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Song of the Sea

Song of the Sea

Shirat Hayam, the Song of the Sea, is the centerpiece of our Torah portion this week. “I will sing to the LORD for He has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider He has hurled into the Sea.” (Exodus 15.1) From the outset, God is portrayed as a mighty warrior. Adonai ish milchamah, Adonai Shemo. (Exodus 15.2) The Jewish Publication Society translates this as: “The LORD, the Warrior – LORD is His name!” Ish literally means “man,” thus ish milchamah literally is a “man of war,” and this term appears in other translations. But God is certainly not a man. The actual intent of the expression ish milchamah connotes a profession, if you will. So ish milchamah is more properly translated as “warrior.” One way or the other, it is clear that the Shir presents God as a warrior. Whom is the God of Israel warring against? Obviously the primary opponent is Pharaoh. But in addition to Pharaoh’s pursuing armies, there is the Sea of Reeds as well. The Sea plays a major role in this poem as the backdrop to the war that God was waging against Pharaoh. The Sea, in fact, was a potential enemy of the Israelites until God prevailed over it by splitting it in two.

This is not to suggest that the Sea itself is a god of some sort, though in other ancient cultures there was indeed a god of the sea. In fact when we read this Shir, we need to be cognizant of surrounding cultures of the Ancient Near East. In the Mesopotamian myth of creation Enuma Elish, a great fight took place between the sea monster Tiamat and the chief god of the Babylonian pantheon, Marduk. Tiamat is, in a effect, a female warrior, and Marduk is a male warrior. Marduk defeated the sea monster, and was then anointed as King of the World. Likewise, the Canaanite god Baal was announced as King of the Gods when he defeated Yam, the god of the sea, and Nahar, the god of the river.

While the Bible rejects these gods, we have to assume that these traditions were in the background of Shirat Hayam. But the problem for the writer of the Shir is that Biblical religion could not speak about such mythical figures as Marduk and Baal as gods. For the Bible, there is only one God – the God of Israel, the Creator of the world. Set against the backdrop of the Ancient Near East, it was a revolutionary and transformative idea.

But eventually, the idea of God as a mighty warrior became problematic for Jewish tradition, as evidenced elsewhere in the Bible. Deutero-Isaiah, most notably, imagines a “dialogue” between the God of Israel and the Persian King Cyrus, who was probably a follower of Zoroastrianism. God refutes all other gods, and emerges as the one and only Creator of heaven and earth, and all that is therein: “I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I the LORD do all these things. Shower, O heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness; let the earth open, and let them bring forth salvation, and let righteousness spring up also; I, the LORD, have created it.” ( 45.7-8) Note in these verses that God is not a “mighty Warrior,” but rather, an Oseh Shalom, the “Maker of Peace!”

In Isaiah, and also in Psalms, Zechariah, and elsewhere, we find the opposing portrayal of God as a “Maker of Peace.” So, is God a “Mighty Warrior” or a “Maker of Peace?” The Biblical answer is, both. If we take these opposing attributes metaphorically and apply them to ourselves as human beings, perhaps we can see that both are true. While sometimes the reality of human history and contemporary events forces us to be mighty warriors, our ultimate aspiration is to be pursuers of peace.

* This background was part of an extraordinary shiur (teaching) that I attended last year at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. It was presented by Bible Scholar Israel Knohl, who holds the Yehezkiel Kaufmann Chair of Biblical Studies at Hebrew University, and is a Senior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.