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Hebrew Poetry


Poetry has been defined as patterned speech. This definition is ambiguous and deliberately vague, because the distinction between poetry and prose in any language is difficult and contested. Poetry is an art as well as a science, and the analysis of its patterns and its effects demand the freedom and discipline necessary for any of the arts.

The recognition and analysis of Hebrew poetry has the added difficulty of distance. The poetry of the Hebrew Bible was written more than two thousand years ago in an ancient language only recently restored as a living tongue. In addition the culture, which affects imagery and expectations, is far removed from modern life. On the positive side, the texts have been in constant use since their writing and there is a lengthy tradition of interpretation upon which to draw.

Patterned Speech

The patterns which distinguish Hebrew poetry are found at several levels: sound, meter, word, and imagery.

Sound. The two ways in which sound is brought into play are the repetition of consonants (related to alliteration in English poetry) and the repetition of vowel sounds (related to rhyme or assonance). In Pss 76:4 and 122:6 there are fine examples of the repetition of the consonant sound "sh." In both instances the repetition of the sound reinforces the meaning of the line.

Ps 76:4: sh ammah sh ibbarri sh pe-qa sh et (There were shattered the flashing arrows). The repetition of "sh" echoes the clashing sound of the destruction and fixes the idea of "shattering" (shibbar ) in the hearer's mind.

Ps 122:6: sh a'a l u sh e l om yeru sh a l aim (Pray for the peace of Jerusalem). The two consonants are repeated in the last half of verse 6 (yishlayw ) and in verse 7 (shalom, shalwa ).

Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds. Note, for example, the repetition of "i" in Ps 113:8:

lehoshibi im-nedibim/im nedibe ammo (to seat them with princes, with the princes of his people).

The repetition of sound may occur through the repetition of the words themselves:

Song of Songs 6:3: 'ani ledodi/wedodi li (I am my beloved's; my beloved is mine).

In Ps 47:7: zammeru 'elohim zammeru/zammeru lemalkenu zammeru (Sing to God, sing; sing to our king, sing).

In Nahum's description of the destruction of Nineveh, the sound of the wordsincluding alliteration, assonance, and rhymeemphasizes the totality of the devastation: buqah umebuqah umebulaqah (devastation and desolation and destruction).

Meter. No element of Hebrew poetry is more contested than that of meter. There is general agreement that meter is important and that it is a feature of Hebrew poetry. The question of analysis of meter, however, is still debated. There are two primary methods: counting syllables and counting accents.

The Hebrew verse unit is very short, often composed of only two or three words. When counting accents, each of these words receives an accent. Introductory or linking words such as conjunctions or prepositions are not counted. The most common meter in a two-unit line is 3 + 3.

Ps 47:7 Sing to-our-God sing /sing to-our-king sing.

Another frequent meter is 3 + 2. Since this meter predominates in Lamentations, it is called qina (lament).

Lam 1:3 Judah has-gone-into-exile from-oppression /and-hard servitude.

The meter in Hebrew poetry is not consistent, however. The number of accents in verse units within the same poem will vary.

Another method for analyzing meter involves counting syllables. The standard meter consists of a two-unit verse of around sixteen syllables. In this respect too Hebrew poetry is not consistent.

Word. Words are the tools of the poet's craft. Examples of wordplay, such as puns or paranomasia (the use of similar sounding words), abound in Hebrew poetry. In Ps 88:10 the poet complains: "My eyes (eni ) grow dim from trouble (oni ). The words for "eyes" and "trouble" have the same consonants. The similarity in sound makes the contrast in meaning surprising in Ps 15:3: "he does no evil (raah ) to his friends (reahu ). The rhyme in Ps 88:56 points out the sufferer's fate: "I am like a man (geber ) without strength like the slain, lying in the grave (qeber )."

A frequent device in Hebrew poetry is the use of the word pair, two words that are frequently linked and usually appear in consecutive lines. Common word pairs are: hand-right hand; sea-river; understand-know. For example:

"Your hand will reach all your enemies; your right hand will reach those who hate you!" (Ps 21:9)

"God founded it on the seas, established it over the rivers " (Ps 24:2).

"You know when I sit and stand; you understand my thoughts from afar" (Ps 139:2).

Imagery. Hebrew poetry is rich in imagery. Almost every verse of the Psalter is an example. In Psalm 1 the faithful are compared to a well-watered tree (Ps 1:3). Even in old age they are full of sap, still producing fruit (Ps 92:1315). Threatening enemies, however, are wild animalsbulls, lions, dogsand the sufferer's heart melts like wax (Ps 22:1315). The believer under attack is a sagging fence or a battered wall (Ps 62:4). Human beings are so inconsequential they weigh less than breath (Ps 62:10). God, on the other hand, is a rock, a tower of strength, a fortress (Pss 18:3; 31:4; 61:4; 62:78. The craving for God is like the craving of a deer for water or like the aridity of a dry waterless land (Pss 43:2; 63:2). Security in God's care is like the security of a weaned child on its mother's breast (Ps 131:2).


The Line. Parallelism. The basic unit of Hebrew poetry is the line. Lines are ordinarily broken into two or three parts. In the following discussion "line" will be used to refer to the whole unit, "colon" will refer to a segment of the line. A two-part "line" will be called a "bicolon," a three-part line a "tricolon."

A bicolon: None among the gods can equal you, O Lord; nor can their deeds compare to yours (Ps 86:8).

A tricolon: Teach me, Lord, your way that I may walk in your truth, single-hearted and revering your name (Ps 86:11)

A basic constituent of Hebrew poetry is the device of parallelism, a technique in which lines are ordinarily end-stopped and balanced according to meaning, syntax, and/or sound. For example:

You who dwell in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty (Ps 91:1).

The various elements balance each other: you who dwell /who abide; in the shelter /in the shadow; of the Most High /of the Almighty.

The significance of parallelism has been recognized for over a century. Robert Lowth named three types of parallelism by the relationship of the terms in the lines or cola. Synonymous parallelism occurs when the major terms mean basically the same thing:

Make known to me your ways, Lord; teach me your paths (Ps 25:4).

When the major terms are opposites, the result is antithetic parallelism:

They will collapse and fall, but we will rise and stand upright (Ps 20:9).

Lines which do not fit either of these patterns Lowth called synthetic:

You win justice for the orphaned and oppressed; no one on earth will cause terror again (Ps 10:18).

In the last decades of the twentieth century the discussion turned to the nature of parallelism. James Kugel refined the already existing understanding by pointing out that the essential function of parallelism was not to indicate equivalency (A = B), but rather complementarity, frequently intensification or expansion ("A is so, and what's more B"). For example, one finds complementarity of terms such as "day" and "night":

O Lord, my God, by day I cry out, at night I clamor in your presence (Ps 88:2).

or expansion in the second colon of a term from the first colon:

The Lord is a great God, and a great king above all gods (Ps 95:4).

or the consequence of the first colon in the second:

You are my rock and my fortress; for your name's sake you will lead and guide me (Ps 31:4).

or continuation in time:

Weeping stays for the night; but at dawn comes rejoicing (Ps 30:6).

Chiasm. A poetic technique related to parallelism is called chiasm. Chiasm is the construction of a line so that the balancing elements in the first colon occur in reverse order in the second colon (ABBA). For example:

A: Have mercy on me, God, B: in your goodness B': in your abundant compassion A': blot out my offense.

The notion of chiasm has been further developed with a consideration of sound as well as meaning. John Kselman named the technique in which one set of balanced elements correspond in meaning and the other set correspond in sound "semantic-sonant chiasm." For example:

A: My birthright (bekorati ) B: he took; B': now he has taken A': my blessing (birkati ).

The words "birthright" and "blessing" are similar in sound and form one leg of the chiasm (A).

The word "took" is semantically identical in each colon and forms the other leg (B). They are arranged in a chiastic relationship: ABBA.

Grammar. Parallel cola are often balanced grammatically as well as semantically. Examples from Psalms 51 and 131 will illustrate:

Wash me thoroughly from my guilt; from my sin, cleanse me (Ps 51:4).

The imperative "wash me" in the first colon is balanced by the imperative "cleanse me" in the second; the prepositional phrase "from my guilt" is balanced by "from my sin" in the second. The parallelism is not slavish. The first colon has an extra word, "thoroughly."

Lord, my heart is not proud; nor are my eyes haughty (Ps 131:1).

The subject "my heart" is balanced by "my eyes"; the verb "to be proud" is balanced by the verb "to be haughty," and both are negated. "Lord" is extra in the first colon.

Stanzas. The elements which allow for the division of a Hebrew poem into larger units or stanzas are based on content and grammatical considerations. The simplest division is provided by the refrain. For example, "The Lord of hosts is with us; our stronghold is the God of Jacob," occurs in Ps 46:8 and 12. It is commonly inserted also at the end of verse 4 to provide three balanced stanzas: verses 24, 58, 912. A similar situation occurs in Psalm 67 where the refrain occurs at verses 4 and 6: "May the peoples praise you, God; may all the peoples praise you!" This refrain too is commonly added at the end of the psalm to form three stanzas: verses 24, 56, 78.

Refrains also provide other information. The refrain, "Wait for God, whom I shall praise again, my savior and my God" (Pss 42:6, 12; 43:5), is a clue that Psalms 42 and 43 really form one poem. In Psalm 136 the refrain, "God's love endures forever," is repeated at the end of each verse, indicating that this psalm is a litany.

An example of grammatical indicators of stanza division is Psalm 76 in which three passive participles "renowned" (v. 2), "awesome" (v. 5), and "awesome"(v. 8)indicate divisions.

The division of Psalm 88 into stanzas is based on both grammar and meaning. Verses 10b13 are a series of rhetorical questions, thus a natural grammatical division. Verses 2, 10b, and 14 all state that the suppliant cries out to God. The poem is thus divided into verses 210a, 10b13, 1419.

The Whole Poem. Hebrew poems are bound together as a whole by several devices. One of the most obvious is the alphabetic poem in which each line or set of lines is begun with a subsequent letter of the alphabet (e.g., Psalms 34, 37, 111, 112). The most extended alphabetic poem is Psalm 119 in which the sets consist of eight lines each. Verses 18 begin with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, verses 916 with the second letter, and so on.

The repetition of key words unites a poem. For example, the word "heart" occurs six times throughout Psalm 73. In Psalm 31 the four-fold repetition of the word "hand" emphasizes the contrast between falling into God's hands or enemy hands.

Inclusion, the repetition of the same phrase at beginning and end, also binds a poem into unity. For example, Psalm 8 begins and ends with: "Lord, our Lord, how awesome is your name through all the earth."

Biblical Hebrew poetry, though difficult because of the distance of time, culture, and language, is well worth the effort. The artistry speaks through the ages.

Bibliography: r. alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry (New York 1985). j. kselman, "Semantic-Sonant Chiasmus in Biblical Poetry," Biblica 58 (1977) 21923. j. l. kugel, The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and its History (Baltimore 1998). m. o'connor, Hebrew Verse Structure (Winona Lake, Ind. 1980). d.l. petersen and k. h. richards, Interpreting Hebrew Poetry (Minneapolis 1992). w. g. e. watson, Classical Hebrew Poetry: A Guide to its Techniques, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 26 (Sheffield 1984, 1986, 1995); Traditional Techniques in Classical Hebrew Verse (Sheffield 1994).

[i. nowell]

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