Patterson: Victory at Sea: Exod. 14-15

                                      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

Hamito-Semitic literature. Watts notes that poetic "hymnic

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-

tament, Liberty University, Lynchburg, Virginia.


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 (Berkeley, CA: University of

California Press, 1976), 2:59. Lichtheim views the Kadesh Inscription as an example

of epic poetry.

4 For details see Alan H. Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharaohs (Oxford: Clarendon,

1961), 259-64.

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 return to Egypt in

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

Hebrew usage."10

            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

[2001]: 577-98).

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 Israel's adventure at the Re(e)d Sea.13 Fol-

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.


                        LITERARY CONSIDERATIONS




The narrative of the Re(e)d Sea crossing forms a pivotal part of a

larger narrative detailing the Hebrews' journey from Egypt to Si-

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' movement from Egypt to

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 Narrative (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,

1992), 35-36.

13 The debate as to whether the precise body of water involved should be called the

Red or Reed Sea (JUs MyA, which reflects the Egyptian word twfy, "papyrus reed") is

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

102 (1983): 27-35; and James K. Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt (New York: Oxford,

1996), 199-222.

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 discussions see Hoffmeier, Israel

in Egypt, 164-98; and John D. Currid, Ancient Egypt and the Old Testament (Grand

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 Israel's redeeming Lord is particularly empha-

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.

The sovereign God, Israel's Redeemer, delivered His people by

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

Relevant? (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001), 174.

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 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),

240-53; George W. Coats, "The Traditio-Historical Character of the Reed Sea Motif,"

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

Freedman, Pottery, Poetry, and Prophecy: Studies in Early Hebrew Poetry (Winona

Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1980), 179-227; Maribeth Howell, "Exodus 1.5, lb-18: A

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,

"The Song of Redemption," Westminster Theological Journal 57 (1995): 453-61;

Hans Strauss, "Das Meerlied des Mose-ein 'Siegeslied' Israels?" Zeitschrift ftir die

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) a focusing on the specific name of Israel's God, (b) the applica-

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 Israel the victory, (d) the mocking of the enemy,

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 Israel's God as Redeemer and

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 Egypt's great defeat.

The enemy was consumed like chaff (v. 7) and "sank like lead in

the mighty waters" (v. 10), which for Israel had "stood up like a

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 Israel's God is praised for the recent victory

and for His love for His people, which gives them confidence in His

future guidance in leading Israel through the wilderness into the


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 [1985]: 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.

M. Cross Jr., "The Divine Warrior in Israel's Early Cult," in Biblical Motifs, ed. A.

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

Analysis," 67).


            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




The prose and the longer of the two poetic accounts share an essen-

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 wa-

ters on them so that they perished in the midst of the sea

(14:21-29; 15:8-10).

            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,"

in Imagery and Imagination in Biblical Literature, ed. Lawrence Boadt and Mark S.

Smith (Washington, DC: Catholic Biblical Association, 2001), 26-29. Smith, how-

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-

tions of Canaan "motionless as stone" (v. 16). Other figures include

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 Israel in Canaan (Chico, CA: Scholars,

1983), 37.

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 Canaan (Text and

Texture: Close Readings of Selected Biblical Texts [New York: Schocken, 1979],



            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

and dancing."32

            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-

rael to Mount Sinai (15:22-19:2). The initial particle yKi of 15:19

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 (Philadelphia:

Westminster, 1962), 123; and Coats, "The Song of the Sea," 3-4. J. G. Janzen pro-

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 (Oxford:

Oxford University Press, 1994), 145.

31 Watts, "Song and the Ancient Reader," 142. See also Cassuto, Exodus, 182; and

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. Anderson concludes that "the Song of Miriam ... is an independ-

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, 290-91). Anderson's views on the

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

Poetry, 297-302).


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.

Houston astutely concludes that "the use of different kinds of ma-

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 Israel's miracle-

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. (Jerusalem:

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" (Watts, Psalm and Story, 190).


            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 Egypt (14:1-4,

15-18, 26).

            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

Israel so weakened that its very existence was at stake. In Israel's

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 Mount Sinai. The thankful

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 and Wilson, Historical Records of Ramses III,

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 Israel's God (Exod. 15:1, 3-8, 10-12; Judg. 5:4-5);

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-

ing Israel's travels after the exodus from Egypt. (b) The poetic ac-

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-

History of Israel: A Study in Method," in The Word of the Lord Shall Go Forth, ed.

Carol L. Meyers and M. O'Connor [Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 19831, 310).

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 Egypt to the

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 Israel in Egypt and exodus narratives are indeed plausible"

(Israel in Egypt, 226). See also Kaiser, The Old Testament Documents, 109-18. It

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 [Providence, RI: Brown

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

            3909 Swiss Ave.  Dallas, TX   75204

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: