Ancient Fragments of Moses’ Song of the Sea
Posted by Mats on 28/06/2010
by Dewayne Bryant, M.A.
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On February 26, 2010, the Associated Press reported that two pieces of a biblical manuscript had been reunited after being separated for centuries (Demirjian). The fragments date to the 7th century A.D., a period during which almost no Hebrew manuscripts survive. This exciting discovery has once again drawn the world’s attention back, not only to one of the earliest books of the Hebrew Bible, but one of its earliest sections.
The two portions together contain the Song of the Sea from Exodus 15:1-20. The song was sung just after the crossing of the Red/Reed Sea (Exodus 14). The song celebrates God’s victory over the Egyptian military, which was the strongest at the time in the ancient Near East. The Exodus event is so momentous in Jewish history that it has often been called the “Gospel of the Old Testament.” It was the foundational salvation event in Hebrew history that gave birth to the Jewish nation.
Scholars studying the manuscript believe that they were not only written by the same scribe, but were once part of the same scroll. This is remarkable given the fact that manuscripts from the Hebrew Bible dating to the period between the 3rd and 8th centuries A.D. are extremely rare. To the casual observer, these two Hebrew manuscripts may be little more than historical artifacts from a distant age and culture. But to believers, these manuscripts are yet another signpost pointing to the historical veracity of Scripture.
Scholars generally recognize the Song of the Sea as one of the oldest compositions found in the Hebrew Bible. The Song of the Sea is written in archaic Hebrew, consisting of a hymn (vss. 1-3), a short narrative (vss. 4-12) and a closing note on the victory (vss. 13-18). Its archaic appearance is important, since the first few books of the Bible are under fire by some scholars who claim that they were not written until very late in Israel’s history.
The antiquity of the song is attested by several elements. Alan Cole identifies the word for “praise” in verse 2 as a haepax legomenon (a word that appears only once in the Bible), arguing that it “is one of the many archaisms of the song” (Cole, 1973, p. 131). Additional examples include archaic suffixes on the Hebrew verbs “destroy” (vs. 9) and “swallowed” (vs. 12), and the phrases “holy habitation” and “sanctuary” in vss. 13 and 17, respectively (pp. 131-132).
A consensus of scholars have dated the song no later than the 10th century B.C. W.F. Albright dated the composition to the 13th century B.C. (1957), while, more recently, Brian Russell has dated it to about 1150 B.C. (2007). Widely respected scholars Frank Moore Cross and David Noel Freedman date the song no later than the 10th century. Writing in 1997, Freedman flatly states,
I am as firmly convinced today as I was forty-five years ago that early [Hebrew] poems really are early. While it is true that many, perhaps most, serious scholars date this poetry across the whole spectrum of Israelite history…I believe that the whole corpus belongs to the earliest period of Israel’s national existence, and that the poems were composed between the twelfth and tenth-ninth centuries B.C.E. I have encountered neither compelling evidence nor convincing argument to the contrary, or to make me think otherwise (Cross and Freedman, 1997, p. x).
While scholars generally date the song very early, many still date it several centuries after the time of Moses. However, there is solid evidence that supports the belief that Moses could have written the song himself. This includes Egyptian language in the song, which would be only natural since Moses would have been trained in an Egyptian school called the k3p, or “the Royal Nursery,” where foreign-born princes were educated. [NOTE: Despite the use of the word “nursery,” this school was a prestigious one—some prominent Egyptian government officials listed their attendance in the Royal Nursery in their “resumes” recorded on the walls of their tombs. Cf. Acts 7:22] This connection is strengthened by the fact that the language in Exodus 15:4 includes the formal Egyptian phrase “of the choicest” and the word often translated “captains,” both of which have Egyptian parallels (Craigie, 1970, pp. 84-85). In order to use this language, whoever wrote it must have been trained in Egypt. This provides a perfect fit for the biblical account of Israel’s presence in Egypt.
An unfortunate tendency among modern critics is to date everything in the Bible as late as possible, arguing that it was the Exile, not the Exodus, which served as a starting point for ancient Hebrew literature. Archaic verbal forms and the parallels cited by scholars above obviously militate against an assumption that is actively—and wrongly—dismissive of the ancient evidence. The Christian belief that the book of Exodus is ancient is both well-founded and well-supported. Thanks to a remarkable discovery by a trained eye, that fact is once again confirmed to the world.
Albright, William F. (1957, reprint 1994), Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan: A Historical Analysis of Two Contrasting Faiths (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns).
Cole, R. Alan (1973), Exodus (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press).
Craigie, Peter (1970), “Short Notes: An Egyptian Expression in the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:4),” Vetus testamentum, 20:83-86, January.
Cross, Frank Moore, Jr. and David Noel Freedman (1997), Studies in Ancient Yahwistic Poetry (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, and Livonia, MI: Dove Booksellers).
Demirjian, Karoun (2010), “Ancient Bible Manuscript Fragments Reunited,” Associated Press, February 26, http://news.discovery.com/history/bible-manuscript-fragments-reunited.html.
Russell, Brian D. (2007), The Song of the Sea: The Date of Composition and Influence of Exodus 15:1-21 (New York: Peter Lang).