Yossi Feintuch

”My handiwork is drowning” — Israel or Egypt?

Evidently, both the Song of the Sea — the “sea” being most likely a mere sea of reed, a narrow passage between the big bitter lake and the small bitter lake in the eastern delta of the Nile river (not the salty Red Sea where reed does not grow) — and Miriam’s one-liner song, (likely, abridged by a redactor), punch up ten-fold more the calamity that met the Pharaoh’s charioteers and his choice captains — they ”were sunk in the sea of reed… like lead in mighty waters” — than celebrating Israel’s own redemption at the sea. Yet, Israel’s glee was understandable, even justified in God’s eyes, as we shall promptly see with the help of the Talmud.

Indeed, with God’s inspiration the celebratory singing enhanced by the women’s voices, their instrumental music, and dancing (in sheer contrast to the women’s quiet, if not subdued voices at their section of the Western Wall today in compliance with a man’s-dictated protocol), was going on even at the sight of Egypt’s dead who were washed ashore. The Israelite women who joined Miriam’s song must have used their limited space in their “Exodus kit bags” to pack musical instruments over extra clothing…

The Talmud further tells us that the ministering angels also wanted to sing their own brief daily praise before God during the eventful night at the Red Sea. But they were stymied by God’s admonishing words: “My creation is drowning, and you are engaged in singing?” Evidently, God deemed such singing by the angels as inappropriate exactly at the time when His own handiwork was perilously on the verge of drowning.

But who were these God’s handiwork — the Egyptians or the Israelites? Despite the obvious temptation to point at the Egyptians in order to refer even to them — they who were dispatched to recapture the slaves — as God’s “handiwork”, and thereby evince God’s compassion to all humans in a dire distress — it is apparent that the Talmud rather views the Hebrews, not the Egyptian charioteers, as God’s ”handiwork”.

It is not only that Isaiah uses these two words ”My handiwork” in reference to Israel; rather, in a Talmudic Midrash God instructed the angels — to hold off their singing at nighttime when Israel, not the Egyptian warriors, were crossing the parted waters. Indeed, the Torah notes that the drowning time of the Egyptian army was only in the early hours of the morning; not the nighttime when the angels were poised to start their daily praises of God.

Yet was Israel actually in danger of drowning to qualify for God’s call to the angels to stand down and refrain from singing their daily huzzahs while ”My creation is drowning”?

Consider the Midrash about Nachshon who alone descended into the raging waters beseeching God to spare him from drowning, while heeding alone God’s order to Moses: ”Speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward…into the midst of the sea [even before it turned to be] on dry ground”. In any case, even as Israel was crossing the sea, it seemed all along as threatening to resurge and to close in on the Israelites (Ex. 14:22) — a tense, even perilous time, when no one could know for sure how long the waters’ wall ”on their right hand, and on their left” would endure.

Only when the morning light came up and the Egyptian catastrophe was clearly visible as the dead Egyptians (and their horses) were washed ashore, did Israel join Moses in singing enthusiastically the Song of the Sea. And only then did the ministering angels sing too at God’s cue; though God does not rejoice even at the downfall of the wicked, yet He prompts others to, as the Talmudic Rabbi Elazar said. And despite the theologically- tempting perspective on God’s calling the Egyptians ”My handiwork”, we must infer that these intimate words were meant solely for Israel after all.

About the Author
Ordained a Rabbi by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1994; in 2019 this institution accorded me the degree of Doctor of Divinity, honoris causa. Following ordination I served congregations on the island of Curacao, in Columbia, MO. Currently serving a congregation in Bend, Or. I received academic degrees from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (B.A. in International Relations and History), New York University (M.A. in History), and Emory University (Ph.D. in U.S. History). I am the author of U.S. Policy on Jerusalem (Greenwood Press), and numerous articles on biblical themes in various print and digital publications. I have taught in several academic institutions, including Ben-Gurion University (Beersheba, Israel), and the University of Missouri (Columbia, MO). A native of Afula, Israel. A veteran of the IDF.