Shemot Fifteen: Song of the Sea

The people have made it safely through the sea on dry land, and the Egyptians have been covered by it. We open in the moments immediately following this. “Then Moses sang and the children of Israel this song to the Lord, and spoke, saying: I will sing to the Lord for He triumphed gloriously; horse and rider He has thrown into the sea (Exodus 15:1).” Here, we have the introduction to the Song of the Sea, the praise that the Israelites sing to God as a result of Him saving them once again. This text is very controversial within some Jewish circles because it involves a great deal of anthropomorphization of God.

For example:

“Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power, Your right hand, O lord, dashes in pieces the enemy (Exodus 15:6).”

“And with the blast of Your nostrils the waters were piled up (Exodus 15:8).”

These metaphors that describe God as having human body parts are something I can easily understand. While some commentators have taken issue with their inclusion, saying that they lead to misconceptions about God, I find it completely natural that we as human beings need to describe God in terms that we can relate to. By giving God attributes that we can grasp on some level, He becomes more real to us, but not necessarily less divine.

At the end of the Song of the Sea, we are told that “Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam sang to them: Sing you to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously: the horse and his rider He has thrown into the sea (Exodus 15:19-20).” This brief refrain of the song has become the catalyst for much of the imagery that we have of Miriam. Amongst the many things inspired by this show of feminine worship is the following song by Debbie Friedman:

After the people finish singing, they continue on their journey. They spend three days going forward into the wilderness, but they don’t find any water. “And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter. Therefore the name of it was called Marah (Exodus 15:23).” And now, we have the first moment of rebellion against Moses. It’s shocking to me that it’s been literally three days since they witnessed the parting of the sea, and in theory are still reeling from the circumstances of their departure from Egypt. How can they start complaining, or have a lack of faith, so soon? After years of wandering the desert I understand, but after three days, how can they be so fickle with their loyalties? Nevertheless, God comes to the rescue right away. He shows Moses a branch to throw into the water so that it will become sweet instead of bitter.

“And He said: If you will diligently hearken to the voice of the Lord your God, and will do that which is right in His eyes, and will give ear to His commandments, and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases upon you, which I have put upon the Egyptians; for I am the Lord that heals you (Exodus 15:26).” For the first time, the relationship between God and the people becomes conditional. The people need to listen to God in order to continue to enjoy His protection. Would this have happened no matter what, or is this statement made because of the immediateness of their complaints and doubts?

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