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Song of Moses

Each semester before classes start, I try to get all the ‘focus passages’ for Greek and Hebrew exegesis translated. The semester is less hectic when there aren’t weekly translations to do – I just need to look it over before class because most of the work is already done. This week I’ve been working on translations from Exodus. It’s not as boring as it sounds, I promise! Of particular interest to me has been the Song of Moses and Miriam. Here are some things that have excited me and some questions I have.

One of the things I’ve noticed is how Egypt is referred to. There’s no word for ‘Egyptians’, just ‘Egypt’. So when ‘The Egyptians will know that I have done this’ or ‘The Egyptians pursued them’, it’s literally just ‘Egypt’ doing those things. There could be several reasons for that but what intrigued me was whether there’s a sort of power encounter idea going on here. One nation against another nation is my God against your gods. This might not just be God defeating a few Egyptians; this could be a throw down of the powers of evil!

The name of God comes up quite a bit in this passage: Yahweh this; Yahweh that; Yahweh is his name; You Yahweh are…; You Yahweh did… Unlike Ezekiel which refers to ‘Yahweh God’, this is most often just Yahweh. It makes sense because Exodus is where God gives his name as Yahweh and this is a climactic point in the book. You couldn’t read this and not get the point that Yahweh is doing all this stuff and his name is Yahweh. His ownership and identity are stamped over every action.

After Moses and the Israelites sing the song, Miriam gets up with a timbrel and begins singing and all the women follow her with timbrels and dancing (Ex 15:20). At this point, Miriam sings to ‘them’ a command to praise Yahweh. Now, who is the ‘them’? I assumed it was a command to the women, but the pronoun is actually masculine plural not feminine plural. Could it be that she is commanding not just the women but all of Israel?

In v.12-15, all the verbs are in the suffix/perfect form which is normally a past tense unless its conjunction indicates it’s following on from another verb of different tense (although tense is always a bit fluid in Hebrew). These verbs don’t have any conjunctions so you’d normally assume that they were simple past. Except no translation does. They all take it as non-past: present as in 15:12 ‘You stretch our your right hand’ or future as in 15:14 ‘The nations will hear and tremble.’ I can see why. Nations like Philistia, Edom, Moab and Canaan weren’t there at the defeat of Egypt, so it makes more sense to speak of them ‘trembling’ in the future about something Yahweh will do (like stretching out his hand). Except if this is a cosmic power encounter moment. If that’s the case, Yahweh’s defeat of Egypt at the Red Sea is cause for all nations everywhere to tremble. It may make perfect sense to translated ‘You stretched out you right hand …. The nations heard and trembled.’ I could be way off base here. My understanding of Hebrew is pretty basic and tense and aspect gets quite technical. However I’m looking forward to asking my lecturer why these verbs have been translated non-past and in the meantime I’ll wonder about the missiology of them being simple past.

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

1 reply

  1. I’ve heard it argued that the “Egypt” collective was an injunction against empire. Hence, Israel is set apart as different from the empire. The Law then establishes this difference in practical ways – a more just way to live. Even commands about not cooking baby animals in the liquid intended to bring life (its mother’s milk) is a testament to God’s protection of the least. The Empire (the representative Egypt) lived one way and God’s people (Israel) will live differently. It was a power encounter between god’s but also between different ways of living. This is what Rob Bell contends in Jesus Wants to Save Christians.

    I wonder if the past vs. present is due to the editor and if translators are just compensating for that difference by telling the story in the present? That could be a farfetched guess!

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