What the Song of the Sea reveals about the Red Sea crossing
Whenever we think of the Exodus story, our minds are immediately filled with visions of the devastating plagues that Israel’s God visited upon the land of Egypt, or more specifically, the events of Passover. While these events are indeed spectacular and memorable, it is the climactic episode of the Exodus story—the crossing of the Red Sea—that seals Yahweh’s victory and allows the early Israelites to overcome the forces of Egypt—gods and the pharaoh alike. In his article “A Sea Change? Finding the Biblical Red Sea,” Barry J. Beitzel discusses several possible locations for this memorable event.
Immediately after the Red Sea crossing, Yahweh’s final victory over the Egyptians is celebrated in what is thought to be one of the earliest passages of the Hebrew Bible—the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:1–18).
Victory songs celebrating battles, with both cosmic deities and earthly kings, are found throughout the ancient Near East. Tales of the glorious battles of the gods were typically written on scrolls or tablets to be read aloud at festivals or other times of celebration. This was most likely the case with the Song of the Sea as well. One can easily imagine the Israelites gathering in the Temple courts to celebrate the Passover while one of the Levitical priests recited the song celebrating Yahweh’s great victory.
The chaotic sea deity was often the enemy of the storm god in the ancient Near East. The famous Babylonian epic Enuma Elish records Marduk’s great victory over Tiamat, the goddess of the primordial sea. A closer parallel is found among the Canaanite literature of ancient Ugarit. In this lengthy victory song, the Canaanite storm god Baal does battle with Yam, the god of the sea, before his throne is established on the heights of Mount Zaphon.
Earthly rulers would commonly inscribe songs onto large stone monuments known as victory stelae. A notable example is the victory song of Ramesses II commemorating the Battle of Kadesh against the forces of the Hittites. The great “victorious” king went so far as to inscribe this song in at least eight different places including the temples of Abydos, Luxor, Karnak, Abu Simbel, and the Ramesseum. The song celebrates the Egyptian pharaoh’s glory and military might:
I was like Re when he rises at dawn.
My rays, they burned the rebels’ bodies.
They called out to one another:
“Beware, take care, don’t approach him,
Sekhmet the Great is she who is with him,
She’s with him on his horses, her hand is with him;
Anyone who goes to approach him,
Fire’s breath comes to burn his body.”1
The biblical victory song reads much like those of Baal and Ramesses but with an ironic twist. Instead of the chaotic sea being the great enemy of Yahweh, it becomes his weapon of choice. He has complete control of the sea and uses the waters to destroy the forces of the boastful pharaoh, who has no power whatsoever. If Ramesses II was indeed the pharaoh of the Exodus, as many scholars believe, this victory song contains even further irony, as the forces of the mighty and unbeatable pharaoh—who claimed protection from divine fire—are “consumed like stubble.”
While the location of the crossing of the Red Sea (or Sea of Reeds) is debated, Barry J. Beitzel presents several different possibilities in his article in Biblical Archaeology Review. He argues that the crossing of the Red Sea took place near the area of the modern Suez Canal, but ultimately leaves it to readers to decide.
1. Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature: The New Kingdom, vol. 2 (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2006), p. 70.
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