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The New Oxford Annotated Bible New Revised Standard Study Bible that provides essential scholarship and guidance for Bible readers.

The Characteristics of Biblical Poetry

These books do, as noted above, incorporate a large amount of poetry, so it is appropriate to here examine the basic structures of biblical poetry. Poetry is a cross‐cultural phenomenon: Most cultures distinguish between an everyday type of discourse (prose), and heightened discourse (poetry). This heightening may be accomplished in a number of different ways, which include the use of figuration (e.g., metaphor, simile), meter, and certain types of sound patterning, such as alliteration and rhyme. Yet there is no cross‐cultural pattern for poetry. Thus Hebrew poetry, unlike its classical English counterpart, has neither (true) rhythm nor rhyme; nevertheless, it is poetic in that it uses certain devices in significant enough concentration to distinguish it from everyday speech, or prose. Obviously, the prose‐poetry distinction is relative rather than absolute; as in English, we may speak of poetic prose and prosaic poetry. Thus, “pure prose” and “pure poetry” should be seen as opposites on a continuum, within which a large variety of possibilities occur in the Bible as in other literary traditions.

The main shared characteristic between typical English poetry and biblical poetry is the use of figuration. This may be seen, for example, in Ps 23 . The central image of this psalm is introduced by the metaphor, “The LORD is my shepherd” (v. 1 ). The following verses unpack or clarify the meaning of this metaphor, noting in vv. 2–3 how God, the ideal shepherd, tends his people/sheep:

He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name's sake.

Psalm 1 is characterized by a set of two contrasting similes: the righteous

…are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither (v. 3 ),

while the wicked “are like chaff that the wind drives away” (v. 4 ). The Song of Solomon is especially rich in similes and metaphors, as in the beginning of ch 2 :

I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys. As a lily among brambles, so is my love among maidens. As an apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among young men. With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.

The main characteristic of biblical poetry, nevertheless, is not figuration, but parallelism, in which most poetic lines may be divided into two (or sometimes three) parts; the second part of the line is intimately connected to the first part, and typically seconds it in some way. For example, Ps 6.2 reads:

Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am languishing; O LORD, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror.

The verse clearly divides into two more or less equal sections, and each element in the first part is mirrored, seconded, or paralleled in the second: Be gracious to me || heal me; O LORD || O LORD; for I am languishing || for my bones are shaking with terror. This parallelism, which is not typical of biblical prose, serves as the backbone of biblical poetry.

Since the eighteenth century, it has been customary to see three main types of parallelism in the Bible: synonymous, antithetical, and synthetic. The quotation above from Ps 6.2 is an example of synonymous parallelism. Antithetical parallelism can be seen in Prov 10.1 :

A wise child makes a glad father, but a foolish child is a mother's grief.

In this balanced, two‐part line, “a wise child” is antithetical, or opposite, to “a foolish child,” and “makes a glad father” is antithetical to “is a mother's grief.” In synthetic parallelism, the second part of the line completes the thought of the first part, and is neither the same nor the opposite. For example, Song 1.9 reads:

I compare you, my love, to a mare among Pharaoh's chariots.

Here the second part concludes the thought of the first.

The appropriateness of the three labels—synonymous, antithetical, and synthetic—which were accepted in biblical scholarship for two centuries, has now been called into question on several grounds. First, some have noted that languages have no true synonyms; thus “synonymous parallelism” is a misleading term. Furthermore, very often two parallel words can be similar, but are not truly synonymous, as may be seen in the example from Ps 6.2 : “I am languishing” || “my bones are shaking with terror.” The term antithetical parallelism has been questioned because not all elements of part B are the antithesis of part A. This may be seen in the example from Prov 10.1 , where “child” is used in both parts A and B; a true antithesis might contrast a “wise child” with a “foolish parent.” Finally, “synthetic” has been criticized as too vague a term. These criticisms should not be underestimated. Nevertheless, the three terms, if understood as ideal types from which actual lines may deviate to a greater or lesser extent, remain useful.

A much more serious criticism of the classical model emerged in the middle 1980s when several scholars began to question the notion that parallelism is formulaic in that the second half of the poetic line typically adds little to the line, but merely seconds it. Several scholars have suggested just the opposite, that the second part heightens or extends the first. Thus, the typical biblical verse should be read “A, and even more so, B.” According to this model, which has gained substantial support in the last two decades, we would not read Ps 6.2b , “O LORD, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror” as a type of filler that merely restates “Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am languishing.” Rather we would understand the verse as a whole as: “Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am languishing,” and moreover, “O LORD, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror,” where the claim “for my bones are shaking with terror” is a more vivid description that intensifies the verse's opening “for I am languishing.”

Sometimes it is quite clear that the second part of the verse does not merely parallel the first but does go beyond it in some significant fashion, and thus justifies this newer model. Yet there are a substantial number of cases in which the second part actually does seem to function as a filler, carrying little if any semantic weight, let alone intensifying the first. For example, the major image of Ps 121 is the ability of God to protect the individual. This is expressed at the psalm's center, where God is imagined metaphorically as a “shade” (v. 5 ) from the intense Mediterranean heat. The psalm continues (v. 6 ): “The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.” Clearly, the second part, “nor the moon by night” is not an intensification; in fact, it makes no sense, since no one in ancient Israel was afflicted with moonburn or moonstroke. The second part here is a(n antithetical) filler and carries no semantic weight. It should be seen as part of an ancient Near Eastern and biblical pattern of word pairs, where a particular word (e.g., “sun” or “father”) automatically evokes a related (“synonymous” or “antithetical”) word (e.g., “moon” or “mother”).

Thus, parallelism is much more complicated than would appear on the surface. Clearly it is characterized by sets of lines, each of which may be divided into two parts, typically of the same length and mirroring each other on the semantic, syntactic, and phonological levels. It is unclear if the second should typically be read as an intensification of the first, or as a filler that carries little or no semantic value. This uncertainty is extremely frustrating, not only because it leaves us unsure how to read much of biblical poetry, especially the extent to which we do or do not need to pay close attention to the second half of the line, but also because our understanding of biblical poetry will affect our reconstruction of many Israelite institutions. To return to Prov 10.1 —“A wise child makes a glad father, but a foolish child is a mother's grief”—if we follow the older understanding of parallelism, the second half is largely a filler, indicating that the father had the major role in the child's upbringing in ancient Israel, while if we follow the newer understanding, where the second intensifies the first, the mother was primarily responsible for the child.

Another area that has engendered significant controversy over the last few decades concerns the extent to which meter or rhythm existed in biblical poetry. Much of this debate concerns the definition of meter. In English and other modern Western languages, meter is generally understood as a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables; if this is how we should understand it in biblical poetic texts, these texts in their current form lack meter or rhythm. Metrical patterns can only be found in biblical texts if they are emended or reconstructed extensively. There is, however, a tendency for the parts of each line, in most poetic genres, to be approximately the same length. There is some possibility that this reflects the remnant of some metrical system, and that at an earlier time, each part had not only the same length, but the same meter; this pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables has been lost as a result of changes in the pronunciation of ancient Hebrew. More likely, the similarity of length is part of the larger system of parallelism, which encouraged each part to mirror its counterpart in length, as well as in semantic, syntactic, and phonological structure.

Scholars have until recently been primarily concerned with the line as the main unit of biblical poetry. This is not really surprising, given how foreign biblical parallelism is to the modern Western (but not the ancient Near Eastern) ear. This interest in the line has obscured the significance of the strophe or stanza and of the poem as a whole. But the last few decades have seen a legitimate return to these larger units. For example, it had become a habit when studying passages like Job 3 to concentrate solely on the parallelism of lines like v. 5 :

Let gloom and deep darkness claim it. Let clouds settle upon it; let the blackness of the day terrify it.

Now, in addition to this type of analysis, scholars study how the poet uses images of day and night, light and darkness, throughout the chapter, in order to create this exquisite poem. This is not, however, an either‐or proposition: By studying how the individual line functions as poetry and how these lines join together into stanzas, which combine into complete poems, we gain a much fuller appreciation and understanding of these Poetical Books.

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