by Rabbi Rachel Adler, January 27, 2018
Shabbat shalom. I am devoting this Dvar Torah to questions and observations about the two texts of the day. Shabbat Beshallach is an unusual occasion because both the parasha and the haftorah preserve very ancient victory songs. Biblical historians date both to the late twelfth or early eleventh centuries BCE. This would make them the oldest poems in the Tanakh. Another rarity is that both these compositions depict women leading and exercising authority. Both women are designated as prophets. Exodus15:20 refers to Miriam ha-Neviah. Judges 4:4 calls Dvorah neviah, prophet, and adds that she judged Israel. This term Shofet/shofetet designates the ruling authority in the book of Judges/Shoftim.
Throughout the ancient Near East, victory songs are a recognized genre for celebrating a military victory, and throughout the ancient Near East, they are a women’s genre. With the exception of Ex. 15, everywhere in Tanakh (and there are four other examples: two in Judges (5, 11:34), one in 1 Samuel (18:6-7), and one in Jeremiah (31:4), victory songs are made by women. There are, in fact, not one but two related women’s poetic genres found all over the ancient Near East: victory songs and laments. This makes sense, alas, because the two genres are two sides of a single coin: the occasion for one woman’s victory song is the occasion for another woman’s lament.
Both these genres were ancient forms of performance art, involving music, instrumentation and percussion, and a full-body enactment: in the victory song, dance, and in the lament, beating the breast and slapping the thighs. In both genres, women composed orally and maintained repertoires for repetition. In both genres, there is evidence of solo performances and of call and response, in which female leaders called verses and male and female participants called out the response. Our tradition for chanting Shirat Ha-Yam in this very kahal uses call-and-response. We see an echo of that mode in Exodus 15:20-21 “Then Miriam ha-Nevi’ah, sister of Aharon, picked up the tof (hand-drum) and all the women went out after her to dance with hand-drums. And Miriam chanted for them: Sing (plural imperative) to YHWH for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and rider He has hurled into the sea.” Surely this is an invitation to respond.
In the text of the Torah, this verse appears to be a postscript, drawing on words previously attributed to Moshe and the B’nai Yisrael. But, given that in every other case, the authors and leaders of victory songs are women, biblical historians have found this attribution of Shirat Ha-Yam rather puzzling. Since the mid-20th century, many of them have suggested that Shirat Ha-Yam was in fact the composition of Miriam. There is one ancient manuscript tradition that refers to the Song as “The Song of Miriam.” This is a difficulty we will not be able to resolve because the text of the Torah is the text. I would be satisfied if we simply allowed the question to haunt the text, that is, if every time we read Shirat ha-Yam, we wondered, ”Isn’t this Shirat Miryam?”
There are some other themes and motifs the two victory songs share. In both, the victory seems incredible to the stunned victors, who had been expecting a disastrous defeat. Other ancient Near Eastern victory songs do not share this theme. All the victors rejoice at winning, of course, but only these Israelite songs see victory as totally unexpected. This is a realistic assessment on their part. In Shirat ha-Yam, the Israelites are not even an army, merely a disorganized rabble of panicked, fleeing slaves. In Shirat Dvorah, they are a poorly armed, tenuously united, under-populated military confederation.
In both situations, they face highly professional armies with the latest and priciest military technologies: horses and chariots. The speed and mobility of horses and chariots allows soldiers to rampage all over the battlefield, trampling, slashing, eluding combat while cutting to pieces an army on foot. In the period of the Judges, the Phillistines have a monopoly on the making of iron, the hard metal that so revolutionized warfare, that the epoch of its introduction is called the Iron Age. More affluent kings like the Canaanite Javin can afford amass such weaponry. Iron can do immeasurably more damage than flint arrowheads or bronze swords. In both victory songs the Israelites are disastrously out-weaponed.
In both narratives, God intervenes via weather, wind and water, so that high-tech military equipment suddenly becomes a detriment rather than an advantage. Exodus 14:21, more naturalistic and less mythic in tone than Ex. 15, describes a hot, drying, chamseen-type wind blowing all night over the Sea of Reeds. This drying wind helps to create a temporary path through the sea. In Ex. 15, it is by direct divine intervention that Moshe is then able to hold out his hand and split the sea so the people can cross. When he lifts his hand again, much later in the day, the waters return and Pharaoh’s chariot army is inundated. The weather disaster that causes the downfall of Sisera’s army is a drenching rain that causes Wadi Kishon to flood, as wadis do in heavy rains. The battlefield turns to mud. The Israelites rushing down from the hills have the momentum, while the Canaanites struggle to extricate their iron chariots from the mire.
In both these victory songs, God is imaged as a warrior. The Hebrew in Shirat ha-Yam is even more shocking than the English word warrior. The Shir exclaims, “Adonai ish milchama!” To us, this description may even sound blasphemous, but we aren’t a hairsbreadth away from being dragged back into slavery. Those Israelites experienced God as an unprecedented sort of warrior: one who fights on behalf of the oppressed rather than on behalf of the power elite. There is a god-as-warrior trope in Sumerian and Canaanite myths as well. The warrior-god defeats chaos, which is usually imaged as the sea or some sort of watery mess, and triumphantly establishes order in the world. But only YHWH is an ethical warrior, a champion of the oppressed, who establishes not just order but justice.
The world that gives rise to these ancient victory songs is no less savage than our own. Shirat Dvorah describes the murder of the Canaanite general Sisera by the Kenite woman Yael as a kind of inversion of the usual reality of war in which men kill and rape and women are killed and raped. This is the reality in every war, every ethnic cleansing, every, genocide since the dawn of time. It is happening to the Rohingya in Myanmar right now. But in these two victory songs, reasonable expectations are turned upside down. In the final vignette of her song, Dvorah imagines Sisera’s mother waiting for her son to return with his battle plunder, including captive women for slavery and sex. She envisions the aristocratic Canaanite lady brutally objectifying these other lesser women, describing them casually as “rechem, rechamtayyim l’rosh gever, “a uterus or two for each man.” But life is full of surprises. It turns out that an Israelite woman will sing the victory song. Sisera’s mother will be singing the lament.
I understand the desire to sing victory songs, although they trouble me. I love chanting Shirat Ha-Yam. I couldn’t imagine myself among those angels, whom God rightly forbids to join the Israelites’ song. And I have to confess that there are exploiters and oppressors in my own political landscape over whose downfall I could sing a victory song with relish and the sooner the better. Yet when I imagine the time of redemption, I imagine it as a time when the victory song will have no dark flip side because there will be only winners and no losers. May that time come swiftly and may we live to celebrate the deliverance of all, as we pray in the machzor “V’chol ha rish’a kulah k’ashan tikhleh, ki ta’avir memshelet zadon min ha-aretz.” “And all wickedness will disappear like smoke, when You remove the tyranny of arrogance from the earth.”
Note to readers: Sorry about the transliterations. My program for inserting Hebrew words into English text is not working.