Exodus 15: The Songs at the Sea

Ivan Aivazovsky, The Passage of the Jews through the Red Sea (1891)

Exodus 15: 1-19 The Song of the People

Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the LORD:
“I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.
 2 The LORD is my strength and my might,1 and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him.
 3 The LORD is a warrior; the LORD is his name.
 4 “Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he cast into the sea;
his picked officers were sunk in the Red Sea.1
 5 The floods covered them; they went down into the depths like a stone.
 6 Your right hand, O LORD, glorious in power –
your right hand, O LORD, shattered the enemy.
 7 In the greatness of your majesty you overthrew your adversaries;
you sent out your fury, it consumed them like stubble.
 8 At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up, the floods stood up in a heap;
 the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea.
 9 The enemy said, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil,
my desire shall have its fill of them. I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them.’
 10 You blew with your wind, the sea covered them; they sank like lead in the mighty waters.
 11 “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods?
Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, doing wonders?
 12 You stretched out your right hand, the earth swallowed them.
 13 “In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed;
you guided them by your strength to your holy abode.
 14 The peoples heard, they trembled; pangs seized the inhabitants of Philistia.
 15 Then the chiefs of Edom were dismayed; trembling seized the leaders of Moab;
all the inhabitants of Canaan melted away.
 16 Terror and dread fell upon them; by the might of your arm,
they became still as a stone until your people, O LORD, passed by,
until the people whom you acquired passed by.
 17 You brought them in and planted them on the mountain of your own possession,
the place, O LORD, that you made your abode,
the sanctuary, O LORD, that your hands have established.
 18 The LORD will reign forever and ever.”

 19 When the horses of Pharaoh with his chariots and his chariot drivers went into the sea, the LORD brought back the waters of the sea upon them; but the Israelites walked through the sea on dry ground.

I remember singing the first verse of this ‘song at the sea’ or ‘song of Moses’ in Sunday School or vacation bible school. At the time, I had no idea what the song was referring to, it was just another catchy song that we sang at church. Like many of the Psalms there is a concrete story that the song references and celebrates. Here at the edge of the wilderness after witnessing the acts of the LORD their God to liberate the people from their slavery in Egypt they break into a song of praise which continues to be used today in some manner. Songs tend to capture our memories in many ways and here; in addition to the festival of Passover, the song becomes another way in which the people can remember and praise what God has done for them.

The LORD is portrayed as a mighty warrior. This is a frequent theme in scriptures and can be a source of both great strength and a potential for abuse. I have written about this in multiple places (Deuteronomy 20, Deuteronomy 2, Psalm 18, and Violence and the Bible) and I won’t rehash everything I’ve written here but I will address it briefly. When the powerful utilize the image of the warrior God to endorse the violence they commit on others then the image is being abused and we become the new Pharaoh who is utilizing their gods to endorse their rule and oppression. Frequently in the Bible the image of the warrior God is a source of strength and confidence for a people who are not the strongest, mightiest and most powerful. Often it is used, like in Psalm 46, to dream of an end to the destructive conflict that was a large part of the life of the people of Israel. Here, in the narrative of the Exodus, the LORD has acted as a warrior who defeated the army of Pharaoh and who conquered the gods of Egypt. The signs and wonders as well as the splitting of the sea frequently used the elements of nature and here in the poetry those elements become extensions of God’s features. Like many of the Psalms this is a work of praise and poetry and while it may be theological (it talks about God) it is not systematic theology. It uses the full sweep of metaphor and poetic language to point to the power and experience of God.

I began this section speaking about remembering this song from my youth and songs become bearers of story and memory. In the same way that a song can capture an experience and bring back a memory from when you heard the song, songs also become memory bearers for a community. The hymns and songs that my church sings stretch across hundreds of years and bring with them the experience of the writers. This is one among the hymnbook of ancient Israel that continues to carry its echo of the experience of the people of the Exodus to our time. It is a song of hope, a song of trust, and the song of a people whose God intervened for them. May we also join into the singing to the LORD who triumphed gloriously and may we join in the hope of the song that the LORD will reign forever and ever.

Exodus 15: 20-21 The Song of the Women

Anselm Feuerbach, Mirjam (1862)

 20 Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. 21 And Miriam sang to them:

“Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”

Here the song breaks and the women pick it up led by the Prophetess Miriam. Throughout the Bible women become those who lift up faithful songs. Women like Deborah (Judges 5), Hannah (1 Samuel 2), and Mary (Luke 1: 46-55) become bold singers of songs of faith to their God. Women, even in the ancient world, could lift their voice in song and dance. Carol Meyers suggests that women may had a very large role in the songs of ancient Israel. The word translated tambourine is probably a ‘hand drum’ which is the only percussion instrument mentioned in the bible and it is always played by a woman when it is mentioned. Since ancient music was much more rhythmic than tonal perhaps women were essential to the performance of many types of music if they were the primary percussionists. Also, in a world where men were the primary combatants, women would have been those who greeted the returning soldiers home as they triumphantly return from battle and they would probably be the composers of these songs of victory. (Myers, 2005, p. 117f.) In the ancient world, the primary voice that was heard was the voice of men, but these songs of women continue to resonate and be heard from generation to generation, giving their own voice in praise to the God who brought them through the waters and home to their promised land.

Tarnov literary and art school, Miriams Tanz, Miniatur aus dem bulfarischen Tomic Psalter (1360-1363)

Exodus 15: 22-27: Entering the Wilderness

 22 Then Moses ordered Israel to set out from the Red Sea,1 and they went into the wilderness of Shur. They went three days in the wilderness and found no water. 23 When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter. That is why it was called Marah. 24 And the people complained against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” 25 He cried out to the LORD; and the LORD showed him a piece of wood;1 he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet.

 There the LORD  made for them a statute and an ordinance and there he put them to the test. 26 He said, “If you will listen carefully to the voice of the LORD your God, and do what is right in his sight, and give heed to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians; for I am the LORD who heals you.” 27 Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees; and they camped there by the water.

The wilderness is a difficult place for life to be sustained. It is a place to be traveled through. Particularly for a large group of people and herds water becomes a necessary part of life. You can only carry so much water on you, and yet in the wilderness water is life. In the journey the people’s complaints will often be around water. Here they have journeyed into the wilderness three days and when they come to a potential source of water it is undrinkable. Here the LORD provides water that is drinkable where only there was bitter water before. This will be the first of many times the LORD provides a way for Moses to give the people water in the wilderness.

The LORD provides but there is also within this covenantal experience of the Hebrew people an expectation from the LORD. Here the people complain against Moses, but complaining to God is not necessarily looked upon as a negative thing within the Bible. The people are expected to lift their needs and the trust that the LORD will provide for them, but when their obedience begins to falter is when their life becomes endangered. The LORD is a God who provides and heals, who will make waters appear in the wilderness and bread where there is no grain. Yet, the LORD is also a jealous God who will not accept any rivals’ allegiances and struggles with the disobedience of the people.

Even in the wilderness there will be oases where the people can rest and renew their strength. Here they are led to Elim, a place with abundant water and a place where they can for the first-time rest on their wilderness journey. It will be a journey of learning to trust in the LORD their God, a journey from generations of slavery to being the chosen people of the LORD, and it will be both physically and spiritually challenging. Leaving Egypt was the easier part of the journey, finding a new life beyond slavery will be the defining journey for the people of Israel.

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4 Responses to Exodus 15: The Songs at the Sea

  1. Ezekiel's Daugher says:

    Reblogged this on Narrow is the way and commented:
    A well written piece on the Songs of Exodus

  2. Pingback: Exodus 17: Water and Conflict, Faith and Sight | Sign of the Rose

  3. Pingback: Exodus 23: Justice, Celebration and Presence | Sign of the Rose

  4. Pingback: The Book of Exodus | Sign of the Rose

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