Exodus 15:11 and Reflections on the Meaning of Holy

Posted: April 23, 2015 in Uncategorized

Traditionally called the Song of Moses, Exodus 15:1–18 records the praises of Moses offered to Yahweh. These praises are offered as a result of Yahweh delivering Israel from Egypt.

After Yahweh unleashes ten plagues, the Egyptian Pharaoh is moved to release God’s people. Yet, he regrets his decision and gathers his army to pursue the Israelites (14:5­–9). The Egyptians pursue the Israelites to the Red Sea and all hope seems lost. The people of Israel are facing an enemy they cannot defeat as the ocean lies behind them and the Egyptian army stands in front of them. However, Yahweh of Hosts is fighting for his people. In Exodus 14, the Lord parts the seas and leads Israel through on dry ground. When the Egyptians pursue Israel, God clogs their chariot wheels (14:25) and ultimately drowns them in the waters.

In this event God displayed his power and faithfully redeemed his people. He had conquered Israel’s enemies and brought his people safely through the waters of judgment. Now, looking upon the mighty redemptive act of God, Moses sings a new song. He sings a song that praises his redeemer and celebrates his faithfulness to his covenant people.

In verse 11 Moses asks, “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you…” (15:11a)? The implied answer is that no one is like Yahweh. He is utterly unique. The so-called other “gods” are to be compared to one who is “majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, and doing wonders” (15:11b). This holiness, awesomeness, and wonder working power are what make Yahweh unique and set-apart from the gods of the Egyptians.

Brevard Childs, in his commentary on Exodus, makes an important observation concerning this passage:

The second part of the hymn begins in vs. 13. Not only is there a marked change in content with no further specific reference in the hymn to the sea, but v. 13 offers an interpretation of the events which have preceded by its choice of vocabulary…It was through this event that Israel was redeemed to become the people of God.

Childs observes that the Exodus event is meant to bring God and his people together. What other god has ever acted in this way? In Deuteronomy 4:34 Moses reflects on this event and asks, “has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, by wonders, and by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by great deeds of terror, all of which the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes?” This is an obvious reference to the Exodus event and Moses asks the rhetorical question in 15:11 in light of God’s deliverance of Israel. That is, God’s “majestic holiness” likely points to the devotion God has towards his covenant people. This devotion moves Moses to sing of Yahweh’s utter uniqueness.

God is not like the other gods precisely because he has saved his people and brought them to himself. They will move to Sinai and meet him on the mountain (cf. Exodus 19). The context does include the idea of distinction. There are no other gods like Yahweh. He is utterly unique. Yet, if Peter Gentry is right in arguing that the meaning of holiness is basically “consecration” or “devotion,” then the phrase “majestic in holiness” seems to be a reference to God’s commitment to the descendants of  Abraham (cf. Gen. 12).

Holiness as Consecration or Devotion

Could it be that God’s holiness (i.e. consecration or devotion) is a reason that Moses includes the comparative question in his song? To state it differently, God’s “majestic holiness” is what makes God unique among the so-called pantheon of gods. In this view, holiness is not defined as set-apartness, but as something else. This “something else” results in being set-apart.

The context seems helpful at this point. Moses is praising Yahweh for his display of power in delivering Israel from Egypt. Though holiness is often defined as moral purity, notions of moral purity seem absent from the song altogether. What of the idea of transcendence which is commonly placed under the definition of holy? Again, though the Bible clearly teaches that God is far above creation, high and lifted up (Isa. 6:3), this is not the focus of Moses’ Song. Instead, God has condescended; he has broken into history, graciously and powerfully acting on behalf of Israel. For what purpose has Yahweh acted? So that he can “bring them in and plant them on [his] own mountain, the place…which [he has] made for [their] abode, the sanctuary…which [his] hands have established” (Ex. 15:17). In short, he has delivered them from Egypt and brought them to himself.

God had chosen Abraham and his descendants. The offspring of Abraham are Yahweh’s covenant people. At the beginning of the book of Exodus the reader finds Israel living under the oppression of the Egyptians. God’s people cry out to him, calling for their God to remember his promise to Abraham. Yahweh hears their cries and responds. He is devoted to his people and demonstrates his devotion by delivering them from Egypt. God is holy. That is, he is consecrated, or devoted, to his people and his glory.

This devotion is what makes Yahweh utterly unique. He is clearly separate from other so-called gods.

For now, at least in my mind, Exodus 15:11 seems to offer a bit of support for understanding holy as “consecration” or “devotion.”

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