Exodus 14.30-15.18 "Song of the Sea" (From Biblical Hebrew)

The dating of the Song of the Sea is a matter of some dispute. There is a widely held view that it is extremely old, on linguistic grounds. Indeed, the language of this song is more consistently archaic than any other coherent long passage of the Hebrew Bible. There is nonetheless a robust tradition of positing a relatively late (i.e. post-exilic) date for the Exodus 15. These all hinge on an ability to discount the archaisms as being intentional, the result of a late composer's (apparently uniquely successful) attempt to compose in an old style rather than an early composer using the language as it existed at the time.
The tendency for poetic language to tend toward, or preserve, archaic language more than prose does (e.g. Latin and Greek at every period, Old English, 18th Century English, French, Modern Welsh, Arabic, Modern Hebrew, Dutch, etc.) is so robustly attested cross-linguistically that it can be taken for granted as a commonplace of human linguistic behavior. Elaborations of this staggeringly banal fact have been used on the regular to try and argue a late date for all manner of apparently archaic compositions, and Exodus 15 is among their number, the most extensive case (and, for me, by far the most irritating) being the decades-long attempt of literary historians to argue for a late text of Beowulf.
Of course, there also exists the opposite tendency: arguing an early date for a text which on linguistic grounds cannot belong to that period. This involves claims that the text got partly modernized in transmission. There is general consensus on this matter regarding a lot of Old Irish poetry. Another Celtic case in point is the scholarship surrounding Y Gododdin, a Welsh poem which survives in a 13 century manuscript but is traditionally attributed to the 6th century Brythonic poet Aneirin. (Well, he is traditionally called a Welsh poet, but his stomping ground would actually lie in what is today Scotland.) The idea in this case is that the material was heavily modernized in transmission, leaving only portions of earlier language intact.

Literary attempts to project a late date onto a text in transparently early langauge always mean situating the text in an era which we know more about. This may be a large part of the appeal of such an approach. Thus for example Brenner's thesis that Ex. 15 was composed for the Passover feast during the Second Temple Period is father to his dismissal of all of the seeming archaisms as intentional stylistic options. But no other Biblical Hebrew poem really looks like this. We've no affirmative evidence that someone in the Second Temple period, trying to compose something new, would intentionally produce such a text with such a heavy and consistent freight of archaisms. All the archaic elements of Exodus 15 can be found individually in other — often late — poetic material but never with the same consistency and concentration in this fashion all together. If you knew nothing of the Song of the Sea, but knew the other poetic material of the Pentateuch as well as the more archaic of the psalms, you would never be able to use them as a model from which to derive the archaic style of Exodus 15 which just so happens to be supported by material in other Semitic languages. When late Biblical poets try to be archaic, they don't produce material that looks like this, and the most straightforward explanation is that they were either not able, or not inclined, to do so. Why should a late author of the Song of the Sea be so stylistically radical as to use archaic constructions in precisely the way that someone using an early form of Canaanite naturally would?

Anyway I think that the text really is an early poem, not a late poet's attempt to compose in an otherwise unattested archaic style. Here's a fun trick to try. If you run the sound-changes in reverse, you can get some sense of what it may have sounded like early on at some point in early Iron Age Judah. Given how speculative it is (relative chronology is one thing, but with absolute chronology?) I hesitate to call this a reconstruction of anything. The word would have to drop the prefix to describe it. It is definitely a construction. Of what, though, Dagon only knows.

As with all my translations of poetry from the Hebrew Bible, and poetry from early medieval Palestine, I am including audio recordings in Tiberian Hebrew. (Since I have gone and learned to read Hebrew in this fashion in order to produce an audio-companion for a book about this now-dead Hebrew liturgical dialect, and then lent my voice to a whole website about it, I figure I might as well get some use out of it.) I have included Exodus 14.30-31 in the text here, translated as as a small-font preface. The tail end of Ex. 14 forms the context in which Jewish readers since the Middle Ages have most commonly encountered Song, which is to say in prayer books, where it is grouped in with the Pesūqē deZimrā which may be said every day during the Šaḥarīt (Morning Prayer). Since I was including a Tiberian (i.e. medieval) reading, it seemed fitting to follow the siddurim and include Ex. 14:30-31 as a preface. Oh and here's an IPA transcription of the Tiberian Reading.

Here's a recording of me chanting the beginning (through 15:5) in Tiberian Hebrew, using the Temani Shira mode:

Here's a recording the whole text in a speaking voice

Song of the Sea
Exodus [14:30-15:1-18]
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

 And on that day did Yahweh deliver Israel from the hand of Egypt, and Israel see Egypt dead on the seashore. Israel saw what great handiwork Yahweh had wrought down on Egypt, and the people feared Yahweh, and trusted in Yahweh and in His slave Moses. 
 Then did Moses and the Israelites sing this song for Yahweh. They said:  

Sing1 for Yahweh for his coup of splendor:
Horse and horseman he hurled to the sea.
Yahweh is my strength and stave2 he became my salvation.
This god is mine whom I exalt,
god of my father  whom I extol:
Yahweh the war man3. Yahweh is his name.

Pharaoh's forces4 he flung to the sea
His pick of captains pitched in the Reed Sea.
The depths whelmed them over
They were downed in the deep like stone

Your right hand, Yahweh is majestic and right.
Your right hand, Yahweh, shatters enemies.
In ultimate splendor you felled those against You.
Fired forth your fury to combust them like straw.

At your nostrils' flare the waters heaped,
The waves like mounds stood up.
The deep congealed in the heart of the sea.

The enemy said "I'll pursue, I'll subdue
I will share out the spoils, my gullet will glut on them
I will draw my sword,  my hand despoil them."
But you blew forth your breath and sea whelmed them over.
They went like lead, down  in the mighty water.

Who is like you,  Yahweh among the gods?
Who is like you  awesome among the holy?
Awe-bringer  hymn-hearer
Wreaker of wonders!

You stretched your right hand  and earth gulped them under,
You guided in your kindness  that folk you redeemed,
In your strength led their road
To your holy abode.

Peoples heard  and as peoples quaked,
The dwellers of Plesheth throttled with anguish.
The chieftains of Edom panicked.
The sires of Moab   seized with shudders
The kings of Canaan   quailed and melted.
Down upon them fell every horror;
Your brawned arm loomed and they were like stone
As your people crossed over,  Lord Yahweh,
As the people you made your creation crossed over.

You brought them to plant them  on the mount you bequeathed,
The ground you deemed   your dwelling, Yahweh
The sanctum O Lord your hand founded.

All hail Lord Yahweh
King for all time.

1 - I have emended the opening with the verson from Ex. 15:21

2 - the character string יהויהי is probably best divided as יהו יהי.

3 - The Pšiṭṭā gives a translation implying יהוה גיבור במלחמה which is also found in the Samaritan Pentateuch. The LXX has Κύριος συντρίβων πολέμους  "The Lord who shatters wars" which has been written about a great deal. There are three possibilities for the LXX. (a) it reflects — in translation — a radically pious intervention against the anthropomorphism of the MT version, (b) it reflects a slightly pious rendering of something like the Samaritan version (with the ב particle understood in the sense "against"), or (c) it reflects a variant which has left no trace elsewhere (and therefore the pious intervention lies not in the translation but its Vorlage). The real possibility of (c) should be kept in mind. Consider that while the Vulgate's "Dominus quasi vir pugnator, Omnipotens nomen eius" may reflect a Hebrew text according with the MT in the first half (though the "quasi" is either a bit of minor pious fudging or reflecting a Hebrew text with כאיש instead as in Isa 42:13), the following "Omnipotens nomen eius" seems utterly inexplicable as reflecting anything other than a Herbrew text containing שדי שמו, (which I think actually works nicer as poetry). More's the pity that we have no Qumran text for Exodus 15. In any case, evidently at some point a confusion crept into the tradition which yielded the Samaritan-type version for this line, whether or not it underlies the LXX. As איש מלחמה and גבור are commonly synonymous, conflation of two variants (יהוה איש מלחמה and יהוה גבור) seems like a plausible reason. גבור makes better sense metrically, but איש מלחמה seems to reflect the early anthropomorphism. Anyway, my translation doesn't care about literalism and so this is a bit moot on that score.

4 — metrically, if one were feeling speculative, one might wonder if מרכבת פרעה and פרעה וחיל are ancient variants which have been conflated. I went with the former. Of course, as always, my Tiberian Hebrew reading (meant to be a rendering of the text as it was known to the Tiberian Masoretes of the late first millennium) sticks to the Masoretic Text without any emendations.

The Original:

ויושע יהוה ביום ההוא את־ישראל מיד מצרים וירא ישראל את־מצרים מת על־שפת הים וירא ישראל את־היד הגדלה אשר עשה יהוה במצרים וייראו העם את־יהוה ויאמינו ביהוה ובמשה עבדו: אז ישיר־משה ובני־ישראל את־השירה הזאת ליהוה ויאמרו לאמר

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

מרכבת פרעה  ירה בים
מבחר 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׃

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