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Hebrew Poetry in the Old Testament
I was recently asked to offer a little background of the forms of poetry found in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. Below is a summary of some information that should be useful for anyone looking for an overview of the literary forms used in the writing of the Old Testament.
The entire Hebrew Bible prefers poetry over prose, and not only in the books we normally refer to as "the Books of Poetry." The use of verse was common in writing of the day, whether religious or secular. 1 Kings 4:32 makes passing reference to a large body of work composed by Solomon, including 3000 poems and more than 1000 songs. Obviously, not all of these are collected in our Bibles today. Other ancient poetry collections that are mentioned in the Old Testament include "The Book of the Wars of the Lord" (Numbers 21:14) and "The Book of Jashar" (Joshua 10:13; 2 Samuel 1:18).
In the history of written communication, no form is older than poetry. Lyric poetry is the earliest form of literature known to man. Verse was probably preferred first because it is easier to commit to memory than long passages of prose, and memory was even more important in the ancient world than it is today because of the high cost of producing written texts of any kind.
Hebrew poetry consists of several forms, many of which were similarly popular in the literary traditions of some of the nations surrounding the Hebrew people. The Hebrew Bible does not include any verse epic, nor will you find dramatic texts on its pages. Applying classical standards to the Old Testament, we would say that the only poetic form found there is lyric verse.
Rhythm forms an important part of Hebrew verse, but it is a very different type of meter than what we typically find in traditional English verse. Poems written in Hebrew are generally divided into 2-line segments, each of which includes patterns of 2 or 3 stressed words. The 3+2 meter (a line or segment of a line with three stresses followed by a line or segment with two stresses) called "lament rhythm" was popularly used. It creates a halting effect that suits a feeling of lament perfectly.
Gerard Manley Hopkins famously referred to the sort rhythm found in Hebrew poetry as "sprung rhythm." It does not count the number of syllables, but only stresses within the line.
Perhaps the most prominent feature in Hebrew poetry is its use of parallelism. Parallelism refers to the relationship between the lines in a Hebrew poem. Like a couplet in English, this is a unit of 2 lines, with the second somehow completing the first (though not with rhyme, as is typical of a couplet).
There are three main forms of parallelism in Hebrew poetry. Synonymous parallelism restates the idea of the first line in the second, using different words, or perhaps a different image. The popular verse found in Psalms 19:1 serves as a perfect example, saying, "The heavens declare the glory of God; / the skies proclaim the works of his hand." Antithetical parallelism, not surprisingly, does just the opposite. In these paralleled lines, the second line, often beginning with the word "but," contrasts with the first. The contrast found in Proverbs 10:1, "A wise son brings joy to his father, / but a foolish son grief to his mother" is typical of antithetical parallelism. In synthetic parallelism, the third form commonly used in Hebrew poetry, the second line supplements or expands the first. In Psalms 119:11, we find an example of synthetic parallelism in the two lines, "I have hidden your word in my heart / that I might not sin against you."
While other sorts of parallelism can be found in the Hebrew Bible, these are the types used most often. With a grasp of these, the intent of the majority of lines in Old Testament poetry can be easily grasped.
Other Common Literary Devices
Ancient Hebrew poetry, unlike much traditional verse in English, is not built around rhyme, though it does often occur by accident in the lines. Assonance is a much more common literary device that is clearly foregrounded in Hebrew poems. Assonance refers to similar sounding, though not rhyming, words. Assonance relies on the similarity between vowel sounds in words, and creates a soothing effect to the ear. For example, the commonly used phrase "little did she know..." is pleasing to the ear because of the assonance between the words "little" and "did." Hebrew poetry relies heavily on assonance, often using it to create something like puns that make the verse more memorable.
Memorization was, as has been stated, an important part of the whole literary movement in the ancient world, and poems were purposely written in ways that made them easier to remember. It is often argued that the need for verse to be easily remembered is what drove many of the common literary devices to their place of prominence.
One popular form of Hebrew poetry, the acrostic, almost certainly arose as a sort of mnemonic device. Acrostics in Hebrew poetry were built on the Hebrew alphabet, with each line, couplet, or stanza starting with the next letter of the alphabet. Poems that use the whole alphabet would have 22 verses. Examples can be found in Psalms 25 and Lamentations 1-2. Lamentations 3 goes through the whole alphabet 3 times, and so has 66 verses. Psalms 119, the longest chapter in the Bible, devotes 8 verses to each letter of the alphabet. Many English Bibles today label the 8-verse stanzas of that chapter by the Hebrew letter with which each verse begins.
Understanding the way a poem was put together often helps in interpreting its meaning, and it always offers us an insight into the artistry involved in the crafting of the piece. A little appreciation of poetic forms in the tradition of Hebrew literature can give us some insight into the beauty of the verse we find in our Old Testament today.
© 2010 Shelly Bryant
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