Tag Archives: Song of the Sea

After the Song

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.

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

Musical Canons

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The canonization of the Hebrew Bible occurred in several stages, though it is difficult to determine how and when it coalesced into the standard version we have today. Despite the enormous significance of the process and its monumental outcome, there is no direct record of the canon’s origination or the criteria employed by those who fixed it. Certainly the canonized books do not comprise the entire literary output of ancient Israel, nor were its books the only ones reputed to be holy or believed to be written under divine influence. The Bible itself lists several collections that were, for one reason or another, excluded from the final edition and thus lost to history (e.g., the “Book of the Wars of the Lord” referenced in Num. 21:14 and the “Book of Jashar” cited in Josh. 10:13 and 2 Sam. 1:18). In the absence of contemporaneous documentation, scholars have had to rely on indirect evidence, such as early surviving versions of biblical texts and later discussions of canonization in rabbinic sources. As a result, any suggestion of a timeline is tentative, speculative and subject to revision.

Perhaps the best that can be claimed are these points from Marc Zvi Brettler. First, the final phases of canonization were a reaction to the destruction of the Second Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E., a crisis that spurred the transformation of the Jews from a people of territory to the People of the Book. Second, canonization was not just a top-down procedure conducted by groups of elites. Certain works were already considered authoritative by large segments of the population, and their inclusion amounted to official recognition of their significance. Third, the canonization process was highly inclusive, yielding an anthology of works reflecting the assorted cultural, ideological, theological and aesthetic tapestry of ancient Israel.

The three attributes of cultural necessity, two-directional selection and representative sampling are also present in the formation of musical canons: corpuses of pieces viewed as illustrative of a place, period or group. Every age and every genre generates far too much music to be remembered or retained in wide usage. Statistically, there can only be a few survivors. As the (subjectively determined) cream rises to the top it is packaged into a canon, which may take the form of a songbook, performance repertoire, industry list, greatest hits album or another type of essentially stable compilation.

Like the Bible, musical canons help preserve the cultures they represent. A book of show tunes from the 1920s, for example, will contain only a fraction of pieces written for that setting. But its selections—which have earned enough notoriety to be included—are received as exemplary of the period, and are thus an important part of American heritage. As with biblical literature, the anthologized sounds carry associations with their place of origin and contribute to the self-understanding of those who have inherited them.

Canons of music also mirror the biblical canon in that they arise through a mixture of top-down and bottom-up processes. The former is a conscious and calculated effort of authoritative entities, such as entertainment executives, academicians, cultural societies, publishing houses and professional organizations. These influential bodies can—and often do—play a considerable role in determining what reaches the ears of the general populace. However, the latter movement—bottom-up—is historically more prevalent. For example, the musical menus of synagogues and churches most commonly take shape through the organic forces of taste and time. According to Roman Catholic theologian Edward Schillebeeckx, new music enters religious services on an ephemeral (temporary) circle. If the music is not rejected outright, it may pass into a conjectural (more stable) circle, and from there eventually be incorporated into a structural (mainstream) circle. This natural selection accounts for the survival and continued singing of a handful of melodies from disparate periods and locations, as well as the “new traditions” that emerge within a generation.

Musical canons also possess an inclusiveness resembling that of the Bible. Though they epitomize a certain kind of music or music accepted by a particular group, the collections display internal diversity. The very term representative implies a snapshot of the music-culture as a whole, which rarely (if ever) is a homogenous soundscape. One need only survey contemporary songs on the radio to appreciate the diversity of our popular music. A select few of these recordings—which are themselves a tiny sliver of songs being made—will be included in the retrospective canon of American popular music of the 2010s.

Due to the limited size of a musical canon and the variable factors that affect its complexion, worthy pieces are inevitably left out while questionable ones invariably appear. This, too, is a characteristic of the Hebrew Bible. Yet, despite such inescapable flaws—and the calls for revision they may provoke—canons remain crucial contrivances for condensing, conserving, shaping and sharing culture.

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

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.