Song and Memory
Why wander 40 years in the desert when the most obvious route to Eretz Israel from Egypt is directly up the coast? Sages have spoken about purifying the generations who suffered the assimilating, foreign, objectively pagan environment of Egypt. However, sometimes the most obvious explanation is explicit in the text, yet remote from our own memory.
ויהי בשלח פרעה את-העם ולא-נחם אלוקים דרך ארץ פלשתים כי קרוב הוא כי אמר אלוקים פן-ינחם העם בראותם מלחמה ושבו מצרימה
It happened when Pharaoh sent out the people that G-d did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, because it was near, for G-d said, “Perhaps the people will reconsider when they see war, and they will return to Egypt.”
The obvious interpretation of this is that the Philistines themselves were at war with the Egyptians, but this is not as cut-and-dried as the text implies. At the time of the exodus, the Philistines were an agglomeration of Mediterranean sea-peoples who had fled the Aegean coast during the Late Bronze Aegean economic and political upheavals. Infiltrating the eastern Mediterranean coast, many were mercenaries whom Egypt deliberately settled along the coast, creating Philistia, in order to secure the coastal route for future Egyptian forays. The loosely affiliated groups (Peleshet, Danya, Tjekker, and many smaller groups were highly Egyptianized, and the pottery they left behind, as well as cultic artefacts belies both their Aegean origins, as well as a high degree of Egyptian influence. Anthropoid coffins found in Deir el Balah, and as far north as Beit Shean attest to the Egyptianizing culture of these ‘Philistines.’ Symbols of clear Egyptian dominance were prevalent at Deir el Balah, situated 14 km south of Gaza. Not only did the fortified structure have a typical Egyptian residential floor plan, artefacts such as an Egyptian carnelian and lapis crook and flail (an obvious artefact indicating an Egyptian governor on site), and hybrid Aegean and Egyptian anthropoid coffins show that the site was in fact an Egyptian stronghold, founded to secure the coastal route from Egypt to Canaan, known through contemporary Egyptian texts as “The Way of Horus.” So who was at war with whom?
Further on in the parashah, we see G-d rendering to Moshe the most explicit directions possible:
דבר אל-בני ישראל וישבו ויחנו לפני פי החירת בין מגדל ובין הים לפני בעל צפן נכחו תחנו על-הים
Speak to the children of Israel and let them turn back and encamp before Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea. Before Baal-Zephron; you shall encamp opposite it, by the sea.
These locations were in fact landmarks – idols placed in prominent positions, as was customary throughout the ancient world. Baal-zephon is mentioned in Ugaritic, Egyptian, and Phoenician writings as a sea and storm god. This idol, with a temple on Mount Tiran, at the apex of an island clearly visible across the Red Sea. This is a god not worshipped or recognized by Egypt. Why would G-d direct Moshe to take the people out of Egypt to another pagan location?
This is the war that is being alluded to in the first line of the parasha. Egypt at this time was at war with Phoenicia. So placing the children of Israel before an enemy camp was all that much more demoralizing for the pursuing Egyptian army.
Thus Moshe is directed by G-d not to go by the quickest route, up the coastal road and right into the arms of the Egyptians, but rather to present the Egyptian army with another enemy. Those soldiers who will not drown in the Red Sea will surely have reason to turn tail, fleeing back to Egypt.
And so they stood on the shore, watched the Egpytians drown, and sang the Song at the Sea. This long, complicated song full of metaphoric language is contrasted by Miriam’s far simpler chant.
Moshe, the singular leader, one for whom the daily trials and tribulations of leading a people is frustrating, delivers a song which may well have been beyond the comprehension of the men who would have celebrated the victory in a state of disbelief. The Song at the Sea is sung to them, but addressed directly to G-d. And so it was chanted by Moshe, and repeated stanza by stanza by the men.
Immediately after, we hear Miriam’ s song, which is brief, succinct and simple. This song is sung directly to the people, and accompanied by dance and music, a popularist approach – she sung to them : (ותען להם מירים)
שירו לה’ כי-גאה גאה סוס ורחבו רמה בים
Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.
Here we have the contrast between the prophetic personality of the remote leader, one who has not the patience for the mundane reality of day-to-day leadership, and the populist personality of his sister. Both are necessary at this juncture in the formation of not just a people but a religion. This is the first direct mention of Miriam, prophetess and sister of Aaron. It is she who addresses the populist needs of the people. Her song is a popular religious celebration.
The Song at the Sea recapitulates the way in which oral traditions are passed on . Just as the bards who sung Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey chanted, shared and presented an oral tradition designed to be remembered by a relatively illiterate society, so the Song at the Sea is a chant designed to become part of the oral tradition of the people, as it is to this very day.
But Miriam’s chant answered the immediate needs of the people to express the religious exaltation. It is non-metaphoric, and was understood by everyone.: a popular song with a refrain they all could join in.
It is Miriam who will, in the coming parasha, be proven to be the popular voice of the people. It is her prophecy and her strength which would address their immediate needs, thereby enabling them to develop the religious conscience Moshe provided, which has held us together ever since.