Inventing Hymns

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.  

The biblical account of the exodus from Egypt culminates with the fervent singing of the Song of the Sea (Exod. 15:1-21). It is the first instance of communal worship in the Bible and the first time singing is used to express divine praise. Presented as a spontaneous response to the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, the Song celebrates the Israelites’ escape from bondage and release to freedom. In style and structure, it is identical to poetry found in the Book of Psalms—so much so that it could be plucked from its surroundings and wedged between two psalms without raising suspicion. This close affinity seems to suggest that the Song is a perfect prototype for later prayers. After all, it comes about a thousand years before the heyday of devotional singing in the Second Jerusalem Temple. But critical scholarship views the Song as an inset hymn, which was added to the story for religious and literary purposes.

During the Second Temple period, there was a calculated effort to shape biblical literature for use as liturgy. This was accomplished by injecting original poetry into sacred stories or embellishing poetic kernels already present in the text. This is why we find epic psalms at the climax of the exodus, at the end of Moses’ life (Deut. 32:1-43), after Deborah’s victory (Jdg. 5), as Hannah’s expression of thanksgiving (1 Sam. 2:1-10) and so on. (Other instances are 2 Sam. 22; Isa. 38:9-20; Jon. 2:3-10; Hab. 3; Dan. 2:20-23; and 1 Chron. 16:8-36.)

These poetic excursions create stark breaks in their respective storylines, and often seem out of place or contradictory to the presenter’s personality. Hannah, for example, is shown as a meek and quiet woman, yet after bearing her much-longed-for son, she becomes a verbose and exquisite poetess. It is also common for inset hymns to reference events or institutions of later eras. Hannah’s prayer mentions a king although her story takes place before Israel’s monarchy came into being.

These insertions were mainly used to establish precedence for Temple liturgy. By putting prayers into the mouths of biblical heroes and infusing key narratives with devotional flourishes, the liturgical authors read themselves into Israel’s hallowed past. In so doing, they devised ancient templates for their own brand of worship, and added to the (imagined) lifespan of their psalm tradition.

The Song of the Sea is an instructive case in point. Parts of the Song indicate that it is one of the oldest poems in the Bible. It shares linguistic features with Late Bronze Age Ugaritic poetry, and the short refrain attributed to Miriam is legitimately archaic (Exod. 15:21). However, its psalmic structure and reference to Philistia, the conquest of Canaan and the Jerusalem Temple (vv. 14-17) reflect the anachronistic perspective of a chronologically distant generation.

It can thus be assessed that the Song contains an ancient core—antiquated language and Miriam’s verse—which was embellished, expanded and updated by Temple liturgists. The motivation for this editorial elaboration is also apparent. Like other inset hymns, the Song had a distinct liturgical application despite being housed in a non-liturgical book. It was most probably sung during the Sabbath sacrifice in the Temple.

Viewed as a literary phenomenon, inset hymns illustrate what historian Bernard Lewis calls invented history. The hymns were affixed to older literature and introduced ideas, developments and poetic forms of later times. They were not inserted merely to beautify or liven the text, but rather to advance a liturgical agenda. Through textual invention and manipulation, ancient figures were made into proto-liturgists and Temple practices acquired a richer heritage. To use Lewis’ phrase, the hymns reshaped history for a purpose.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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