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D'var Torah: Beshalach


In reading this week’s passages we see that the crossing of the Sea of Reeds is described in both a prose form and a poetic form. In fact, if we examine both retellings of the story closely, we’ll notice that there appear to be three different versions of the event. Some commentators view these significantly different versions as evidence that the story comes from different traditions and almost certainly were developed over a long period of time. Let’s try to “unwind” the strands that make up the story of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds.

In chapter 15, the poetic part known as the “Song of the Sea,” the story depicts an anthropomorphic God who brings a fierce storm that results in the Egyptians’ sinking and drowning in the sea. In contrast, the prose version in chapter 14 appears to contain two independent versions of the crossing story. In one that is associated with the Priestly strand of the Torah’s composition, Moses is portrayed as stretching out his staff to divide the waters that form walls so that the Israelites can cross between them on dry land; once they have crossed, he uses his staff to bring the waters crashing down on the Egyptians. But there is one passage, in Exodus 14:24–25, which is attributed to the Yahwist author (whose compositions preceded the Priestly author by some 400 years), where it appears that the Egyptians are undone because they become panicked when their chariots become mired in the mud and they abandon their pursuit of the Israelites. So we can identify three separate depictions of the sea crossing: first, a storm with huge waves that sinks and drowns the foe; second, the sea splits, the people cross on dry land, and the foe is flooded; and third, the Egyptians are stopped in their pursuit because their chariots get stuck in the mud. Let’s explore these three different stories, beginning with chapter 15, the Song of the Sea.

The text of the Song of the Sea is one of the most ancient parts of the Bible. We know this from the Hebrew; evidence of its age is found in the grammar and word usage. One of the more significant clues comes from how the definite article is not present. The early semitic languages did not have a grammatical marker indicating definiteness (Russian is an example of a modern language that lacks the definite article) but later, perhaps in the tenth century BCE, the prefix “ha-,” meaning “the,” began to be used. While the “heh” prefix is used extensively throughout the Bible, it doesn’t appear at all in the Song of the Sea, except in the very last verse that most commentators regard as a much later addition.

If the Song of the Sea is the oldest account of the events at the Sea of Reeds, we notice something fascinating about it—nowhere does it mention the sea “splitting.” Instead, it tells how the “waters piled up, the floods stood up in a heap.” We also notice that there appears to be a violent storm going on. Between 1950 and 1994, archeologists excavating at Ras Shamra, the capital of ancient Ugarit, found hundreds of tablets dating from the second millennium BCE of which many contained ancient Canaanite poetry whose imagery of the gods is so close to how Yahweh is depicted in the Song that it’s almost a certainty that the ancient Hebrews simply appropriated this imagery. Yahweh is described in the Song as a storm god who heaps up the waters with a blast of wind, doing violence to the waters of the sea—identical to the way the Canaanite storm god Baal is depicted in Ugaritic texts. This imagery is also quite close to that of the gods in the ancient Babylonian tale of creation, the Enuma Elish. In that story, Marduk, the younger-generation storm god, uses the wind to subdue Tiamat, the older-generation goddess of the oceans:

The Evil Wind, which followed behind, [Marduk] let loose in her face.
When Tiamat opened her mouth to consume him [drown him].
He drove in the Evil Wind that she close not her lips [heaped up the waters].

The Canaanite god Baal also appears in Canaanite stories where he subdues the sea. Baal is a storm god who rides the clouds and opens the skies to bring rain. In one important legend in the Ugaritic texts, the Baal-Anath cycle, he defeats an adversary, the god Yamm. The word “yam” in Hebrew means “sea,” and in the Ugaritic myth, Yamm’s epithet is “Prince Sea.” After Baal defeats this watery foe he is acclaimed the king of the gods and the king of men.

Ancient Hebrew descriptions of Yahweh employ language very similar to that in the Ugaritic texts both here in Exodus 15 and in other biblical poetic passages. Psalm 68:4 (CT) reads, “Extol him who rides the clouds, Yahweh is his name.” Yahweh is described as riding on the clouds just like Baal. Psalm 29:3 also employs the imagery of a storm god. “The voice of the Lord is over the waters. / The God of glory thunders, / the Lord, over the mighty waters.” This text is so close to the Ugaritic that some scholars think that it originally was a psalm about Baal that was simply adopted by the Israelites. Tablets from those excavations at Ras Shamra contain much ancient Canaanite poetry of which a significant amount appears almost verbatim in the psalms.

Our psalms contain additional stories of God who engages in battles with a watery foe. Psalm 74:13 reads, “O, God, my king from of old, who brings deliverance throughout the land; / it was You who drove back the sea with Your might, / who smashed the heads of the monsters in the waters.” God’s supremacy over the waters is celebrated in Psalm 114:3, which has “The sea looked and fled, / the Jordan turned back...,” mentioning the Jordan because Joshua divided that river for the Israelites to cross just as Moses divided the Reed Sea. Descriptions of God’s mastery over nature isn’t limited to the psalms. In Judges 5:4–5, in the “Song of Deborah,” another very ancient text, we find another song fragment that uses flood imagery, this time invoking a powerful rain. Guess why Deborah is today’s haftarah? Recall that the story of Deborah celebrates the defeat of the foe because their chariots became mired in mud following a great rainstorm and then notice the parallel in Ex 14:25, where the Egyptians’ chariot wheels become similarly mired. Look at the orthography of the Song of Deborah and compare it to that of the Song of the Sea.

The period that the Exodus was to have traditionally occurred was a period of major changes in theology of the peoples throughout the ancient middle east. Baal was a key figure in this change in the religion of the Canaanites; this change happened somewhere between 1500 and 1200 BCE. Before this time, the sky god El was the chief god of the Canaanite pantheon. Sometime during this period there was a transfer of power from the older gods to the younger gods and as a result, the older god El was replaced by the younger storm-god Baal. This account mirrors the story in the Enuma Elish, where the younger storm god, Marduk, defeated the ancient ocean goddess Tiamat and in so doing, established his claim to rule over the gods, displacing the old sky-god Anu. Just as in the Babylonian myth, the replacement of the older Canaanite god by the newer one was accomplished by a defeat of a watery foe.

During the same second-millennial BCE period in the religion of Greece, Zeus, the storm god, replaced the former chief god Kronos while in India, the storm god Indra assumed the place of an older god named Dyaus. We see the exact parallel to these religious transformative events for these neighboring cultures in the book of Exodus—several weeks ago we read about how Yahweh introduced himself to Moses: as Yahweh, explaining that he was not known to the patriarchs as Yahweh, to them he was known as El Shaddai. Archeologists have identified the traditional period of the Exodus as the time that the Israelites made their transition from a nomadic to a sedentary existence and the rise of Yahwehism very likely represented a collective memory of a similar change in their religion.

Returning to the sea-crossing story, the parallels can’t be missed; just as happened in the storm god myths of Israel’s neighbors, Yahweh heaped up the waters of the sea with a blast of wind; after winning a stunning victory he established himself as the God of the Israelites, replacing El, the God of Israel’s patriarchs. Another parallel is found in the Hebrew: Exodus 15:5 reads, “The depths covered them; / they sank to the bottom.” “Depths” here is tehomot, mentioned again in 15:8, this is the Hebrew version of the Babylonian goddess Tiamat’s name.

The differences between the Canaanite mythology and the biblical version are just as important as the similarities. The most important way that the storm god motif diverges from that of other ancient near eastern stories is how Yahweh’s battle is portrayed: the biblical battle is a historic battle rather than a mythic battle. Here the sea is neither a god nor an opponent; God’s opponent is human—the pharaoh and his army—and God’s weapon is the sea. In Genesis 1, God creates the universe by parting the primeval waters to create the land; here, in the context of the composite story told in Exodus 14 and 15, God creates the new nation of Israel by parting the waters of the Reed Sea. We see how the authors of Israel’s founding stories used the traditional myths of their cultural milieu but altered their theological focus to make the Deity act not in supernatural, mythic ways, but through historical actions that use nature as God’s means to achieve the goal.

There is some imagery that we need to explore in the story of the Song of the Sea. This psalm, because it really is a psalm in all but name, doesn’t seem to actually be about the crossing of a body of water by a fleeing people. The sense of the beginning of the hymn depicts a storm at sea—the wording is “the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea”—where the Egyptians seem to be in boats and a great wind piles up a monstrous wave and another blast of wind then makes the wave come crashing down on them. The sea covers the Egyptians and they sink like a stone. According to this description, Pharaoh’s army was literally drowned in the sea because their craft capsized. But is this what the hymn really describes? Some scholars believe not, pointing to the genre of poems of lament where drowning is a metaphor for distress. The modern expression is “drowning in sorrow or misery.” This imagery of drowning occurs often in Hebrew poetic passages, particularly in the psalms.

A good example can be found in Psalm 69:1–2 where the psalmist asks God to save him, for “...waters have come up to my neck. / I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold. / I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.” Again, Psalm 38:4 reads, “My sins have gone over my head”; Psalm 42:7 has “Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me,” while Psalm 124:4 reports that “...the flood would have engulfed us, the torrent would have swept over us.” This imagery is not limited to the psalms. In Job 22:11, we read, “...why it is so dark you cannot see, and why a flood of water covers you.”

But it’s clear that our poets are not talking about actually being drowned in water; this is simply the biblical metaphor for finding oneself in a difficult situation. This becomes clear when we read a little further in Psalm 69, to verse 4. “More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause. / Many are those who would destroy me, my enemies who accuse me falsely.” So if we return to the verses in the Song of the Sea and read them metaphorically, it seems that they actually describe the Egyptians’ humiliation and defeat and that Exodus 15 is recounting and celebrating an ancient tradition of an escape from or a defeat of Pharaoh.

If we accept this interpretation of a metaphorical description of an Egyptian defeat, we need to examine the rest of the story of the crossing of the sea in that context. The sea’s name is Yam Suph, Reed Sea, and that implies not the deep open sea implied by the poem’s wording, “heart of the sea,” but a body of water that possesses a marsh-like character. How then can we account for the part of the crossing story that’s related in chapter 14? Since we’ve established the antiquity of the verses in the Song of the Sea, it’s certain that the prose accounts were composed later, by writers who very likely used the imagery in the ancient poem to write their own accounts and in doing so, turned the metaphor into a literal description. Alternatively, the authors of Exodus could have composed the crossing narrative and later included the psalm to give Moses a victory song to celebrate, because the part of the poem that follows the storm scene is quite anachronistic—the Moabites, Philistines, and Edomites certainly couldn’t have known about the crossing of the sea when this song was supposedly first sung.

Regardless of the order of composition, the composite nature of the crossing story can now be viewed as an amalgamation of several strands: first, a tradition that the fleeing Israelites were making their way through a reedy marsh on foot when the pursuing Egyptians’ chariots became mired in the marsh. This story was then augmented by a metaphorical description of the defeat of the Egyptians using the imagery of being swamped by giant waves and drowning. Finally, a prose elaboration was added that expanded on these earlier traditions that describes a dramatic rescue of the people using the giant wave and drowning imagery to part the sea for the people to cross, after which the collapsing waters overcome Pharaoh’s army. Such a story is, no doubt, the result of a long process of retelling, interweaving, and embellishment, where mythical elements are utilized to relate a miracle, not through supernatural intervention of gods, but by God using historical means and natural forces to accomplish the rescue of the Israelite people.

Shabbat shalom.


February 2012





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