Fox Tales: Parashat Be-Shallach – Prose or Poetry?

The narrative in Ex. 14, which describes the Egyptians’ pursuit of the newly-freed Israelites and their ultimate defeat at the hands of the God of Israel, usually takes a back seat to the great poem that follows in the next chapter, the “Song at the Sea.” Just as in Judges 4-5, a “prose” account of ancient events appears first in the guise of a narrative, setting out the events in a chronological form.   It is then retold in a rhythmic, archaic-sounding and stirring piece of poetry. Ex. 15 pointedly exalts God as warrior, and also hints strongly at an Israel ensconced in its own land, as it celebrates the final “blow” against the Egyptian oppressors who had enslaved the Israelites. It is recited daily by pious Jews, and when the poem occurs in the regular order of Torah readings, it has special features: the congregation stands and the passage is chanted in a distinctive melody.

We should not, however, allow the unforgettable artistry of the Song to divert our attention from the impressive narrative that precedes it. Chapter 14’s description of the Egyptian army’s pursuit of the Israelites, their temporary halt, and the spectacular (and, for Hollywood, usually quite expensive) events of the splitting of the Sea and the destruction of the Egyptian host, is itself presented in a highly rhythmical form, with a distinct vocabulary and a number of refrains. In the sketches for his German translation of the Bible with Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber called such passages “prose-poetry,” a “third form” which possibly indicates roots in oral literature. It’s worth taking a moment to note how this plays out in our text.

Early on (v. 4), there appear several phrases which hark back to the Plague stories:

I will make Pharaoh’s heart strong-willed, so that he pursues them, / and I will be glorified through Pharaoh and all his army, / so that the Egyptians may know that I am YHWH.

Each of these phrases/ideas occurs three times in this chapter, and in numerous passages in the previous narratives. Moving forward, Israel goes “through/into the midst of the Sea” (vv. 16, 22, 23, 27, 29), “upon the dry-land” (vv. 16, 22, and 29), followed by the waters “returning/turning back” (vv. 26, 27, 28) upon Pharaoh’s “chariots and riders” (vv. 17, 18 23, 26, 28).

Another memorably repeated phrase in the narrative is “the waters a wall for them [the Israelites] on their right and on their left” (vv. 22 and 29). And even the location of the action functions as a kind of refrain: “before Pi Ha-Hirot…before Baal Tzafon” (v. 2) and “by Pi-Ha-Hirot, before Baal Tzefon” (v. 9).

Finally, the wording so often heard in this chapter is reprised at the end of the Song (15:19), circling back to the narrative itself after the exultation of victory:

For Pharaoh’s horses came with [their] chariots and riders into the sea, / but YHWH turned back the sea’s waters upon them, / and the Children of Israel went upon the dry-land / through the midst of the sea.

The repeated words and phrases I have listed here create a sense of aural movement in the story, holding it together and bringing the audience into the elevated realm of storytelling. Far from being merely the prelude to chapter 15’s Song, chapter 14 stands on its own as a fitting narrative conclusion to the first part of Exodus.

This striking narrative may be the remnant of an ancient epic poem, built as it is upon a rhythmic structure, much like a modern song that utilizes rhyme and refrains to paint a picture of emotions. The use of not only description but especially sound functions to both aid memory and make the listening experience indelible. In this literature, the ancient Israelite was meant to not only think about the past but to experience its timelessness, in which the miraculous, nation-founding nature of the events could be experienced again and again.

About the Author
I'm the Allen M. Glick Professor of Judaic and Biblical Studies at Clark University, Worcester, MA. I've published translations of The Five Books of Moses and The Early Prophets.
Related Topics
Related Posts