The Israelites are OUT! This week we saw one of the Hebrew Bible’s most impressive set-pieces: the parting of the seas by Yahweh and the subsequent drowning of tons of Egyptian charioteers. This is epic stuff, but its cinematic magnificence also foregrounds some interesting interplay between literal and figurative language…plus the idea of manna as a metaphor for God’s providence, but also a literal foodstuff that will go bad in 24 hours.
We actually started today’s discussion talking about material sentimentality: the power of the Bible as an object, rather than as a text. Bibles have been used to record who was born and who died in a given family—a way of ensuring informational survival by storing it in an object that would be sure to be preserved by future generations. Bibles are also (or at least used to be) ubiquitous in American hotel rooms; the President and other officials typically gets sworn in on a sacred text, which for U.S. Presidents has tended to be the Bible. (Biden was sworn in on a Bible that had been in his family for five generations.)
Then we talked about vowels, and Gabriel led us on an exploration of what it means for vowels—or more specifically, the alphabet—to be invented. Does a language encoded in interchangeable, non-pictographic symbols tend to inspire its users to gravitate towards more abstract concepts? Henri Ward has argued, yes.
The reading culminated in the “Song of the Sea,” one of the very few passages in the Masoretic Text that is actually set into verse (though, as John Barton points out, there’s been a lot more work done since the 1960s on verse in the Hebrew Bible that is disguised as prose). The Song of the Sea also contains one of the fascinating references to a potential polytheistic context, further inflaming our questions about whether Yahweh IS the one God, or one of many Gods…
Reading Robert Alter’s translation of the Song of the Sea in comparison with the NIV was also illuminating. Alter tends to use the most physical, material versions of the various metaphors. For instance, in Exodus 15:2:
“Let me sing unto the Lord, for He surged, O surged—”Alter
“I will sing to the Lord, for He is exalted.”NIV
“Exalted” is indeed a possible meaning of ga’ah, the Hebrew verb that also refers to the rising tide (see Alter, 273, n.). But it’s become almost a circular hermeneutic loop: did this language develop this dual meaning because of this origin story? i.e., the rising of the tide has always been associated, in the Hebrew worldview, with the triumph of Yahweh over the Egyptians? or is it a beautiful poetic device?
Regardless, in choosing to preserve the more literal, water-related meaning, Alter is also avoiding the abstraction that characterises a lot of Christian translations and interpretations of the “Old Testament.” We are staying grounded in the Israelites’ tangible experience of their charismatic, pillar-shaped god—decisively not the loving dude that many of us were introduced to in Sunday (or First Day) school.
A more logistical question: Why does the manna go bad so fast? Why would Yahweh create a magic baked good that also gets worms, like, immediately? We speculate that it’s to prevent hoarding—one of several places where social norms and practice is established by the Law, or the Law otherwise codifies existing norms and practices gleaned over generations. (Gleaning itself is LITERALLY one of the other examples of this, as we’ll see later in the Torah.)
Funnily enough, despite spending a good half of the session on translation, we never actually discussed the most blatant translation landmine in this reading: the Red Sea / reed sea distinction. LOL!
Translation obeys its own uncertainty principle: in order for any meaning to be conveyed at all, some essential original meaning must be lost.
Gems from the Convo
It feels increasingly stupid to read this in English.
Why does it take 40 years to cross the desert this time? When they went for Jacob’s funeral they basically took a long weekend!
Image: Moses parts the sea, BibleStudy.com. Yeah, slim pickings this week.