all of these verses simply as portions of larger units - often though not always at the beginning or end of such units - on the basis of the metrical pattern rather than the meaning or literary purpose. Both sources see a basic division of the Song into two parts - the first dealing with the immediate victory achieved by Yahweh at Yam Çuph, and the second looking towards the nations ahead. Within the two blocks, sub-divisions are recognised. In the collaborative work the boundaries of these sub-division were by and large identified by longer metrical lines - groups of 3:3 instead or 2:2 in terms of syllables of the reconstructed text - although this pattern breaks down at the end of I:3. If the same patterning was used, I:3 in Cross and Freedman's scheme would finish part-way through verse 11, though they in fact complete it after verse 12. In Cross's later work building on this, he retained the same two-fold structure but felt that sub-divisions should always follow metrical divisions rather than including mixed portions, thus leading to more sub-divisions. With the reinstatement of v2b, this means that each sub-division ends with two or three lines of 3 syllables rather than 2. This leaves the short section I:5 rather isolated, an issue which Cross does not attempt to explain. His division between II:4 and II:5 is also unclear.

Freedman's work, column D, sought to include other patterning schemes such as counting stresses rather than just syllables, and also shows a welcome return to recognising the importance of the meanings and literary significance of the phrases. While still following the basic division of the Song into two halves, he is happy to also acknowledge the existence of envelope portions before and after the main material. Hence his labelling of verses 1-4 as preparation, and 17 and 18 as concluding sections. He also marks out as refrains the three Yahweh-focused verses before his first strophe, between the two, and after the second one - the verses Muilenberg called "hymnic responses". Each of the two strophes is sub-divided into two sections, with the metrically longer verses forming the break-markers.

Fokkelman's work, column E, represents part of a systematic study of Hebrew poetics at multiple levels. The basic principle is that numerical patterns are important as a regular patterning scheme at syllable, word, colon, strophe and stanza levels. The scheme does not require exact consistency of numbers at each of these levels, but notes that there is a strong trend towards regularity.

My own interpretation seeks to explore the larger structures first, and is set in the context of a much larger investigation into Hebrew and Egyptian triumphal literature. The whole is reported elsewhere. The basic observation is that the work of art as a whole is constructed chiastically - not just the overtly poetic parts, but also including verses 19 and 20, normally translated as prose - in other words symmetrically in concentric blocks around a central pivot. The blocks are separated by (generally) shorter divisions, and as a rule the name Yahweh appears only in the divisions, not the blocks. As noted by several others, the pattern becomes more degraded in the later parts of the Song. From outside to inside, the concentric rings are:

In the longer sections C, C’, note that in each case a threefold subdivision of the material can be seen - the first part is a description of Yahweh's action (past or prospective), the second is a glimpse into the enemy's viewpoint (boastful in the past, fearful in the future), and the third describes Yahweh's response.

The large-scale structure is modelled on that of the Merenptah Stele, in which chiasmus is again used. The concentric blocks there celebrate the Pharaoh Merenptah's military prowess and royal qualities, and the divisions between most of the blocks are signalled by uses of the pharaonic titulary, written in cartouche form. These, the formal designations of the semi-divine pharaoh, are replaced in the structure of the Song of the Sea by lines using the divine name Yahweh. The central phrase of the Merenptah Stele is “A great wonder has fallen to Egypt”. The long blocks either side of that (corresponding to the blocks C, C’ above) also have a threefold internal structure - in each case the first part describes the background situation, the middle portion reports words of others (Libyan countrymen of Merey in the first part and Egyptian lords in the second), and the final section summarises Merenptah's response.

So, the overall structure of the Song mirrors that of Merenptah's Israel Stele, while the metrical pattern is closely related to that of Ugaritic poetry from a little earlier. The following model is therefore suggested for the origins and development of this Song:

  1. There was an original, probably quite short, spontaneous song of celebration. This may well be what has been preserved in the opening and closing refrains.
  2. The song was developed over a number of years. The nations on the road ahead were identified and included as part of the victory celebration, though their inclusion was still viewed from the perspective of the original event, ie as future landmarks.
  3. The omission of Ammon as a potential adversary, and the inclusion of Pelasheth (the Philistines) is usually taken as indicating that this development phase was around the 12th or late 13th century BCE.
  4. Metrical considerations link the main body of the poem with Ugaritic and (presumably) wider Canaanite poetry, known to have been developed in the 13th and possibly 14th centuries BCE. Textual and linguistic analyses also place the Song at this time.
  5. Structural considerations of the finished victory celebration link it with Egyptian triumphal literature of the late 12th and early 11th centuries, specifically Merenptah's Israel Stele and the Year 5 inscription of Rameses III. Use of an Egyptian triumphal genre would be particularly apposite for this celebration, and this is supported by the deliberate inclusion of a number of Egyptian motifs. In short, the implicit claim is that Yahweh had plundered Egypt not only of tangible items such as workforce and wealth, but also in the area of the arts and creativity. By usurping a standard Egyptian literary form - with which they would have to be familiar - Israel was asserting dominance over Egypt. The specific style of these two triumphal monuments is distinctly unlike prior or subsequent examples in various important ways.
  6. The text appears to have become frozen shortly after this developmental point, as shown by the retention of numerous archaic textual indicators. Shortly after Rameses III, Egypt withdrew from and lost control of Canaan - there would be little point in subsequent periods in imitating Egyptian triumphal monuments, and little opportunity of being exposed to them.

Recapitulation of each commentator's division breaks

v1: Introit
v2-3: Hymnic Confession
v4-5: Epic narrative
v6: Hymnic response
v7-8: Hymnic Confession
v9-10: Epic narrative
v11: Hymnic response
v12-14: Hymnic Confession
v15-16a: Epic narrative
v16b: Hymnic response
v17: Hymnic celebration
v18: Coda
v21b: Introit - recapitulation
Cross and Freedman, 1950
v1, 3, 4: Part I section 1
v6-8: Part I section 2
v9-12: Part I section 3
v13-16a: Part II section 1
v16b-18: Part II section 2
v21b: Part I section 1 partial reprise
Cross, 1973
v1, 2b: Part I section 1
v3-5: Part I section 2
v6-8: Part I section 3
v9-11: Part I section 4
v12: Part I section 5
v13-14: Part II section 1
v15-16: Part II section 2
v17: Part II section 3
v18: Part II section 4
v21b: Part I section 1 partial reprise
Freedman, 1974
v1: Refrain
v2: Exordium and Personal Introduction
v3-5: Opening
v6: Refrain (A)
v7-8: Strophe I-A
v9-10: Strophe I-B
v11: Refrain (B)
v12-14: Strophe II-A
v15-16a: Strophe II-B
v16b: Refrain (C)
v17-18: Ending
v21b: Refrain
Fokkelman, 1998
Stanza I
        v1: Strophe 1
        v2-3: Strophe 2
        v4-5: Strophe 3
    v6: Refrain - Strophe 4
Stanza II
        v7: Strophe 5
        v8: Strophe 6
        v9: Strophe 7
        v10: Strophe 8
    v11: Refrain - Strophe 9
Stanza III
        v12-13: Strophe 10
        v14: Strophe 11
        v15ab: Strophe 12
        v15c-16ab: Strophe 13
    v16cd: Refrain - Strophe 14
Stanza IV
        v17: Strophe 15
        v18: Strophe 16
v1: Refrain
v2: Block A
v3: Division 1
v4-5: Block B
v6: Division 2
v7-8: Block C1
v9: Block C2
v10: Block C3
v11: Division 3
v12-13: Block C'1
v14-15: Block C'2
v16a: Block C'3
v16b-18: Division 2' and Celebration
v19a: Block B'
v19b: Division 1'
v19c-21a: Block A'
v21b: Refrain