Exodus [15:1-18] "Song of the Sea" (From Biblical Hebrew)

Today's poem is one of the oldest surviving pieces of Hebrew poetry of any length: the Song of the Sea, composed either during the early Iron Age or late Bronze Age. In the context of the Bible (where a much later redactor was kind enough to preserve the poem by shoehorning it into the Exodus-myth) it is the song sung by the Israelites after God drowned Pharaoh's armies in the Red Sea, and after parting the waters to allow them to pass through. Needless to say, this likely has as little to do with the actual circumstances of the original composition as Arthurian legend does with the history of the British Crown. For more on this, see my "note on the text's provenance" after the original text. I've also included a recording of me reading the poem in what Hebrew may have sounded like at an early stage. 

Song of the Sea
Exodus [15:1-18]
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Click to hear me recite the original in a reconstruction of archaic classical Hebrew pronunciation.

I sing for Yahweh,  victorious in glory:
The horse and the horseman  He hurled to the sea.
Yahweh my salvation,  my strength and my song.
This is my God,  this God I exalt. 
My father's God,  this God I extol:
Yahweh is a war-hero
And Yahweh is God's name.

Pharaoh's charioted army He thrust to the sea
Pharaoh's choice captains  plunged in the reeded sea.
The abyss whelmed them under  
And they sank to its depth like stone.

Your right hand, Yahweh  is majestic in might.
Your right hand, Yahweh,  shattered the foe.
In ultimate splendor  You felled those who faced You.
You fired forth Your fury to combust them like straw.
At the gust of Your nostrils the waters were stacked,
The waves like risen dams stood solid.
The abyss congealed in the heart of the waters.

The foe yelled out "I'll pursue, I'll subdue
I will share out the spoils,  my bloodlust will glut on them
I will bear my sword and my hand will maraud them."

But You blew Your great gusts  and sea whelmed them under.
They plummeted like lead subdued by the waters.
Who is as You among the gods, Yahweh?
Who is as You highest among holies?
Awe-bringer, hymn-hearer 
Wreaker of wonders!

You stretched Your right hand and earth gulped them under,
You guided in Your faith the people You redeemed,
Guarding their road
To Your holy abode.

Then nations heard and quaked: 
The Philistines throttled with anguish.
The chieftains of Edom panicked.
The tribes of Moab were in tremors
And terror melted the men of all Canaan.
Down upon them fell terror and horror;
By Your awesome brawn  they were dumbed as stone
While Your people passed through, O Yahweh,
While Your created people passed through.

You brought them to plant them on the mount You bequeathed,
This ground You deemed Your dwelling, O Yahweh
Your sanctum, O Lord which Your own hand founded.
All hail Lord Yahweh
Now and evermore.


The Original:

אשירה ליהוה   כי־גאה גאה
סוס ורכבו  רמה בים׃
עזי וזמרת יה  ויהי־לי לישועה
זה אלי ואנוהו  אלהי אבי וארממנהו׃
יהוה איש מלחמה  יהוה שמו

מרכבת פרעה וחילו  ירה בים
ומבחר שלשיו  טבעו בים־סוף׃
תהמת יכסימו  ירדו במצולת כמו־אבן׃

ימינך יהוה  נאדרי בכח
ימינך יהוה  תרעץ אויב׃
וברב גאונך  תהרס קמיך
תשלח חרנך  יאכלמו כקש׃
וברוח אפיך  נערמו מים
נצבו כמו־נד נזלים  קפאו תהמת בלב־ים׃

אמר אויב  ארדף אשיג
אחלק שלל תמלאמו נפשי
אריק חרבי  תורישמו ידי׃
נשפת ברוחך  כסמו ים
צללו כעופרת  במים אדירים׃
מי־כמכה  באלם יהוה
מי כמכה  נאדר בקדש
נורא תהלת  עשה פלא׃

נטית ימינך  תבלעמו ארץ׃
נחית בחסדך  עם־זו גאלת
נהלת בעזך  אל־נוה קדשך׃

שמעו עמים ירגזון
חיל אחז ישבי פלשת׃
אז נבהלו אלופי אדום
אילי מואב יאחזמו רעד
נמגו כל ישבי כנען׃

תפל עליהם  אימתה ופחד
בגדל זרועך  ידמו כאבן
עד־יעבר עמך יהוה  עד־יעבר עם־זו קנית׃

תבאמו ותטעמו  בהר נחלתך
מכון לשבתך  פעלת יהוה
מקדש אדני  כוננו ידיך׃
יהוה ימלך  לעלם ועד׃


Note on the text's provenance:

This poem was, according to every bit of relevant evidence and every analysis based on common sense, not written in Egypt. It mentions places and nations which would only make sense in the context of a people living in Canaan. Indeed, this, combined with the stylistic and morphological features which date this text as one of the two or three oldest portions of the Torah, are one block of a formidable mountain of evidence against the historicity of the Egyptian Exodus- as it means that the Jews were already living in Canaan when this text was composed. If you add to this the fact that excavations of the earliest Israelite settlements suggest that Iron Age Israel was of purely local Canaanite origin with no Egyptian influence to speak of, and it's pretty hard to make a case that the Israelites ever resided in Egypt in any capacity.

On the other hand, what there is evidence for is that a pretty major political and military conflict between Canaanite groups and Egypt did happen. More than that, there were several such conflicts. The history of Egypt's contact with Canaan spans 15 Pharaonic dynasties and encompasses well over a thousand years of trade, conquest and re-conquest. As a poem which dramatizes a victory against a foreign invader, the Song of the Sea makes far more sense. And it meshes well a number of features, such as the prominent mention of chariots (whose use in the Egyptian offensive military was at its peak during the late Bronze Age, e.g. at the battle of Kadesh,) the term פרעה parʕō "Pharaoh" (a word borrowed from Late Egyptian), the mention of ethno-nations like Moab and Philistia (which formed in Canaan in the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age), and the antagonistic chest-beating ending.

Mind you, I'm not saying it's impossible that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, just as I'm not saying that, given what information is publicly available, it's impossible that O.J. Simpson was innocent or that Jimmy Hoffa died of natural causes. It's just that accepting any of these three things as true requires a suspension not only of disbelief, but of common sense. This is why, in my translation, Yahweh has already guided the Israelites to their home- rather than this being something expected or foreseen. I saw no convincing reason to translate the text as simply part of the larger narrative of Exodus (or, for that matter, as if the the founding-tale of Exodus had anymore historicity to it than that of the Aeneid) but rather as one which celebrated a defensive victory against the Egyptians in Canaan. The precise battle in question, if there was such a thing, is as unknowable as it is unimportant.


Note on stylistics:

It was once a widely-held belief that Biblical poetry does not use rhyme ever or have any kind of meter to it, and relies exclusively on syntactic parallelism. But as modern knowledge of Biblical Hebrew phonology progressed beyond the vowel-points added by the 7th century Masoretes, it has turned out that this is not quite true. However, since Biblical poetry as we know it today is the product of different authors with different regional dialects over the course of at least a millennium, trying to triangulate the right sound-system for the right time and place has proven a veritably Sysiphian endeavor.

As far as can be discerned from reconstructions of Early Hebrew, along with comparison to Ugaritic texts to which this and other early poems bear great resemblance, the poem is written mainly in accentual lines, where each half-line contains two primary stresses (sometimes three). It is similar, in many ways, to the 4-beat rhythm of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse. But this poem, also typically, departs from its prosodic formula a few times.

Assonance, consonance and even rhyme do occur. But rhyme is never a required formal feature of Biblical verse, and is not (as in the west or in Arabic) usually found at the ends of lines or half-lines, or even always at the ends of words (except in the form of inflectional morphemes such as the plural possessive ka, which are also part of the apparatus of syntactic parallelism.) Rather any stressed syllable, anywhere in a word or verse, is fair game for rhyme. Syllables can even rhyme with other syllables in the same half-line. This is because in early Hebrew poetry such sound effects serve a purely stylistic function, rather than taking on an additional formal one- i.e. the poet need only rhyme when and where it makes sense to him/her. I have taken all of this into account in my translation, which attempts to do justice to this piece of versecraft as the poetry it is. In doing so, I have used the whole range of poetic and stylistic effects -alliteration, rhyme, off-rhyme, consonance, assonance- in order to render the sound texture of the original.

3 comments:

  1. It is beautiful and I always love to hear your readings. The wealth of background information you offer here is simply marvelous. You are one of my favorite teachers!

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  2. You're very welcome. I am always glad when my obsessions prove useful to others

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  3. I much prefer "wreaker of wonders" to "performing miracles" or whatever they usually use in siddurim.

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