Song at the Sea (Exo­dus 15), Leningrad Codex, 1009 CE, the old­est com­plete man­u­script of the Hebrew Bible in Hebrew. The pho­to shows the begin­ning of the Song at the Sea (Exo­dus 15:1 – 14) and the prose vers­es from the end of the pre­ced­ing chap­ter. In bib­li­cal man­u­scripts, the poem is writ­ten sti­cho­graph­i­cal­ly, lines are laid out in a pat­tern. Source: archive​.org.

The Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) is often con­sid­ered to be the anthol­o­gy of antholo­gies. It is the most ancient of all Jew­ish col­lec­tions, and has spawned oth­er essen­tial antholo­gies such, as the Sid­dur, as more than 80 per­cent of the Jew­ish prayer book draws on the Bible.

Antholo­gies are typ­i­cal­ly curat­ed by a clear orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple, but here, the Hebrew Bible diverges. The bib­li­cal canon appears to deny any inten­tion­al­i­ty of anthol­o­giz­ing. It con­tains a col­lec­tion of texts writ­ten and com­piled over near­ly one thou­sand years, most­ly from the land of Israel, but not entire­ly; pri­mar­i­ly in Hebrew, but not com­plete­ly; and encom­pass­ing many gen­res, includ­ing his­to­ry, law, myth, novel­las, poet­ry, phi­los­o­phy, and more — all with­out a defin­able and con­sis­tent orga­ni­za­tion­al method. How could it change the way we read if we orga­nized the texts, say, top­i­cal­ly, or by genre, rather than as we are used to see­ing them in the Tanakh? What new pos­si­bil­i­ties for inter­pre­ta­tion and under­stand­ing might reassem­bling the canon­i­cal Jew­ish mate­r­i­al present?

The Posen Library of Jew­ish Cul­ture and Civ­i­liza­tion, Vol­ume 1: Ancient Israel, from Its Begin­nings through 332 BCE takes a dif­fer­ent approach from the Tanakh itself. Vol­ume 1: Ancient Israel col­lects and orga­nizes bib­li­cal texts by genre and inte­grates into its col­lec­tion addi­tion­al arti­facts — includ­ing inscrip­tions, coins, let­ters, and mate­r­i­al cul­ture — pro­duced large­ly by ancient Israelites from the bib­li­cal period.

In Vol­ume 1: Ancient Israel, the edi­tors extract the poet­ry of the Hebrew Bible from its nar­ra­tive con­texts and present it togeth­er. New jux­ta­po­si­tions cre­ate oppor­tu­ni­ties for fresh insights and inter­pre­ta­tions into the mean­ings of spe­cif­ic texts and their sig­nif­i­cance with­in the canon.

The first poet­ry entries, now set side-by-side, are The Song of Deb­o­rah” from Judges 5 and The Song at the Sea” from Exo­dus 15. At first glance, the two poems have many sim­i­lar­i­ties. Both poems are among the old­est pas­sages in the Hebrew Bible, like­ly dat­ing to the 11th or 10th cen­tu­ry BCE. They both qual­i­fy as Vic­to­ry Songs, a type of ancient Near East­ern poet­ry. Each cel­e­brates a nation­al vic­to­ry and sal­va­tion that was nar­rat­ed in prose imme­di­ate­ly pre­ced­ing each poem. Quite inten­tion­al­ly, the rab­bis leg­is­lat­ed that the two texts be read togeth­er in the syn­a­gogue on Shab­bat Shi­rah (the Sab­bath of Song”) — the shab­bat on which Exo­dus 15 is read from the Torah and Judges 5 from the Prophets. It is apt­ly named because of the two songs.

The sim­i­lar­i­ties con­tin­ue in the invo­ca­tions of both songs, prais­ing God and uti­liz­ing poet­ic par­al­lelism — that is, short lines that employ syn­onyms to express the same idea or image, often with inten­si­fi­ca­tion of the idea or motif — a defin­ing fea­ture of bib­li­cal poetry.

Deb­o­rah and Barak sing of vic­to­ry, declar­ing to all who hear:

Hear, O Kings! Give ear, O potentates!

I will sing, will sing to the Lord,

Will hymn to the Lord, the God of Israel” (Judges 5:3).[1]

Sim­i­lar­ly, Moses and the Israelites sing:

I will sing to the Lord, for He has tri­umphed glo­ri­ous­ly … ” (Exo­dus 15:1)

The dif­fer­ences though are thrown into relief when the texts are read side-by-side, as they appear in Vol­ume 1: Ancient Israel. These dif­fer­ences include the role of the vic­to­ry event with­in Israelite his­to­ry, the human role in sal­va­tion, and the role of women.

The image of women as singers and drum­mers may have been com­mon, as seen from this fig­ure of a woman play­ing a frame drum, and oth­ers like it. Col­lec­tion of The Nation­al Mar­itime Muse­um, Haifa. © Zev Radovan / Bible​Land​Pic​tures​.com.

The Role in History

The Song of Deb­o­rah, while cel­e­brat­ing a spe­cif­ic vic­to­ry over the Kings of Canaan”, sit­u­ates this event with­in the tra­jec­to­ry of Israelite history:

O Lord, when You Came forth from Seir,

Advanced from the coun­try of Edom,

The earth trembled;

The heav­ens dripped,

Yea, the clouds dripped water,

The moun­tains quaked—

Before the Lord, Him of Sinai,

Before the Lord, God of Israel” (Judges 5:4 – 5)

The present vic­to­ry over the Canaan­ites is depict­ed as a sin­gle event in the larg­er con­text of God’s rev­e­la­tion to Israel, includ­ing the rev­e­la­tion on Mount Sinai.

In con­trast, the Song at the Sea is focused specif­i­cal­ly on deliv­er­ance from Pharaoh and the Egypt­ian army at the Sea of Reeds; the fate of the Egyp­tians is described poetically:

Horse and dri­ver He has hurled into the sea [ … ]

Pharaoh’s char­i­ots and his army

He has cast into the sea;

And the pick of his officers

Are drowned in the Sea of Reeds.

The deeps cov­ered them;

They went down into the depths like a stone” (Exo­dus 15:2, 4 – 5).

Human Role in Deliverance

While Moses plays a cen­tral role as God’s agent of deliv­er­ance through­out the entire exo­dus nar­ra­tive, in the Song at the Sea, his role is rel­a­tive­ly dimin­ished to that of leader of the song. Instead, all cred­it is attrib­uted to the God of Israel, who is pre­sent­ed as a war­rior (Exo­dus 15:3) against the army of Pharaoh. The image of the God of Israel as a God of War and all-pow­er­ful sav­ior would have been famil­iar to ancient Israelites as it is a com­mon rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the gods of the ancient Near East and is present in the old­est bib­li­cal mate­r­i­al. This image may have been a com­fort, even as it may offend our mod­ern the­o­log­i­cal sensibilities.

Rather than focus­ing only on God’s role in the tribes’ deliv­er­ance from the Canaan­ites, the Song of Deb­o­rah also prais­es the human actors in their own sal­va­tion, espe­cial­ly Deb­o­rah. The peo­ple call upon Deb­o­rah to res­cue them at a time when Deliv­er­ance ceased, / Ceased in Israel” (Judges 5:7):

Awake, awake, O Deborah!

Awake, awake, strike up the chant!

Arise, O Barak;

Take your cap­tives O son of Abi­noam!” (v. 12).

Like­wise, deliv­er­ance was a group effort: The Lord’s peo­ple won my vic­to­ry over the war­riors” (v. 13), as many of the tribes of Israel have come to the people’s defense (vv. 14 – 18). Fur­ther, the pri­ma­ry vic­to­ry is cred­it­ed to Jael most blessed of women” for killing the ene­my gen­er­al (vv. 24 – 27).

The Song of Deb­o­rah, in addi­tion to its poet­ic beau­ty, is impor­tant for its immor­tal­iza­tion of women’s roles in the vic­to­ry, par­tic­u­lar­ly Deb­o­rah and Jael’s.

The Role of Women

The Song of Deb­o­rah, in addi­tion to its poet­ic beau­ty, is impor­tant for its immor­tal­iza­tion of women’s roles in the vic­to­ry, par­tic­u­lar­ly Deb­o­rah and Jael’s. It is also unusu­al because the song itself is attrib­uted to a woman. Deb­o­rah is a prophet and a judge (or trib­al chief­tain”). Her role in this vic­to­ry is fur­ther devel­oped in the pre­ced­ing prose account, in which the gen­er­al Barak is unwill­ing to enter into bat­tle with­out her (Judges 4:8). And while the details and straight­for­ward prose report of Judges 4 (not to men­tion that it pre­cedes the song in a print­ed Bible) lead the read­er to believe it is the orig­i­nal” account, the archa­ic Hebrew of the poem reveals that the poet­ic ver­sion is actu­al­ly much old­er than the prose version.

At the Sea of Reeds, the pres­ence of women is men­tioned in the cel­e­bra­tion of vic­to­ry only once Moses’ song is com­plete. After the Song at the Sea ends, the nar­ra­tive resumes and notes that Miri­am, also a prophet, and sis­ter of Moses and Aaron, takes up her tim­brel and leads the women in song:

Sing to the Lord, for He has tri­umphed gloriously;

Horse and Dri­ver He has hurled into the sea” (Exo­dus 15:21).

While the iconog­ra­phy of Miri­am with her tim­brel has become a pow­er­ful fem­i­nist image in the mod­ern peri­od, here it reads as some­thing of an after­thought. The jux­ta­po­si­tion of the two songs throws into fur­ther relief the pri­ma­ry role that Deb­o­rah plays in Judges, in con­trast to Miriam’s rel­a­tive­ly minor role at the cross­ing of the sea. At the same time, the inclu­sion of any men­tion of Miri­am and the indi­cat­ed reprise of the poem demon­strates that the frag­ment was impor­tant enough in the cul­ture of ancient Israel to be memo­ri­al­ized by its inclu­sion. The fact that ancient com­po­si­tions are incor­po­rat­ed into the bib­li­cal nar­ra­tive means that they were cul­tur­al­ly impor­tant to ancient Israel. The words attrib­uted to Miri­am echo the first line of the pri­ma­ry Song at the Sea, but instead of Moses’ I will sing to the Lord … ”, Miri­am uses the imper­a­tive Sing to the Lord …” call­ing the women to join her in song, illus­trat­ing that the poet­ic expres­sion of jubi­la­tion belonged to the women to and not only Moses and the men.

Read­ing these poems togeth­er, and sep­a­rat­ing them from their prose con­texts with­in the bib­li­cal canon, brings new insight to the pieces. With­out the prose nar­ra­tives, we read the old­er accounts of what hap­pened on their own terms and, in the case of Judges, the song is dif­fer­ent than the prose version.

These bib­li­cal poems, among oth­ers, can be found under Poet­ry on The Posen Dig­i­tal Library.

[1] All bib­li­cal quo­ta­tions are from Tanakh: The Holy Scrip­tures by per­mis­sion of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebras­ka Press. Copy­right 1985 by the Jew­ish Pub­li­ca­tion Soci­ety, Philadel­phia. https://​www​.nebraska​press​.unl​.edu/​j​p​s​/​9780827602526/