Wednesday, September 21, 2011

In the Meantime: Songs and Springs

Our lectionary readings for this week are Exodus 16:1-15, Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45, and Matthew 20:1-16. You can read them here. Our blog discussion this week, however, will focus on what happened "in the meantime" between last week's passage of the parting of the Red Sea and this week's passage of the gift of manna to the hungry people.

It never occurred to me, before just now, that Exodus 15:1 should be one of my favorite Bible verses. Why, you ask? Because it bears this good news: "Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord." Here, my fellow lovers of rock and jazz, of piano and guitar, of choir anthems and songs of praise, is the first appearance in the Bible of that glorious form of human expression called music. It is here, after God has made God's self known to them in a crazy display of power, after they have made it to the far side of the sea by impossible faith, that we get our first recording of people bursting into song.

Can you imagine the moment? Stuttering Moses, often not able to get a solid sentence out, discovers the richer sounds his voice box can project. A sense of shared community exists for the first time among the Israelites as their voices join together in unison and harmony. The song of praise, which expresses what they'd learned about their God in more depth and layers than any simple words they could have spoken, goes on and on and on; and then, just when it seems to be over, even the women are given a voice: Moses' sister Miriam--the one who once watched her brother floating near his death in the waters and who had now seen the waters close over those who had oppressed and imprisoned them for so long--takes up tambourines and leads her fellow women in an encore of song and dance: "Sing!" she cries. "Sing!" On this day, song became part of the worship of the people of God--a component of worship that I now find it hard to imagine approaching God without.

Once the singing fades out, however, the people have to continue to follow God's command to journey. They leave the shores of the sea and travel for three long days--days which take them far from water. Finally, they come upon a spring--woohoo, let's praise God again!!--only, wait--don't praise God. This water has a taste so bitter it could be more deadly to them than dehydration. And so, their songs of praise are quickly supplanted by murmurs and grumbles, their rejoicing canceled out by the fears induced by their harsh new reality. Again, though--surprisingly quickly, actually--God acts on their behalf. God shows Moses how to turn the water sweet, and they drink deeply, soothing their parched throats before venturing on. When they reach their next stop, they discover their momentary panic had been premature: the next stop beyond Marah, Elim, had "twelve springs and seventy palm trees, and they camped there near the water." They have returned, again, to the water brings life, to springs that well up songs of praise within them.

I think this first chapter of Israel's life post-Red Sea is an important one for entering into the next chapter. Take time to read this one, then read on into Exodus 16. Where do you see parallels? Where do you see conflicts? Why, just one chapter later, do these suddenly liberated slaves now cease to sing?


Jeremy said...

Just a few comments first on the music:

1) It is incredibly likely that the Israelites sang before this - there are quite a few ethnomusicologists who posit (with enough evidence to make it plausible) that singing preceded speech (such as Josef Jordania, for one).

2) Also found in the "Probably-but-not-Certainly" file is the well-heeled theory that the cultures of this area used strictly monodic music (i.e. no harmony, only melody). There's a fair amount of extrapolated and circumstantial evidence for this assertion, but again, it's one of those things that is largely unknownable for sure.

3) There are other records of singing before this, but these accounts are not really widely known in the "Western" world.

This still doesn't lessen the overall message of bursting into song in elation, praise, and relief at God's power made manifest to the Hebrew people. Even the women (!!) get some time here.

As for the quick turnaround from praising to complaining, I keep coming back to Stephen's comment from our Manna and Mercy discussion group. These people are still bound and hurt in ways that they can't escape/change quickly, and they have lived in a system where they had no voice and plenty of oppression. As incredible as it may seem given what they've experienced so far on their journey, they can't let go of their past hurts. Living hand to mouth under slavery was what they knew down to their bones.

In other words, they are only human.

Plus, I'm thinking that the world in general must have seemed pretty mystical to them at that time! Pharoh and his tech of the time might as well been a god (or at least god-like), even if he was ultimately overcome by Yahweh.

Abby said...

Ah, yes...should have known better than to write about the origins of music in the presence of my ethnomusicologist friend:)

I guess I should have been more specific in specifying that this is the first BIBLICAL account of singing we have--I definitely think music was made before this time, but it is the first time singing gets recorded as part of the biblical narrative (though instrumental music is referenced obliquely by Laban in the story of Jacob). Thanks for calling that out, Jeremy!

And I love the thought that it was only melody...that it was singing in unison. There's something lovely about that, proven or not.