BIBLIOTHECA SACRA 161 (January-March 2004): 42-54
Copyright © 2004 Dallas Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.
VICTORY AT SEA: PROSE AND
POETRY IN EXODUS 14-15
Richard D. Patterson
THE PRACTICE OF SETTING FORTH a historical event in both
prose and poetic form occurs with some frequency in
prologues and epilogues frequently bracket the central narrative."1
He points out, however, that "the cuneiform texts use hymnic ma-
terial as structural (primarily concluding) elements in both prose
and poetic compositions, but do not mix the modes of presenta-
tion."2 Likewise Lichtheim, commenting on the Kadesh battle in-
scription of Ramses II, observes that "the combination, in historical
inscriptions, of prose narratives with poems extolling the royal vic-
tories is of course not new. What is new is that the poem should be
more than a brief song of triumph that sums up the narration and
should itself be narrative."3 In fact in Egyptian literature poetry
often occurs within historical prose narrative. Thus Ramses's in-
scription is formed with a prose introduction and conclusion as well
as providing a prose narrative at one point to give the setting for
Ramses's heroic extraction of himself from surrounding Hittite
forces.4 Having been deserted by his own soldiers in the critical
hour of battle against the people of the area, Ramses asserted, "I
attacked all the countries, I alone."5
Richard D. Patterson is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Semitics and Old Tes-
1 James W. Watts, "Song and the Ancient Reader," Perspectives in Religious Stud-
ies 22 (1995): 135.
2 Ibid., 138.
3 Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient
Egyptian Literature (
of epic poetry.
4 For details see Alan H.
Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharaohs (
5 Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, 2:62.
Victory at Sea: Prose and Poetry in Exodus 14-15 43
Following a prose heading, he told in poetic lines of his per-
sonal strength and valor in the face of combat.
Head on he charges a multitude,
His heart trusting his strength;
Stout-hearted in the hour of combat,
Like the flame when it consumes.
Firm-hearted like a bull ready for battle,
He heeds not all the lands combined;
A thousand men cannot withstand him,
A hundred thousand fail at his sight.6
Other notable examples include the victory steles of the nine-
teenth dynasty pharaoh Merneptah (1234-1222 B.C.)7 and the
twenty-fifth dynasty king Piye (751-716 B.C.).8 Merneptah's in-
scription has a prose introduction that gives the king's titulary,
followed by a formal encomium to the king, and a long epic poem
telling of the king's mighty exploits and his
peace. The stele of King Piye includes a freer mixture of prose and
poetry. The poetry is often set within the prose narrative to provide
dramatic detail in direct speech. Interestingly Moses' Egyptian
homeland provides the clearest examples o f the use of poetry
within prose narrative.9 Thus Watts remarks, “It is ancient Egyp-
tian, more than Semitic, literature which provides a number of
partial parallels and one very close parallel (the Piye Stela.) to the
The Pentateuch displays a remarkable pattern of utilizing po-
etry to provide historical information and as a literary device to
give structure to the narrative.11 Sailhamer suggests that in the
Pentateuch there is deliberate placement of poetry after narrative
sections and before an epilogue.
6 Ibid., 2:63.
7 Ibid., 2:73-78. Merneptah's stele is better known as the so-called "Israel Stele."
8 Ibid., 3:66-89. Lichtheim agrees with a growing number of Egyptian scholars
who say the name of the Cushite king commonly rendered as Piankhy should be
rendered Piye (or Pi).
9 Moses is both the assumed author and narrator throughout this study.
10 Watts, "Song and the Ancient Reader," 138.
11 The technique of inserting poetry in a prose narrative is attested elsewhere in
the Bible (e.g., the well-known "Song of Deborah" in Judges 5). This observation in
no way questions the inerrancy of the Old Testament canonical form (Michael A.
Grisanti, "Inspiration, Inerrancy, and the OT Canon: The Place of Textual Updating
in an Inerrant View of Scripture," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 44
44 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 2004
First, this pattern is found in the large poetic text (Gen.
49:1-27) at the close of the patriarchal narratives, along with the
epilogue of Genesis 50.
Second, the two major narrative units that follow that of Gene-
sis--the Exodus narratives and the wilderness narratives-both
conclude with a poetic section, Exodus 15 and Numbers 23-24.
Third, the pattern embraces the whole Pentateuchal narrative,
which concludes with the poetic "Song of Moses" and "Blessing of
Moses" (Deut. 32-33) and the epilogue of Deuteronomy 34.12
This study is concerned with the use of poetry that is set
within the narrative of
lowing an examination of the prose narrative and the poetic portion
of the Re(e)d Sea crossing, basic hermeneutical principles will be
drawn and applied to an evaluation of the historicity of each liter-
ary genre as well as the event itself.
THE NARRATIVE ACCOUNT
The narrative of the Re(e)d Sea crossing forms a pivotal part of a
larger narrative detailing the Hebrews' journey from
nai (Exod. 12:37-19:2). The major stages of the itinerary are
marked structurally by the recurring phrase "and they departed
from." The narrative traces the Israelites'
Succoth (12:37-13:19), from Succoth to the sea (13:20-15:21), from
the sea to the oasis at Elim (15:22-27), from Elim to the Desert of
Sin (16:1-36), from Sin to Rephidim (17:1-18:27), and from Re-
phidim to Sinai (19:1-2).14
12 John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as
13 The debate as to whether the precise body of water involved should be called the
not at issue here. For details see William F. Albright, The Vocalization of the Egyp-
tian Syllabic Orthography (New Haven, CT: American Oriental Society, 1966), 65;
Thomas 0. Lambdin, "Egyptian Loan Words in the Old Testament," Journal of the
American Oriental Society 73 (1953): 153; Herbert Wolf, An Introduction to the Old
Testament Pentateuch (Chicago: Moody, 1991), 140-41; Richard D. Patterson,
in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L.
Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke (Chicago: Moody, 1980), 2:620; James K.
Hoffmeier, in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and
Exegesis, ed. Willem A. VanGemeren (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 3:943; Ber-
nard F. Batto, "The Reed Sea: Requiescat in Pace," Journal of Biblical Literature
(1983): 27-35; and James K. Hoffmeier,
14 The identification of the various sites listed in the Exodus itinerary and their
Victory at Sea: Prose and Poetry in Exodus 14-15 45
The narrative account of the crossing of the sea forms the
dramatic telling of events after leaving Succoth (13:20-22). The
story falls into three observable units each introduced by the
phrase "Then the Lord said to Moses" (14:1, 15, 26). The first main
section contains three subsections. The opening subsection (A) be-
gins with the Lord's instruction to Moses and company by the sea
and a divine assurance that God would use the occasion to gain
glory over Pharaoh (14:1-4). A short narrative (B) follows, relating
how the pursuing Egyptians, who had a change of heart with re-
gard to letting the Hebrews go (vv. 5-9), overtook them at the sea,
(C) causing great consternation in the Israelite camp (vv. 10-14)-
Subsections A and B are framed by the mention of Pi Hahiroth (vv.
2, 9) and are stitched together with the revelation that Yahweh
would harden Pharaoh's heart so that the Egyptians would pursue
the Israelites (vv. 4, 8). Subsection C features a dialogue between
the people and Moses (vv. 10-14) that reveals the people's frame of
The second main section again begins with the Lord's instruc-
tions to Moses, this time with regard to enabling the Israelites to
pass through the sea. Once again God assured Moses that He
would gain glory over Pharaoh, for the pursuing Egyptians would
follow the Israelites into the sea, where the pursuers would perish
(vv. 15-18). The account continues in a narrative that carries the
story forward toward its climax.
Having sent His angel to take up a position between the two
groups of peoples resulting in pitch darkness over the Egyptian
camp while light remained for the Israelites (vv. 19-20), the Lord
sent such a strong wind that the waters of the sea were divided
and the ground made perfectly dry. Therefore the Israelites "went
through the midst of the sea on the dry land, and the waters were
like a wall to them on their right hand and on their left" (v. 22).
The Egyptians pursued the Israelites into the water, only to find
that divine intervention caused their chariot wheels to come off.
This time the Egyptians were struck with panic (vv. 23-25).
The third main section brings the account to its dramatic de-
nouement. Yet a third time Yahweh gave instructions to Moses. As
he had been commanded previously (v. 16), Moses was now to
stretch out his hand over the sea and the waters would come back
to inundate the pursuing Egyptians (v. 26). When Moses had done
significance for the dating and historicity of the Exodus account have occasioned an
extensive amount of discussion. For helpful recent
Rapids: Baker, 1997), 121-41.
46 BIBUOTHECA SACRA / January-March 2004
as the Lord commanded, all the Egyptians perished in the waters
(vv. 27-28). Because God had delivered His people from the Egyp-
tians and brought them through the sea on dry ground, the peoples'
earlier fear (v. 10) turned into reverential trust in the Lord and full
confidence in Moses (vv. 30-31).
This account in chapter 14 has all the elements of good prose
narrative. It has an observable plot that is carefully crafted with
distinct sections and subsections. It presents strong characteriza-
tion. Although much of the focus centers on Moses in contrast to
his fearful followers, Yahweh is the main character. As is typical in
biblical narrative, so here one of the distinctive features is "the
overwhelming presence of God."15 The pursuing Egyptians were
clearly the chief foil, serving as antagonists to the Lord. That the
story is all about
sized in the narrator's threading of sections of dialogue throughout
the narrative. As Alter points out, "The biblical writers ... are of-
ten less concerned with actions in themselves than with how indi-
vidual character responds to actions or produces them; and direct
speech is made the chief instrument for revealing the varied and at
times nuanced relations of the personages to the actions in which
they are implicated."16
The subsections featuring direct communication between
Yahweh and Moses (14:1-4, 15-18, 26) take on particular impor-
tance and underscore the fact of God's sovereign direction and
guidance. The dialogue portions also call attention to the Egyp-
tians' haughtiness and self-confidence (vv. 3, 5), the people's fear
(vv. 11-12), and Moses' unwavering trust in the Lord (vv. 13-14).
Further, great themes and phrases stitch the fabric of the ac-
count into its whole cloth. The Lord's sovereignty, as seen in His
instructions to Moses, His hardening of the hearts of the Egyp-
tians, and His assurances that He will gain glory over the Egyp-
tians so that both the Israelites and Egyptians will know His
power, is felt throughout the narrative. The theme of the waters of
the sea pervades the whole, giving unity to the passage (vv. 2,
15-16, 21-23, 26-28). The effect is to emphasize the miraculous.
causing the waters of the sea to part in the middle, enabling them
to pass on dry ground, while destroying the superior force of the
Egyptians in those same waters.
15 Walter C. Kaiser Jr., The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable and
16 Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic, 1981), 66.
Victory at Sea: Prose and Poetry in Exodus 14-15 47
THE POETIC ACCOUNT
The poetic account of chapter 15 includes the Song of Moses and
the Israelites (vv. 1-18)17 and the song of Miriam and the women
(v. 21), which is introduced by a short narrative (vv. 19-20). The
longer account has received a great deal of study with varying re-
sults as to genre type (hymn, hymn and thanksgiving psalm, en-
thronement psalm, liturgy, and victory song), number of stanzas
(whether two, three, or four),18 its date, and the issue of whether it
is dependent on the prose account or vice versa. The tenor of the
composition argues strongly for viewing this poem as a victory
psalm19 composed of three stanzas, each marked by the strategic
placement of staircase parallelism (vv. 6, 11, 16b)20 that forms a
refrain and a hinge device. The opening spontaneous praise (v. 1)
17 Interestingly in the Septuagint the Song of Moses occurs in the Pentateuch and
also as the first of the odes appended to the Psalter. In the latter case verse 19 is
included with verses 1-18 and is written in poetic form.
18 See, for example, J. J. Burden, "A Stylistic Analysis of Exodus 15:1-21: Theory
and Practice," Ou Testamentiese werkgemeenskap in Suid-Afrika 29 (1986): 34-72;
U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1967),
172-82; Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1974),
George W. Coats, "The Traditio-Historical
Character of the
Vetus Testamentum 17 (1967): 253-65; idem, "The Song of the Sea," Catholic Bibli-
cal Quarterly 31 (1969): 1-17; F. M. Cross, Studies in Ancient Yahwistic Poetry (Bal-
timore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1950), 83-127; idem, Canaanite Myth and
Hebrew Epic (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973), 112-44; David Noel
Pottery, Poetry, and Prophecy: Studies in
Early Hebrew Poetry (
Poetic Analysis," Ephemerides theologicae lovanienses 65 (1989): 5-42; James
Muilenburg, "A Liturgy on the Triumphs of Yahweh," in Studia Biblica et Semitica,
ed. Th. C. Vriezen (Wageningen: H. Veenman, 1966), 233-51; Richard D. Patterson,
Song of Redemption,"
Strauss, "Das Meerlied
des Mose-ein 'Siegeslied'
alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 97 (1985): 103-9; James W. Watts, Psalm and Story:
Inset Hymns in Hebrew Narrative (Sheffield: JSOT, 1992), 41-62; and J. P. van der
Westhuizen, "Literary Device in Exodus 15:1-18 and Deut 32:1-43 as a Criterion for
Determining Their Literary Standards," Ou Testamentiese werkgemeenskap in Suid-
Afrika 17/18 (1984): 57-73.
19 For the genre victory song see James H. Breasted, ed., Ancient Records of Egypt
(New York: Russell and Russell, 1962), 13:94; Peter C. Craigie, "The Song of Debo-
rah and the Epic of Tukulti-Ninurta," Journal of Biblical Literature 88 (1969):
253-65; William F. Edgerton and John A. Wilson, Historical Records of Ramses III
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1936), 111-12; Alan J. Hauser, "Two Songs of
Victory: A Comparison of Exodus 15 and Judges 5," in Directions in Biblical Hebrew
Poetry, ed. Elaine R. Follis (Sheffield: JSOT, 1987), 265-84; Lichtheim, Ancient
Egyptian Literature, 2:35-39, 43-48; and Richard D. Patterson, "The Song of Debo-
rah," in Tradition and Testament: Essays in Honor of Charles Lee Feinberg, ed. John
S. Feinberg and Paul D. Feinberg (Chicago: Moody, 1981), 142.
20 So also Wilfred G. E. Watson, Classical Hebrew Poetry (Sheffield: JSOT, 1986),
48 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 2004
and the singing of Miriam and the women (v. 21) simultaneously
provide the theme for Moses' full victory hymn and a suitable
framing device that forms a prelude and postlude for the whole
passage (vv. 1-21).21
The case for viewing Exodus 15:1-18 as a victory song is sub-
stantially strengthened by the fact that it includes a number of fea-
tures present in other Old Testament victory songs. Hauser iso-
lates five such features common to Exodus 15:1-18 and Judges 5:
a focusing on the specific name of
tion of specific terms or phrases to God and or a description of
God's role in the victory, (c) a description of God's use of the forces
of nature to give
and (e) a description of the enemy's fall.22
The first stanza of the poem includes the opening dedicatory
praise (v. 1b), an exordium exalting
Divine Warrior (v. 3),23 a celebration of God's victory over Phar-
aoh's forces in the waters of the sea (vv. 4-5), and a refrain cele-
brating God's mighty strength (v. 6).
In the second stanza Moses again praised God for His great
victory, using a series of similes to describe
The enemy was consumed like chaff (v. 7) and "sank like lead in
the mighty waters" (v. 10), which for
heap" (v. 8). A touch of sarcasm is also added (Hauser's fourth
point) in deriding the enemy's boastful intention to overtake and
despoil God's people (v. 9).
The hinge refrain of verse 11, praising Yahweh's incompara-
bility as a holy God and worker of miracles, sets the scene for the
third stanza.24 Here
and for His love for His people, which gives them confidence in His
future guidance in leading
21 The opening words of verse 1 are reminiscent of a similar incipit in Psalm 89:1.
A similar sentiment may also be seen in Psalm 45:1 (Richard D. Patterson, "A Mul-
tiplex Approach to Psalm 45," Grace Theological Journal 6 : 35-36).
22 Hauser, "Two Songs of Victory" 280.
23 See Childs, The Book of Exodus 252; for the motif of the Divine Warrior see F.
Cross Jr., "The Divine Warrior in
Altmann (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966), 11-30; Tremper Longman
III, "Psalm 98: A Divine Warrior Victory Song," Journal of the Evangelical Theologi-
cal Society 27 (1984): 267-74; idem, Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), 135-38; and idem and D. G. Reid, God Is a War-
rior (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995).
24 Burden calls Yahweh's incomparability "the central motif of the song" ("Stylistic
Victory at Sea: Prose and Poetry in Exodus 14-15 49
land of their inheritance and the Lord's dwelling (vv. 12-17). A tes-
timony to God's eternal reign closes the poem (v. 18).
This is a piece of carefully crafted literature. The individual
units of the poem are well constructed with identifiable stanzas
and strophes, while observable themes, phrases, and vocabulary
blend the parts together. Thus the emphasis on the waters of the
sea is featured in the first two stanzas (vv. 1, 4-5, 8, 10), and the
motif of the right hand or arm of God occurs in the second and
third stanzas (vv. 6, 12, 16a), together with the triumphant excla-
mation that Pharaoh's horses and chariots have been hurled into
the sea (vv. 1, 4; cf. v. 21).25
A COMPARISON OF THE PROSE AND POETICAL ACCOUNTS
prose and the longer of the two poetic accounts share an
tial unity in several matters of theme and vocabulary. Both em-
phasize the sea and its waters (Exod. 14:2, 9, 16, 21-23, 26-28, 29;
15:4-5, 8, 10) in which the Egyptians perished (14:23, 26-28; 15:1,
4-5, 10).26 Both mention that the waters were piled up on either
side of the path by the breath or wind of God (14:21-22; 15:8). The
theme of pursuit also appears in both accounts (14:4, 8, 17, 23;
15:9). Also the two accounts agree on several features: the waters
congealed and stood fast like a wall so that the Egyptians unhesi-
tatingly pursued the Israelites into the path that had been estab-
lished, only to realize too
late that Yahweh was returning the
ters on them so that they perished in the midst of the sea
Nevertheless there are marked differences between the two.
The prose narrative provides a setting for the core miracle, for it
gives details of the arrival of both the Israelites and the Egyptians
at the sea. Further, the prose narrative includes such matters as
the Israelites' fear because of the Egyptian presence, the divine
assurances to Moses and the angelic intervention, the role played
by Moses and his outstretched hand, the Egyptians' fright at the
prospect of impending doom, and the Israelites' renewed reverence
25 See also Mark S. Smith, "The Poetics of Exodus 15 and Its Position in the Book,"
and Imagination in Biblical Literature, ed.
ever, opts for a bipartite division of the poem (vv. 1-12, 13-18) reflecting the
priestly redaction of the book. Thus "vv. 1-12 refer generally to the events leading
up to and including the victory at the Sea rendered in the first half of the book,
while vv. 13-18 anticipate the events following the victory at the sea, as described
in the second half of the book" (ibid., 34).
26 This is also found in 15:19 and 21.
50 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 2004
of the Lord and trust in Moses. A feature unique to the prose ac-
count is its emphasis on the fact that the Israelites went through
the parted waters on dry ground (14:16, 21-23, 29).27
Also the poetic account has several unique elements, such as
the opening dedicatory praise and exordium (15:lb-2), the applica-
tion of the motifs of the Divine Warrior (v. 3) and the right hand of
the Lord (v. 6), and the themes of the burning anger (v. 8) of the
faithful, holy, wonder-working God (vv. 11, 13) that caused horse
and rider (v. 1) and chariot and army (v. 4) to perish in the waters.
"In Exod. 15:10, 4-5, the poet insists that the Egyptians sank in the
sea, into which Yhwh ‘cast’ them.... In Exodus 14 ... Yhwh casts
the sea .... on the Egyptians."28 Of particular significance also is
the prophetic portrayal of God's leading of His people through the
midst of terrified nations into the land where Yahweh Himself
would dwell and reign forever (15:13-18).29
Moreover, the longer poetic account is filled with graphic im-
agery and the free use of figurative and hyperbolic language rather
than the straightforward narrative details of the prose account. In
addition to the similes noted above, Yahweh would make the na-
metaphor (v. 15), hendiadys (vv. 2, 4, 14, 16), synecdoche (vv. 1, 6,
8, 10, 16), irony (v. 9), and rhetorical question (v. 11). Some exam-
ples of paronomasia occur (e.g., hsAKA "cover"/"sank," vv. 5, 10; and
HaUr, "breath"/"wind," vv. 8, 10).
Several conclusions may be derived from this examination of these
texts. First, whatever the date of the respective prose and poetic
accounts, one must deal with the final form of the full story of the
miraculous crossing of the Re(e)d Sea, including the use of poetry
set within the flow of the narrative. Both the longer poem of Moses'
song and the shorter poetic piece of Miriam's song must be taken
into account. Scholars have noted that women in the Old Testa-
ment played a prominent part on such occasions as the incident at
the Re(e)d Sea, for they assumed a leading role in the music and
27 This feature does occur, however, in the continuing narrative in verses 19-21.
28 Baruch Halpern, The Emergence of
29 In this regard Michael A. Fishbane points out that this feature links the Exodus
to the Abrahamic
Covenant (Gen. 15:13-16) and the conquest of
Victory at Sea: Prose and Poetry in Exodus 14-15 51
dancing (e.g., Judg. 5:1-31; 11:34; 1 Sam. 18:6-7; 2 Sam. 6:5,
14-16, 20-22). Therefore some have suggested that the shorter
song of Miriam is older than the longer song of Moses.30 Others
attempt to relate her song to the longer poem by suggesting that
Miriam's song provided "the antiphonal response and rhythmic ac-
companiment" to Moses' song.31 Thus Kaiser remarks, "Miriam led
the women perhaps in an antiphonal response, repeating the song
at the conclusion of each part or strophe, accompanied by timbrels
Perhaps the simplest solution is to view Miriam's song as be-
ing sung immediately after the Israelites' safe passage through the
sea and the defeat of the Egyptians, while Moses soon afterward
composed the poetic masterpiece of Exodus 15:1-18 and led the
people in its singing.33 Understood in this way, verses 19-21 com-
plete the narrative on the miraculous crossing of the Re(e)d Sea
(i.e., 13:17-14:31; 15:19-21), which is then followed by the narra-
tive of the journey into the wilderness that eventually brought Is-
may then be understood as introducing a pluperfect temporal
clause that stiches verse 19 to the events narrated in 14:30-31.
This is followed by additional information that relates the further
activities of Miriam and the women (15:20-21).
Understood in this way, the narrative beginning in 14:30-31 is
continued in 15:19-21, with the whole unit of 14:30-31 and
15:19-21 forming the second half of the full unit begun at 14:26.
30 See, for example,
Martin Noth, Exodus,
Old Testament Library (
poses that the poem of verses 1-18 is really Miriam's song, to which Moses and the
a people responded antiphonally ("Song of Moses, Song of Miriam: Who Is Seconding
Whom?" Catholic Biblical Quarterly 54 [1992): 211-20). See also, but with differing
emphasis, S. E. Gillingham,
The Poems and Psalms of the Hebrew Bible
William H. C. Propp, Exodus 1-18, Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 548.
32 Walter C. Kaiser Jr., "Exodus," in The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 2
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 396.
33 Bernhard W.
ent song which was an immediate poetic response to the event of Yahweh's libera-
tion that it celebrates" ("The Song of Miriam Poetically and Theologically Consid-
ered," in Directions in Biblical Hebrew Poetry,
importance of Miriam's song are largely shared by Walter Brueggemann ("A Re-
sponse sponse to ‘The Song of Miriam,’ by Bernhard Anderson," in Directions in Biblical
52 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 2004
The seeming redundancy of 15:19, troublesome to many,34 serves
as a stitching device that threads the two subsections (14:26-29,
30-31; 15:19-21) together.35 Exodus 15:1-18 would then be seen as
an independent poem (whatever its time of composition) inserted
into the final narrative.
Second, the literary constraints attendant to the genres of
prose and poetry inevitably require that each be evaluated on its
own terms. The victory song of 15:1-18 should not be pressed with
a literalistic hermeneutic and the prose narrative should not be
expected to contain all the sensational features of the poem.36
Third, the combination of the prose and poetic accounts
sketches a far richer portrait of what took place at the Re(e)d Sea.
terial enables the same event to be seen in two different and
equally essential ways."37
Fourth, theologically the union of the two accounts under-
scores the sovereign and awesome power of
working God and its effect in the lives of God's people. The events
at the sea constitute "an instantaneous and astounding victory,
utterly confounding all human expectation, worked by the mighty
arm of the Lord who with his own breath heaps up the wave and
with his own breath looses it upon the enemy."38
Fifth, a further word needs to be said about the function of the
poetry that is set into the prose narrative. Taking its theme from
the song of Miriam (15:21), Moses' song is designed to underscore
34 See, for example, Janzen, "Song of Moses," 213-15; and Phyllis Trible, "Bringing
Miriam Out of the Shadows," Bible Review 5 (1989): 18-20. The much-debated "to
them" (masculine plural) in 15:21 is easily explained as the women's response to the
implied exclamations of renewed trust in Yahweh and Moses made by the Israelite
people (masculine nouns, 14:30-31).
35 For the varied uses of repetition as a literary device see Alter, The Art of Bibli-
cal Narrative, 88-113; and Jacob Licht,
Storytelling in the Bible, 2d ed. (
Magnes, 1986), 51-95. Licht views 15:19 as a poetic tricolon, which, though not part
of the psalm (15:1-18), serves as "a marking device of the prose account that quotes
the Song" (ibid., 92).
36 For the distinction between "literalistic" and "literal" exegesis see Kevin J. Van-
hoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 310-12.
37 Walter J. Houston, "Misunderstanding or Midrash? The Prose Appropriation of
Poetic Material in the Hebrew Bible," Zeitschrift fur die alttestamentliche Wissen-
schaft 109 (1997): 342-55.
38 Ibid., 354. "The effect of these psalms on their narrative contexts is to point out
to readers God's underlying knowledge and control of events, thus turning the sto-
ries into examples of how
God cares for God's people" (
Victory at Sea: Prose and Poetry in Exodus 14-15 53
the Lord's role in the great victory over the Egyptians.39 Thus it
reinforces the prose narrative's central theme, which revolves
around the Lord's instructions to Moses and His intentions to de-
liver the people whom He had redeemed out of
This feature of praising God for the defeat of the enemy is
typical of ancient victory songs.40 As in the case of the Song of
Deborah (Judg. 5), God's people were in desperate circumstances.41
In Deborah's case a generation of Canaanite oppression had left
experience at the sea, there was the real possibility of extinction at
the hands of the mighty Egyptian military force. In both cases only
God could overcome the enemy, and He did. Therefore He was to be
thanked, praised, and trusted.
Sixth, the high exaltation of God in Moses' song draws atten-
tion to the sharp contrast between the Israelites' attitude after the
crossing of the sea and their changed outlook in the adventures
that took place before their arrival at
people returned to being a group of perpetual complainers (15:24;
16:1-3; 17:1-2).42 This had already been seen in the narrative ac-
count of the adventure at the sea (14:11-12). "The great disparity
between God and people is emphasized not only by exalting God
but also by exposing the unworthiness of the Israelites. The latter
are depicted as chronic complainers."43 The poetry of 15:1-18 thus
serves as a transitional piece. Moses' rehearsal of God's great tri-
umph over the Egyptians (vv. 1-12) and his singing of God's inten-
tions to provide full guidance for the journey to the Promised Land
(vv. 13-18) call attention to (a) the renewal of the prose account
39 See also David M. Howard Jr., An Introduction to the Old Testament Historical
Books (Chicago: Moody, 1993), 27; and Kaiser, "Exodus," 392.
40 For the genre of victory song see Craigie, "The Song of Deborah and the Epic of
Tukulti-Ninurta," 253-65; Edgerton
111-12; Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, 2:35-39; and Patterson, "The Song
of Deborah," 142.
41 A number of similarities exist between Moses' song and Deborah's song. Both
begin with an opening exordium to God (Exod. 15:1-2; Judg. 5:2-3); both emphasize
the intervention and power of
both tell of the arrogance and evil intentions of the enemy (Exod. 15:9; Judg. 5:19);
and both divinely engineered victories took place in connection with water that in-
undated the enemy (Exod. 15:1, 4, 8, 10; Judg. 5:20-21), turning the enemy's supe-
rior chariot force into a liability (Exod. 15:2; Judg. 5:22; cf. Exod. 14:24-25).
42 As in the case of Moses' song, so Deborah's great song of praise is followed by an
account of the people's backsliding (Judg. 6:1-6).
43 Leland Ryken, Words of Delight (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987), 134.
54 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 2004
featuring Miriam s song of praise (vv. 19-21) and (b) the grumbling
of a people who should have been aware of God's continued under-
taking for them.
The question remains as to the relative historicity of the re-
spective accounts and the historical conclusions that can be drawn
from them. First, the similar features of the two accounts of the
crossing of the sea reveal an essential core of facts. (a) The fleeing
Israelites were bottled up between the sea and their Egyptian pur-
suers. (b) Miraculously the sea parted in such a fashion as to allow
the Israelites time to cross safely through the waters to the other
side. (c) When the Egyptians attempted to follow the Israelites on
the same path through the sea, the waters returned, drowning
them. (d) Following the safe passage and the demise of the Egyp-
tians, the Israelites celebrated and gave praise to Yahweh.
Second, the fact that one account of the crossing is written in
prose narrative and the other in poetry does not militate against
the historicity of these essential facts.44 (a) The prose account is
part of a larger account written in quasi-journalistic style narrat-
count enlarges on Miriam's song and then includes Moses' own vic-
tory song, in which the Israelites joined him in praising the Lord.
(c) Thus the combined effect yields a fuller picture of events sur-
rounding the adventure at the sea.45
44 Abraham Malamat remarks, "We could all do well to give heed to Wellhausen's
dictum, astounding for him: ‘If it [the Israelite tradition] is at all feasible, it would
be utter folly (Torheit) to give preference to any other feasibility' " ("The Proto-
L. Meyers and M. O'Connor [
45 The conclusions reached here are in harmony with a growing body of evidence
supporting the historicity of the Exodus event,
from the departure from
Conquest. Thus Hoffmeier concludes his comprehensive study by observing, "The
body of evidence reviewed in this book provides indirect evidence which shows that
the main points of the
should be noted that the precise order of creation of the respective literary accounts
concerning the crossing of the sea is uncertain. It may be a case of a historiographic
prose tradition drawn from a previous poem, as Yair Zakovitch suggests for the
relation between Judges 4 and 5 ("Poetry Creates Historiography," in A Wise and
Discerning Mind, ed. Samuel M. Olyan and Robert C. Culley [
Judaic Studies, 20001, 313). If so, a literary scenario might be something like the
following. (1) Moses may have kept journalistic notes of events that transpired along
the way. (2) Such data included a record of Miriam's song after the crossing of the
sea. (3) Moses composed his song based on the theme of Miriam's song. (4) In the
final account Moses' song is inserted between the prose narrative concerning the
crossing of the sea and the record of the celebration led by Miriam and the women.
This material is cited with gracious permission from: Dallas Theological Seminary
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