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Shemot/Exodus 15:2 The L-rd is my strength and song and He has become my salvation.
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This text comes almost at the beginning of the long poem running from Shemot 15:1b - 15:18. Variously known as "The Song at the Sea", "The Song of Moses" and "The Song of Miriam" - the latter to disambiguate it from the Song of Moses in D'varim 32 - this is reckoned by many scholars to be one of the three earliest fragments of Hebrew in the Hebrew Bible1, clearly pre-dating the narrative text in which it is enclosed2. The thought is that the song itself - written in what is known as archaic biblical Hebrew - may have been carried in the oral tradition for a while before being incorporated at the appropriate point in the main text. Its age and orthography make its translation difficult. This text in particular, is considered - without affecting its age or provenance - to be out of context with the rest of the poem, forming as it does a 3:3 couplet, as if a doxology prepended to the main body of the poem starting in verse 3.
There is uncertainty over the suffix on the first word ; normally this would be a first person singular possessive - my - but there is no matching suffix on the second word.Hirsch ignores the grammar, instead offering: " from , is the power of resistance, the invincibility. The fact that I remain unconquered - that Pharaoh and the sea have left me untouched, and , this singing in which I am engaged, both are the work of G-d." Rashbam is simply dismissive of the problem: "The L-rd is the strength and the song and the praise of Israel. The suffix on 'strength' does not mean 'my'; it carries no meaning." The Mekhilta also suggests meanings: "'My strength' is (a) a designation for the Torah (Psalm 29:11), (b) a designation for royalty (Psalm 21:2), (c) means my stronghold (Jeremiah 16:19)."
The second word too is uncertain; the at the end should denote a feminine singular noun in construct form, meaning something like "the song of the L-rd".Ibn Ezra agrees: " is in construct, referring to a song about G-d". Hirsch suggests that " is the melody to the words of the song." Nahum Sarna, following the NJPS translation "my strength and my might", explains that "the root can mean both 'to sing, play music' and 'to be strong', so that the phrase could also be rendered 'my strength and the theme of my song'". The Mekhilta inverts the word order, to translate: "My strength and song is the L-rd"; this is followed by Friedman.
The name is a shortened form of the tetragrammaton , which Plaut comments is "found frequently in Isaiah and especially in Psalms". It and the slightly longer are widely used in so-called Yahwistic names, such as Jeremiah - . Ibn Ezra says that " is one of the three forms of G-d's name, all derived from the verb , to be. Hirsch explains that "the Name is always used to designate a revelation of the Might of G-d, His working and ruling become visible and evident."
The word - a Qal prefix 3ms form from the root , to be - can mean both "He was" and "He is". Here, in addition to the simple word meaning, the Mekhilta claims, "He was my salvation in the past and He will be my salvation in the future."Targum Onkelos paraphrases the whole text to read, "My strength and my song is the fear of the L-rd, He spoke with His word and He has become my saviour", which you might be pardoned for thinking was a different verse altogether.
The wide variation in meaning, interpretation and even ways of understanding the basic syntax of the text demonstrates how difficult it can be to produce a 'perfect' translation when translating the Bible. Sometimes there is just too much distance and complexity to arrive at a single unambiguous translation that everyone can agree is correct, particularly with the oldest fragments of text that may date from an oral tradition that precedes a written text. That doesn't however, mean that we should be afraid of this text or fail to appreciate its beauty and power.
Nahum Sarna, pointing out that the exact same text is also found in the second half of Isaiah 12:2 - "Behold the G-d who gives me triumph! I am confident, unafraid; For Yah the L-RD is my strength and might, And He has been my deliverance" (JPS) - and in Psalm 118:14 - "The L-RD is my strength and might; He has become my deliverance" (NJPS)3 - makes the suggestion that "this passage must had a liturgical function in ancient Israel as a personal confession of faith." We are used to the idea that certain passages in the Greek Scriptures, such as Philippians 2:6-11, are encapsulations of early church liturgy, but it is perhaps less familiar to suggest that the Hebrew Scriptures also show the same technique. The Psalms are widely described as the hymn-book of the early church and the song-sheet of the Temple, but references outside the Psalter may strike us as odd. Sarna points to a similar set of words in Job: "In this too is my salvation: That no impious man can come into His presence" (Job 13:16, JPS); the difference between 'salvation' and 'deliverance' in the English obscures the use of the same words in the Hebrew. Sarna also suggests that Joab's words - "Let us be strong and resolute for the sake of our people and the land of our G-d; and the L-RD will do what He deems right" (2 Samuel 10:12, JPS) - have a liturgical sound to them, as if this too might have been a well-known and used liturgical saying.
We should find this recording of liturgical fragments in both the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures immensely comforting. Just as today we have little sayings, whether used formally in liturgy or simply in everyday life - "From your mouth to G-d's ears", or "Gam zot l'tovah, this too is for good" - that reflect our faith and trust in G-d and in His providential working in our lives, so the ancients too expressed their faith in little snatches of liturgy whether in a liturgical context or not. This means that Moshe, Job and Joab all had a working faith in G-d; no matter what the text sometimes seems to say about their actions (particularly Joab!) and however wrong some of their decisions may seem to have been, they were all frequent enough participants in worship and liturgy that these phrases became part of their every day lives. Israel, despite its many lapses and at times blatant sin and idolatry, was and remained a nation and a people that hadn't entirely forgotten G-d; this can be seen in the Yahwistic names that even kings such as Ahab continued to give their sons: "Ahaziah son of Ahab had become king of Israel, in Samaria" (1 Kings 22:52, JPS).
Today the most common Christian phrase used in this way might be the Latin words "Deo volens", often abbreviated to 'DV', meaning "G-d willing", used in prayers in imitation of Yeshua's prayer in the garden of Gethsemane: "Not my will, but yours, be done" (Luke 22:42, ESV) or as a rider on plans being made for the future to cover James' warning: "Come you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit' - yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring" (James 4:13-14, ESV). When a group of people agree to meet, "next Tuesday, then, about three o'clock, at Ben's place, DV", they are all recognising that G-d is control of their lives and that if there is a next Tuesday and they are all still alive and able to meet as planned, then it is because G-d has allowed it.
Provided that they don't either just become common-place and lose their value, or are so frequent or over-done that they attract ridicule, bringing our faith out into the public arena by means of little sayings, snatches of liturgy, whistling a line or two of a hymn or chorus tune, is a good thing both for us and for others. It raises our own awareness of G-d on a regular basis and can generate opportunities for sharing our faith when others ask what that tune is, or why we say that. It also encourages other believers who know or recognise the words and tune. Be bold and creative; choose something that is important and meaningful to you and start a habit that might change the world!
1. - The other two being the Oracles of Balaam and the Song of Deborah, both of these being probably a little later, though contemporaneous.
2. - See Frank Moore Cross and David Noel Freedman, Studies in Ancient Yahwistic Poetry, Eerdmans/Dove 1997, 0-8028-4159-7
3. - Notice here too, that even within the same translation, the identical Hebrew text is given two slightly different renditions in English!
Further Study: Psalm 59:17; D'varim 10:20-21; Isaiah 29:1-5
Application: How do you remember and express G-d in your life each day? Do you have a little phrase that reminds you - and others - that He is there and in control? Perhaps it would be good to ask G-d what phrase would work for you.
© Jonathan Allen, 2014
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