Ps. 114: Entering Psalm 114

Some of my favorite poetry in the Hebrew Bible are verses that feature the personification of the natural world. For example, I love when the earth breaks into singing and the cypresses taunt the fallen king of Babylon in Isaiah 14:7-8, and later in Isaiah (55:12) the description of trees clapping along the road of return from exile is an image I treasure. Psalm 114 is another poetic account of Israel’s homecoming and its effects in the natural world. This psalm’s account of Israel’s journey from Egypt includes the sea fleeing, mountains skipping like rams, and the earth trembling. The personification is underlined by the use of apostrophe in the psalm; the speaker addresses the sea, mountain, hills, and earth as interlocutors.  

These poetic devices enliven Psalm 114 and also make an important theological point. Israel’s exodus is intertwined with the rest of God’s creation. Hebrew poetry often weaves together historical and mythological elements. Like the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15), Psalm 114 combines the two registers to recount the Exodus. Mythic traditions like YHWH’s defeat of the Sea (verse 5; Psalm 74:13; 89:9) and the earth trembling before the divine presence (verse 7; Psalm 68:9; Habakkuk 3:6; Exodus 19:18) are mixed with the historical report of Israel’s departure from Egypt (verse 1).  

Even with these mythical elements, however, the presence of God is oddly understated in Psalm 114. God first appears in verse 2 but only as an unspecified pronoun (“his”), and although YHWH is explicitly mentioned in verse 7, the psalm never directly addresses God, as we often find in thanksgiving hymns. Psalm 114’s praise and gratitude are expressed indirectly through images of YHWH’s power throughout all creation.

Psalm 114 is best-known among Jewish readers as one of the Hallel (“Praise”) Psalms (Psalms 113-118), which are recited on various festivals. The origins of these psalms as a liturgical collection are uncertain. The earliest reference to a “Hallel” occurs in the Mishneh, and in the New Testament Matthew 26:30 attests to hymn-singing as part of the Passover celebration.  Psalm 114 itself most likely dates to the exilic or post-exilic period (that is, after the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE); much of its language and syntax is characteristic of late Biblical Hebrew. This date suggests that the psalm’s poet meant for the exodus from Egypt to inspire those exiled in Babylon. The first exodus would provide the template for a new rescue and return of YHWH’s people. 

Key Terms:

  • “sea… Jordan” (verse 5) evokes the sea/river word pair that is common in the poetry of the Hebrew Bible (Psalms 24:2; 66:6; 72:8; 89:25) and the ancient Near East (especially, in the texts from ancient Ugarit). The pair represents primordial adversaries to be vanquished by the chief deity within a pantheon; in biblical tradition that deity is the one and only YHWH.

  • “the Jordan ran backward” (verse 5) alludes to Joshua 3:15-17, which describes the stoppage of the Jordan river’s flow so that Israel could cross into the Promised Land.   

  • “rock into a pool of water” (verse 8) alludes to the twice-told wilderness tradition in which YHWH provides water to the Israelites out of a rock (Exodus 17:6; Numbers 20:11).

 

בְּצֵ֣את יִ֭שְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרָ֑יִם בֵּ֥ית יַ֝עֲקֹ֗ב מֵעַ֥ם לֹעֵֽז׃ 

הָיְתָ֣ה יְהוּדָ֣ה לְקָדְשׁ֑וֹ יִ֝שְׂרָאֵ֗ל מַמְשְׁלוֹתָֽיו׃ 

הַיָּ֣ם רָ֭אָה וַיָּנֹ֑ס הַ֝יַּרְדֵּ֗ן יִסֹּ֥ב לְאָחֽוֹר׃ 

הֶֽ֭הָרִים רָקְד֣וּ כְאֵילִ֑ים גְּ֝בָע֗וֹת כִּבְנֵי־צֹֽאן׃ 

מַה־לְּךָ֣ הַ֭יָּם כִּ֣י תָנ֑וּס הַ֝יַּרְדֵּ֗ן תִּסֹּ֥ב לְאָחֽוֹר׃ 

הֶֽ֭הָרִים תִּרְקְד֣וּ כְאֵילִ֑ים גְּ֝בָע֗וֹת כִּבְנֵי־צֹֽאן׃ 

מִלִּפְנֵ֣י אָ֭דוֹן ח֣וּלִי אָ֑רֶץ מִ֝לִּפְנֵ֗י אֱל֣וֹהַּ יַעֲקֹֽב׃ 

הַהֹפְכִ֣י הַצּ֣וּר אֲגַם־מָ֑יִם חַ֝לָּמִ֗ישׁ לְמַעְיְנוֹ־מָֽיִם׃

NJPS (New Jewish Publication Society)

1. When Israel went forth from Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange speech, 

2. Judah became His -holy one, Israel, His dominion. 

3. The sea saw them and fled, Jordan ran backward, 

4. mountains skipped like rams, hills like sheep. 

5. What alarmed you, O sea, that you fled, Jordan, that you ran backward, 

6. mountains, that you skipped like rams, hills, like sheep? 

7. Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob, 

8. who turned the rock into a pool of water, the flinty rock into a fountain.
 

NIRV (New International Reader’s Version)

1. The people of Israel came out of Egypt.

    The people of Jacob left a land where a different language was spoken.

2. Then Judah became the holy place where God lived.

    Israel became the land he ruled over.

3. The Red Sea saw him and parted.

    The Jordan River stopped flowing.

4. The mountains leaped like rams.

    The hills skipped like lambs.

5. Red Sea, why did you part?

    Jordan River, why did you stop flowing?

6. Why did you mountains leap like rams?

    Why did you hills skip like lambs?

7. Earth, tremble with fear when the Lord comes.

    Tremble when the God of Jacob is near.

8. He turned the rock into a pool.

    He turned the hard rock into springs of water.

 

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