Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
The biblical account of the Israelites’ journey out of Egypt concludes with the fabled crossing of the Red Sea. As the story goes, Moses held out his arm over the sea and split the waters, revealing a path of dry ground leading to freedom’s shore. When the sea march was complete, Moses raised his arm again, this time causing the waters to fall upon the pursuing Egyptians. The unlikely victory filled the Israelites with a mixture of elation and awe. Mere words could not express the magnitude of their feelings or do justice to the spectacle they had witnessed. Without hesitation and without rehearsal, they burst forth in a spontaneous yet poetically elaborate song of gratitude (Exod. 15:1-21).
Though clearly legendary, this episode is musically significant. It is the first prayer-song we encounter in the Bible and the first example of what might be called congregational singing. It shows music performance as a natural response to momentous events and overwhelming emotions. It presents song as a means of proclaiming group affiliation and expressing national pride.
These and other aspects of the musical occasion are repeated elsewhere in the Bible and are common to human societies throughout the ages. The depiction of the Red Sea song is memorable in large part because it resonates with our own experiences. Most of us have, at one time or another, felt the camaraderie of communal singing, turned to music as an emotional outlet, or used songs to assert our identities. These universal musical functions are readily ascertained from the climactic song of the exodus. There is, however, a less obvious but similarly important role the song plays in the biblical narrative: the return to normalcy.
A characteristic remark appears in the verses leading up to the Red Sea crossing. Catching sight of the advancing Egyptian army, the frightened Israelites ask Moses, “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness?’” (14:11-12). This sort of complaint—and the lack of trust underlying it—recurs throughout the Israelites’ desert sojourn. They were unmitigated complainers, constantly pressing Moses to satisfy their physical and psychological needs, and prove the alleged might and compassion of their deity.
We can, then, classify as anomalous the exuberant words of thanksgiving the Israelites sang while gazing at the sea. Although springing organically from their lips, the lyrics were a departure from their ordinary disposition. Indeed, the scene’s immensity is accentuated by the fact that the song was so atypical of this grumbling lot. The Israelites were stunned both by the remarkable chain of events and by the unusual feelings it excited. The rush of sentiments and sensations was unlike anything they had experienced before, and singing was the best they could do to deal with it. The song’s success in this regard is demonstrated shortly after the music stopped: “the people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’” (15:24).
This normalizing effect should be added to the more familiar musical elements of Exodus 15 (e.g., congregational singing, emotional outlet and identity assertion). When the course of life is interrupted by dramatic incidents—big or small, good or bad—music can help ease the transition back to a comfortable and ordinary state. If the exodus legend is any indication, this effect was as well appreciated by the ancients as it is today.
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