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Miriam's Song in its Context

Miriam's Song in its Context

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ANDERSON The Song of Miriam


and power of Yahweh, the Divine Warrior. This event, however, is

the prelude to a further divine triumph. Immediately after recapitulating the victory over the Egyptians (v. 12), the poet proceeds to

announce Yahweh's further demonstration of power:4

You faithfully led

the people whom you redeemed:

You guided in your might

to your holy encampment (Exod 15.13).

Then the poet goes on to describe how panic overwhelmed the

leaders of Edom and Moab, as well as other rulers of Canaan:

While your people passed over, Yahweh,

while your people passed over whom you have created

(Exod 15.16b).

This 'passing over' (the verb is 'abar) is not the crossing through the

sea but the movement toward the goal ahead. The poet says (15.17a),

addressing Yahweh, that 'you caused them to go in' (tebi'emo) and

'you planted them' in the sacred mountain, the sanctuary where

Yahweh is praised. Admittedly, the poem seems to reflect the

Canaanite mythic pattern: the conflict of the Divine Warrior with

adversaries, the building of a sanctuary on the sacred mountain for

the triumphant deity, and the celebration of the god's everlasting

kingship.5 The poetry, however, reflects the twofold confession that

Yahweh 'brought the people out of Egypt' and 'brought them in to

the promised land'. The entry into the land of Canaan is in view.

The broader horizon of the Song of the Sea raises the question as

to whether it belongs to another literary phase than that represented

by the Song of Miriam. In the past, traditio-historical investigation,

initiated by George Coats6 and followed up by Brevard Childs,7 has

proposed that the event at the sea belongs to the wilderness

wanderings tradition, not to the Exodus tradition in the larger sense

of Yahweh bringing the people out of Egypt and into a new land.

Childs's study in particular argues that 'Ex. xv reflects a poetic

tradition of the event of the sea, which although equally old as that in

the J account, has been transmitted within the larger framework of

the exodus and conquest traditions'.8 He suggests that in the early

stage of the Old Epic tradition, the sea event was an episode in the

people's plunge into the wilderness where they continually murmured

(see Exod 14.10-14). By the time of the final redaction of the

traditions in the post-exilic period, however, this event 'had become


Directions in Biblical Hebrew Poetry

central in the tradition and identified with the exodus from Egypt


However one reconstructs the traditio-historical development

from Old Epic tradition to the final text, there is strong reason to

believe that the Song of the Sea is an intrusive element, as various

scholars recognize.10 This judgment, of course, says nothing about

the relative ages of the traditions that have been combined.

Literarily, the poetic tradition reflected in the Song of the Sea may be

older than—or just as old as—the Old Epic tradition (JE). Certainly

this essay does not challenge the judgment of scholars of the Albright

school regarding the antiquity of Exod 15.1b-18. From a purely

literary point of view, however, the Song of the Sea, with its larger

horizon, appears to be an expansion of the epic tradition which once

moved from the narrator's conclusion in Exod 14.30-31 to the

singing of Miriam's song in Exod 15.20-21. The intrusion of the

passage now found in Exod 15.1-18 into this narrative context

necessitated the somewhat awkward, and certainly prosaic, recapitulation in Exod 15.19:

For when the horses of Pharaoh with his chariots and charioteers

went into the sea, Yahweh caused the waters of the sea to

overwhelm them, but the Israelites walked on dry ground in the

middle of the sea.

2. The Song of Miriam Itself

Assuming, then, that originally the story of Israel's liberation

concluded with the Song of Miriam (perhaps harking back to the

beginning when the baby Moses' unnamed sister watched over him;

2.2, 7-8), let us turn to the song itself.

The song is composed of two distichs (bicola), each element of

which is articulated in a 2/2 rhythm:

sfru le YHWH

kfgd'o gd'd

Sing to Yahweh!

For he is powerfully ascendant.

sus werokebo

rdmd bayydm

Horse and charioteer

he has hurled into the sea.

While the song has a superficial affinity with songs of victory, like the

Song of Deborah Qudg 5), mainly it displays the formal features of

the hymn, the genre delineated by Hermann Gunkel. It opens with

an imperative plural verb (cf. Pss 113.1; 117.1; etc.) which summons

ANDERSON The Song of Miriam


a community to praise Yahweh: 'Sing to Yahweh!' This invitation is

followed by the motive for praise, a characteristic element of a hymn,

introduced by the particle ki ('for'): 'For Yahweh is powerfully

ascendant!' This translation attempts to render the force of the finite

verbga'd which is strengthened and made emphatic by the preceding

infinitive absolute ga'd. The verbal meaning is that Yahweh rose up

in power, became 'ascendant' (meaning 'in control', 'dominant',

'superior'). The motive for praise is followed by a further hymnic

ascription which portrays Yahweh's rising to the height of divine

power in a wonderful moment of liberation of fugitives from

pursuing enemies: 'Horse and charioteer Yahweh has hurled into the

sea'. 'The image for the victory', writes George Coats, 'is mythopoetic',

and 'in all probability is the oldest recounting of the event of the Sea

in the Old Testament'.11

In both form and brevity the Song of Miriam corresponds closely

to Psalm 117, the shortest psalm in the Psalter. The psalm also

begins with plural imperatives which summon people to praise


halflu 'et-YHWH kol-goyim

sabbehuhu kol-ha'ummim

Praise Yahweh all nations,

Glorify him all peoples!

This Aufgesang is followed by the motive for praise, also introduced

by the particle ki:

ki gdbar 'dlenu hasdo

we'emet-YHWH F'olam

For his loyalty prevails over us,

and Yahweh's faithfulness is endless.

Unlike the Song of Miriam, Psalm 117 concludes with an Abgesang,

as hymns often do, although there is some uncertainty as to whether

this concluding refrain, hallelu-yah^ belongs intrinsically to the

psalm. (In the LXX it is the opening of Psalm 118; it is lacking in the

Syriac version.)

The comparison of Miriam's song with Psalm 117 discloses two

matters. First, brevity does not provide a sure clue to the relative

antiquity of a literary unit. The notion that priority belongs to short

literary units formulated in concise style in contrast to extended

pieces composed in discursive style is a weak premise of past form

criticism.12 It is hazardous to argue on the basis of brevity alone that

Miriam's song is earlier than the Song of the Sea. On the other hand,

and this is the second point, the brevity of the Song of Miriam does

not necessarily indicate that we have here a poetic fragment or a

torso of a once longer poem. It is interesting to recall that Frank M.


Directions in Biblical Hebrew Poetry

Cross and David Noel Freedman in their initial study designated the

longer poem in Exod 15.1b-18 'The Song of Miriam', despite the fact

that in the present text this poem is introduced by a statement that

identifies Moses as the leading singer. The argument given was that

'the opening verse also served as the title of the song in antiquity, in

accordance with standard practice in titling poems'. This is said to

account for the similarity of the opening of (what they now title)

'The Song of the Sea' and the poetic piece usually called 'the Song of

Miriam'. 'Hence verse 21 [the Song of Miriam proper]', they wrote,

'is not a different or shorter or the original version of the song, but

simply the title of the poem taken from a different cycle of

tradition.'13 If this be so, it is hard to understand why the poem in

Exod 15.21 survives only in title and why it is now placed after the

Song of the Sea which elaborates on the title. Martin Noth plausibly

suggests that 'the older hymn' has provided the inspiration for the

Song of the Sea. The poet has re-sounded the keynote of Miriam's

song, although shifting from the plural imperative invitation to a

cohortative introduction, 'asird ('I will sing' or 'Let me sing'), and has

given the hymn a new poetic elaboration.14

Another explanation for the brevity of Miriam's song may be

found in the narrative context. In the Old Epic tradition we are given

a picture of Miriam taking the lead, while the women went out after

her dancing and playing their tambourines (cf. 1 Sam 18.6; Judg

11.34; Jer 31.13). Miriam 'answered them' (watta'an lahem, v. 21a),

we are told, by singing her song. The verb 'and ('answer, respond')

suggests that Miriam sang responsively. This has been noted by older

commentators, e.g. W.H. Bennett: 'Miriam and her choir sang

antiphonally'.15 Umberto Casssuto has gone a step further. The song,

he suggested, was intended as a 'refrain at the end of each strophe'—

that is, each strophe of the preceding Song of the Sea.16 Here Cassuto

seems to be bent upon harmonizing traditions that were once

independent. However, even when we bracket out the Song of the

Sea and concentrate on the Old Epic tradition, the brevity of

Miriam's song is appropriate to its function. It served to punctuate

the rhythms of 'the dance of the merrymakers' (cf. Jer 31.4) or

perhaps to give a musical interlude to the narrative of 'the Singer of

Tales', to recall the important book by Albert Lord.

To summarize: The Song of Miriam, which now stands under the

shadow of the superb Song of the Sea, deserves to be considered in its

own right. This is an independent song which was an immediate

ANDERSON The Song of Miriam


poetic response to the event of Yahweh's liberation that it celebrates.17

In song and dance Miriam and her companions celebrated with the

people the wonder of the event at the sea. In so doing, they

inaugurated a liturgical tradition in which other poets and singers

stood, including those who have given us the laments, thanksgivings

and hymns of the Psalter.

3. Some Theological Reverberations of Miriam's Song

It is not enough, however, to consider only the poetic dimensions of

Miriam's song and to try to assess its place in the history of Israel's

literary traditions. This song resounds with hymnic praise to

Yahweh, the liberating God, and therefore it makes a claim upon

faith. Here we can only consider in brief outline some of the

theological reverberations of the early song which were picked up

and elaborated by other Israelite poets and storytellers in later

situations and in various circles of tradition.

First of all, Miriam and her companions took the lead in

celebrating and in vocalizing the event of liberation at the sea. If we

may take the song as a theological clue, the event has two sides,

which are the obverse and reverse of the same coin. On the one hand,

the event was experienced as wonder—one could even say 'miracle'—

in the sense that God was experienced as being present as liberator in

a crucial moment. On the other hand, the event was expressed in

poetic language that communicated its saving power and hence made

it a social experience to be shared and celebrated. These two

dimensions—historical event and word-event—belong together

inseparably. Here we are not dealing with pure poetry, for the poet

witnesses to a historical reality. Even the radical historian Martin

Noth concluded that the event at the Sea belongs to the primary

stratum of tradition which rests on 'the bedrock of an historical

occurrence'.18 Nor are we dealing with a miraculous act of God

which resulted in speechless ecstasy, for 'the sensuous power of an

event', as Martin Buber puts it, 'has streamed into [the historical

situation] and lives on', precisely because it was given poetic

expression. The prophetess Miriam, Buber comments, in this

instance 'fulfilled the second of the two basic prophetic functions, of

bearing God's words to the community and bearing the words of the

community to God'.19

Martin Buber's essay on 'The Wonder on the Sea', to which I have

just alluded, could well be the startmg point for a theological


Directions in Biblical Hebrew Poetry

exposition that would far exceed the given limitations of this essay.

In an illuminating monograph on God's Presence in History, Emil

Fackenheim has resumed the discussion initiated by Buber. He

begins with a Jewish Midrash which asserts that what the humblest

woman saw at the Reed Sea was not seen by Isaiah, Ezekiel, and

other prophets of Israel. For instance, Ezekiel, according to the first

chapter of his prophecy, speaks of how the heavens were opened and

he beheld visions of God which cannot be fathomed—visions that

pertain to the holiness of God who is beyond the human world.

Miriam and her companions, on the other hand, saw something

which constitutes a 'root experience' of the whole Jewish tradition:

that the God, who is completely beyond the phenomenal realm and

who transcends all human categories, 'was unmistakably present to a

whole people at least once'.20

Here I shall not pursue further Fackenheim's thesis that the

modern historian has expelled God from history just as the modern

scientist has banished God from nature. Nor would it be fruitful to

launch into a discussion of what really happened at the Reed Sea. My

theological interest is rather in the relation between deed and wordhistorical event and speech event. If indeed the Holy God was

present to a people 'at least once'—and that seems to be the witness

of the Song of Miriam—then that presence became a 'saving

experience' (Fackenheim's expression) as it was articulated in poetic

speech. The word-event expressed—even evoked—the wonder that

was shared and celebrated in community. Buber remarks: 'the

miracle is revelation through the deed, which precedes revelation

through the word'.21 That may be so, though here we may face the

proverbial problem of the priority of the hen or the egg. In any case,

inspired poetry—and, I may add, engaging story-telling—has an

indispensable place in the sharing, communication, and transmission

of the 'root experiences' that give Israel its identity and vocation as a


Second, the poetic celebration of the presence of the Holy God in

the liberating event at the Sea indicates that the problem of evil, as a

theological issue, is incipient at the beginning of Israelite tradition.

God's liberating action 'leads to the saving of the one and the

downfall of the other', as Buber remarks in passing, without

pondering the theological implication of the statement.22

Theologies of liberation must take this problem seriously, especially

those that appeal to the Exodus as a paradigm of God's liberating

ANDERSON The Song of Miriam


work today. Martin Luther King once presented a sermon on the

subject, 'The Death of Evil upon the Seashore', based on the text

which in Old Epic tradition just precedes the Song of Miriam

(according to the above analysis): 'And Israel saw the Egyptians dead

upon the sea shore' (Exod 14.30).23 In this powerful sermon he

vividly portrays the flight of Hebrew slaves from Egypt: 'Egypt

symbolized evil in the form of humiliating oppression, ungodly

exploitation, and crushing domination'. The wonderful event occurred,

and 'when the Israelites looked back, all they could see was here and

there a poor drowned body beaten upon the seashore'. 'For the

Israelites', he goes on to say, 'this was a great moment... It was a

joyous daybreak that had come to end the long night of their

captivity.' Yet King adds a major qualification. 'The meaning of this

story is not found in the drowning of Egyptian soldiers, for no one

should rejoice at the death or defeat of a human being. Rather, this

story symbolizes [italics mine] the death of evil and of inhuman

oppression and unjust exploitation.'24

This symbolic interpretation belongs within the trajectory of the

Exodus tradition. To be sure, in the Song of Miriam the enemies are

Pharaoh's hosts, and that is true also in the Song of the Sea, even

though the poet was influenced by the Chaoskampf myth. Other

poets, however, portrayed the mythical sea as Yahweh's adversary, as

in Ps 114, 'When Israel came out of Egypt...' or Ps 77, 'The waters

saw you, God ... and writhed' (vv. 16-20); or they depicted Yahweh

as the divine Warrior who conquered Rahab and made the depths of

the sea a way for the redeemed to pass over (as in Isa 51.9-10).25 This

poetic tendency can also be seen in the Psalms, where the enemies

are faceless and are associated with the powers of chaos at work in

human history.26 Furthermore, in Isa 59.15b-20, a passage that

stands on the frontier of apocalyptic eschatology, Yahweh is

portrayed as the Divine Warrior who comes to achieve justice, clad in

the full armor of God including the 'breastplate of righteousness' and

the 'helmet of salvation'.

The theological point is that the problem of evil (or even the issue

of theodicy) did not arise only late in the history of Israel's traditions,

owing to a crisis in covenant theologies occasioned by the fall of

Jerusalem and the exile of the people. The problem was present, at

least incipiently, from the beginning. It was not linked exclusively

with monotheism but with God's action as liberator who, to use the

language of Mary's psalm in the New Testament, brings about the


Directions in Biblical Hebrew Poetry

downfall of the high and mighty and exalts those of low degree (Luke


Third, and finally, the event at the sea as poetically expressed is

open toward the future and is fraught with universal implications. In

part the future horizon is based on the disclosure of the God—the

sole Power, the Holy One—who was present in the event. As Emil

Fackenheim remarks, 'If God is ever present in history, this is not a

presence-in-general, but rather a presence to particular [people] in

particular situations'. Of course, if this is the disclosure of the God

who is truly God and not just a tribal deity or cultural idol, 'such a

presence must have universal implications'. He goes on to say:

'These implications, however, are manifest only in the particular;

and they make of the [people] to whom they are manifest, not

universalistic philosophers who rise above their situations, but rather

witnesses m, through, and because of their particularity to the


It should be added, I believe, that the event of liberation was

pregnant with universal implications not only by virtue of the

presence of the Holy God in a concrete, particular historical

situation but also by virtue of the poetic expression of the event. The

dominant metaphor in the Song of Miriam is a military one: Yahweh

is the warrior—not Yahweh is like a warrior (simile) but Yahweh is

the warrior (metaphor)—who comes to the rescue of the weak and

the helpless. This language is not just a nominalistic convention,

although admittedly it was derived from the social experience of the

time; in this poetic context it is a metaphor that participates

symbolically in the reality that is apprehended.

Thus the Song of Miriam as metaphor is open toward the future.

There may be a poetic reference to Miriam and her companions in an

exquisite poem found in Jer 31.2-6, where the Virgin Israel is to take

the lead in the new time of Yahweh's salvation.

Again I will build you, and you shall be built,

O virgin Israel!

Again you shall adorn yourself with timbrels,

and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers

(Jer 31.4 RSV)

Here the poet speaks of Israel—'the people who survived the sword'

and who 'found grace in the wilderness' (31.1)—in an inclusive sense

that transcends the brokenness of north and south Israel. And in the

poetry of Second Isaiah, the revelation of Yahweh, made known

ANDERSON The Song of Miriam


through deed and word at the Reed Sea, is the paradigm of a new

exodus of salvation in which Israel will mediate Yahweh's blessing to

all nations and peoples.28


1. For a rhetorical study of the Song of the Sea and references to other

studies, see James Muilenburg, 'A Liturgy on the Triumphs of Yahweh',

Studio Biblica et Semitica, Festschrift for Th. C. Vriezen (Wageningen: H.

Veenman, 1966), pp. 233-51.

2. Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus (OTL; Philadelphia: Fortress

Press, 1974), pp. 240-53.

3. Martin Noth, Exodus., trans, by J.S. Bowden (OTL; Philadelphia:

Westminster, 1962), pp. 122f.

4. Translation by Frank M. Cross, Jr, "The Song of the Sea and

Canaanite Myth', Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (Cambridge, Mass.:

Harvard University Press, 1973), p. 130.

5. Cross, ibid., p. 142.

6. George W. Coats, 'The Traditio-Historical Character of the Reed Sea

Motif, VT 17 (1967), pp. 253-65.

7. Brevard S. Childs, 'A Traditio-Historical Study of the Reed Sea

Tradition', VT 20 (1970), pp. 406-18.

8. Ibid., p. 412.

9. Ibid., p. 418.

10. See Noth, Exodus, p. 123, who regards the poem as a secondary

insertion; also Coats, 'The Song of the Sea', CBQ 31 (1969), pp. 4f.

11. Coats, 'The Song of the Sea', pp. 13f.

12. See my comments in the introduction to the translation of Martin

Noth's work, A History of Pentateuchal Traditions (Chico, Calif: Scholars

Press, 1980), p. xxv.

13. 'The Song of Miriam', JNES 14 (1955), p. 237.

14. Noth, Exodus, p. 123. See also Coats, 'Song of the Sea', pp. 3-4.

15. W.H. Bennett, Exodus (Century Bible; Edinburgh: T.C. & E. Jack,

1908 [?]), p. 137.

16. Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, trans, by

Israel Abrahams (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1967), p. 182. hi private correspondence

Baruch A. Levine advances another proposal: the referent oflahem in 15.21

is the Israelites of 15.1 who, with Moses as soloist, responded to Miriam's

song. This view requires construing 'and in 15.21 as 'recite, sing' (cf. Exod

32.18; Num. 21.17) and saying that the sequence has been altered in the

history of transmission.

17. See Glaus Westermann, The Praise of God in the Psalms, trans, by

Keith R. Grim (Richmond, Va.: John Knox, 1965), pp. 87-88.

18. Noth, History of Pentateuchal Traditions, p. 50.


Directions in Biblical Hebrew Poetry

19. Martin Buber, Moses (London: East & West Library, 1946), p. 74.

20. Emil L. Fackenheim, God's Presence in History: Jewish Affirmations

and Philosophical Reflections (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), p. 4.

21. Buber, Moses, p. 79.

22. Ibid., p. 75.

23. Martin Luther King, Jr, The Strength to Love (New York: Harper &

Row, 1963; Pocketbook Edition, 1964), pp. 71-81.

24. Ibid., p. 73.

25. In his book, Exodus (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1978), Severina J.

Croatto writes: "The more Israel becomes engaged in forming itself as a

people the more it focuses on that decisive event, which therefore is

represented in creational language (cf. Isa 44.21-24; 51.9-11), the allusion to

creation as a struggle against the forces of chaos (Isa 54.5; Deut 32.6; etc.)...

As important as origins are, the Hebrew world shifts them to another

epicenter, the salvific event of the Exodus ...' (p. 13).

26. See my discussion of this motif in Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak

For Us Today (revised edition; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983), pp. 8890.

27. Fackenheim, God's Presence, p. 8.

28. See further my essay, 'Exodus Typology in Second Isaiah', Israel's

Prophetic Heritage, Festschrift for James Muilenburg, ed. by B.W. Anderson

and Walter Harrelson (New York: Harper, 1962), pp. 177-95: Walther

Zimmerli, 'Der "neue Exodus" in der Verkfindigung der beiden grossen

Exilspropheten', Gottes Offenbarung (Munich: C. Kaiser, 1963), pp. 192204.




Walter Brueggemann

In recent years Professor Anderson has offered to the Society a series

of papers (including his presidential address1) that amount now to

something of a corpus with a distinctive character. Three elements

mark these papers, including the present paper:




They are models of clarity and restrained argument.

They are methodologically self-conscious, making some most

significant moves.

They are primarily concerned with the theological function of

the text.

I am particularly grateful for the way in which Anderson has

relentlessly insisted on the priority of the theological agenda. That

insistence is at times a lonely one in the guild.


Anderson's paper, it appears to me, divides into two parts. The turn

between the two parts is marked by the sentence that Miriam and her

contemporaries 'inaugurated a liturgical tradition in which other

poets and singers stood'.

Until that point, the paper is concerned with rather conventional

questions and judgments concerning the tradition-critical formation

of the text. Those questions (carefully dealt with) concern the

relation between prose and poetic traditions, between the long poem

of vv. 1-18 and the short poem under discussion, between mythic

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