Review of
Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

Brian D. Russell, The Song of the Sea: The Date of Composition and Influence of Exodus 15:1-21 (Studies in Biblical Literature 101; New York: Peter Lang, 2007). Pp. xii + 215. Cloth US$68.95. ISBN 978-0-8204-8809-7.


This monograph is a revision of Russell’s doctoral thesis conducted at Union Theological Seminary under S. Dean McBride, Jr.  By considering a wide range of possibilities and methods, Russell argues that Exod 15:1-21, which he designates as the Song of the Sea, is a unified early (1150 BCE) poem.

            Chapter 2 consists of commentary with notes and translation. Chapter 3 considers the unity of the poem, the structure, rhetorical and theological function of the Song, the Song of Miriam (Exod 15:19-21), and the Song of the Sea’s relationship to the Baal cycle.  Chapter 4 argues for the Song as a key narrative shift in Exodus while chapter 5 reinforces former linguistic arguments for an early date. Then chapters 6-9 focus on Exod 15:1-18 to advance dating beyond linguistic arguments. They consider historical allusions (arguing for Sinai as the mountain in the Song), inner-biblical use of the Song (using a relative chronology from texts the Song influenced to triangulate a date for the Song), the Psalms of Asaph’s reliance on the Song as a dating method, and finally its function as narrative in the HB. The strongest point of this study is that an early date can be demonstrated from a wide variety of methods and questions.

            Despite this contribution, arguments for the unity of the Song are at times strained. Russell argues convincingly that the Song of Miriam (Exod 15:19-21) and the Song of Moses (Exod 15:1-18) are to be read together in their canonical form (pp. 17, 24, 32-39). But in Chapters 6-9, even though Russell’s introduction clearly claims a 12th century date for all of Exod 15:1-21 he only uses the Song of Moses (Exod 15:1-18) to establish a date of 1150 BCE (pp. 111, 130, 148), assuming the same date for the Song of Miriam without subjecting it to the same analysis that Ex 15:1-18 receives.  Beyond the brief suggestion that the Song of Miriam is early because it is like other victory dances (pp. 79-80), Russell must offer more reasons why the Song of Miriam is as early as the Song of Moses if they are not both assessed in Chapters 6-9. 

            Likewise, Russell’s use of the Baal Cycle to respond to tensions between what are commonly held to be earlier and later sections of the Song (vv.1-12, 18 and vv.13-17) need refinement; after Baal defeats Yam, the cycle shifts to temple building before final victory and kingship. For Russell this is similar to shifts between YHWH’s war with the enemies and YHWH’s kingship (Exod 15:1-12, 18) interrupted by references to the effects of this victory on Israel (Exod 15:13-17). Since, for Russell the Baal cycle is a unified poem with shifts in content, a similar process proves the unity of the Song of the Sea (p. 21). First, some assumptions of shared narrative progression are problematic. Russell claims that Baal’s victory, like YHWH’s, is not realized until his house is built. This is questionable since Baal is claimed king as soon as Yamm dies (KTU 1.2 IV 34-35). Second, Russell does not admit that the order of the tablets of the Cycle is a scholarly construct, nor offers why he supports a particular reconstruction. Admitting more of a compositional history within Exod 15:1-18 and between the Songs of Moses and Miriam need not take away from Russell’s well-argued later chapters. Since supporters of an early date have accepted some type of compositional history, one often questions the need for maintaining a unified composition.

            Another area for improvement is Russell’s examination of YHWH’s character. Russell superimposes an understanding of YHWH on the Song that likely does not fit into his 12th century context. Russell claims YHWH is omnipotent because he is the divine warrior (p. 50). If the Song’s relation to the Baal Cycle is any indication, YHWH could be a warrior deity who, while unique among the gods (Exod 15:11 // KTU 1.2 I 23-25), need not be considered higher than El. Continuing to argue for YHWH’s incomparability, Russell claims YHWH is concerned with Egypt and Israel while Baal does not have any relation to human history (p. 40). This ignores that the rising of the storm god would have great significance for an ancient society. Russell needs to bring his understanding of a 12th century YHWH in conversation with texts like LXX Deut 32:8-9 and more recent scholarship on early Yahwhism and Israelite religion. Such considerations could even help reinforce an early date.

            Envisioning a more developed YHWH in a 12th century context continues when Russell sees YHWH as a creator deity in the Song of the Sea. This five-line suggestion requires further development and Russell could have used a detailed study by McCarthy to support his idea of a creator deity in the Song. [Dennis McCarthy, “Creation Motifs in Ancient Hebrew Poetry” in Creation in the Old Testament (ed. Bernhard W. Anderson; Issues in Religion and Theology 6; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 74-89].

            Other important bibliographical elements are absent. While Sinai is identified as the mountain of the Song, an alternative like Shiloh is given too brief consideration and does not consult significant contributions such as Donald G. Schley, Shiloh: A Biblical City in History and Tradition (JSOTSupp 63; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1989) or Tryvegge Mettinger, “YHWH Sabaoth, the Heavenly King on the Earthly Throne” in Studies In the Period of David and Solomon and Other Essays (ed. T. Ishida; Eisenbrauns: Indiana, 1982) 109-38.

            Despite the above, Russell’s work is useful in expanding Song of the Sea study beyond a single methodological position and providing more arguments for an early date of Exod 15:1-18. While there are some problems in seeking breadth rather than more detailed analysis, Russell shows that a broader study can yield results.

Shawn W. Flynn
University of Toronto