Thoughts on Hebrew Poetry

Hebrew poetry, like Hebrew prose, is holographic: it revisits the same idea from different perspectives to communicate the whole picture–this is a feature that makes terseness possible. Its manifestation in poetry is the structural priority of parallelism, in all its various forms. That is, Hebrew poetry achieves a poetic rhythm through a multi-layered paralelism of lines, words, grammar, syntax, and sounds. It introduces ambiguity with terse lines which is disambiugated by the following lines and greater structures (e.g., inclusio, chiasm). “Parallelism, then, consists of a network of equivalences and/or contrast involving many aspects and levels of langauge. Moreover, by means of these linguistic equivalences and contrasts, parallelism calls attention to itself and to the message which it bears” (Berlin, The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism, 141). Lines that follow clarify, emphasize, and build upon preceding lines to, together, achieve multi-dimensional literary communication, to paint a 3D picture. The preponderance of lexical/semantic parallelism in Hebrew poetry is a gift from God enabling effective translation of Hebrew poetry in to receptor languages.

Parallelism occurs on level of the line, between lines (colon), and macro level (strophe, stanza). Line-level parallelisms involve the correspondence and contrast of morphology, lexica, sounds, and syntactic positions. Hebrew poetry, on this level, employs assonacnce (instead of rhyme), root-based and phonetic word play, syntactical shuffling (often Chiasmus), and the alternation of verbal forms. On the level of the colon, Hebrew poetry is often juxtaposed (asyndeton), with less coordination than prose, yet at times has more subordination (especially the use of כי  ki) than either English poetry or Hebrew prose. At the macro level, the strophe and stanza is mainly used for progression (1 –> 2 –> 3: e.g., Deut 32) or holographic description (1a – 1b – 1c: Hab. 3 [here there is also progression, but the emphasis is on the multiperspectival presentation of a single event (he, you, me), Yahweh’s salvific act through Chaldea]). Because there is infinite potential for parallel relationships, understanding Hebrew poetry is not contingent on the production of a taxonomy of possible relations and uses but learning the ground rules, understanding what Hebrew poetry does, and being alert for these features as you read.


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