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Poetry, Biblical Hebrew

The Oxford Companion to the Bible What is This? Provides authoritative interpretive entries on Biblical people, places, beliefs, events, and secular influences.

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    Poetry, Biblical Hebrew

    Poetry is the elevated style in which songs, hymns, lamentations, proverbs, wisdom, and prophetic speeches are composed. Biblical poems tend to be of short or medium length, ranging from two to about sixty lines. Longer poems exist, such as Psalm 119, but they are rare, and there is no continuous poem of epic proportion. Unlike most epic traditions, the Bible contains few narrative poems: its major narratives are in prose. Nevertheless, close to one‐third of the Hebrew Bible is poetry, distributed in small amounts among the narrative books, in greater amounts in the prophetic books, and predominant in the collections of Psalms, Proverbs, and Lamentations, and in the wisdom books of Job and Ecclesiastes.

    Biblical poetry is characterized by a terse, binary form of expression that is eloquent and evocative. The terseness is effected by the juxtaposition of short lines with few specific connectives between them. The connective may be lacking altogether, or may consist of the multipurpose conjunction wāw, meaning “and,” “but,” “or,” and so forth. Thus, the exact relationship between lines is often not made explicit. The lines themselves are short, usually three or four words, and their terseness is enhanced by the omission, in many cases, of the definite article, the relative pronoun, and other grammatical particles. Two examples, the first from a narrative poem and the second from a psalm, illustrate the terseness and parataxis of biblical poetry:

    Water he asked:

    Milk she gave:

    In a lordly cup she offered cream.

    (Judg. 5.25)

    You give to them, they gather:

    You open your hand, they are satisfied well.

    (Ps. 104.28)

    These two excerpts also illustrate the most prominent feature of biblical poetry, its binary form of expression known as parallelism. Parallelism is the pairing of a line (or part of a line) with one or more lines that are in some way linguistically equivalent. The equivalence is often grammatical—that is, both parts of the parallelism may have the same syntactic structure, as in “Water he asked: Milk she gave.” In many cases, however, the grammatical structure is not identical, at least on the surface level. In Judges 5.25, the third line expands and rearranges the syntax of the first two lines. Similarly, in Psalm 104.28 there is partial grammatical equivalence by virtue of the “you‐they ∥ you‐they” pattern, but the syntax of the lines is different. Grammar has many facets, and any one of these facets may be brought into play in parallelism.

    Another common form of equivalence is semantic equivalence; the meaning of the lines is somehow related: perhaps synonymous, perhaps reflecting the converse or reverse, or perhaps extending the meaning in any one of a number of ways. Again, equivalence does not imply identity. The second line of a parallelism rarely expresses exactly the same thought as the first; it is more likely to expand or intensify it. The relationship between “they gather” and “they are satisfied well” in Psalm 104.28 is a progression. The relationship between “water he asked” and “milk she gave” in Judges 5.25 is more than a progression—it sets up an opposition, a conflict, between the request and its fulfillment.

    Grammatical and/or semantic equivalence account for most parallelisms, but because there are so many equivalent permutations for any given line, the number of potential parallelisms is enormous if not infinite. Although readers/listeners may learn to anticipate a parallelism, they cannot, except in the most formulaic of expressions, predict exactly what the parallelism will be. Each parallelism is cast to fit its context, and the effect of each must be evaluated individually.

    There are, however, several general effects that parallelism has. For one thing, it helps to bind together the otherwise paratactic lines, so that the basic structure of the poem is not a single line but rather sets of lines (often called a couplet or a bicolon). Another by‐product of parallelism is the rhythm or balance that it creates. Scholars have long sought metric regularity in biblical poetry, but no system—be it syllable counting, stress counting, thought‐rhythm, or syntactic constraints—has met with unanimous acceptance. If there is such a metric form, it continues to elude us. It is more likely that the Hebrew poets embraced a looser system—one in which many lines of a poem are more or less the same length and partake of the rhythm of their parallelisms, but without the requirement of precise measurement.

    Beyond the level of specific parallel lines it is possible to find a larger structural unit that is often called a strophe or stanza. This is identified by dividing the poem into its major sections, based on contents or on structural or lexical repetitions. Although a longer poem is likely to have more strophes, that is, more subdivisions, the strophe is less well defined than the couplet and seems less basic to the overall poetic structure. The principles whereby couplets are combined into longer segments or entire poems is not well understood, but it is clear that poems have movement and development, and that their lines and couplets cohere as unified compositions. Psalm 104, for example, portrays the creation of the world by means of a description of God's habitat, the sky, and then moves to various natural habitats and the creatures that occupy them. The progression in the poem is obvious even though its strophic divisions may not be.

    In addition to their main characteristics, terseness, and parallelism, biblical poems often employ devices such as word repetition, word association, ellipsis, sound play, chiasm (an A‐B B‐A pattern of words, grammatical structures, or lines), inclusio (frame or ring composition), and imagery. Although these devices are not limited to poetry, and are not poetic requirements, they do enhance the poeticality, that is, the sense of elevated style and rhetoric associated with poetry. We draw again on Psalm 104 to illustrate:

    Wrapped in light as (in) a garment:Wrapped in light as (in) a garment:

    Spreading the sky like a curtain.

    (Ps. 104.2)

    Through similes, the first elements of creation, light, and the heavens become the personal effects of God, the glory surrounding and enhancing him. There is also a good deal of assonance in the Hebrew in these two lines, as there is elsewhere in the poem. The psalm begins and ends with “Bless the Lord, O my soul,” which provides a sense of closure.

    The rhetorical impact of biblical poetry is considerable and its aesthetic dimensions manifold. The prophets used it to convince, the wise to instruct, the psalmists to offer praise. In the Bible, language—that is, forms of verbal expression—takes on paramount importance; and it is in poetry that verbal expression reaches its epitome.

    See also Acrostic


    Adele Berlin

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