Ancient Israel's National Anthem

The great song marking the Israelites’ safe crossing of the Sea of Reeds is the Hebrew Bible’s only full-length poem recited collectively by the people as a whole. What is it really about?

From Crossing of the Red Sea by Bronzino, 1542. Wikimedia.

From Crossing of the Red Sea by Bronzino, 1542. Wikimedia.

Observation
Feb. 9 2017
About the author

Sarah Rindner teaches English literature at Lander College in New York and blogs at Book of Books.


A climactic moment in the Exodus narrative comes in this week’s Torah reading of B’shalaḥ (Exodus 13:17-17:16). Just after God finally and definitively saves the Israelites from their Egyptian oppressors at the Sea of Reeds, Moses leads the people in a song of thanksgiving. This is the first of two or three such poems in the Pentateuch; indeed, in the narrative portion of the Hebrew Bible that extends from Genesis through the second book of Kings, it is one of only a handful of passages where the authors abandon prose. Like the other instances, the Song at the Sea presents an alternate version of a story that has already been relayed in prose. In doing so, it raises new perspectives, both literary and religious, that the biblical text as a whole might otherwise lack.

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