The parshah for next week is Beshalach (Exodus 13:17 – 17:16). There are a lot of very important events happening in just four chapters. In fact, one could write a blog on any one of the following topics: the Israelite escape from Egypt; the parting of the Red Sea (literally the sea of Reeds); the Israelites being pursued by the Pharaoh and his army; the death of Pharaoh and his army in the sea; the incessant complaints of the Israelites in the desert; and the first descriptions of Shabbat observance.
Yet, this post will not focus on any of those topics. Rather, I want to examine chapter 15, the Song of the Sea. It is one of the oldest sections of the Torah and contains some of the most iconic images of the divine.
Yet, the Song of the Sea is a patriarchal text if ever there was one. G-d is a strong and vengeful (ver. 2) warrior (ver. 3), who has fury or is wrathful (ver. 7), and wields a mighty arm that kills enemies (ver. 6 &12). This in-your-face power of the deity inspires fear in those who threaten the deity’s chosen people (ver. 14-15), and the Israelites are grateful for it (ver. 11). Because of the power of this deity, one can rest assured that this warrior deity will rule (be the King) forever (ver. 18).
What furthers such patriarchal imagery is the link in the song between violent behavior and love. Verse 13 says, “In your steadfast love (chesed) you led the people whom you redeemed; you guided them by your strength to you holy abode.” In other words, G-d saved them (was violent) because G-d loved them, because they are special to G-d.
This imagery makes sense in light of a small group of Israelite slaves fleeing a powerful Egyptian ruler and his army only to wander in the desert and come across more power enemies. What more could they want than assured protection and the most powerful deity to fight on their behalf? They are grateful that they have such protection in such uncertain circumstances.
Yet, as the parshah continues, this imagery for the divine doesn’t. Three main understandings of the divine take center stage in place of the warrior-king. The first one satiates the hunger of the Israelites who complain to Moses saying,” ‘If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us into the wilderness to kill this whole assembly,’ (16:3).” Here, G-d is the care-giver providing water, manna and quail for the Israelites. This relationship between the people and G-d continues for the next forty years (16:35). That is, until they arrive at a land which could provide for them. Providing for the hungry is a different type of liberating act, and a significant one nonetheless.
The divine is also a wilderness-guide, leading them to the Promised Land. The main image of G-d in this regard is the pillar of fire and clouds. The divine goes in front of the people so they can follow.
The third image of the divine is the interactive one that establishes covenants with the people. In this case, the divine sometimes appears as a cloud, but more often than not prefers private meetings on mountain-tops. The first inklings of a covenant appear in this parshah. See verse 15:26.
Perhaps what is so hard about this parshah is that despite all of the ways the divine cares for the people and therefore truly shows chesed, tradition remembers and cherishes the violence of the warrior-king. One calls the divine king in traditional formulations for prayer: blessed are You, king of the universe… One recalls God’s violent, powerful actions in prayers, like when singing the mi chamocha (Exodus 15:11: “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, doing wonders? (NRSV)”). One celebrates aspects of violence during the Seder. On Yom Kippur, one approaches the divine as their king and judge.
But, powerful, violent warrior-kings don’t need anyone else. In fact, they are all about destroying enemies not making friends. Why perpetuate such imagery? The writers of the Torah did not. Neither should we continue to do so.
The writers of the Torah understood the bigger picture: that we were destined to enter into a covenant with the divine. In other words, we are a covenant people. They knew that partnerships don’t happen between a king and his underlings. Therefore, they showed, at the same time as this warrior-king, different models of G-d. The divine is visible in and through the natural world, provides for the needs of the people, and goes ahead of us so we can know the path to follow. These are the understandings of the divine that we should cherish. These are the ones we should embrace as a covenant people. These are the ones that we should pray to, recall, celebrate, and approach.
Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University and Anglo-American University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies, Feminist and Ecofeminist courses.