Psalm 114 – A Moment of Universal Inversion
TEXT (Hebrew text at bottom)
1. On Israel’s departure from
, the house of Jacob from a people of foreign tongue, Egypt
became His sanctuary, Judah His dominion. Israel
3. The sea saw and fled, the
turned back; Jordan
4. the mountains skipped like rams, hills like young lambs.
5. What disturbs you, O sea, that you should flee, the
, that you should turn back, Jordan
6. the mountains, that you should skip like rams, hills like lambs of the flock?
7. At the presence of the Lord, whirl, O earth, at the presence of the God of Jacob,
8. He Who turns the rock into a pool of water, flint into a spring of water.
How did the world react to the Exodus? Psalm 114 attempts to respond to that question. Apart from first line ascriptions, only two psalms boldly place themselves at a moment in history, each on an occasion of movement from abroad to the
(although both expand that moment into an era): Psalm 114 at the Exodus and Psalm 126 at the return from exile. Both are carefully structured psalms, their form buttressing their content. Psalm 114 expands history into an upheaval of nature. Land of Israel
The structure of Psalm 114 reflects its content. The middle four verses deal only with nature and its reactions; the first and last two verses enclose these within the frame of God, the people, and the physical land. Nature is thus enclosed within the specific national reference—creation is trumped by, is “packaged” within, historical intervention. Indeed, all creation is moved to take part in the history of the Exodus (as broadly defined; see below).
The metaphors here involve extreme personification of the elements of nature. Reinforcing those metaphors is the split between the first and second half: the first, a third-person description and the second, a second-person address. It is as if the personification of nature makes it available for direct address.
Meir Weiss finds even deeper implications to the division (Scriptures, pp. 252–262). The role of the natural phenomena is not merely participation or reaction—the story of Psalm 114 is transformation! Waters roll backward, mountains and hills skip! “In light of an historical revolution, there is a revolution in nature…. The unique position of our psalm is that the choice of
, which occurred ‘on Israel ’s departure from Israel ,’ produced a revolution in creation, or to be more precise, a new creation” (p.261). The repackaging of the story of water from the rock (Num. 20:8) supports this view. In this psalm, the rock is transformed into water! Nothing remains the same.” Egypt
The author specifically plays land against water. Verses 3 and 5 deal with water and verses 4 and 6 speak of dry land. The poem ends with the “transfer” of rock to water, and one can probably posit that any reader would associate the opening “When Israel left Egypt” with the well-known story of the water turning to dry land (noted specifically in verses 3 and 5). Thus the poem would be framed as water to dry land, dry land to water. In celebrating both kinds of transformations, the poet emphasizes that one direction or the other is not the point. It is the revolution in the rules of nature that is his concern.
This is of course not history, but history as seen. It is the speaker who “sees” a world reversed in the golden age, the distant past. The speaker perhaps wants his listeners to share his vision, but in part it is the speaker whom the listener encounters and considers.
The Rhythms of Salvation
This magnificently lyrical poem is, as several commentators have noted, about as close as Psalms gets to modern poetry in its use of rhythm (not obvious in translation), which is uniform throughout. It is one of the most rhythmic psalms. It is also the only psalm dedicated exclusively to the subject of the Exodus (albeit as broadly defined). Perhaps the lyricism is meant to reflect that grand wonder that only nostalgia can conjure up, a parallel to “Camelot” tone to the psalm achieved by the broad hyperbole.
Further, as has been pointed out by several scholars, all eight verses of Psalm 114 share a single form of parallelism, through ellipsis. The first half of each verse includes an element that must be also be applied to the second half, where it is not mentioned. (This is by no means a unique occurrence in biblical poetry, but it appears here in every line.) By way of example, verse 1b can only be understood if we reread “on Israel’s departure” from 1a; verse 2b can only be understood if we reread “became” from 2a; in verse 3, “saw”; etc. In addition, it may be that in each verse, the first phrase is broader than the second. That is clear in the cases of sea/Jordan; mountains/hills; rams/young lamb; rock/flint; and arguably holds for most or all of the terms. On one hand, this may be, like the lyricism, simply a consistency and beauty appropriate to this unique event. Again I sense that there is more, a statement through form that one is looking back to find the ideal. Hence the earlier part of the verse is always more comprehensive, whereas the latter part is always missing something.
The Time of the Exodus
Not reflecting structure but content, one pauses at the concept of leaving
as reflected in Psalm 114. From the very beginning (the reference to Israel and Judea, the two divisions of the Land of Israel and two monarchies subsequent to the time of King Solomon), the time span moves well beyond the limited events that we would normally include in our concept of the Exodus. This includes the water-rock reference from the desert wandering and the Egypt turning back in Joshua’s time. Jordan
Indeed, it may not be so surprising to us today, for we do tend to see the Exodus as part of the unified narrative that begins there and ends with the entry into the Promised Land. Even within the Bible, this expanded concept of the “Exodus”" is not unique. Several references in Deuteronomy to “when you were leaving
” (; 23:5; 24:9; 25:17) recall events from the desert period. (Deuteronomy probably reflects thinking toward the end of the First Egypt Period, late enough to telescope the past.) Temple
A word may be due here on Sinai. Commentators differ on whether the reference to the mountains and hills skipping is a poetic description of the theophany on
Mount Sinai. Differences in details certainly do not discount the idea, both because more than one story existed and because poets inherently exercise license. Further, the concept “Exodus,” as noted above, does allow for reference to Sinai. The question is moot. In any case, the plural reference (mountains, hills) and the poetry describe a reaction that was far more than local.
Most impressive, however, is how involved the speaker becomes in history. Describing former times, he actually transports himself, with verse 5, into the "present" of that past, addressing the players of the time. No description from a distance could be as effective as this time travel to the past to illustrate how deeply that history is the speaker's own.
In the End
There is a tendency in many psalms to leave a central point for emphasis at the end, at times coming as a total surprise. Not surprising in the case of Psalm 114, the seventh verse does pick up an element that was previously included only as a pronominal suffix (“His” of verse 2): the centrality of God to the story. One should not draw negative conclusions from God’s relative absence prior to that verse—the opposite is the case. Frequently a psalm leaves an absolutely basic element until the end to emphasize it, not to hide it. Moreover, one could have easily concluded that the motivating factor for nature’s changes to that point were in reaction to
. Here the factors of fear and awe of God are added. Israel
I also comment on the tendency of some of the early scholars to claim that this psalm is incomplete, suggesting that it ends too abruptly and would seem to be part of some longer holiday text. That reading, however, appreciates neither the frequent surprise endings of psalms, nor the tight structural elements noted above. The suggestion in fact may reflect too limited an understanding of the nature of psalms. This psalm, it is true, is sui generis, but so are a number of others. Although historical continuity does not end with verse 8, the tight structure does, fully completing the poem.
* * * * * * * *
Some manuscripts, translations, and medieval commentators join Psalms 114 and 115. The basis would seem to be what is missing—no “hallelujah” at the end of the former or the beginning of the latter. The content and structure, however, dictate otherwise.
The author of these essays is Rabbi
Benjamin Segal, former president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in and author of The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love ( Jerusalem : Jerusalem Gefen, 2009). This material is copyright by the author, and may not be reproduced. If you are interested in using the texts for study groups, please be in direct contact with the author, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
א) בְּצֵאת יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרָיִם בֵּית יַעֲקֹב מֵעַם לֹעֵז:
(ב) הָיְתָה יְהוּדָה לְקָדְשׁוֹ יִשְׂרָאֵל מַמְשְׁלוֹתָיו:
(ג) הַיָּם רָאָה וַיָּנֹס הַיַּרְדֵּן יִסֹּב לְאָחוֹר:
(ד) הֶהָרִים רָקְדוּ כְאֵילִים גְּבָעוֹת כִּבְנֵי צֹאן:
(ה) מַה לְּךָ הַיָּם כִּי תָנוּס הַיַּרְדֵּן תִּסֹּב לְאָחוֹר:
(ו) הֶהָרִים תִּרְקְדוּ כְאֵילִים גְּבָעוֹת כִּבְנֵי צֹאן:
(ז) מִלִּפְנֵי אָדוֹן חוּלִי אָרֶץ מִלִּפְנֵי אֱלוֹהַּ יַעֲקֹב:
(ח) הַהֹפְכִי הַצּוּר אֲגַם מָיִם חַלָּמִישׁ לְמַעְיְנוֹ מָיִם: