PARASHAT BESHALLACH (Ex 13:17 – 17:16)

Theme:  The Song of the Sea

This week’s parashah is Beshallach.  The best–known passage is the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15 and this is followed by an account of the early trials of life in the wilderness.

The Israelites have left Egypt, and Pharaoh and his chariots are in hot pursuit. Very soon the people reach the Red Sea and as Pharaoh’s army approach they can go no further;  for a terrible moment it seemed that all was lost but the sea parted miraculously and the people crossed over to safety.  When the Egyptian army followed, it was engulfed by the waters and the Song was an unrestrained voicing of relief, praise and triumphant exultation.

The Song of the Sea remains prominent in Jewish and Christian liturgical life but I can well imagine that many participants will have considerable reservations.  We are celebrating the God of battle and the Song is very violent:  Pharaoh and his army have a terrible end and the mood is undoubtedly celebratory.

The peril of fusing God and war or providing religious justification for dreadful acts is well known and the development of nuclear weapons has made the prospect of armed conflict quite unthinkable.  Furthermore, conflict resolution and peace-building have made much progress and we should avoid at all costs creating a religious vision in which war is seen as an acceptable norm of political life.

However, I must disclose that in previous years I regularly read the Torah portion in my local synagogue and sang the Song of the Sea in customary fashion, using a particular chant that is different from the normal weekly reading.  I found that as I was reading I focused on a moment of deliverance from great peril and on the triumph of God over the forces of darkness, abuse and destruction.  Whatever the original context, the Song has been transmuted into liturgy and the language refers to eternal verities rather than the raw realities of its first inspiration.

I find Walter Brueggemann’s discussion particularly helpful.  Brueggemann says that “in the long stretch of the Bible, Pharaoh is not only an historical person but he also becomes a metaphor and symbol for all established power that seeks to organise the world against covenantal freedom, justice and neighbourliness.”

Brueggemann invites his readers to “imagine the world without the incomparable God of freedom and justice and neighbourliness who is attested in this Song.  Imagine that Pharaoh had never been overthrown, could not be challenged, and was never placed in question.  Without this dangerous poetic imagination of worship, we would have a world in which entrenched oppressive power is guaranteed to last in perpetuity.  Take away the poem and the slaves are fated forever to brick quotas, reduced to silence without moan or groan of self announcement.  Take away the tambourines of Miriam and we are left with an unchanging world of unbearable despair.

For Brueggemann, “Egypt” is not only a place of physical oppression but a symbolic construction of reality that made its power appear inevitable and unassailable, as it was an immutable element of the universe.  Deeply rooted myths and great Temple liturgies enabled powerful regimes to create and manage the social order as they certified and legitimised power beyond all question.

Bruegemann argues that this diagnosis is not confined to the ancient world, but is equally valid today.  He notes that we too live in a world of carefully managed assumptions where the consumer economy reduces everything to a commodity, as Pharaoh had done, and is built on an abuse of the earth that is rapacious and cannot be sustained.  He notes also the neglect of public infrastructure – health, education, housing and jobs – and a massively inequitable distribution of goods that is the product of a ruthlessly applied free market ideology.

For Brueggemann, ‘imagination’ is crucial as it gives us the capacity to see the world differently, to ‘out-imagine’ the current public doctrine and to subvert it by offering a more compelling vision of the good society.  He goes on to suggest that “worship is an act of poetic imagination that aims to reconstrue the world.”  Such imagination “presents lived reality in images, figures and metaphors that defy our conventional structures of plausibility and host alternative scenarios of reality…”  The Song of the Sea is a reconstrual of reality that imagines a new world and celebrates the end of tyranny, abuse and slavery enforced by the chariots of Pharaoh.  It is an ultimate rejection of what in previous weeks we have been referring to as ‘realism’.

A number of scholars, of whom Carol Meyers is the most recent, have suggested that the Song of the Sea was created and sung in its entirety by Miriam and attributed to Moses so that his transcendent prophetic leadership would not be in any way diminished.  This is not the traditional reading of the text and at first sight it seems implausible.  The text clearly states that Miriam’s brief concluding song was antiphonal – it was a response that followed on from and echoed the Song of Moses and the People.  The Song also seems violent, albeit that this is also true of the Song of Deborah, which is this week’s haftarah reading. 

The arguments in favour of Miriam’s authorship are as follows:  the verb in 15:21, ‘vata’an’, which is the basis of the antiphonal view, does translate as “she answered” or “responded”, but not necessarily so and not always:  it can also mean “she sang” and the Septuagint translates it as “she led them in song”.

Secondly, the verb at the beginning of the song in 15:2 is first person singular; “Ashira” or “I will sing”, although the ‘singers’ are said to be Moses and the People of Israel.

Thirdly, there is a Dead Sea Scroll fragment that seems to attribute an extended song to Miriam.

Finally, the tambourines and dancing, “tupim u’mecholot” are mentoned in a number of biblical texts in connection with extended women’s singing.  Presumably, a brief refrain would not have required “tupim u’mecholot” as accompaniment.

It might also be tentatively suggested that the Song – and Professor Meyers does not go this far – is in fact celebrating the prospective ending of warfare, violence and military abuse because God has overthrown the forces of militarism and established a “kingdom” (verse 18) which is radically different;  as verse 13 puts it, “Thou in Thy love has led the people that Thou has redeemed.”  The violent language is a concrete metonymy for the entire Pharaonic system and the Song is a Brueggemann type act of liturgical imagination, anticipating a new and peaceable reality.  In the very limited Biblical and rabbinic material telling us about Miriam, she is always a force for the holiness of life, and her Song is no exception.

Jonathan Gorsky