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

1) The opening words could be translated as Let me sing in the cohortative rather than imperfect I will sing. rôkebô means rider and can refer both to horsemen or charioteers. In this timeframe, chariot-rider is more likely as cavalry were not exploited militarily at this stage: also chariots are explicitly mentioned in verse 4. The repeated (emphatic) verbal root g’h is also used in v7, and of course in the recapitulation of this verse at the end of the song.

2) The underlying verb for zimrâth (music of praise) is also used by Deborah in her song. Various commentators have preferred to derive the word (in this context) from a Semitic root dmr, with connotations of protection in war. Thus the idea being expressed would be of Yahweh as strong protector. Loewenstamm (VT 19 (1969) 464) dealt thoroughly with this matter, and here the plain sense of praise music has been kept. Loewenstamm and Good (VT 20 (1970) 358) have also discussed the omission of the first-person suffix -y, and suggest good reasons for this. Whilst absent from the Hebrew text, the word “my” has been reinstated here because of this. This phrase can also be seen as one of the few examples of use of gendered words in a structural way. Later Hebrew poetry uses gender-matching quite extensively as a structural device, either via parallelism or chiasmus. Such usage is not evident here. However, there are a few occasions, like here, where a gender-contrasting pair is used to express merismus (indication of a whole by means of a contrasting pair, such as earth and heavens). So here we have ‘âzzîy wezimrâth, “My strength (masculine) and my music of praise (feminine)”. Other examples are in verses 4, 6 and 16a, as noted below.

The divine name appears in the Masoretic text as Yah here, but following Cross and Freedman's arguments it is assumed that the waw has slipped from the end of this word to the start of the next - so that original yhw yhy has changed into yh wyhy. The verb we’anewêhû - from to beautify, adorn with praises but related to to aim towards a destination dwelling, with related nouns suggesting the ideas of pasture, meadow, habitation, or abiding in satisfaction - has been rendered here as “I place at my heart”. This is for several reasons. First, it allows the parallel contrast between this line and the next “I place at my heart”/“I set on high”. Also, the noun newêh, translated as “hearthplace” is used in verse 13, and to highlight the common root the pair heart/hearth has been chosen.

3) The short repetitive phrases here are analogous to those in Ugaritic poetry - see the pages dealing with Ugaritic poetry or the additional study pages for more details, but the ABC//ABD pattern is quite typical. Similar points arise in verses 6 and 16b.

4) This might be seen as a second example of structural use of gendered words - markebôth par‘ôh wechêylôw - “chariots (feminine) of Pharaoh's force (masculine)” - might be seen as using merismus to suggest the entirety of Pharaoh's strength. However, this is weakened by the fact there are few other-gender alternatives that might have been chosen instead. shâlishâyw - here translated his commanders - literally has the meaning third men and refers to the additional chariot-rider behind the main crew. Yam Suph has traditionally been taken to refer to the Red Sea, though a stronger case can be made for the low-lying marshy region in the vicinity of Balah Lakes between the end of the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. The phrase is usually understood to mean Sea of Reeds though other possibilities link the phrase to Sea of Storms or Sea of the End, this last having a more explicitly mythological content.

5) tehômôth - deeps - can be seen as an allusion to the Mesopotamian Tiamat, a sea deity defeated in battle. The word is repeated in v8. Whilst this translation has kept throughout to a more direct vocabulary, it is quite possible to render it much more overtly mythic, substituting Yam (used in Ugarit as a divine name) instead of Sea and so forth. This would be done to emphasise the divine drama of Yahweh triumphing over the other gods rather than the Egypyian soldiers. The verb kçh is used here and again in verse 10. “Like stone” is the first of a series of such comparisons - v7 like chaff, v10 like lead, v16 back to like stone again.

6) This verse contains the first of three uses of the root ’dr (also vv10 and 11), rendered here as majestic and variations thereof. The structuring of the verse as a whole may show signs of structural use of gender - each of the two phrases is (feminine) Yahweh (verb) (masculine). However, it is possible that this owes more to the Canaanite ABC//ABD patterning.

7)Rivals” is literally “those standing up to you”. “Burning anger” (charon) can be seen (following Burnett, “Reassessment of Biblical Elohim”) as one instance amongst several in this song of a hypostasised manifestation of Yahweh himself. So Yahweh is present as God in himself, but also as head of the divine army with members such as burning anger, anger, right hand, terror, dread and so forth. In this view, the exclamation “Who like you among the gods” highlights Yahweh's supremacy not just as regards the gods of Egypt, but also the divine members of his own army.

8) rûach ’appeykâ, here translated breath of your anger could also suggest spirit from your face/presence. Deeps is again tehômôth - see verse 5.

9) The words put into the mouth of the enemy are boastful, suggesting a desire not just for military success but spiritual gluttony.

10) A very similar pattern to verse 5 - the verb root kçh (cover over), and the analogy with a weight sinking (stone/lead).

11) From this verse on, the idea of holiness is increasingly in view. Previously, praise in the light of Yahweh's superior strength is uppermost, but from now on the themes of redemption and awe at his holiness emerge. Majestic in holiness is a deliberate echo of majestic in power of verse 6, in both cases using the Niph‘al participle form of ’dr. Verse 10 has used another variant from this root. See also verses 13 and 17, in which various derivations from the root qdš appear.

12) This time it is the earth (’arets) that swallows or engulfs the enemy, rather than the sea.

13) To this point the song has focused on the immediate issue. Now the song turns to the road ahead. This verse (and 17) highlights the eventual destination. Hearthplace is an attempt to combine the ideas of desirable home, satisfaction, and a destination. It harks back to place at my heart of verse, which uses the verb form of the same root. The word ‘am, where it relates to the Israelites, has been translated as “kin” or a related word, to highlight the fact that the central notion of Israelite culture was that of kinship. This extended from the basic family unit through the various levels of society to Yahweh as ultimate definer of national kinship. To the same end, g’l has been translated here as “adopted” rather than “redeemed” - the basic role of the gô’el was as kinsman-redeemer, an ultimately dependable family member who could be relied upon to support or avenge as needed. Hence, the underlying idea is that Yahweh has willingly taken on responsibility for securing the well-being of his new kindred Israel.

14, 15) These two verses list specific people-groups on or near the road ahead. Broadly they are tackled in the order they were encountered en route to Canaan, though Pelasheth - the coastal plain area - was on a different road, not taken by the Israelites. The six lines beginning here and including up to the first line of verse 16 show parallelism wrapping a chiastic structure:

  1. Outermost level:
    1. They have heard and the nations are shaken
    2. fallen upon them are terror and dread
  2. Middle level:
    1. anguish grips the dwellers of Pelasheth
    2. melted away all the dwellers of Cana'an
  3. Inner level:
    1. then troubled the leaders of Edom
    2. the chieftains of Mo'ab seized by trembling

Similar patterns may be seen in the final lines of the Mereptah Stela, in which Israel is mentioned (article in preparation). The omission of Ammon as a potential adversary, and the inclusion of Pelasheth (the Philistines) is usually taken as indicating that this reflects the political situation around the 12th or late 13th century BCE

16) qânâh - acquired here - can also mean purchased, gained, or created. See comments under verse 3 about the Canaanite patterning. The first half of the verse is the final possible candidate for use of gender to indicate structure - ’êymâtâh wâphachad - “terror (feminine) and dread (masculine)” - can be seen as using merismus to express the totality of the fear-reaction experienced by the nations on the route ahead. This expression has alternatively been seen as using hendiadys (two expressions applying to a single thing) in which case a suitable translation would be “dreadful terror” or similar.

17) The vocabulary of this verse is closely related to parts of the Ugaritic Baal-Anath cycle, in particular the concept of the mountain of Yahweh's estate, in which he will receive his people and grant them audience. See the pages dealing with Ugaritic poetry for more details. nachalâh can suggest the idea of inheritance or simply possession, but when applied to deity in this time-frame, has the idea of appointed territorial bounds. The root kûn is used twice in this verse.

18) Both ‘ôlâm and ‘ad carry the idea of perpetuity. The first suggests unendingness, the second the idea of continual progression onwards.

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