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‘Exodus’ and the Battle in the Sea

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 July 2016

John F. Vickrey*
Lehigh University


The transitus — the crossing of the Red Sea — is beyond question the central episode of the Old English Exodus poem. Like other episodes of that difficult work, it presents several very curious features which have long been the subject of scholarly attention. One such feature is that the Israelites, mustered in their divisions on the shore of the Red Sea, are described as beginning to move forward into the sea as if they were going into a battle. Not only the direction of this readiness to fight but the readiness itself seems incongruous: their enemies are behind them and not in front; in well known fact the Israelites are fleeing from the Egyptians.

Copyright © Fordham University Press 

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1 Cross, J. E. and Tucker, S. I., ‘Allegorical Tradition and the Old English Exodus,Neophilologus 44 (1960) 122127, esp. 125–126.

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2 Earl, James W., ‘Christian Tradition in the Old English Exodus,’ N(euphilologische) M(itteilungen) 71 (1970) 567.

3 Burroughs Irving, Edward, Jr., The Old English Exodus (Yale Studies in English 122; New Haven 1953) 87. Rpt. (with Supplement to the Bibliography) 1970.

4 The Junius Manuscript, ed. George Philip Krapp (The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 1; New York 1931) 100. Line references for other Old English poems are also to the ASPR.

5 On p. 561 Earl speaks of ‘the depiction of the entrance into the sea as a battle, though none takes place’; on p. 565 he says that ‘the Israelites never go into battle, and indeed are described as fearful and woeful as they are pursued’; and on p. 566 he says that lines 310–346 have ‘an extraordinarily incongruous tone for a description of what must be admitted to be a retreat from battle.’

6 Earl 568. The ‘other two suggestions’ concern the nautical imagery of the poem and the Noah and Abraham — Isaac digression.

7 Cross and Tucker 125.

8 Kaske, R. E., ‘The Eotenas in Beowulf,’ Old English Poetry: Fifteen Essays, ed. Robert P. Creed (Providence 1967) 288 and 299.

9 Cross and Tucker 123.

10 In Exodum Homilia V 5, trans. Rufinus (PG 12.331).

11 CCL 39.989; also PL 36.917. Quoted in Earl 552.

12 Cf. Isidore in Quaestiones in Vetus Testamentum: In Exodum 19: ‘Quid mare Rubrum, nisi baptismus est Christi sanguine consecratus? Hostes sequentes cum rege, qui a tergo moriuntur, peccata sunt praeterita, quae delentur, et diabolus, qui in spirituali baptismo suffocatur’ (PL 83.296). On the relationship of sin and the devil see Franz Joseph Dölger, Der Exorzismus im altchristlichen Taufritual (Studien zur Geschichte und Kultur des Altertums 3; Paderborn 1909) especially 25–38.

13 So Moses exhorts the Israelites: ‘Ofest is selost/ þat ge of feonda faÐme weorÐen’ (lines 293–294).

14 For example Origen, In Exodum Homilia IV 7: ‘Delentur interim primogenita Ægyptiorum, sive hos principatus et potestates, et mundi hujus rectores tenebrarum [cf. Ephes. 6.12] dicamus, quos in adventu suo Christus dicitur traduxisse [cf. Col. 2.15] … (PG 12.323). Cf. Isidore (PL 83.294), Bede (PL 91.303), and pseudo-Bede (PL 93.369).

15 On the Israelites as the treasure see my paper ‘Exodus and the Treasure of Pharaoh,’ in Anglo-Saxon England (forthcoming).

16 See the passage from Earl quoted at n. 2 supra.

17 In lines 523ff. the poet invites symbolic interpretation, but he does not moralize explicitly on the meaning of the transitus.

18 On the missing leaf see the discussion in Irving 9–10; for a list of section numbers see Krapp xxxix-xl.

19 Farrell, Robert T. mentions this possibility for the foliation of this part of the MS. See ‘A Reading of OE. Exodus,’ Review of English Studies 20 (1969) 412 n. 3.

20 Exodus line 1 begins section 42 and is so numbered; likewise Exodus line 252 begins section 46 and is so numbered. Sections 43, 44, and 45 are unnumbered, but their beginnings are indicated by large capitalization in [H]EHT, line 63; [H]LUD, line 107; and [D]A, line 142.

21 A Literary History of England, ed. Baugh, Albert C. (New York 1948) 64.

22 Irving 92.

23 Cf. lines 148–153 and 197–199. Such a description might have meant, figurally, the deception of the devil. See n. 69 infra.

24 See the reference in n. 15 supra.

25 Greenfield, Stanley B., A Critical History of Old English Literature (New York 1965) 158. This feature of the drowning episode is not always commended. See Kennedy, Charles W., The Earliest English Poetry (New York 1943) 180–181.

26 So for example Irving 30.

27 On the beasts of battle in Exodus see Robinson, Fred C., ‘Notes on the Old English Exodus,’ Anglia 80 (1962) 365368. Besides the motif of the beasts of battle is that of the approach to battle. Concerning this see Fredrik J. Heinemann, ‘Judith 236–291a: A Mock Heroic Approach-to-Battle Type Scene,’ NM 71 (1970) 85, who lists not only the Egyptians' approach to battle but that of the Israelites (lines 215–348a). Heinemann includes the Egyptians' approach among those said to be followed by a battle, but does not say when or where in Exodus the battle occurs.

On the other hand Heinemann lists some nine approaches said to be followed by no battle. He is, I believe, rather too literal when he includes among these Andreas lines 41b-47, 125b-142, 1093–1134, 1492–1535, Elene lines 256–275, 276–286a. These six passages are followed, if not by actual battles, then by moral struggles of good against evil. These ‘ battles,’ which are furthermore not without a physical aspect, are in essence much the same as the ‘battle’ in Exodus. Andreas lines 1528ff. is especially reminiscent thematically of the drowning episode in Exodus; there is even the baptism of the Mermedonians (Onfengon fulwihte, line 1630). Claes Schaar, Critical Studies in the Cynewulf Group (Lund 1949) 289–290, notes the verbal parallels.

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28 In line 480 I give the MS reading mod gerymde. See Lucas, Peter J., ‘“Exodus” 480: “mod gerymde,”Notes & Queries N.S. 16 (1969) 206207.

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29 Irving 93. On the motif of the Israelites as seamen see especially Earl 561–563.

30 See Irving's, translation of lines 478–479, pp. 93–94, and his Glossary, S. V. siÐ, p. 122.

31 Besides Exodus line 477, the word occurs in Exodus lines 121 and 448, Elene line 82, Genesis line 2637, Guthlac line 190, and Phoenix line 582.

32 Krapp's punctuation, with a comma after hweop, would seem to mean that he took siÐ as nominative.

33 Irving 94.

34 For the reading [wearp] werbeamas in line 487 see Robinson, Fred C., ‘Notes on the Old English Exodus’ (note 27 supra) 368–370.

35 Krapp 214–215.

36 On the role of the angels in baptism see Jean Danielou, The Angels and Their Mission, trans. David Heimann (Westminster, Maryland 1957) 56–62 and 70–72; and Erik Peterson, The Angels and the Liturgy, trans. Ronald Walls (New York 1964) 31–33. A passage cited by Dorothy Bethurum, The Homilies of Wulfstan (Oxford 1957) 316, from Wulfstan's Institutes of Polity, shows that the presence of angels at baptism was also thought of as helping the priests: ‘halige englas þar abutan hwearfiaÐ and þa dada beweardiaÐ and þurh Godes mihta þam sacerdon fylstaÐ, swa oft swa hig Criste ÐeniaÐ mid rihte.’ For the context see Die ‘Institutes of Polity, Civil and Ecclesiastical.’ ed. Karl Jost (Swiss Studies in English 47; Bern 1959) 104.

37 Irving 94.

38 The Homilies of Wulfstan 173 and 179.

39 Farrell, Robert T., ‘Eight Notes on Old English Exodus,’ NM 67 (1966) 365; and ‘A Reading of OE. Exodus’ (note 19 supra) 406.

40 Irving 67; and Earl 565.

41 ‘Eight Notes on Old English Exodus,’ 365.

42 See Rivière, Jean, Le dogme de la Rédemption (Paris 1905) especially 373–445; and Le dogme de la Rédemption au début du Moyen Age (Paris 1934) 7–52; Hastings Rashdall, The Idea of Atonement in Christian Theology (London 1919) 323–365; and Gustaf Aulén, Christus Victor, trans. A. G. Hebert (London 1950) especially 52–76.

43 Jean Daniélou, Bible et Liturgie (Paris 1951) 220221.

44 Irving 107 and 67.

45 Schücking, Levin L., Untersuchungen zur Bedeutungslehre der angelsächsischen Dichtersprache (Heidelberg 1915) 46 and 44.

46 See the commentaries on Ephesians 6.8 by Haymo of Auxerre (PL 117.719) and Hrabanus (PL 112.428), as well as commentaries on Psalm 67.19, cepisti captivitatem, as for example Augustine's: ‘Sed quid est, “Captivasti captivitatem”? Utrum quia vicit mortem quae captivos tenebat in quibus regnabat? an ipsos homines appellavit captivitatem, qui captivi sub diabolo tenebantur? Cujus rei mysterium continet etiam titulus illius psalmi, “Quando domus aedificabatur post captivitatem” [Psalm 95.1]: id est, Ecclesia post gentilitatem. Ipsos itaque homines qui captivi tenebantur appellans captivitatem … eamdem captivitatem a Christo captivatam dicit. Cur enim non sit captivitas felix, si et ad bonum homines possunt capi?’ (PL 36.830).

47 Irving 71.

48 On lines 1–7 see especially Earl 544–547.

49 Reckoned by counting any half-line in which there is any explicit reference to or description of Moses.

50 Possibly he made no reference at all to the first nine plagues. The brief statement in lines 14–15 that Moses ‘Faraones cyn,/ godes andsacan, gyrdwite band’ might have referred to the transitus. Line 35 geniwad does not necessarily mean ‘renewed’; see Klaeber, Fr., ‘Zu altenglischen Dichtungen,Archiv 113 (1904) 146.

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51 Adeline Courtney Bartlett, The Larger Rhetorical Patterns in Anglo-Saxon Poetry (New York 1935) 13.

52 That is, EHT, with space left for a capital.

53 Obstacles’ or ‘hindrances’ is the usual understanding of meoringa, though there is some doubt as to the meaning.

54 Earl 545.

55 There is no reason why -myrce in Exodus line 59 GuÐmyrce, and in Andreas line 432 Ælmyrcna, must both mean the same thing. Yet it could be argued that -myrce in Ælmyrcna means ‘dark’ instead of ‘borderer.’ Brooks, Kenneth R., Andreas and The Fates of the Apostles (Oxford 1961) 7677, resists this possibility and translates ælmyrce as ‘foreign borderers’ because earlier editors had taken -myrce ‘dark’ quite literally, ‘understanding it as “all-blacks,” i.e. “Ethiopians.”’ But a less literal interpretation of ‘all-dark’ may be in order. The Mermedonians have diabolical associations and many terms appropriate to devils are used of them. ‘All-dark’ may be one of these.

56 Robinson, Fred C., ‘The Significance of Names in Old English Literature,Anglia 86 (1968) 2627.

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57 PG 12.328. In Exodus 14.2 the Septuagint reads τηTς ἐπαaύλ∊ως. Aquila and Symmachus read Φι∊∂ϱώΘ, Theodotion Φα∊ϱώΘ. See Origenis Hexapla, ed. Frederick Field (Oxford 1875) I 104.

58 ‘Eight Notes on Old English Exodus’ (note 39 supra) 368–369.

59 Untersuchungen zur Bedeutungslehre (note 45 supra) 63–64.

60 PL 108.63; PL 113.223.

61 Epistula 78.5, CSEL, 55.55. Cf. Isidore (PL 83.340), Bede (PL 91.373), pseudo-Bede (PL 93.397).

62 Untersuchungen zur Bedeutungslehre 37–43. Concerning anpaÐas Matti Rissanen does not commit himself, giving both ‘a lonely way’ and ‘a one-by-one path’; see The Uses of One in Old and Early Middle English (Mémoires de la Société Néophilologique de Helsinki 31; Helsinki 1967) 304.

63 Untersuchungen zur Bedeutungslehre 63.

64 Ibid.: ‘… “die Höfe” … in ihrer Gesamtheit das bewohnte Land bezeichnen.’

65 Isidore, Quaestiones in Vetus Testamentum: In Exodum 18 (PL 83.296). Cf. Hrabanus (PL 108.63) and Glossa ordinaria (PL 113.223). See 1 Cor. 10.1–2. ‘Signa eis,’ as Irving points out, p. 72, is one of the name-meanings of ‘Etham.’

66 Heinemann (note 27 supra) 85. It should be noted, however, that Heinemann also lists lines 98–129a as an ‘offensive’ approach-to-battle type scene, i.e., one ‘whose actions initiate or seem to initiate an offensive assault.’ Yet their ‘offensive’ character is not much in evidence. Largely they describe the Israelites beholding and following the pillar of fire. In the next passage (lines 129b-134) the Israelites make their fourth camp, and it is only in the passage following this that they are suddenly and fearfully aware of the presence of the foe (lines 135ff.).

67 On this ‘contradiction’ see Aulén (note 42 supra) 70–71.

68 The Significance of Names’ (note 56 supra) 27–29; see also Robinson's ‘Some Uses of Name-Meanings in Old English Poetry,’ NM 69 (1968) 166167.

Since in the context of the Exodus the capacity of the Egyptians to afflict is a matter of pursuit and battle, it may be that the term GuÐmyrce conveys both name-meanings of Ægyptus: ‘tenebrae’ by the express myrce, but also ‘affligens’ by the implications of guÐ.

69 Concerning the deception of the devil many citations are offered in Rivière, Le dogme (note 42 supra) ch. 23. See also ch. 12, ‘The Deception of Satan,’ in MacCulloch, J. A., The Harrowing of Hell (Edinburgh 1930) 199216.

70 Augustine in De Trinitate 13.9: ‘natura filios hominis gratia Dei filios Dei fieri’ (PL 42.1024); cf. John 1.12, ‘dedit eis potestatem filios Dei fieri.’ For Christ dividing the spoils see the commentaries on Psalm 67.13, ‘Et speciei domus dividere spolia’ (Vulgate), for example that of Augustine (PL 36.821–822). On the afrisc meowle (line 580) see Robinson, ‘Notes on the Old English Exodus’ (note 27 supra) 373–378, and my paper referred to in note 15 supra.

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