The Bard’s Song

In the old world, no mighty military feat would be complete without a bard to compose a song or ballad that would immortalize the victory. And so we have it here with “The Song of the Sea” (Exodus 15). However, because of its rich theological content and its direct address to YHWH praising His attributes, we may also consider this an ancient hymn that opens up for us the heart of Hebrew worship. It is surely one of the oldest songs in the Bible (so Albright).

The hymn has two parts to it. The first is a highly poeticized description of the battle itself and how YHWH triumphed over Pharaoh’s chariots (15:1-10). It is interesting that although YHWH is likened to a “Man of War,” He is not at all like any human warrior. He is incomparable not only because He is incomparable God (15:11), but also in that He does not fight like any human warrior. Human warriors kill directly. On one hand, we can say that since all life is initiated and terminated by God, God does take life directly, as we clearly see in 12:29. However, on the other hand, the narrative depicts YHWH warring through nature, such as we have seen with the plagues and here the watery deep. In the Hebrew cosmology, God has so “rigged” nature that if humanity breaks moral and spiritual boundaries laid out at creation, then creation itself will war against the culprit. In other words, there is a symbiosis between natural and the moral/spiritual. We see this in the prose description in 14:21-29 as well as in this song where it is clear that what happened was supernaturally initiated by Moses’ stretching out his hand creating a wall for the Israelites to walk through on dry ground, but yet we see the God did this naturally through His wind. It is useless to argue over a supernatural explanation or a naturalistic explanation, for the two could not be separated in the Hebrew cosmology as it is in our modern thinking. Humans are punished through nature for their moral choices as Pharaoh was. This hymn does not celebrate a God that loves to kill as a warmonger, but a God who established boundaries, both physical and moral, by which we can happily live, and if we break them, nature itself rises up against us. God both judges and saves through nature.

The second half of the song reveals the purpose of this mighty deed of salvation. We have seen how the battle is depicted in terms of creation (See Unleashing Chaos on Chaos, January 6, 2015). YHWH’s strategy was to lure the Egyptian army to the watery deep where God separated the waters, creating dry land to save Israel, but unleashing them upon the Egyptians. This parallels the first six days of creation where God divided the waters from the dry ground and filling them with life, especially humanity, culminating with the seventh day of rest in God’s cosmic temple. Here the battle culminates in the establishment of a new humanity in Israel and the establishment of a new land, a new garden “planted” by God on a new mountain (v. 17), a restored rest. YHWH’s act of deliverance and establishing Israel on the land promised to Abraham is as important as creation itself; indeed, it is but a continuation of creation. It is a sanctuary not made, like Babel, with human hands, but is established by YHWH’s own hands (v. 17). Chaos will not win out, but “The Lord will reign forever and ever.”

The same pattern that we see in creation and in this battle is also the same pattern we see in the salvation of each individual. We are born into spiritual and moral chaos, and God’s saving acts in our lives are much like the separation of light from darkness, dividing the watery deep from fertile ground in the internal caverns of our soul, subduing its sea monsters lurking within. The goal is the same as creation and this battle at the sea, bringing our interior sanctuaries into the rest of the seventh day, worship in union with God. When this happens, we cannot help but sing hymns to God for our deliverance like Moses, Miriam, and the sons of Israel did. Yes, this old bard’s song, this most ancient and original of hymns, becomes ours.

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