Not the peace of a cease-fire,let alone the vision of the wolf and the lamb,but ratheras in the heart after the excitement is over,when you can talk only about a great weariness.I know that I know how to kill,that’s why I am an adult …A peacewithout the big noise of beating swords intoplowshares,without words, withoutthe thud of the heavy rubber stamp: let it belight, floating, like lazy white foam …Let it comelike wildflowers,suddenly, because the fieldmust have it: a wildpeace.

(Yehuda Amichai, “Wildpeace,” from, 1998. Reprinted by permission of University of California Press.)

“Wildpeace” was read by the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai in Oslo, Norway, at the ceremony awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat, and Shimon Peres in 1994. The poet rendered intertextual links to lyrics about peace in the first part of the biblical book of Isaiah (2:4b and 11:6A) and in Micah 4:3B; yet he also innovated those texts to imagine peace for this new time that had begun to unfold, a peace not like the unlikely Isaianic vision of the wolf and the lamb defying nature, and not like the noisy human enterprise of “beating swords into plowshares.” Rather, the poem hoped for a quiet peace like that reliably given in nature, in similes of floating sea-foam and wildflowers.

As Amichai’s poem exhibits, poetry often bears a dynamic of tradition and innovation. This may be purposeful, or it may be less overtly intuitive from a shared consciousness about biblical texts, or simply accidental because of shared human experience. Here we will consider the various ways that biblical poetry interrelates with later poetry, musical lyrics, and art. The aim will be to include selections from poets worldwide, albeit in translation.

Biblical Poetry, Poets, and Musical Lyricists.

As is often noticed, biblical texts may reinterpret other biblical texts, with earlier voices influencing later composers. For example, within the song of God’s rescue of the Hebrews in Exodus 15, the poet renders: “At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up, the floods stood up in a heap; the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea” (v. 8; New Revised Standard Version); Psalm 77 casts the event: “When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; the very deep trembled … your way was through the sea …” (16, 19A). Early prophets’ lyrics may influence later prophets. Hebrew poets (especially from Isaiah and Psalms) also inspired New Testament authors for new contexts.

The most obvious influence of the Psalms on later lyrics is in the large, rich liturgical traditions within Judaism and Christianity through history. While it is beyond the scope of this article, recent studies explore this topic (Attridge and Fassler, 2003; Holladay, 1993). Further, Islam shares much theology with Judaism, and lyrical lament prayers from Hebrew biblical narratives, especially of patriarchs and prophets, are remembered and referenced in the Qur’an. An implicit influence of biblical Psalms can be seen in the sixth- and seventh-century C.E. compilation of psalms in early Islam, attributed to Muhammad’s great-grandson, Alī ibn Al-Ḥusayn.

Biblical poetry that has been most influential on later literary poetry includes the Psalms, the prophets, the book of Job, and Song of Songs. For example, the translation of the Psalms into metrical English poetry by the poets Philip and Mary Sidney (1594) was highly influential. And though John Milton naturally drew the greatest number of references for Paradise Lost (1667, 1674) from Genesis, he also alluded often to the Psalms, Job, Isaiah, and other biblical poetry in this work. The German composer George Frideric Handel’s oratorio, Messiah (1741), used a libretto crafted of biblical poetic lyrics compiled by Jennens, including Isaiah 40, other prophetic and New Testament texts, Psalms, Revelation texts, and Job. The largely lyrical tragic play Faust (1808–1831), by the German poet and author Goethe, was based on legend, yet parallels Job at the mercy of a wager between God and a figure like “satan” (Mephistopheles). The play moves to a cosmic dimension. Faust inspired numerous famous composers to create operas, oratorios, and symphonies.

Grounding Biblical Poetry.

Hebrew biblical poets were part of the ancient Near Eastern cultural milieu and reflected awareness of and some influence from surrounding cultures (e.g., Mesopotamia, Canaan, northern Africa, and Arabia). In ancient Canaan, poetic compositions using Ugaritic (a Northwest Semitic language like Hebrew) in the second millennium B.C.E. were discovered at present-day Ras Shamra, across the Mediterranean coast from Cypress. In stories about their deities, Ugaritic poets crafted some elements of style and cognate words that Hebrew exhibited. For example, in a myth of Baʿal (storm/rain god), his brother Môt (death/vegetation) kills him by swallowing him, but his sister, Anat (goddess of war), kills Môt and rescues Ba’al; yet Môt (death) is reconstituted, returns with the growing season, thus does not die. Evident below is a standard feature of Ugaritic (and Hebrew biblical) poetry—parallelism—with Môt speaking (Jacobs, 1945, p. 88):

I devoured ’Al’eyan Ba’al.I made him a lamb in my mouth;As a kid in the opening of my gullet was he crushed.

Across cultures, death and the renewal of vegetation are associated. For example, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney rendered such themes in his poem, “Requiem for the Croppies” (1966), which he wrote near the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Irish Rising, but recalled an earlier time, the milieu of the French and American revolutions of the eighteenth century, noting,

"That rising was the harvest of seeds sown in … the rebellion of 1798 itself—unsuccessful and savagely put down. The poem was born of and ended with an image of resurrection … some time after the rebels were buried in common graves, these graves began to sprout with young barley, growing up from barley corn which the “croppies” had carried in their pockets to eat while on the march … the seeds … had flowered in what Yeats called “the right rose tree” of 1916." (1980, p. 56)

Heaney’s poem rendered the croppies speaking upon their deaths: “the barley grew up out of our grave” (1972, p. 12).

W. B. Yeats’s poem (1921) imagined a dialog between the Irish leaders Connolly and Pearse, also a poet, who says “Maybe a breath of politic words has withered our Rose Tree”; without water to make it flourish, he adds, “There’s nothing but our own red blood can make a right Rose Tree” (Finneran, 1996, p. 183).

Features and Genres of Biblical Poetry.

The British scholar and bishop Robert Lowth, in his seminal work (1753), addressed elements of Hebrew poetry and raised its important feature, parallelism of adjoining lines. Parallelism could be synonymous, antithetic, or synthetic. Recent scholars have furthered his analysis and also found parallelism in antecedent and neighboring cultures, such as Ugarit. In the above lines, the parallelism exhibits not mere repetition, but what James Kugel described as “A is so, what’s more, B” (1981, p. 8), though here, what’s even more, C [“I devoured ’Al’eyan Ba’al / I made him a lamb in my mouth / as a kid in the opening of my gullet was he crushed.”] In Robert Alter’s terminology, the lines show a relationship of progression or intensification (1985, pp. 11, 16).

While numerous scholars have sought to determine the “meter” of biblical Hebrew poetry in comparison to other cultures, an agreeable system has not been found. Adele Berlin suggests instead that it exhibits a flexible rhythm with a balance linked to parallelism and sound repetition. Additional features include other types of repetition, frequent use of metaphor, simile, and terse language (1996, pp. 303–308).

Repetition is a key element in indigenous oral and literary poetry of many cultures—repetition of initial consonants (alliteration), internal consonants (consonance), vowels (assonance), soundplays repeating two or three consonants, and repeated roots, words, or phrases. To these features we will return.

Theology: Deities and Personification.

In reference to the above Ugaritic poetry, biblical poetic texts move toward monotheism where theologically Yahweh (or Elohim) holds power over life and death; yet occasionally Yahweh is depicted defeating Death personified, reminiscent of Anat defeating Môt. Personification is common in indigenous poetry of most cultures.

For example, in the biblical book of the prophet, Hosea (eighth century B.C.E.), God addresses Death (note parallelism):

Shall I ransom them [Israel] from the power of Sheol?Shall I redeem them from Death?O Death, where are your thorns?O Sheol, where is your sting?Compassion will be hidden from my sight.

(Hos 13:14, New American Bible)

In Jeremiah, the mourning women personify death in the sixth century B.C.E. (9:21A). In Isaiah (eighth century) a prophet speaks God’s judgment:

Therefore Sheol has enlarged its appetiteand opened its mouth beyond measure;The nobility of Jerusalem and her multitude go down

(Isa 5:14)

Then on a more promising note:

… [God] will swallow up Death forever.Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces

(Isa 25:7D–8A)

In the first text, the people of Jerusalem are like the Canaanite Ba’al swallowed by Death, temporarily! However, in the second text there is a reversal; Israel’s God (Yahweh) swallows Death—forever. Isaiah is remembered in the lyric of Revelation 21:4AB, which adds: “Death will be no more.” This appears in the close of John Donne’s famous addressing of death, “Death, Be Not Proud” (1633).

Paul in the New Testament, or perhaps a singer he is quoting, reuses and innovates the lyrics of Hosea and Isaiah and, with a tinge of taunt, asks Death a new question:

Death has been swallowed up in victory.Where, O Death, is your victory,Where, O Death, is your sting?

(1 Cor 15:55)

Charles Wesley reworked these lyrics into the hymn of praise “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” (1739).

In more recent history, Emily Dickinson personified Death as her gracious escort in “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” (published posthumously as “The Chariot” in 1890). Decades later, the composer Aaron Copland set her poem to music in “Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson” (1950).

In the year before Dickinson’s poem, Walt Whitman faced the grim reality of mass deaths from a flood in 1889 and composed “A Voice from Death.” In this excerpt, he has Death speaking and addresses Death directly. He uses features often found in biblical poetry: repetitions, alliteration, and chiasm (gather’d thousands / thousands … gather’d):

… Although I come and unannounced, in horror andin pang,In pouring flood and fire, and wholesale elementalcrash, (this voice so solemn, strange,)I too a minister of Deity.

Yea, Death, we bow our faces, veil our eyes to thee,We mourn the old, the young untimely drawn to thee, […]The corpses in the whelming waters and the mud,The gather’d thousands in their funeral mounds andthousands never found or gather’d.

The Bible renders mourning and complaint over suffering through two primary lament genres: the lament as prayer, found in Psalms (and embedded in narratives) and in Job, which may exhibit stunning audacity before God; and the lament as dirge, though the latter type is referred to more than represented. Lament genres are arguably the most widely shared form of human lyrical expression.

Lament Lyric as Prayerful and as Prophetic.

Perhaps the most profound human loss is the death of one’s child. It is a key theme in the biblical book of Lamentations. The poet Ann Weems began to write laments modeled on biblical laments while grieving the loss of her son tragically killed (1995).

One of the most difficult lament psalms for biblical readers is Psalm 137, also from the sixth-century B.C.E. context of the Judeans exiled to Babylon, because it includes a singer’s deep hurt over loss of children, causing him or her to call for brutal retaliatory killing of the children of the enemy (vv. 8–9). The song begins, “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.” Yet, among lament psalms, this one seems to have inspired numerous poets and lyricists in countries that have seen devastation and oppression; ironically, most do not recast the retribution lyric but embrace the pathos.

The Jamaican reggae song “Rivers of Babylon” (1969), by the group The Melodians, has resonated with oppressed people in cultures worldwide as a freedom song, performed with expanded Rastafarian lyrics by Bob Marley. Ada María Isasi-Díaz, the Mujerista theologian who was exiled from Cuba, also found that Psalm 137 was able to voice her pain. A song by Marisela Verena called “El Son de las Tres Décadas” (“Song of the Three Decades”) she calls a modern Cuban version of Psalm 137 (1996, pp. 35–38); it lyricizes about the pathos of exile.

From Bosnia-Herzegovina, the poet Borislav Arapović wrote “croatian psalm 137 ” just prior to the outbreak of war in 1991. Perhaps the most poignant lines are “… we have been waiting with no response / for eons on end / are we really the ones you will use / to put out the flame of the bush?” (2002, p. 20). A tremendous irony is that often psalmists positively remembered the God of the burning bush who rescued them from slavery as a way into hope.

Lament as prayer in the biblical Psalms, when expressing complaint over being oppressed or mistreated by others, often takes on a prophetic criticizing function in the community and challenges God to correct social injustice. In this selection from Muse India (2007), ironic when juxtaposed to biblical poetry, the Indian Gujarati poet Kisan Sosa laments the Dalit “Inheritance” of “the helpless prayer”:

… As a ceiling we got rusted tin …The back got the dried river of sweat …The mind had inherited the desire for a silent cry…

In his poem “Prayer for a Winter Night” (1924), the African American poet Langston Hughes implicitly critiqued a society that allowed dire poverty and sardonically called on God to intervene: “O, Great God of Cold and Winter. … freeze the poor in their beds,” he implored, so that those who cannot get warm will die and wake up in a better place. The prophet Jeremiah audaciously complained to God, “You will be in the right, O LORD, when I lay charges against you. … Why do all who are treacherous thrive? You plant them, and they take root; they grow and bring forth fruit …” (Jer 12:1B–A). The Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins recrafted Jeremiah’s lament for his own time in his poem of complaint, “Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend” (1918) and ends with a plea, “O thou lord of life, send my roots rain” (Atwan and Wieder, 1993, p. 412). These suggest oblique allusions to the first biblical psalm (1:1–3), a didactic poem:

Happy are those who do not …take the path that sinners tread …but their delight is in the law of the LORD …They are like trees planted by streams of water,which yield their fruit in their season,and their leaves do not wither.In all that they do they prosper.

David Curzon’s poem includes a sardonic response to the simile in Psalm 1: “Blessed is the man not born in Lodz in the wrong decade. … He is like a tree that’s granted the land where it is planted …” (1994, pp. 271–272). A similar tone is found in the poem by Yehuda Amichai, “I Am a Man ‘Planted beside Streams of Water,’ but I’m not ‘blessed be the man’ …” (Curzon, 1994, p. 270). These poets play on nature imagery and challenge a simplistic theology of reward and punishment in Psalm 1.

Nature and Biblical Poetry.

Biblical poets not infrequently render nature (e.g., the earth, vegetation, mountains, creatures) as God’s creation rejoicing, or as mourning or languishing either in solidarity with human suffering or because of human wrong. Beyond simple metaphor, this may suggest an indigenous worldview of the spiritual interrelatedness of all creation. For example, an oracle in the book of the prophet Isaiah renders,

The earth dries up and withers,the world languishes and withers;the heavens languish together with the earth.The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants;for they have transgressed laws …

(Isa 24:4–5)

An indigenous concern for the earth’s suffering linked to human wrongs was expressed in the poem attributed to John Hollow Horn, the Oglala Lakota leader: “Some day the earth will weep, she will beg for her life …” (Wilson, 1998, p. xi).

Lament Lyric as Dirge.

In Walt Whitman’s “Dirge for Two Veterans” depicting a funeral procession, the themes of one stanza resemble lyrics attributed to the biblical David (also influential in the Psalms tradition) in a dirge for Saul and Jonathan in 2 Samuel 1:17–27, one of the few dirges represented in the Bible. There, “beloved and lovely” virtually rhyme in Hebrew, and two metaphors describe Saul and Jonathan:

… Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely,In life and in death they were not divided;They were swifter than eagles,They were stronger than lions …

(v. 23)

In Whitman’s dirge:

… For the son is brought with the father,(In the foremost ranks of the fierce assault they fell,Two veterans son and father dropt together,And the double grave awaits them.)

The alliteration (father-foremost-fierce-fell-father) and consonance (son-foremost-ranks-fierce-assault-son) are striking and bind together the first two lines; yet semantic parallelism (meanings of lines) creates an ABBA pattern. Yet ABBA does not capture the full, overlapping and dynamic sound effect or word repetition, and ABAB reflects the repeated “son”-“father,” “son”-“father,” as well as the parallel, “they fell” on the battlefield and both will fall into the grave that “awaits them.” Finally, the consonance of “d,” “g,” and “r” sounds in “dropt together” and “double grave” bind together the last two lines, yet still resonate with the first line’s “brought.”

In China, mothers who lost children in nonviolent protests in Tiananmen Square (1989) have written laments. In one, a mother recalls her experience and speaks to her dead child, a typical feature of traditional dirges: “Mum heard gunshots … / Then they brought you / Back in a stretcher … ” (A. Lee, 2004, p. 229).

A dirge may commemorate a person martyred. In apartheid South Africa, Vuyisile Mini, who had been an inspiration for the people as a gifted poet and composer of freedom songs, was killed and buried in an unmarked grave. The song for him by Vusi Mahlasela, “When You Come Back” (2003), also became the people’s song: “This is the unknown grave / The one who died maintaining his might / … his sad melodies coming out like smoke from the wood fire” and its refrain, “Mayibuye iAfrica, sing now Africa / … We’ll ring the bells when you come back / Our lost African music will turn into the music of the people …” (cited in Lee, 2010, pp. 206–207).

In the Bible and the ancient Near East, the dirge lament may be for the fall of a city or nation. The biblical prophets intoned dirges to warn leaders and people to change their unjust, unfaithful ways in order to avoid consequences of national destruction, before tragedy. The book of Lamentations personifies Jerusalem as a widow and renders graphic descriptions of distress after the sixth-century B.C.E. destruction, with dirge-like motifs and severe complaints of lament prayer.

How lonely she sits,the city once full of people;she has become like a widow …She weeps and weeps in the night,with her tears on her cheeks;she has no one comforting heramong all her lovers.

(Lam 1:1AB–2AB)

The above lyrics exhibit a “contrast motif” comparing life before and after disaster. The Rwandan poet Suzanne Nyiranyamibwa’s poem “Lament of Victims of Genocide” (2005) also expresses a contrast: “The beautiful hills of yesteryear are covered in ruins / There where children frolicked and played / Are places where vultures now roam” (Tordjeman et al., 2005, p. 87).

During time of war in the 1990s, the Bosnian poet Ljubica Ostojić of Sarajevo personified her town in “Record of the City in Blank Verse” (1995, p. 77): “The City full of hollow silence: with just the church bells shivering / and the wounded minarets / speaking quietly with the heaven.” The poet refers to the city’s “pulse” and “the strong, seething life in its ancient roots.”

Biblical poets often personified Jerusalem as female (Daughter Zion) or the people as the “wife” of Yahweh. While the female persona may be rendered favorably (as in Isaiah 40–66), more often it is negatively by the male prophets in their poetic judgment oracles. For example, Hosea 2:10, 12a, 13A:

Now I will uncover her shamein the sight of her lovers,and no one shall rescue herout of my hand …I will lay waste her vines andher fig trees …I will punish her for the festivaldays of the Ba’als …

In recent years, feminist interpreters have rightly criticized these lyrics by male prophets, implying the female gender must bear the brunt of God’s punishment. Dangerous texts deemed authoritative may lead to tragic abuse of women.

A wide range of artistic renderings of Jerusalem is seen in Jerusalem: City of the Two Peaces, a book of art, collected poems, songs, and music in eight languages; the works are from different periods of history and reflect the devotion and hope engendered for many in the Abrahamic faiths.

Prophetic lyric has been an important source for later creative artists and leaders with compassionate consciousness for justice. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 contained not only the famous references to Isaiah 40:4–5 and the climactic citing of Amos 5:24—“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever rolling stream”—he also personified America, employing an extended metaphor; America had issued a “promissory note” and defaulted upon it for black Americans. He rhythmically repeated refrains—I have a dream … now is the time … with this faith … let freedom ring—across sections with strings of metaphors reminiscent of prophetic lyric, such as:

seared in the flames of withering injustice …lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of prosperity …from the dark and desolate valley of segregationto the sunlit path of racial justice …we will hew out of despair a stone of hope …transform the jangling discords of our nation to the beautiful symphony of brotherhood …

His speech elevated oppressed citizens and a nation on a difficult path.

In the Bible, the often dark lyrics of prophets are lightened by the satirical book of Jonah, saturated with humor, about a prophet called to a task who does not want to go. Yvonne Sherwood shows how later authors use Jonah’s desperate poetic prayer to God from the belly of the fish as a springboard for their own poetic versions. The fourteenth-century poem “Patience” is loaded with alliteration and assonance: [Jonah] “glides in near the gills through slimy mucus / Rolling in by a gut which seemed to him a rood’s length …” (Sherwood, 2000, pp. 143–145).

Herman Melville took the plunge and lyrically rendered Jonah’s lament within his novel, Moby-Dick (1851), read by Father Mapple from his pulpit like the bow of a boat. Here are the opening stanzas, marked by end-rhyme:

The ribs and terrors in the whale,Arched over me a dismal gloom,While all God’s sun-lit waves rolled by,And lift me to a deeper doom.

I saw the opening maw of hell,With endless pains and sorrows there;Which none but they that feel can tell—Oh, I was plunging to despair …

Sound as Integral to Poetry.

In biblical poetry, “sound doublets” dynamically relate to parallelism (Berlin, 1985, pp. 103–125), yet other sound patterns also work powerfully. For example, a clear triplet sound pattern emerges in the opening of Hannah’s Song (1 Sam 2:1–3) and carries through verse 9. What initially appear as simple doublets may be enclosed within triplets over several verses (Lee, 2014). By comparison, David’s Song, of the same genre, in 2 Samuel 22:2–51 has a pervasive doublet sound pattern.

Love poetry in the biblical Song of Songs (or Solomon) shows parallels to love poetry in other cultures. Indigenous poets draw on the qualities of nature’s creatures and vegetation to render the beloved. Particularly suggestive is the love poetry of India, which like its biblical counterpart allows the text to merge love as between humans with love between deity and humans. In a lyric monologue attributed to the poet Kālidāsa, “Meghadīta” (The Cloud Messenger), a demigod speaks of his beloved from whom he is separated: “I see … in eyes of frightened does your glance / in the moon, the glow and shadow of your cheek / in the peacock’s crested plume your hair …” (Miller, 1994, p. 60).

Chaim Rabin has suggested a direct contact between akam Tamil (Indian) love poetry by women and Song of Songs, since Hebrew appears to share the Tamil word for peacock (tōkai; Heb. tukki) and spicewood aloes (Heb. ahalot; Tamil akil), perhaps exchanged in trade (1973, pp. 205–219). Also very similar to Song of Songs are ghazal poems that originated from Arabia but moved into Persian, Turkish, and Urdu (Indian) languages. The greatest source of imagery in ghazals is the garden, and the rose the preferred flower, where passion may be for a beloved human, deity, or other devotions (Miller, 1994, pp. 94–99).

Artists and Biblical Poetry.

Artists “decorating” the opening letters of Psalms texts is well known. Yet the other biblical “odes” (songs) are rendered as well. Světlana Kujumdžieva’s study shows Orthodox Christian artists’ renderings of the Song of the Sea (Exod 15:1–20; or Song of Moses) with women performing dance and drumming of the Song, sometimes with men, in the ninth, eleventh, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries. A Greek Psalter painting from 1059 shows 14 women joining arms in a circle with 8 men playing instruments in the center. An inscription identifies Miriam as central figure at the top, and lyrics of Exodus 15:1, 2, 3, 4, and 6 written in between the women dancers’ heads suggest they are singing the lyrics, with call-and-response, as each line is followed by the refrain: “Let us sing to the Lord.” Another inscription runs between the feet of the women: “These prophets are dancing and singing using different instruments and songs to glorify Lord” (Kujumdžieva, 2001, p. 92).

Arguably the most famous paintings of the biblical prophets are those by Michelangelo. Particularly poignant is his rendering of Jeremiah, because he sits silent, with head buried in hand, seemingly weighed down with his burdens. Some suggest he is in despair over the destruction of Jerusalem. Perhaps it is the inner angst of the prophet who struggled most with God.

Michelangelo’s Jeremiah is a reminder to pay attention to silences. That is, which biblical texts are not, or rarely, rendered? For example, of importance is the question of women’s contributions in the Bible in relation to later artistry in primarily androcentric cultures.

Yvonne Bleyerveld has researched specific pieces of art, attached to poetry and prose, in Europe from the early 1500s to ca. 1750 (particularly in French, Dutch, and German works) that highlight lists of model biblical women. These usually served to exhort contemporary women (wives and daughters) in proper behavior, i.e., “obedience, prudence, meekness, and chastity” (2000–2001, p. 225).

Usually the lists did not include women biblical prophets, but when they did, it was to affirm their individual wisdom or piety, not their prophetic role. Almost always these examples were supported by quotations from the didactic poetry of Proverbs 31 about the good wife (Bleyerveld, 2000–2001, pp. 239–240). Artists chose these texts, not Proverbs 1 and 8, which render a larger, authoritative role of woman personified as Wisdom with God at the creation.

However, the British poet Edmund Spenser had earlier drawn upon the poetry of Proverbs 1 and 8, the Apocryphal Wisdom 6–9, and similar passages in Sirach, in creating his female character Sapience (Wisdom) in An Hymne of Heavenly Love (1596), as well as Gloriana (a female monarch) and Una in The Faerie Queene (1590). In his time, Queen Elizabeth ruled and Wisdom personified as female in biblical didactic poetry might justify a woman monarch (Kaske, 2012, p. 199).

The poet and artist William Blake, who likened some of his poems to prophecies, illustrated the works of numerous authors (including Milton, Bunyan, and Dante) and did Illustrations of the Book of Job (1826). Noteworthy are his drawings reflecting key moments in that book’s lyrics: when Job finally curses the day he was born, of God (drawn as an old man with a beard!) answering Job from the whirlwind, of impressive creatures, Behemoth and Leviathan, and Job’s finally receiving new vision and understanding.

Biblical Poetry in Film.

Recent scholars have attended to the biblical in modern film (Exum, 2006; 2007). The book of Job not only influenced Goethe’s classic work but has especially inspired modern-day cinematic classics with Jobian characters. Framed by narrative but constituted by nearly 40 chapters of lyrics, the book of Job’s central character undergoes a reversal of fortune, suffers, complains against God, and challenges a simplistic theology of reward and punishment. Tod Linafelt (2006) has shown numerous surprising parallels between Job and the classic film The Wizard of Oz (1939)—in characters, scenes, and themes.

The classic Frank Capra film It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) captures the hardships of a young man, George Bailey, who finally decides it would have been better if he had not been born, echoing Job’s cursing the day of his birth in Job 3 (a motif also in Jeremiah 15:10 and 20:14–18); Bailey attempts suicide. In the ensuing scenes, he is rescued and guided by an angel who shows him how much worse off his family and town would have been had he never lived. In the end he is transformed and restored to his family.

A tour-de-force television historical dramatization, God on Trial (Cottrell Boyce, 2009), portrays desperate inmates at Auschwitz who hold a trial of God, inspired by Job’s similar challenge, for breach of the ancient covenant with the Jews during the Shoah/Holocaust. Persons at the edge of their very existence drew upon the myriad of biblical words, memories, and struggles that formed and still held together the fraying cord of covenant; they wove and added new lines with courage in the face of death, forming a lifeline held fast by the ancestors and their faith.

A Generative Poetics.

From these few illustrations we may see that biblical lyrics—the poets who composed them and those who arranged them into a whole—have given later creative artists and people across cultures fertile ground for prolific growth in co-creating and imagining their world.

Let us close by returning to Psalm 1—and by way of inclusio, to Amichai’s themes of nature and peace. In her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” (1993), the African American poet Maya Angelou seismically shifted the simile and expanded the lyrics of Psalm 1. A rock, a river, and a tree break out of their objectified role of being controlled as metaphors for human or divine attributes. Instead, she has them speak to the human hearers/readers who are not like they are, they who have witnessed the extinction of other animals. The rock says, you may stand on me but do not hide in me and shirk your responsibility. The singing river invites humans to come rest by its side “if you will study war no more” (even while complaining of their littering its shore with debris). And finally, the tree says, “come, root yourselves beside me … I am the Tree … which will not be moved” (Angelou, 1994, pp. 270–273).

[See also HEBREW BIBLICAL NARRATIVE; ISRAELI LITERATURE; and JEWISH LITERATURE.]

Bibliography

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  • Amichai, Yehuda. “Wildpeace.” Translated by Chana Bloch and Ariel Bloch. In After the First Rain: Israeli Poems on War and Peace, edited by Moshe Dor and Barbara Goldberg. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press with Dryad Press, 1998.
  • Angelou, Maya. “On the Pulse of Morning.” In The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou, pp. 270–273. New York: Random House, 1994.
  • Arapović, Borislav. Between Despair and Lamentation. Edited by Nancy C. Lee. Elmhurst, Ill.: Elmhurst College, 2002.
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Nancy C. Lee