On Hebrew Poetics (A Brief Introduction and Refutation)

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Suffice it to say that one spends several years learning basic skills in reading and interpreting the Hebrew Bible, but then after all the “rules” one learns (whether those passed down from Medieval Masoretes or ancient scholastics schooled in Greek and Latin works), suddenly one enters the strange world of Hebrew “Poetry”.
This strange new world does not follow the “rules” one has just spent years memorizing and practicing. Now an altogether new adventure commences wherein such “rules” simply fail to guide the linguistic adventurer along her path to understanding and appreciation.
So what sort of journey is this and how does one find their way while avoiding the many pitfalls of previous generations of students of the ancient text form? What follows will be a multi-part, multi-layered map (of sorts…or so it is hoped).
To begin with one must come to the realization that Biblical Hebrew knows nothing of “poetry”, but practices the poetic with great fluidity. What is the difference? To begin with, there is no word or words in the Hebrew text which might be translated “poetry”. There are words for song (משכיל or שיר), proverbial sayings and riddles (משל), but none for “poetry” specifically. In fact, “poetry” is a construct one uses to try to categorize what is happening at the level of literary genre. As a construct (and one technically foreign to Hebrew) it creates its own issues.
English poetry is marked by such features as meter, rhythm, and rhyme, but Hebrew is not marked as such. The typical explanations of what makes a certain Hebrew text “poetic” are notions of “meter” and “parallelism” (both of which will be discussed in future posts — other features which bear discussion are “terseness” and “imagery”). But such constructs are difficult to follow through with once one begins to actually examine the Hebrew texts available. There are clearly non-literary texts (narrative, for instance, like Exodus 2:1-7) which have notable meter and parallelisms. There are also texts belonging to corpora clearly intended to be poetic which offer little in the way of meter or clear parallelisms throughout (such as the well-known Psalm 23). Highly problematic for discerning what is “poetry” and what is “prose” is the writings of the prophets. Their works offer something of a bizarre admixture of all varieties of such categorizations without fitting either very well. There is a fluidity of such strictures that points toward a need to reject formal constraints on what constitutes “poetry” and “prose” in the Hebrew texts.
To close, James Kugel has fittingly imaged this polarity and its demise:

…the categories of prose and poetry imply too sharp, and total, a polarity: to use only these terms is to describe sections of the skyline as consisting either of ‘building’ or ‘no building.’
Of course, there is a case to be made for the use of the term ‘poetry’ in regard to some parts of the Bible. It has, as noted, an approximate validity, and is sanctioned by a centuries-old tradition. But it is not a perfect fit; and since ancient Israel seems to have gotten along without any corresponding term, it might be better for modern critics to enclose the phrase ‘biblical poetry,’ at least mentally, in quotation marks. (The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1998] p.86)

So this is why I’ve labeled this series “On Hebrew Poetics”. It is to attempt to point toward poetic notions without the strictures of imposing ‘rules’ of ‘poetry’ on a text which resists all attempts to frame such constructs, yet at every turn offers poetic sensibilities.
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Literature for Ethics and Theology


“Literature is important for ethics because literature is as complicated as life itself, and cannot be decoded or boiled down. Ethical insight comes from reading it–first sequentially and then reflectively–not from trying to extract a ‘message’ from it.”*

This is one of the primary problems I have witnessed in folks reading and preaching from the OT. There is a strong tendency to undo the complexities inherent to the ethics (or theology) of the text and instead seek an abstracted principle that fails to do justice to the fullest intent of the text.
We like to simplify. The problem is that life is not so simple. Ethics (and theology) are not so simple. The teaching of truth in prose or storied form allows for far more complexities to remain including leaving some questions open-ended. And that is a good, even when troubling, thing.
* John Barton, Understanding Old Testament Ethics: Approaches and Explanations (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2003), p.63.

The Beauty of the Bible

How to Read the Bible as LiteratureThe more I study the Scriptures, the more I am overwhelmed by the beauty of the Scriptures…and by the God who has inspired writers in their own day and culture to write with beauty. The deeper I dig, the more treasures I discover. It never ceases to amaze me what depths of literary fashioning the Scriptures have been formed by. Thankfully others have helped along the way (for a very concise introduction to literary reading, see 5 Strategies for Reading the Bible as Literature; better yet, pick up a copy of Leland Ryken’s brief “How to Read the Bible as Literature” [Zondervan, 1984]).
One of my assignments I’ve given my Former Prophets class is to write a brief “Literary” research paper. I was surprised to read some of their topics: mirroring, poetic analysis, characterization, irony, wordplay, inclusios, and chiasms (among others). Even their papers remind me of the depths of the creativity which pertains to God’s creation (of these students, the writers of Scripture, and the Scripture itself). God is creative beyond comprehension…it should not therefore surprise us that God’s word to us is so creative as well.

When the Bible Comes Alive

ImageThe first assignment of the semester for my Former Prophets class was to read Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings in two different translations and give me several pages of questions, comments, and insights about the texts. They could also include things which stood out to them in comparing/contrasting the translations they chose.
I must say I’m impressed with their work. There are wonderful questions and comments on the theology, literary insights, historical intention, and culture of Israel. I think one of the most exhilarating things for me is noting all of the things which were noticed by those who had never read these books or never taken time to pay attention when they heard the stories in the past. I LOVE being able to teach when folks are just hearing these stories for the first time (even if its the “first time” again).
That’s also something I LOVE about pastoring…when I get to share stories which folks haven’t heard or have not heard in the way they are shared. It opens new vistas into the wonder of God’s revelation in Scripture and the unfolding of God’s work in the world. I LOVE what I do!!!
And I actually learn more and love the LORD more as a result!

On Hebrew Poetry

Psalm 1, Verse 1 and 2 in Biblia Hebraica Stut...
For those who have spent any time studying Biblical Hebrew (BH) it becomes readily apparent that while BH prose is fairly simple to translate (as far as translation of other languages go),  BH poetry is another matter altogether.  The often confusing short punctiliar lines (at least sometimes neatly laid out by the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia editors even if one disagrees at various points with their reconstructions and arrangements) offer the beginning student of BH many migraines on a good day.
As someone who works to translate BH poetry on a weekly basis I still find it fairly difficult.  At times though, the jarring nature of the Hebrew verse strikes my sensibilities like no English translation ever has…and I stumble to find adequate ways to express what I’m reading.  Maybe I’m still a neophyte of BH, but it still often remains enigmatic (just try translating the book of Job sometime).  BH poetry simply does not follow any perceivable set of rules (despite the over-simplifying system of Robert Lowth or the complex attempts at discerning syllabic concatenization by Michael O’Connor).  And yet, BH poetry maintains a certain terse spirit that reverberates with my own spirit.  It beckons to me, drawing me into its wild web of words and (at times) farcical phrase finagling.
You still don’t believe BH can be hazardous to one’s health?  There is a story told of the Arabist, Paul Kraus (c. 1944), who set out to demonstrate that “the entire Hebrew Bible, once properly accented, could be demonstrated to have been written in verse….When he discovered two-thirds of the way through his analysis that the texts no longer bore out his thesis, he took his own life.” (Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry, p.2)  Now that’s an extreme reaction to Hebrew poetics!  Yet it speaks to the issues of allowing the text (form and function) to say what it says, how it says it.  To read against the text, is to fail to hear the text and to replace it with another (but that’s for another blog post).
So what’s my point?  My point is: Keep at it Don’t quit just because it is difficult or does not seem to make sense.  Part of the beauty of poetic verse is that it resonates at a deeper level than simply the intellectual.  It cannot easily be parsed (nor should it).  It was intended to impact the senses with joy, sadness, fear, anger, love, passion, despair.  It was not intended for analysis (and yields its gems only partially to those who mine it’s depths with such intent).  So keep at it!
And while you are at it, I’ve compiled the following brief list of books which may prove helpful in the study of BH poetry:

Brief Biblical Hebrew Poetry Bibliography

Alter, Robert.  The Art of Biblical Poetry. Revised and Updated; New York: Basic Books, 2011.
Berlin, Adele, and David Noel Freedman.  The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism.  Revised and Expanded.  Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2008.
Chisholm, Robert B. From Exegesis to Exposition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998.
Fokkelman, J. P.  Reading Biblical Poetry: An Introductory Guide.  Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.
Futato, Mark D., and David M. Howard.  Interpreting the Psalms: An Exegetical Handbook.  Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007.
Kugel, James L.  The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History.  London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981, 1998.
Longman, Tremper, III.  How to Read the Psalms.  Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1988.
Longman, Tremper, III, and Peter Enns , eds.  Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings. IVP Bible Dictionary series.  Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2008.
Ryken, Leland.  Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible.  2nd ed.  Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1992.
Schökel, Luis Alonso.  A Manual of Hebrew PoeticsSubsidia Biblica 11; Rome: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 2000.
Watson, Wilfred G.  Classical Hebrew Poetry: A Guide to Its Techniques.  JSOTSup 26; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1985.