songs of Moses and Miriam in Exodus 15

Following is a translation of the songs of Moses and Miriam from Exodus 15 into dance and a song presented in the traditional Fang troubadour style (mvét oyeng) by the group Nkuwalong as part of a project by Bethany and Andrew Case. (Note that you can activate English, French and Spanish subtitles.)

Translation commentary on Exod 15:14

Verses 14-16a give the third narrative account, which most translations place in either the present or the past. The problem of determining the intended time frame becomes especially difficult with Hebrew poetry. This is because the Hebrew verb forms show action only as completed or incomplete; they do not show whether the action is in the past, present, or future. That is something that has to be determined by the syntax or the total context. And in Hebrew poetry, which tends to use fewer words in a brevity of style, the syntax is less structured, and a time context for the verbs is less definitive.

In these verses, for example, New International Version uses the future tense throughout in order to preserve the supposed original setting at the Red Sea. These verses then become a prediction, or statement of assurance, about the journey to the promised land still to take place. Revised Standard Version and Good News Translation, however, use the present tense, suggesting that other nations have already heard about what has happened and are presently in a state of fear. New Revised Standard Version and Revised English Bible place everything in the past, suggesting that this hymn fits the setting of the later Israelite community as they recall the entire exodus event. (But see also the comment on tense at verse 17.)

The peoples have heard refers to groups of people, or “nations” (Good News Translation), four of which are mentioned by name. It is not stated what they have heard, but it obviously refers to the way Yahweh has delivered the Israelites. So one may translate “the nations have heard about this.” (New International Version‘s “will hear” suggests that the news has not yet reached these nations.) They tremble means to shake in fear, so Good News Translation adds “they tremble with fear.” New Revised Standard Version has changed this to past tense, “they trembled,” and translators are encouraged to do so also. It is possible to express this as “they were so afraid that they trembled all over,” and in some languages this will be rendered idiomatically; for example, “their hearts [or, livers] have fallen and they are trembling.”

Pangs is the word for the labor pains of a woman giving birth. A related meaning is “anguish” (New American Bible) or “agony” (New Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh), but Good News Translation takes this a bit further with “terror.” Have seized is a descriptive word meaning “laid hold of,” or “gripped” (New American Bible and others). On the inhabitants of Philistia refers, of course, to the Philistines, who lived along the coastal plain in southwest Palestine. Inhabitants is literally sitters, or “dwellers” (New American Bible, Revised English Bible, New Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh). In some languages there may not be two suitable synonyms for fear and terror. In such cases one may say something like “The people of Philistia are so afraid that they are in pain.”

Quoted with permission from Osborn, Noel D. and Hatton, Howard A. A Handbook on Exodus. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 1999. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .