The Song of Moses, Exodus 15:1-19
The singing of hymns, both personally and corporately, has been part of Christian life from the very beginning. The gospels tell us that as Jesus and his disciples prepared to go to His ordeal on the Mount of Olives, they sang a hymn (Matt 26:30; Mark 14:26). Colossians and Ephesians urge us to “sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God ״ (Col 3:16), ”making melodies to the Lord in your heart” (Eph 5:19). As we have seen in our last series, the book of Revelation shows us in its visions that singing is not only an earthly, but also the heavenly way of praising the LORD. It is meet and right: gloriously He is to be glorified! Indeed, one of the central hymns in our Orthodox tradition is the Trisagion, revealed to a young boy as the full song of the angels around the throne, who appear in Isaiah 6. The practice of our LORD, the song of Isaiah’s angels, and the “Songs of Ascent” in the Psalter show us indeed, that faithful also sang prior to the coming of Christ, as when they were on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote in the first century AD, mentions both the “Song of Moses” (Exodus 15) and the songs of David (Ant. 2.346; 7.305), and as early as the second century, Bishop Melito of Sardis tells us that the Song of Moses was sung at Easter Vigil. Many other ancient writers and texts speak of the canticles that we still sing today, and we even have a fifth-century manuscript that includes all of these traditional songs. (For more detail, see Knust and Wasserman, “The Biblical Odes and the Text of the Christian Bible,” JBL 133. 2 (2014): 341-365, especially pages 344-5).
Praying, and especially singing, disclose the faith of God’s people. So it is that some have said lex orandi lex credendi (“the rule of praying is the rule of believing”), and others have reminded us that “to sing is to pray twice.” Our liturgies are structured on chanting, troparia, and kontakia, but woven through them, and used at special times, are the Biblical canticles—a series of nine (or perhaps ten!) songs taken from the Bible itself:
The (First) Song of Moses (Exodus 15:1-19)
The (Second) Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32:1-43)
The Prayer of Hannah (1 Sam/ 1 Kingdoms 2:1-10
The Prayer of Habakkuk (Habakkuk 3:1-19)
The Prayer of Isaiah (Isaiah 26:9-20)
The Prayer of Jonah (Jonah 2:2-9)
The Prayer of the Three Holy Children (Daniel 3:26-56)
The Song of the Three Holy Children (Daniel 3:57-88)
The Song of the Theotokos (the Magnificat, Luke 2:46-55); the Song of Zacharias (the Benedictus, Luke 1:68-79)
The most well known are, of course are the songs of Mary and Zacharias, which are conjoined in a single ode for the Matins cycle. (In this series, I will add the song of the elder Symeon, which is not one of the series, but also a Biblical canticle.) Unfortunately, the nine odes are not well known today, since they are no longer chanted regularly during the year, except in some Russian and Ukrainian contexts, but find a special place during Great Lent. It is my hope that this series will serve to remind us of these treasures of the Church, and help us to understand the canticles in the light of the Scriptures and the Fathers. Today we will look at the Song of Moses, which we associate especially with the eve of Pascha:
When he had utterly drowned Pharaoh in the deep, Moses said:
To the LORD let us sing, for gloriously has He been glorified.
Let us sing to the LORD, for gloriously has He been glorified:
Horse and rider has He thrown into the sea.
A Helper and a Shelter has He become for my salvation;
This is my God, and I shall glorify Him—
the God of my father, and I shall exalt Him.
The LORD shattering wars: the LORD is His Name.
The chariots of Pharaoh and his forces has He thrown into the sea;
His chosen riders and third-ranked officers He drowned in the Red Sea.
With the open sea He covered them;
they plunged into the deep just as a stone.
Your right hand, O LORD, has been glorified in strength;
Your right hand, O LORD, has broken the enemies in pieces
And in the multitude of Your glory, You shattered the adversaries.
You sent Your anger, and it devoured them like stubble.
By the breath of Your fury the water was parted;
The waters were stiffened like a wall;
the waves were stiffened in the midst of the sea.
The enemy said: “Pursuing, I shall lay hold; I shall apportion the spoil;
I shall fill up my soul; I shall destroy with my sword,
and my hand shall be lord.”
You sent Your breath; the sea covered them;
they sank just as lead in the violent water.
Who is like You, O LORD, amongst the gods ?
Who is like You: glorified amongst the holy ones,
Wonderful amongst the glorious ones, doing wonders?
You stretched out Your right hand; the earth swallowed them up.
You led on the way by Your righteousness
This, Your people, whom You have redeemed;
You summoned them by Your strength into Your holy abode.
The nations heard, and they were angry;
Pangs seized the inhabitants of Philistia.
Then did chiefs of Edom hasten, and princes of Moab.
Trembling seized them; all the inhabitants of Canaan melted away.
May fear and trembling fall upon them!
Because of the magnitude of Your arm, let them be turned to stone,
Until Your people pass over, O LORD:
Until this, Your people pass over, whom You have possessed.
Leading them in, plant them on the mountain of Your inheritance
In Your prepared habitation which You have made, O LORD,
The holy place which Your hands prepared.
The LORD is reigning as King over the ages, and unto the age, and beyond;
For the horse of Pharaoh, with chariots and riders, went into the sea,
And the LORD brought upon them the water of the sea;
But the sons of Israel walked through dry land in the midst of the sea.
As with the book of Revelation, contemporary readers may be embarrassed by the theme of war in which the LORD of hosts is glorified. Both the beginning and end of the canticle emphasize the destruction of enemies by the hand of God, though some think that the song itself ends on a high note— “The Lord reigns forever”— and read the last few sentences as a recap of the Exodus miracle. Perhaps due to this modern sensitivity, some traditions even have omitted the beginning note “when he had utterly destroyed Pharaoh,” and move right into the canticle itself. But the strong hand of the LORD and His wrath are not to be avoided here, since they weave their way throughout the entire canticle. God is glorified by putting down the enemy, as well as by the voices of His people, by leading His people to the place prepared for them, and by signs and wonders. If the miracle of the Sea means dry land for God’s people, it means destruction for His enemies. For, after all, the Sea is a sign of baptism, of death and rebirth, as we hear from St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 10: “For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” St. Gregory of Nyssa reminds us that the people, just by passing through the Red Sea, proclaimed the good tidings of salvation by water (On the Baptism of Christ NPNF 2. 5. 522), and the blessed Augustine remarks, “This people of God, freed from a great and broad Egypt, is led, as through the Red Sea, that in baptism it may make an end of its enemies. For by the sacrament as it were of the Red Sea, that is by baptism consecrated with the blood of Christ, the pursuing Egyptians, the sins, are washed away.” (Explanation of the Psalms 107.3. NPNF 1.8.533)
Already with St. Augustine, as with others, the story is being understood as prefiguring the washing of baptism, and the spiritual enemies of God’s people who must be destroyed. As Ephesians tells us, “we are not wrestling with flesh and blood, but with the principalities and powers” (Eph. 6:12). The ordeal of the Hebrew people, then, and the destruction of the sneaky and oppressive Pharaoh, are seen as pointing forward to our own battle; their passing through the sea as prefiguring our deliverance from slavery to sin and death. We may be tempted to leave out the first step, the destruction of God’s enemies, and move directly to the good news of deliverance. But Origen is very wise when he reminds us that, in the book of Revelation, the Song of the Lamb can only be sung by those who have first learned the Song of Moses: perfect glory and love can only come from those who have first reckoned with the “strong hand and the mighty strong arm of the Lord” (Commentary on the Song of Songs, Prologue 4. ACW 26.47). Can we picture our spiritual enemies in the dramatic way presented to us in the Exodus story: pursuing us, ready to recapture us, desiring to enslave us, promising to let us go and then pursuing us yet again? Can we realize that the only One who can rescue us is the LORD of all creation, the One who can pile up the waters, clog the chariots of the enemy, and finally render them powerless? Do we see ourselves involved in a life-and-death struggle, and rescued by the LORD?
Indeed, the cosmic nature of the sea is suggested in the Bible itself, where we hear, in Revelation 15, of those who sing the “Song of Moses” by a sea that is uncharacteristically as smooth as glass, but that has fire within it. The worshippers in heaven sing, “Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations!” The sea is smooth, and not disturbed, because God is all-powerful; yet it has fire because God aims to purify. As Clement of Alexandria suggests, it is appropriate for our enemies to be put in this chaotic element of the sea, which God Himself will make still for our sake: “The many-limbed and brutal affection, lust, with the rider mounted, who gives reigns to pleasures, ‘he has cast into the sea,’ throwing them away into the disorders of the world.” (Stromateis 5.8; ANF 2:457). Even the sea, known to the ancients for its destructive formlessness, is tamed by the LORD, and becomes an instrument of victory. We may be reminded of the final battle in the book of Revelation, where the godless trio are cast into the lake of fire.
“The LORD” (I am who I am; the Existing One) is His name, and that includes entering into the nitty-gritty of our human lives, with all its dying and violence. God did this with the Hebrews, and did it even more deeply by dying on a cross. His right hand both breaks down, and builds up, and stands against the arrogance of any enemy who boasts, “my hand shall be lord.” The creative breath of the LORD is experienced as destruction for those who oppose Him. And so He is the “LORD who does wonders,” unequalled by any.
What is this talk in the canticle about other gods? St. John Chrysostom helps us with this: “What do you mean, Moses? Is there any comparison at all between the true God and false gods? Moses would reply, ‘I did not say this to make a comparison; but… condescended to their weakness and brought in the lesson [that] I was teaching in this way.’” (Discourses against Judaizing Christians 5.3.3. FC68. 105-6). There are, then, no true creating and recreating gods besides ours, though many “gods” and “lords” are named by those who do not know the gospel.
This human-loving God is such that He is not simply content with rescuing us from our foes, within, and without. The canticle goes on to give us hope for even more. Having redeemed us from slavery, He promises to “lead us on,” in his righteousness, to lead us in, and to plant us upon the mountain of His own choosing. In the end, we will be in that holy place which His hands have prepared for us. Here the Song of Moses previews the more detailed vision of the prophet Ezekiel, who sees this great sight:
Thus says the Lord GOD: “I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of the cedar and will set it out. I will break off from the topmost of its young twigs a tender one, and I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain height of Israel will I plant it, that it may bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar. And under it will dwell every kind of bird; in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest. And all the trees of the field shall know that I am the LORD; bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish. I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it” (Ezek. 17:22-24).
That little twig planted on the mountain is the Lord Jesus, lifted up on the cross. But it is not simply a matter of his death, or the destruction of God’s enemies: God’s ultimate purpose is to give shelter to the “birds” beyond Israel, to raise up and to make the dry flourish. As the song of Moses puts it, the peoples of the nations were to be hardened like stone until a certain time. Origen explains, “God is asked that for a short while the Gentiles might be changed into stones “until the Jewish people passes through.” There is no doubt but that after they have passed through, the Gentiles will cease to be stone and will receive in place of their hard hearts a human and rational nature in Christ, to whom is glory and power for ages of ages. Amen. (Homilies on the Gospel of Luke 22.10. FC 94:96).
And this is, of course, the mystery that St. Paul himself reveals to us in Romans 10-12, and elsewhere in his letters. God’s good news finally has come to the Gentiles, to all peoples, and not only to His historic people. Race or tribe, slave or free, male and female, is no obstacle for the one who aims to brings all out of bondage, who provides the sea of baptism, and who implants a new heart, no longer made of stone, by the Holy Spirit. Even more thorough than the crossing of the Red Sea is the baptism which we have undergone: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ… And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal 3:27-29) God’s reigning, we are told, in Moses’ canticle, is forever— over the ages, and unto the age, and beyond! And we are called to join the LORD in that holy place prepared for us by Jesus Himself.
All this is part of the first canticle: the destruction of evil, the redemption from bondage, the miraculous crossing on dry land, the leading to the mountain, and the sight of others joining us. When we sing this hymn, we join in the glory, and we are glorifying Him. Our praises in themselves show His radiance, and, like the candles that we hold on the eve of Pascha, lighten up our faces as we become more and more like Him.