Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Song of the sea

Parshat Beshalach

The central moment of this week's parsha is the climactic conclusion to the Exodus account which occupies the first half of the book of Shmot (Exodus).  In the story, the escaping Israelites are trapped between a pursuing Egyptian army and an impossible body of water, Yam Suf (Red Sea or Reed Sea depending on who you talk to.)  However, miraculously, God parts the water, the Israelites pass through on dry land, and then when the Egyptians pass through afterwards, the waters return drowning the army.  After the Israelites triumphantly return on the other side, they sing the song known in Hebrew as Az Yashir and in academic circles as "The Song of the Sea."

The Song of the Sea is going to be the topic of this post.  Specifically we will ask two questions, the first is whether the song is, as academics claim, one of the oldest parts of the Torah, composed far earlier than the stories that surround it.  And second, we will look at the precise relation between the song of the sea and the story of the splitting of the sea that was synopsized above.  Specifically, we will find that the song of the sea makes no mention of a splitting of the sea and seems to be referring to a different event, now long forgotten.  The Song of the Sea takes up the majority of the 15th chapter, and all verse references will be to that chapter.

Dating Texts

Dating biblical texts is a daunting task.  Typically, one can use any of the following, (1) the type of language used, whether it uses archaic words or modern words.  (2) The type of syntax or morphology present.  (3) What spelling of words are used. (4) Where it fits in theologically in the development of Israel.  (5) Where it fits in traditionally regarding the historical views of Israel's ancestors.  And/or (6) Historical references that can constrain when it was written [1]

For now we will avoid using 4 and 5, since they are very contentious and assume at first that you know something about the historical and theological development of the Israelites.  The 6th option is not terribly useful either, it tells us for example, that it was at a time period after the Egyptians had domesticated horses, but that doesn't really help much.  Of more use are the references to the Philistines, Moab and Edom, nations that did not exist until the late bronze age at earliest in tribal form, and not as kingdoms until much later.  The third is tricky as well, since spelling corrections are the most likely corrections by later editors, and there's no doubt that the biblical texts underwent editing corrections of this type.  This leaves the first two.

On the syntax side (2), there are two aspects of the song that appear archaic.  The first is the prevalence of mo or umo endings.  These are somewhat equivalent to "eth" endings on verbs in modern day English.  They only exist in a very specific subset of texts, ones that are old, or ones that are trying to sound old.  They are used correctly here, as far as we can tell, so if someone was faking it, they did a very good job [2].  The second syntactic feature is the absence of ha in front of nouns where you would expect.  In Hebrew this means "the" and the contention is that this was a new syntactic feature of the language that appeared in the early Iron Age, similar to developments in Akkadian and Arabic [3].

For the language (1), it certainly appears that some of the words used are archaic.  Some are so old that they are hapaxes (words with no other appearances).  This makes translation difficult for one, but hapaxes aren't a sole indication of age.  They could be nonce words for example. A full discussion of the various archaic language features are given by Cross and Freedman [4].  We won't go into details, because I imagine there aren't many people that are as interested as Hebrew linguistic development as me, so I'll just quote their conclusion on the matter.
"In its metrical style and strophic structure, the poem fits precisely into the pattern of old Canaanite and early Hebrew poetry.  The repetitive parallelism, mixed meter, and the complex makeup of the strophes suggest an early date of composition."
Why Yashir and not Vayashar?

So I said I wasn't going to delve too deep into grammar, but there's one point I'd like to make.  There's a lot of fuss about the fact that the literal translation appears to be "And then Moshe will sing" i.e. Az Yashir, where you would expect something like "And then Moshe sang", i.e. Vayashar Moshe.  The answer could be just a matter of old sounding text where the yaktul form, used in modern day, and most biblical text, as a future tense, was also used in ancient Canaanite and Ugaritic as a past tense.  It is clearly an old form that had completely fallen out of practice by the time the rest of the biblical texts were composed.  This shows up in other places in the song as well, and modern translators often render those forms incorrectly as future forms [5].

The Song Itself and the Extra Verse

The song can be broken down into several parts.
  • 1-3: Introduction, praise of God.
  • 4-12: God drowns the Egyptians, who pursue the Israelites, in the sea.
  • 13-18: God brings the Israelites to Canaan and all the surrounding nations are afraid.
  • 19: A but wait there's more verse.  It mentions that the Israelites walked on dry land in the water
Verse 19 is tricky.  First of all, it does not look archaic at all, in morphology or language.  The meter is nothing like the rest of the verses.  Furthermore, verse 18 certainly sounds like a conclusion to the song.  By the time it reaches verse 19, it's already long after the song finished talking about the drowning of the Egyptians.  So it's out of place in content as well as style.  Everything seems to point to verse 19 being added, but why [6]?  What problem was an editor trying to solve that they appended this verse to the song?

How did they Sink if they were Already at the Bottom?

If you read verses 4-12 carefully you'll notice some odd features in the song that don't seem to match up with the preceding story.  In the preceding story, Moses splits the water, the Israelites travel through it, and then the waters return on top of the Egyptian army as they try to follow through afterwards.  In other words, what verse 19 is trying to describe.  In the song, the language is different.  The armies are "cast into the sea" and the captains are "sunk" in the sea (v 4), where they are then "covered by waters" and "sink like rocks" (v 5). A little bit later, (v 10) they "sink like lead" (v 10) and "the earth swallows them" (v 12).  The question is, if they were already at the bottom, then how could they sink?  These verses seem to suggest a story where God caused a violent storm or large waves that either carried Egyptian armies out to sea, or sank Egyptian vessels.

The observant reader will notice I skipped verses 5-10 above.  Some of them aren't relevant, but one is.  Verse 8, is possibly one of the most difficult verses to translate in the entire Torah.  It has archaic words, including one hapax.  It's also the verse that's used to extract the entirety of the preceding story.  Verse 8 in the JPS translation is:" 
And with the blast of Thy nostrils the waters were piled up--the floods stood upright as a heap; the deeps were congealed in the heart of the sea.
Frank Cross translates it in the following way:
At the blast of your nostrils the waters heaped up. The swells mounted up as a hill; The deeps foamed in the heart of the sea [7].
For the first time in this blog, I'm going to need to include the actual Hebrew to go further: 
וּבְרוּחַ אַפֶּיךָ נֶעֶרְמוּ מַיִם, נִצְּבוּ כְמוֹ-נֵד נֹזְלִים; קָפְאוּ תְהֹמֹת, בְּלֶב-יָם
We can see the problematic words are נֵד and קָפְאוּ.  The first, ned, is the hapax mentioned above.  The only other mentions of this word are derivative from this verse, so can't be used for translation.  The JPS translation translates it as "heap."  Other translations are more brazen and use words like "column" or "wall." Cross says this is wrong, and says, that the only etymological evidence we have for this word is an Arabic cognate, nadd which means "hill" [8].

The second word, translated in JPS and most places as "congeal" is also extremely difficult.  The word occurs in 3 other places biblically.  Zech 14:6 is nearly impossible to translate based on context.  Zeph 1:12 is also difficult, but seems to be the act of precipitating dregs in wine.  And Job 10:10 has it relating to cheese.  Iyov (Job) is a difficult text to use, because it is one of those works that by all rights is late, but is purposely filled with archaisms and obscure words, often incorrectly, to make it sound old.  In Talmudic Aramaic and Mishnaic Hebrew, the word seems to be used as in Zephaniah to precipitate solids in liquids.  Cross seems to indicate that we should probably translate it as something like "to rise to surface," "form scum, froth or foam," or "curdle" [9].

If you buy Cross's translation of verse 8.  And you accept that verse 19 was a later addition. Then the song contains no references at all to the splitting of the sea story. Rather here we have a story in which the pursuing Egyptian army is caught in a violent squall, or possibly something like a tidal bore, and dragged out to sea and drowned.

Poem First, Prose Later

The sketch I'll present to you is one that appears many times in the Tanach when a poem seems to parallel a prose section.  Generally the idea is that the poem was written earlier, and the prose sections came after.  The same idea is suggested for the Song of Devorah (Judg. 5) and the stories that relate to the blessing of Yaakov (Gen. 49).  Here too, the poem came first, and the story came later.

So why is the story different than the poem?  There are several possibilities.  One is that the prose authors made the same translation errors we did.  After all, these words may have been just as obscure to them as they are to us, since they appear nowhere else in the Torah.  Another possibility, is that they took another story which was already known about Joshua splitting the Jordan river (Josh 3:9-17) and adapted it to this situation. They conflated the two stories, God drowning the Egyptians, with God splitting the river Jordan, and the result was the story that we all know and are left with.   There's yet another possibility.  The splitting of the sea could be used as a demonstration of God's power over the mythical sea.  This would be similar to what Marduk does to Tiamat, where he splits the carcass.

There is one possibility that supports the last reading. We mentioned above the possibility that the absence of the ha prefix in words was a possible sign of age.  Several of these missing words are with regard to Yam (verses 7 and 10).  It might be that these are referring not to the generic idea of Yam as a body of water, but as the mythical Yam, the god of chaos.  Unlike the battle with Ba'al, here it is one-sided.  Yam is not a worthy adversary for God, just another tool at his disposal.  Later biblical authors may have conflated a song with a sea element with the mythical account of splitting the dead chaos-sea-monster.  A stretch perhaps, but one worth considering.

Regardless, how you approach it.  The clear fact that the song does not seem to align with the prose sections must be explained somehow.  Especially if you think they were all written contemporaneously.  However, this isn't the end of the problems.  There are also contradictory elements in the prose sections themselves.  Unfortunately, these will have to wait for another year.

1. F.M Cross "Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic" Harvard Univ. Press 1973 p. 121^

2. Cross and Freedman, "Song of Miriam," J Near Eastern Studies, Vol 14, No. 4, 1995 p. 237-250^

3. Kugel, "How to Read the Bible," Free Press, 2006, p. 227 and see footnote 24.^

4. Cross and Freedman, "Song of Miriam."^

5. F.M Cross "Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic," p. 125. This interpretation might be problematic since first verse isn't actually part of the song. It could be an example of improper use.^

6. See the previous discussion on Sukkot and the additions accredited to Ezra.^

7. F.M Cross "Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic," p. 128.^

8. Ibid, see footnote 58.^

9. Ibid, see footnote 59.^

1 comment:

  1. Another wonderful and interesting discussion.

    So much of the Torah reads like ancient near east praises of Kings and Gods. Some passages hark back to ancient near east myths of storm god’s defeat of sea god and building his palace/temple. Verse 14 Mentions Philistia suggesting at least part of song is early monarch period. The Lord as warrior was no different than another ancient peoples beliefs.

    Verse 7 - suggests fire. Another association of fire with the Lord - like Mt Sinai revelation, burning bush and so many others.