Miqra Journal: MIQRA 12.1 (Winter 2013): Exodus Journal: Currently Reading…

Celebration in Song and Dance: Reflections on Exodus 15:1-21

Whether or not the practice is universal, at least in many times and cultures song and dance accompany victory. Extraordinary and perhaps unexpected events and experiences occasion our singing, often accompanied with dance or other gestures which give expression to the joy and excitement we feel. News of cancer in remission, the conception of a long-awaited grandchild, the demise of a ruthless dictator and the collapse of his regime, a passing grade on a doctoral exam, an abducted child restored to her family–no expression suits the moment better than song and dance and prayer.

The Bible offers an assured precedent for this kind of response. In fact, the Scriptures are replete with examples. Deborah and Barak celebrate their victory in song after subduing Jabin, Sisera, and the Canaanites (Judg 5); David celebrates in song and dance when the ark of the covenant arrives finally in Jerusalem (1 Chron 15-16); the baby leaps in Elizabeth’s womb, Elizabeth herself exclaims “Blessed!”, and the heavenly host proclaim “Glory!”–all in celebration at the events surrounding Jesus’ birth (Luke 1-2); and the great angelic multitude loudly exult in the eschatological doom of Babylon (Rev 18-19). But in terms of sheer exuberance and theological extravagance, I do not know of any celebration in song and dance which outdoes the Bible’s first great example–the Shirat hayyam, ‘Song of the Sea’ (Exod 15:1-21)–from which, arguably, all the subsequent celebrations derive their inspiration.

1 Then Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the LORD, saying,
        “I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously;
        the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.
2 The LORD is my strength and my song,
        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 man of war;
        the LORD is his name.
4 “Pharaoh’s chariots and his host he cast into the sea,
        and his chosen officers were sunk in the Red Sea.
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, shatters the enemy.
7 In the greatness of your majesty you overthrow your adversaries;
        you send out your fury; it consumes 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 glorious deeds, doing wonders?
12 You stretched out your right hand;
        the earth swallowed them.
13 “You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed;
        you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode.
14 The peoples have heard; they tremble;
        pangs have seized the inhabitants of Philistia.
15 Now are the chiefs of Edom dismayed;
        trembling seizes the leaders of Moab;
        all the inhabitants of Canaan have melted away.
16 Terror and dread fall upon them;
        because of the greatness of your arm, they are still as a stone,
        till your people, O LORD, pass by,
             till the people pass by whom you have purchased.
17 You will bring them in and plant them on your own mountain,
        the place, O LORD, which you have made for your abode,
        the sanctuary, O Lord, which your hands have established.
18 The LORD will reign forever and ever.”
19 For when the horses of Pharaoh with his chariots and his horsemen went into the sea, the LORD brought back the waters of the sea upon them, but the people of Israel walked on dry ground in the midst of the sea. 20 Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out after her with tambourines and dancing. 21 And Miriam sang to them:
      “Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously;
       the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.” (ESV)

My purpose in what follows is to draw attention to selected features of this magnificent piece as a means of highlighting its exalted message. By dwelling on the Song’s context, poetry, theology, and use in Israel’s liturgy, my ultimate hope is that the Song of the Sea will find renewed appreciation and expression as Christian Scripture, as a word of praise and revelation of Israel’s God and our God, fit for the Church’s liturgy.


Situated within the story of the exodus from Egypt,1 the Song of the Sea, like other narratively inset poems in the Bible,2 shares many links with its prose surroundings, in this case the account of YHWH’s deliverance of Israel through the parted waters of the Yam Suph (‘Sea of Reeds’) (Exod 13:17–14:31). Examples abound: The horses and riders and the chariots and drivers referenced in the Song (15:1, 4, 19, 21) are those belonging to the Pharaoh of Egypt and his army, much discussed in the preceding story (14:6, 7, 9, 17, 18, 23, 25, 26, 28, 29); the ‘strength’ of YHWH (15:2, 13) was earlier manifested in the ‘strong’ east wind (14:21), even as his ‘salvation’ (15:2) echoes Moses’ famous “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD” (14:13; cf. v. 30); YHWH is a ‘man of war’ (15:3), precisely because he ‘fights’ for his people (14:14, 25); and many more.3

Some of the links between the Song and the preceding narrative are extraordinarily playful; they exploit the power of pun to make their point. These are easy to miss in translation. For example, the children of Israel leave Egypt with a ‘high’ (rmh, from rwm) hand (14:8, 16), but YHWH ‘hurls’ (rmh, from a different root) the Egyptians into the Sea (15:1, 21), for which delivering act the children of Israel ‘exalt’ (rwm) him (15:2). Again, the children of Israel are to ‘stand still’ (nsb, 14:13) and watch YHWH make the waters ‘stand’ (nsb) like a heap (15:8). According to the prose account Moses ‘stretches out a hand’ (nth yd) to divide the Sea and make it return (14:16, 21, 26, 27), whereas in the poem it is YHWH who ‘stretches out his right hand’ (nth ymyn) to make the earth swallow the enemies (15:12) (Watts, 46).

The significance of these observations goes beyond the obvious fact that the poetic Song is semantically and thematically connected to its surroundings, on which it transparently depends. Most striking, and perhaps surprising, is the fact that the poem really has no effect on the plot leading up to 15:1 or continuing after 15:21. The Song is “neither anticipated in the preceding narrative nor recalled subsequently” (Watts, 42). Put differently, one could read directly from 14:31 to 15:22, skipping the Song of 15:1-21, and nothing would change in the story line. Which raises the question: What is the Song doing there? Childs offers a threefold answer:

        First of all, the poem now provides the response of faith by the people who have experienced their redemption from the hands of the Egyptians at the sea. The narrative account had closed with the remark that the people ‘feared Yahweh’, and ‘believed in him’ (v. 31). The content of this belief is now expressed by the song. It is a characteristic feature of Old Testament faith that the great acts of God are joined to the faith of the people which the event evoked. The redeemed people break forth in praise to the One who has done, and continues to do, great things on their behalf.
        Secondly, the poem in its present setting offers an important interpretation of the event itself, and thereby affects the reading of the prose tradition which preceded it. . . . The poem praises God as the sole agent of salvation. . . . Yahweh alone effected the miracle at the sea. . . .
        Thirdly, the framework anchored the praise of God to a specific moment in history (‘At that time Moses sang’), and yet did not destroy the inner tension of the poem which this fixing in time created. . . . The events which are praised extend far into the future beyond the period of Moses. . . . By taking seriously the synchronistic dimension of Ex. 14 and 15 a characteristic theological feature of the Old Testament emerges. God who has acted in Israel’s history is the same one who is acting and will act (248-49).

These valuable insights are corroborated by Watts, who comments further on the function of poems spliced into a larger narrative fabric generally:

Despite their appearance within the same literature, the distinctive characteristics of Hebrew prose and poetry are not blurred. Prose narrative usually eschews direct commentary, delivering its thematic message through the interplay of action and dialogue. When the narrator does offer direct evaluations . . . , the comments tend to be formulaic and matter-of-fact. Poetry, by contrast, does not narrate sequentially, but offers vivid descriptions of feelings and emphatic statements of ideas instead. . . . When writers or editors of narrative needed to make thematic emphases and emotions explicit, they did not try to reproduce the effects of poetry in prose, but simply switched modes. Explicit emotional displays and interior characterization were thus introduced into Hebrew narrative without changing its basic nature. . . . Psalms in narrative contexts were thus part of the repertoire available within prose narrative genres. The inclusion of poetry within narrative expanded the latter’s representational scope and, especially, its affective impact on readers and hearers. . . . [Narratively inset psalms and other poems] rarely affect plot, but instead structure large blocks of material thematically, deepen the theocentric orientation of books and internal characterization of individuals, and actualize the narratives by eliciting reader participation in the songs (194-197, emphasis mine).

All of this is clearly on display in Exodus 15 and in passages like Judges 5, 1 Samuel 2, and Jonah 2. Specifically, by highlighting the association between salvation/deliverance and sanctuary/dwelling, with its ultimate focus on YHWH’s eternal dominion, the Song directs its celebration of YHWH’s victories both backward and forward–retrospectively in the victory at the Sea and prospectively in the fulfillment of all God’s saving purposes which culminate in his ruling and abiding presence. In this way the Song invites and encourages all God’s people, whatever their temporal perspective, to celebrate YHWH’s victory in overcoming the powers of darkness and delivering his people. We could say that the Song of the Sea takes the exodus theology, embedded more subtly in the surrounding narrative, and gives it wings to soar, so that we are not surprised when later canonical writings see in the exodus an apt typology for future deliverance (e.g., Isaiah, Hosea, and the New Testament). They are not merely drawing lessons from past events qua events, but on past events poetically construed as “abiding theological witness”4 for the benefit of future generations. All of this sheds light on the Church’s use of Israel’s Song of the Sea, to which we will return later.


A complete analysis of the Song’s poetic features would fill an entire article, or book, on its own. Here are a few selected examples which illustrate each of four dominant features of Hebrew poetry–terseness, parallelism, strophe or stanza, and imagery.5

a. Terseness or constraint refers to the disciplined verbal economy reflected in the way poetry compresses its thoughts into versets, lines, or cola (also called ‘stichs’) that are normally short, of similar length, and to the point. In this economy of carefully selected words, units of thought are tightly constructed and bound together by various techniques. The contrast to prose is immediately apparent when one turns in the Hebrew Bible, or in modern English versions, from Exodus 14 to 15. It does not consist merely in the obvious increase of white space on the page (lines that do not go all the way to the edge), but in the fact that the lines appear more or less balanced in length or rhythm. This poetic feature is evident in every verse from v. 1b through v. 18, and in v. 21b.

b. Parallelism or correspondence (also called ‘stereometrics’, ‘matching’, ‘seconding’, or ‘balancing’) refers to the relationship between the features in these terse lines, that is, to the manner in which the components of one line are somehow repeated or balanced in the following line or lines. The most frequent line combination in Hebrew poetry is the bicolon, or two-verset unit (as in vv. 1b, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10, 12, 13, 14, 21b). Other combinations include the tricolon (vv. 8, 9, 11, 15, 17), the tetracolon or quatrain (vv. 2, 16), and the monocolon (v. 18). Most of these line relationships reflect one variation or another of either equivalence (as in v. 4) or its counterpart, opposition or contrast (as in v. 16).6 A key to interpreting and appreciating Hebrew poetry consists in pondering the significance of these relationships, including the ways in which subsequent lines almost invariably build on, advance, and/or intensify previous lines.

c. Strophe or stanza refers to a content segment or semantic unit–a “poetic paragraph” in the meaningful structure of the whole. The Song of the Sea, like all Hebrew poems, has a literary architecture or shape. In our case, vv. 1b and 21b form an obvious inclusio or bracket around the whole Song. Verse 1a supplies the narrative introduction, and vv. 20-21 the narrative conclusion.7 The main body of the Song consists in two strophes/stanzas/paragraphs, with a pivotal centerpiece:

  vv. 1b-10–Retrospect: Celebrating past victory at the Sea–YHWH’s incredible greatness and power
       vv. 11-13–Pivotal Centerpiece: Celebration past and future centered in YHWH’s incomparable being
  vv. 14-18–Prospect: Celebrating future conquest in Canaan–YHWH’s anticipated residence and eternal rule

Verse 19 functions as a coda, finale, or reprise. It reinforces the occasion and impetus for the Song and provides the upbeat to the explanatory appendix on Miriam’s Song (vv. 20-21).8

Freedman captures the two main parts of the Song as follows. Act One (vv. 1b-10) front-stages YHWH’s complete crushing of the Egyptians, ending with the antagonist “in all his boastful folly (vs 9) . . . already gloating over the spoils, gorging himself on his prey, when the raging sea breaks over his head, and he sinks like lead in the dreadful waters (vs 10).” Act Two (vv. 13-18) “presents the aftermath”–YHWH’s victorious guiding of his people to their place of residence, while the paralyzed nations, “overwhelmed by divine fear and dread . . . are benumbed, and watch helplessly as the people cross over into the promised land, Yahweh’s own possession” (216-17). In sum, the first stanza describes YHWH’s victory over Pharaoh and his army, and the second stanza “interprets this event in relation to Israel. It was through this event that Israel was redeemed to become the people of God” (Childs, 251).

Given this analysis of the main body of the Song, we might wonder: What is Miriam’s Song (vv. 20-21), and how is it related to vv. 1b-19? Two interpretive options present themselves. One proposal identifies Miriam’s Song with vv. 1-19, as one and the same Song. In my view, the actual wording of v. 219 favors a second option: v. 21b captures the entirety of Miriam’s Song to be sung as a refrain or “choral antiphon” (Freedman, 194-95) repeated by Miriam and the other women, perhaps after every line or stanza of the larger song. According to Watts, “This explains both the language of v. 21a and the change of the song’s first word to a masculine plural imperative, and thus seems to be the interpretation indicated by the text. In that case, vv. 20-21 do not narrate events after the Song of the Sea was sung, but rather actions simultaneous with its performance” (43). And so, “cantor Moses” (Fokkelman, 46) and the congregation of Israel lead in “the main hymn, to which the women led by Miriam provide the antiphonal response and rhythmic accompaniment” (Watts, 52). All Israel joins in the act of celebrating the victory!

d. Imagery or picture language refers to “a sensation evoked in the mind of the reader by the language of a text.”10 While imagery appears in all types of biblical texts (e.g., “YHWH shook off the Egyptians into the midst of the sea,” in the prose account of 14:27)–its use in poetry is intensified and heightened. Imagery, we could say, is basic to the genius of poetry.

The Song of the Sea offers a veritable goldmine, filled with rich images that evoke sensations with powerful effect. YHWH has “hurled” horse and driver into the sea (v. 1b; cf. the prose account of 14:23-28). YHWH is depicted as “a man of war” (v. 3; not God of war–the difference is significant11). YHWH “casts” Pharoah’s forces into the sea, and they are “sunk” (v. 4); “covered” by the deep waters, they descend into the depths “like a stone” (v. 5). YHWH’s right hand “shatters the enemy” (v. 6). YHWH in majesty “overthrows” his adversaries, and the “venting” of his fury “consumes them like chaff” (v. 7)–a highly figurative rendition of the prose narrative, which said nothing of battle or fire, only of a watery death. Verse 8 speaks of “the blast of [YHWH’s] nostrils,” as a result of which “the waters piled up, the floods stood up in a heap, the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea.” The enemy is pictured in bombastic overconfidence (v. 9),12 but they “sank like lead in the mighty waters” when YHWH “blew” with his wind/Spirit (v. 10). Indeed, “the earth swallowed them” when YHWH “stretched out [his] right hand” (v. 12).

In the second movement of the Song, the imagery shifts from a summary of YHWH’s decisive overpowering of the Egyptian forces (v. 12) to his loving guidance of his own redeemed people (v. 13), and to the devastating effects of this twofold activity on the surrounding peoples (vv. 13-16), who are described as “trembling,” being “seized” with pangs, “dismayed,” “melting away,” and “still as a stone” from the “terror and dread” that “falls upon them” at “the greatness of [YHWH’s] arm.” Meanwhile, YHWH “brings in” his people and “plants them on [his] holy mountain,” which he himself has made and his own hands have established (v. 17). Finally, YHWH, earlier depicted as “a man of war” (v. 3) and now as King in his holy abode (v. 18), will “reign forever and ever.”


Returning to an earlier point, poems that are spliced into larger narratives typically distill the theological message embedded more subtly in the surrounding prose and give it fresh and emotive expression. In our case, the Song of the Sea highlights, as we have seen, two broad and interrelated themes, which Freedman summarizes helpfully:

The principal theme of the first part is the victory of Yahweh over the Egyptians at the Reed Sea. The principal theme of the second part is Israel’s march through the wilderness and passage into the promised land under the guidance of the same Yahweh. Thus Yahweh the warrior, who annihilates his foes, is identified with Yahweh the redeemer, who saves his people and establishes them in their new homeland. The themes are linked causally. It is the victory at the sea which permits the people of God to escape from bondage; and it is through his devastating display of power that Yahweh overawes the other nations who might otherwise block the passage of the Israelites. Thus the one mighty action produces two notable results: the destruction of the enemy; and the intimidation of the other nations, who are paralyzed by fear and cannot obstruct the victorious march of the Israelites or their successful entry into the Holy Land. At one stroke therefore the Egyptians “went down into the depths like a stone” and the other nations “were struck dumb like a stone.” Neither could interfere with the realization of the divine plan–to release the slaves and establish them in a new land (215-16).

These two primary themes–YHWH’s overpowering of the Egyptians and establishing of his people in the promised land–are linked at the center, in vv. 11-13, with a theological outburst in v. 11:

Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods?
        Who is like you, majestic in holiness,
        awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?

Line a introduces the rhetorical flurry by fixing attention on YHWH’s incomparability or celebrated onlyness, which informs both major themes fundamentally.13 Then in chiastic fashion, line b highlights the majesty of YHWH’s incomparable holiness, summarily introduced in v. 13 and expanded in vv. 14-18; and line c highlights YHWH’s incomparable deeds, recapitulated in v. 12 and detailed in vv. 1b-10.14 Together, the three lines of v. 11 “express the almost inexpressible: they formulate exactly why God is as peerless as the head sentence ‘Who is like You’ states, and they formulate it through descriptive terms singing his praise” (Fokkelman, 28). Again:

In the first half of the Song leave is taken of the superpower Egypt, and on the other side of the hymnal centre the people are on their way to a new territory while their future neighbours watch with trembling knees. The three verses [sic] in v.11 rise above the masses of water and the clouds of dust being kicked up before and after, and exclusively refer to the greatness of the true God, who has just redeemed Israel and in doing so gave it its identity (Fokkelman, 28).

Freedman adds the following:

By thus concentrating on the unique splendor of Yahweh, in contrast with other divine beings, and his mighty works, the poet here reaches the climactic point in his composition. Standing at the center and apex of the poem, it relates equally to both strophes: the God described in vs 11 is equally responsible for the victory at the sea and for the triumphant march to the Holy Land. By being less specific than the other refrains, which relate directly to the theme of their respective strophes (i.e., vs 6 focuses on the powerful right hand of Yahweh by which he wreaked destruction on the enemy; vs 16 speaks of the passage of the people of Yahweh into the promised land), vs 11 serves them both as center and fulcrum (209).

Of particular note, unlike the narrative leading up to ch. 15, the Song says nothing of the trials and the battles, and nothing of Moses or Joshua. “According to the poet, only one battle counted, and one victory, at the sea; that was enough to permanently disable Egypt and at the same time terrify the other nations into complete passivity. The victory was total–and totally Yahweh’s.  Israel contributed nothing then or later, except to march under divine guidance” (Freedman, 217). This sheds light on a point mentioned earlier in connection with Moses’ stretching out his hand in 14:27 and YHWH’s stretching out his right hand in 15:12. Watts develops the significance:

The shift in the subjects of [‘stretch out’] points out a larger thematic shift between the prose and poetic accounts. In Exod. 15.1-18,21 the focus is entirely on Yahweh’s actions. Moses disappears, and the people are mentioned only in relation to the settlement of the land and the holy mountain, not the sea event. Whereas the interactions between Yahweh, Moses and the people are given considerable space in the prose account, the only humans the psalm depicts in an active role are the Egyptians (15.9), and then only to show the complete reversal of their expectations. The Song of the Sea makes Yahweh “the sole agent of salvation” [Childs, 249]. That is not to say that the prose account left the issue of who was responsible in doubt. The events and the outcome are predicted in advance by Yahweh (14.1-4, 15-18) and corroborated through their actual narration. The theological conclusion to be drawn from the story is both explicitly stated by the narrator and modeled by the children of Israel (14.30-31). The psalm goes further, however, by emphasizing the point with eighteen verses of exuberant praise of Yahweh (46).

Two additional points invite further attention, one from each of the principal stanzas and both with theological import. In the first stanza, which depicts YHWH as “a man of war” and celebrates his awesome victory over the Egyptians (vv. 1b-10), it is striking that not a single instrument of conventional or human warfare is mentioned on YHWH’s or Israel’s part. “The sword that Pharaoh draws (v. 9) is not opposed by another sword; the chariot that he rides (v. 4) is not met by another chariot; the army that he leads (v. 4) clashes with no human fighting force. But the defeat of the Hitlerian horde is total” (Fretheim, 169). YHWH is the one who “shatters the enemy,” “overthrows the adversary,” and “sends forth his fury [which] consumes them like stubble” (vv. 6-7); and he does so by means of his name, power, strength, right hand, majesty, fury, and creational agents (sea, wind, earth). After all, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12). “The references to the divine judgment on Egypt’s gods show that the enemy and the battle are cosmic in scope (12:12; 15:11). . . . [T]raditional weapons will not succeed against such an enemy (this is why Israel does not fight)” (Fretheim, 167). In this way the hymn illustrates and amplifies Moses’ words to the people: “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent” (14:13-14). Salvation, from start to finish, is the Lord’s doing, including those parts the Lord requires his people to do (“fear not,” “stand firm,” “be silent/still,” “go forward/march on”; 14:13-15).

In the second stanza, which depicts Israel’s march through the wilderness and settlement in the promised land under the guiding hand of YHWH, before the astonished eyes and paralyzed hearts of the nations,15 we are presented with a verb-tense ambiguity. This is immediately apparent in a comparison of representative English translations of the transitional summary in v. 13: “You have led . . . you have guided” (RSV, ESV, NASB); “You will lead . . . you will guide” (NIV, HCSB, NET). Leaving the grammatical and translational discussion to the side (Hebrew verb “tenses” do not correspond to English requirements), clearly the actual historical or space-time events to which these verses point are future-referring from the temporal perspective of when “Moses and the people of Israel sang this Song” (v. 1). Still, there is a kind of “realized eschatology” or foregone conclusion already in place here, as if Israel’s future enemies between the sea and the fulfillment of God’s promises have already “melted away.” It’s as though “the enthronement of God in the promised land is an accomplished fact already at the sea (vv. 17-18),” and that “God from this victory onward ‘reigns forever and ever’” (Fretheim, 168). In other words, vv. 13-18 depict what is yet anticipated in the world of the events, on the plane of history, but they do so in a way that brings the reality of what they celebrate into the present experience of God’s redeemed people, and into the ongoing experience of readers who join in the celebration. Read from the perspective of the canonical composition, of course, readers are caused to affirm that God actually did–at least partially–what remained future to Moses and Miriam and their fellow-Israelites recently liberated from Egypt. Partially, because the language of v. 17 almost demands a reference to some work of God different from historical Mount Zion, or the Tabernacle, or the Temple, which were but imitations of the heavenly abode. The heavenly palace-sanctuary, the work of God’s own hands, is the prototype for the earthly habitation.


Earlier in our discussion on the poetic structure of the Song, I favored the proposal that Miriam’s Song (v. 21b) functions as a choral refrain or antiphon, perhaps after every line or stanza of the larger Song. There we envisioned “cantor Moses” and the congregation leading in the main hymn, with Miriam and the women providing the antiphonal response and rhythmic accompaniment by instrument and dance. In this way all Israel joined in the celebration.

According to Fretheim, hints both in the Song itself and in the surrounding context “allude to a more complex ritual in which the sea crossing is dramatically reactualized.” He continues:

Verses 1-21 must be seen not as isolated songs from the past but as part of a larger liturgical whole, reflecting a regular dramatization of the crossing. . . . Hence, 15:1-21 constitutes a parallel to the passover texts, and the two form an inclusio for the larger unit, 12:1–15:21. The stories associated with both passover and sea crossing are thus enclosed within liturgical texts. When such usage is combined with the poetic form, the result is that the images associated with the events are even more impressionistic than those in chapter 14 (162).

Support for this view comes from the way in which the wide-ranging Song moves in retrospect from the sea crossing (vv. 1-10) to the prospect of Israel’s anticipated settlement in the holy abode, where YHWH reigns forever and ever (vv. 13-18). This is a pattern similar to some of the liturgical celebrations found in the Book of Psalms (e.g., ps 114). Further, all of Exodus 1-15 reflects an almost stereotypic pattern in the Old Testament: oppression and cries of distress (chs. 1-2), God’s response in word and deed (chs. 3-14), and a poetic response of praise (ch. 15). The basic contours of this pattern of distress, lament, and word/deed of salvation, followed by praise are discernible in the microcosm of chs. 14-15 alone, as the fearful people cry out (14:10-12), Moses responds with the oracle of salvation (14:13-14), the deed of salvation follows (14:15-31), and the people respond in song and dance (15:1-21).16 As in the Book of Psalms, the human response of praise is not incidentally reported. “If there were no human response, what God has done would not become known; it would be like a rock falling in the sea” (Fretheim, 163). In this connection, the Song supplies Israel’s liturgy with a hymn that fulfills the expressed purpose of YHWH’s acting against the Egyptians in the manner that he did: so that the Egyptians and the Israelites and the future generations of readers would come to “know that I am YHWH” (cf. 5:2; 6:7; 7:5, 17; 8:10, 22 [MT 6, 18]; 9:14-16, 29; 10:1-2; 11:7; 14:4, 18), that it is I, rather than the Egyptian gods, represented in the anti-God Pharaoh (12:12; 18:10-11; cf. 15:1-18; Num 33:4), who rules the universe as its Creator, whose dominion extends over Israel and the nations, who is able to move heaven and earth to redeem his people. The witness of the Song is unmistakable.

Understood in this light, the point of the Song and the events which it celebrates is not to gloat over Egypt’s defeat, but to recruit the next generation of God’s people, and the next and the next, into the faith and worship of Israel. This point is stated explicitly in 10:1-2, in connection with the plagues themselves:

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I may show these signs of mine among them, and that you may tell in the hearing of your son and of your grandson how I have dealt harshly with the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them, that you may know that I am the LORD.”

It is in the context of the exodus, or more specifically, of the exodus story, that God most fully makes himself known as YHWH (cf. Exod 3 and 6). This explains why the story of YHWH’s delivering Israel, culminating in the Song of the Sea, receives so much space in the scriptural record. The knowledge of YHWH is at stake, not just for the Israelites and the Egyptians who were alive at the time and who witnessed these mighty acts, but for later generations of readers and hearers who would come to the same knowledge through the recitation of story and song in Israel’s liturgy. Accordingly, it is no surprise that the Shirat hayyam continues to be included in Jewish prayer books and is recited daily among the praises in the Shacharit, or morning service.


There is a curious Jewish midrash that ties the Israelites’ refraining from rejoicing at Passover, as one might expect, with the Lord’s forbidding the angels to rejoice over the events at the Sea: “My handiwork is drowning in the sea; would you recite song before me?” One version cites Proverbs 24:17 in support: “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice.” “Yet it was evidently fine for Moses and the Israelites to sing, and for Miriam and the other women to dance.”17 Moreover, the poetic imagery highlights with what gusto they were sanctioned in doing so! The question naturally arises: Is it acceptable for Christians to join in the celebration of Moses, the Israelites, Miriam, and the other women? Should the Song of the Sea be used in the Church’s liturgy? Should Christians read Exodus 15 as our Scripture?

A common approach is to pick and choose those parts that are compatible with Christian presuppositions and to treat the rest as “merely historical,” being especially careful to guide our scissors on the line which separates timeless and relevant truths from those which portray YHWH as “a man of war,” or that otherwise offend Christian sensibilities. In this way, v. 1b (“I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously”) might perchance express a Christian sentiment, but hardly the next line (“the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea”). We can claim v. 2 as our own testimony, but not vv. 3-5; v. 6a, but not v. 6b. Verse 11 expresses a universal truth, and vv. 17-18 some reassuring promises; but vv. 7-10 and 12-16 merely recount past events that happened to bad peoples in distant places. This approach to Scripture reading effectively sidesteps the problem by conveniently navigating a course around it.

A more responsible answer to the question will factor at least the following considerations, each of which invites further exploration beyond this brief mention. First, it is important to remember that before the Old Testament is our story it is Jesus’ story.18 We could say that the Song of the Sea is Christian Scripture precisely because, and as, it is Jesus’ Scripture. In other words, it is relevant to us because it is relevant to him as the Son who was “called out of Egypt” (Matt 2:15; cf. Hos 11:1 and Exod 4:22-23), and in whom the long hope of vv. 17-18 ultimately comes to fruition and fulfillment.

Second, like Babel (Gen 11) and Edom (Obad 1-21), Egypt in the Bible represents a larger-than-life reality. Ancient Egypt, from whose bondage YHWH delivered his people, is prototypical of all those anti-God servants of the serpent (cf. Isa 30:7; 51:9-10; Jer 46:7-8; Ezek 29:3-5; 32:3-8; Pss 74:13-14; 87:4; 89:9-10; Rev 12:9; 20:2), whose doom is foretold (Gen 3:15). A Christian reading/singing of the Song, therefore, does not express a triumphant attitude or posture toward the Egyptian people per se (“we do not wrestle against flesh and blood”); rather, it celebrates the Lord’s victory over the “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places,” whose end is determined, en route to the dwelling of God’s people in the sanctuary “of God and of the Lamb,” where “YHWH will reign forever and ever” as “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev 18-22). In that case, the victory will be won by the sword that comes forth from the mouth of the Lamb, that is, his word (Rev 1:16; 2:16; 19:15, 21), even as here the weapons or agents of YHWH’s conquest, as we observed earlier, reveal the creative force of his own mighty word and miraculous action.

Third and related, Exodus 15 can function in the Church’s liturgy in much the same way that imprecatory psalms can function in our liturgy. These are prayers of vengeance that invoke God’s just judgment, not our own private vindictiveness, on those who “have it coming” (e.g., Pss 69:22-28; 109:17-19; 137:8-9).19 While Exodus 15 is a praise song rather than an invocation, like the imprecatory psalms it offers a dramatically imaged, highly emotive expression on the side of YHWH’s righteous vindication against the evil oppression of his people and his purposes. Without gloating in the downfall of those who line up on the wrong side of YHWH’s will, when the Church recites the Song it celebrates its own deliverance, collective and individual, from bondage to evil. In so doing, it preserves itself from casual indifference to all that is wrong in this world by venting its righteous outrage at the same, even as it fosters the hope of its own final destiny in the dwelling presence of YHWH’s new creation sanctuary, prepared by the handiwork of God himself.

[Perhaps not coincidentally, I am writing these final paragraphs on Christmas Eve, 2012, ten days after the horror at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, which still sends waves of deep and confusing emotions into human hearts around the world. It is not mine to judge those who reportedly responded to this unspeakable tragedy by removing their Christmas decorations early and suspending their Christmas rituals in this joyless season. From another perspective, however, since the message of Christmas is the message of hope, one might reason that no time is more fitting for its celebration than now. And although Exodus 15 is not a Christmas song per se, it does remind us that the LORD our God will act decisively and will move heaven and earth, if need be, to deliver his people–or in the case of Christmas, to bring to earth the Savior and King, who finally overcomes all that is evil in our hearts and in the world and fulfills the anticipated hope in Israel’s song of praise.]

Fourth, the location of the climactic affirmation, “YHWH will reign forever and ever” (v. 18), draws attention not only to his overpowering of the Egyptians (vv. 1-10, 12) and to his overwhelming of the watching nations (vv. 14-16), but to his redeeming and guiding a people to his holy abode, in the midst of which he rules (vv. 13, 17). Significantly, “Yahweh now rules; he is being praised by his people. In other words, the poem does not end by defining Israel’s role in the land, but rather by reflecting Israel’s function as the worshipping community” (Childs, 252). In other words, “YHWH reigns forever and ever,” not just over the sea or the threatening nations, or even just over Israel, but in the midst of Israel, whom he has redeemed from the world and made his own. And this is a theological pattern stamped upon the two Testaments equally: When God redeems a people, he removes them from the world in the interest of residing in their midst and thereby ruling them from within and so remaking them as his own. On this theme, Exodus and Ephesians are equally clear, equally Christian in their orientation, and equally appropriate in the Church’s liturgy.

Finally, while the Song takes its departure from YHWH’s victory over Pharaoh and his Egyptians in the sea, this magnificent poem, according to John Durham, “is more a celebration of Yahweh and the kind of God he is than a celebration of all that Yahweh had done at the sea and would do beyond it.” This is reflected in v. 11 at the poetic center. Durham continues, “The poem of Exod 15 celebrates Yahweh present with his people and doing for them as no other god anywhere and at any time can be present to do. As such, it is a kind of summary of the theological base of the whole of the Book of Exodus.”20 In this respect, the Song of the Sea is a further commentary on the revelation YHWH’s name in Exodus 3 and 6, where, too, the accent falls on his personal presence with his people, ready to deliver them from bondage and death to life and blessing, even if it means baring his mighty right hand to do so: “YHWH is a man of war; YHWH is his name” (15:3).

When we read or recite Exodus 15, then, tuned to some of its rich theological and typological resonances, we find ourselves in the choir of the early Church, for whom there seemed not to be any doubt at all that Israel’s Song of the Sea is our song too. According to St. Augustine, for example, “This is what Moses sang and the sons of Israel with him, what Miriam the prophetess sang and the daughters of Israel with her. It is what we too now should sing. . . .” For Augustine, the waters of the sea which overwhelmed the Egyptians prefigure Christian baptism and the burial of our sins, even as the Lord’s stretching out his “right hand” (vv. 6, 12) anticipates the “arm of the Lord” (Isa 53:1) which was stretched out on the cross. For St. Ambrose, Miriam, who took the timbrel and “led the dances with maidenly modesty,” is “a type of the church, who as a virgin with unstained spirit joins together the religious gatherings of the people to sing divine songs.”21 That the Church’s early interpreters were able to find Christian meanings which might seem foreign to some of our readings is not yet to register a critique, but simply to invite further reflection on the presuppositions and procedures that guide our respective interpretations. At least the above considerations suggest ways in which the Song of the Sea continues to express a message that is appropriate for Christian reading and the Church’s liturgy.


  1. Reference here is to the present location of ch. 15 in the canonical Exodus, irrespective of its possible composition at an earlier date. On the history of tradition, see B. S. Childs, The Book of Exodus (OTL; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1974), 243-48.

  2. This phenomenon appears in many places, e.g., Gen 49; Num 23-24; Deut 32-33; Judg 5; 1 Sam 2; 2 Sam 22-23; Jon 2; 1 Chron 16. The technique is discussed at length in J. W. Watts, Psalm and Story: Inset Hymns in Hebrew Narrative (JSOTSup 139; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992).

  3. E.g., ‘cover’ (15:5 / 14:28), ‘right hand’ (15:6, 12 / 14:22, 29), ‘wind’ (15:8, 10 / 14:21), ‘pursue’ (15:9 / 14:4, 8, 9, 23), ‘overtake’ (15:9 / 14:9), ‘stretch out’ (15:12 / 14:16, 21, 26, 27), ‘lead’ (15:13 / 13:17, 21), and ‘dry ground’ (15:19 / 14:16, 22, 29).

  4. The expression is from C. R. Seitz, Word Without End: The Old Testament as Abiding Theological Witness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).

  5. For a full discussion of what makes poetry poetry, including a description of each of these primary features, see my unpublished “Notes on Hebrew Poetry” (available in PDF on request) and the bibliography of works cited there.

  6. The terms belong to A. Berlin, The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), 2.

  7. Alternatively, D. N. Freedman argues that vv. 1-2 are outside the poem proper, i.e, they are the introduction or exordium, so that v. 3 “establishes the theme of the poem: ‘Yahweh the invincible warrior.’ Throughout the poem, emphasis is placed on Yahweh’s warlike prowess, his overwhelming power in nature and battle, and his enduring total sovereignty. With vs 18, it forms an inclusio, or envelope, within which the action of the poem develops” (“Strophe and Meter in Exodus 15,” in Pottery, Poetry, and Prophecy: Studies in Early Hebrew Poetry [Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1980], 202). On the parallelism or correspondence between the first and second halves of the poem, see Childs, 252.

  8. There is considerable discussion on whether or not v. 19 belongs to the poem or is a prosaic conclusion to it (Watts, 44-45). I include it in the Song on the basis of the LXX (Odes appended to Psalms), some Hebrew manuscripts and early printed editions, and its summary function. Miriam’s song (vv. 20-21) may be placed where it is so as not to break up the structure of vv. 1-19. For detailed analysis on the structure of Exodus 15, see J. P. Fokkelman, Major Poems of the Hebrew Bible: At the Interface of Hermeneutics and Structural Analysis, Volume I: Ex. 15, Deut. 32, and Job 3 (Assen, The Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 1998), 24-53; and Freedman, 186-227.

  9. E.g., “And/Then Miriam answered them [masc plural]” (v. 21a), and the masculine imperative “Sing to YHWH” in v. 21b as opposed to “I will sing to YHWH” in v. 1b. D. K. Stuart defends the masculine as the common gender and argues that Miriam “taught the Israelite women the entire song,” thereby popularizing the song which Moses had authored “so that it would be known and sung in every family, every home. The result was that every Israelite, whether descended from Abraham or newly joined to the nation (12:38) would know by heart the story of the great divine deliverance of God’s people at the sea” (Exodus [NAC, 2; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006], 363-64).

  10. T. Longman III, Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), 128-29.

  11. T. E. Fretheim, Exodus (Interp.; Louisville: John Knox, 1991), 168.

  12. Fokkelman has his fun with this “quartet of greediness. . . . The enemy is full of confidence and in a triumphant mood. An attractive counterpoint in a song of victory by . . . his victims, who ended up not being victims at all. And how sad that the enemy has no way of knowing that he has been honoured with a strophe in the Song of Moses!” (44). Verse 9 provides an example of the “omniscient poet.” How could he possibly know what the Egyptian pursuers were thinking or saying? They are all dead! Standard works on Hebrew narrative (e.g., those by Bar-Efrat and Berlin) refer to the “omniscient narrator” who, like God, is capable of seeing and knowing the thoughts, feelings, and decisions of both God and people, including private conversations and highly intimate situations (e.g., Gen 6:5-8; 8:21; 31:32; 38:15; Exod 2:24-25; 4:14; 2 Sam 11:27; 17:14).

  13. C. J. Labuschagne, The Incomparability of Yahweh in the Old Testament (Pretoria Oriental Series, V; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1966).

  14. Vv. 12-13 are bound by initial linguistic similarities as well: natita yemineka (“You stretched out your right hand,” v. 11), nahita behasdeka (“You led in your steadfast love,” v. 12).

  15. According to Fokkelman, “that same right hand which destroyed the hostile power . . . is now taking positive action to guide Israel past all sorts of neighbouring tribes which would probably want to be just as hostile, if they were not suppressed and shown their place by the numinous terror of this awful deity called yhwh” (46).

  16. Fretheim, 162-63. For other examples, cf. Judg 4-5; 1 Sam 1-2; Jon 1-2; and Isa 38.

  17. Cited in J. Goldingay, Exodus & Leviticus for Everyone (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 66.

  18. C. J. H. Wright, Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1992).

  19. I discuss these in my unpublished paper, “Notes on the ‘Imprecatory’ Psalms: Psalms of God’s Just Vengeance,” available in PDF on request.

  20. J. I. Durham, Exodus (WBC, 3; Waco: Word, 1987), 210.

  21. All citations in this paragraph are from ACCS III, 79-83.


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