The Song of the Sea: An ANE Taunt

Peter Craigie wrote a great little article in Vetus Testamentum (vol. 20, #1, 1970: pp 83-86) called  “An Egyptian Expression in the Song of the Sea (Exodus XV.4).”  In this article, he argues that Ex 15.4 contains a word of Egyptian origin (šälìšäyw; “chosen officers” ESV); others have argued similarly for other words in the Song of the Sea (Ex 15.14 & 15 for example).

This isn’t a boring textual/critical note just for scholars.  What Craigie is saying is that the author of the Song of the Sea used “a Hebrew form of a foreign title in an accurate sense” (p. 85).  Craigie notes that the author wasn’t doing this to be historically accurate per se, but probably as a deliberate way to taunt Egypt in a poetic way.  “One aspect of victory songs as a genre in the ancient Near East is the use of taunt.  The use of Egyptian-type phraseology in a Song celebrating Israel’s victory would be an effective sarcasm and taunt, in a rhetorical sense, of the Egyptians” (p. 85-6).  This adds some depth to the song/poem, a richness that sits next to the narrative exodus account in chapter 14 in a wonderful way.

Of course, the Israelites weren’t foreign to Egyptian language of the day, so “the use of Egyptian expressions or formulae in a context describing the Egyptian military disaster would be most suitable” (p. 86).  In other words, this victory song celebrating the omnipotence of Yahweh over Egypt was also a ridicule of the enemy using the enemy’s own terms (like we do when we use the opposing football team’s own name to mock them).  This Ex 15 poetry is Nehemiah 4.4 worked out: they were turning the enemy’s taunt (Ex 15.9) back on their own head (Ex 15.4) in their song of praise to Yahweh.

A “praise song” like this probably wouldn’t make the top 40 today!

Side note: Craigie wrote the WBC commentaries on Psalms 1-50 (2nd ed.), Jeremiah 1-25, and Deuteronomy for the NICOT series, along with others.

shane lems

sunnyside wa