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Overview of Hebrew Poetry (Notes for Class 1)

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To begin our class on an Overview of the Hebrew Poetry books, it is needed to first go over some methods of interpreting Hebrew poetry.

The Old Testament is divided into 3 parts (Luke 24:44).

The Hebrew Poetry books include Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, and Lamentations; but poetry is scattered throughout the Bible and it is important to be able to recognize it. Examples Exodus 15; Deuteronomy 32; Judges 5; 2 Samuel 22; and much of the Prophets structure their prophesies in the style of poetry.

  • When speaking of Hebrew poetry, we are talking of a specific genre.
  • Genre refers to a group of texts similar in their mood, content, structure or phraseology.” (Tremper Longman, How to Read the Psalms, p. 20)
  • Obviously, we read poetry books different than how we read history.

Types of Poetry: “There are different ways of categorizing Hebrew Poetry, but the following five types are the main kinds. (1) Lyric Poems are so named because they were originally designed to be accompanied by music. (2) Didactic poetry intended to teach people to observe and evaluate life. The mind rather than the emotions, was appealed to. Proverbs and Ecclesiastes would be considered didactic. (3) Prophetic poems are not found in these six books of poetry, but rather in Isaiah and some other places. (4) Elegiac poetry records human grief and sorrow. (5) Dramatic poems, such as Job and the Song of Solomon, convey ideas and truth through dialogue and monlogue, much like modern plays.”1) Paul N. Benware, Survey of the Old Testament, Moody Publishers (Chicago, IL: 2003), p. 163

One of the major methods used in Hebrew Poetry is Parallelism. Different kinds of Parallelisms have been classified by scholars.

  • Synonymous: The second line repeats the thought of the first line with different words. Benware references Psalms 24:1; 19:2 as examples.2) Paul N. Benware, Survey of the Old Testamnet, Moody Publishers (Chicago, IL: 2003), p. 164 Robert Alter says, “Now, the greatest stumbling block in approaching biblical poetry has been the misconception that parallelism implies synonymity, saying the same thing twice in different words. I would argue that good poetry at all times is an intellectually robust activity to which such laziness is alien, that poets understand more subtly than linguists that there are no true synonyms, and that the ancient Hebrew poets are constantly advancing their meanings where the casual ear catches mere repetition…. By my count, however, such instances of nearly synonymous restatement occur in less than a quarter of the lines of verse in the biblical corpus.”3)(Robert Alter, The World of Biblical Literature, Basic Books (1991), p. 178
  • Antithetic: The second line presents a contrast of the first line. Benware references Psalms 1:6; 37:9 as examples.4)Paul N. Benware, Survey of the Old Testament, Moody Publishers (Chicago, IL: 2003), p. 164
  • Synthetic: The second line enlarges the thought of the first (modern scholars reject this as a catch all category). Benware references Psalms 2:6; 19:7 as examples.5)Paul N. Benware, Survey of the Old Testament, Moody Publishers (Chicago, IL: 2003), p. 164 Tremper Longman notes, “Synthetic parallelism labels those lines in which the second phrase completes of supplements the first. There is little positive to be said in favor of retaining this category. As a matter of fact, it is likely that synthetic lines are not parallel at all. The label has been used by some scholars as a ‘catchall’ for those lines which are neither synonymous nor antithetic.”6)Tremper Longman III, How to Read the Psalms, Intervarsity Press (Downer Grove, IL: 1988). p. 100
  • Climatic: The statement in the first line is exaggerated as hyperbole in the second line. Psalms 29:1 and 103:1 are examples. “The dominant pattern is a focusing, heightening, or specification of ideas, images, actions, and themes from one verset to the next. If something is broken in the first verset, it is smashed or shattered in the second verset; if a city is destroyed in the first verset, it is turned into a heap of rubble in the second. A general term in the first half of the line is typically followed by a specific instance of the general category in the second half; or, again, a literal statement in the first verse becomes a metaphor or hyperbole in the second.”7)Robert Alter, The World of Biblical Literature, Basic Books (1991), p. 178 “The two most common structures, then, of biblical poetry are a movement of intensification of images, concepts, and themes through a sequence of lines, and a narrative movement—which most often pertains to the development of metaphorical acts but can also refer to literal events, as in much prophetic poetry.”8)Robert Alter, The World of Biblical Literature, Basic Books (1991), p. 186
  • Emblematic: A simile or metaphor is used to illustrate what is said in the other line. Benware referenced Psalm 42:1 and Proverbs 25:25.9)Paul N. Benware, Survey of the Old Testament, Moody Publishers (Chicago, IL: 2003, p. 164
  • Ellipsis: Sometimes the thoughts of a parallel skips a portion of the first statement (Ps 88:6) “Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the deeps.”
  • Inclusio—a parallel of the first and last line (Psalm 8:1, 9), though not always an exact repetition nor the very last verse (Psalm 69:1, 35)
  • Symmetry: When the poem is balanced by a structured numerical division. “Symmetrical structures, because they tend to imply a confident sense of the possibility of encapsulating perception, are favored in particular by poets in the main line of Hebrew Wisdom literature.”10)Robert Alter, The World of Biblical Literature, Basic Books (1991), p. 187

Acrostic poetry: A poem that expand the entire Hebrew alphabet with the first letter of succeeding lines. It aids in memorization, adds esthetic value, and portrays completion by expanding the entire Hebrew alphabet. (Lamentations 1-4)

Chiasm: The following quote is a properly places the emphasis on how important it is to be able to discover chiasms. “The recognition of the presence of chiastic structures in texts enables the interpreter to appreciate comparisons and contrasts, to apprehend the emphasis of the textual unit defined by the chiasm, to understand the point being made, and to determine the point or purpose of a composition.”11)David Aune, The Westminster Dictionary of New Testament & Early Christian Literature & Rhetoric, Westminster John Know Press (Louisville, KY: 2003), p. 94 Chiasms can be short or long extending an entire book like Malachi.12)see Heath Henning, “Chiasm and Outline of the Book of Malachi,” July 19, 2021; https://truthwatchers.com/chiasm-and-outline-of-the-book-of-malachi/

A. Whoso sheddeth

B. man’s blood,

B’. by man shall his blood

A’. be shed (Gen 9:6)

Other forms could follow, A, B, C, B’, A’; or A, B, A, B. The central part will be pivot point with emphasis with climax at the end.

A. Blessed be the Lord, because he hath heard the voice of my supplications.

B. The Lord is my strength and my shield;

C. my heart trusted in him,

X. and I am helped

C’. therefore my heart greatly rejoiceth;
and with my song will I praise him.

B’. The Lord is their strength, and he is the saving strength of his anointed.

A’. Save thy people, and bless thine inheritance: feed them also, and lift them up for ever. (Ps 28:6-9)

Chiasms can function with grammatical parallels or conceptual parallels, or antithetic parallels.

Metaphorical language is prominent in poetry (Ps 17:8; 18:2). Note Ps 23:1 is commonly misunderstood metaphor which in Ancient Near Eastern expressions commonly used the term of shepherd for kings or lordship (Gen 49:24; Num 27:16-17; 2 Sam 5:2; 7:7-8; 24:17; 1 Kings 22:17) Ancient Near Eastern texts used this shepherd metaphor frequently to imply the ruler lording over others. For example, the Akkadian creation myth speaks of the pagan god Nebiru, “May he shepherd all the gods like sheep.”13)Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, Third Edition (ed. James B. Pritchard) Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ: 1969) p. 72 Another example is a reference to the king Esarhaddon. “Property of Esarhaddon, great king, legitimate king, king of the world, king of Assyria, regent of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four rims (of the earth), the true shepherd…”14)Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, Third Edition (ed. James B. Pritchard) Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ: 1969) p. 289



Heath Henning
Heath Henning
Heath heads the Set Free addictions ministry on Friday nights at Mukwonago Baptist Church and is involved in evangelism on the University of Wisconsin Whitewater campus, offering his expertise in apologetics at the weekly Set Free Bible Study every Tuesday evening. He currently lives in East Troy, Wisconsin with his wife and nine children. Read Heath Henning's Testimony

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