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10 Things You Need to Know About Hebrew Poetry

Poetry, by definition, is usually regarded as distinct from another category of writing called Prose. To express it simply, Prose is normal writing. It reflects the speech patterns of typical daily conversation, even if a bit more planned and carefully refined.

Poetry then is an alternate way of writing that some have called sublime language or speech that is focused on the use of meter, rhythm and emotive imagery. Even though there is no end to the debate over exact definitions of poetry, one may rest assured that if you spoke in poetry to everyone at a neighborhood barbecue, they would notice… and grumble about you behind your back.

Now, out of the 39 books that comprise our English Old Testament, 21 of them are heavily laden with Hebrew Poetry, and several others have poetic parts or elements. As with every language and culture, the poetry of the Hebrews has its own patterns and rules, which, while flexible to some extent, are markedly distinct from other peoples’ poetry.

Therefore, while I intend to write extensively to unpack it bit by bit over time, I thought a list of important things to know up front about biblical poetry might prove helpful. There is a lot of it after all.

1. Hebrew Poetry is Laconic. This means that it is short to the point of obscurity. Part of the obscurity is the artistic way of referencing unexplained elements of the biblical world.

2. Hebrew Poetry is difficult even for experts in the Hebrew Language. The relationship between the Hebrew verb and time is still hotly debated in Hebrew poetry.

3. The vocabulary in Hebrew poetry is often archaic even to the original readers. Poets the world over have a flare for obscure words, thus, poetry vocabulary can be difficult even in one’s own tongue. To translate poetry sensibly from one language to another is more difficult yet… especially if one wishes to preserve a reflection of the poet’s art and not just his or her ideas. The ancient Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible demonstrate this well. While strong in the Pentateuch and History Books, the translations of those books employing poetry are often troublesome.

4. Hebrew Poetry does not work on a rhyme system. Rhyme is lame to a Hebrew. In fact, there are times when the poets jump from Hebrew to Aramaic in order to avoid a rhyme. [Psalm 2:12… bar (son) instead of ben (son) to avoid rhyming with pen (lest)]

5. Hebrew poetry works on repetition laden with word pairs… sets of words that are traditionally grouped together as synonyms (river/stream, mountains/hills), antonyms (sorrow vs. gladness, death vs. life), or associated elements that are used like synonyms (Father/Mother, Heavens/Earth).

6. Hebrew uses Synonymous Parallelism: Repeating the same essential idea in similar phraseology, using poetry pairs that may be synonyms, near synonyms, or associated elements.  [Psalm 2:8 “I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.” These are not two gifts, but one.]

7. Hebrew uses antithetical parallelism: Repeating the same essential idea from opposite perspectives. Parts may be synonymous but the central picture will be contrasting. Opposite actions net opposite results. [Proverbs 10:1 “A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is a sorrow to his mother.” We are certainly not contrasting fathers and mothers, but, rather, the effects of folly vs. wisdom.]

8. Hebrew uses Synthetic parallelism: Repeating particular rhythms, but building logically from one idea to another. The possible relationships are many, like comparison, contrast, progression, digression, cause-effect, purpose, result, etc…

9. It is important to learn how to label and track poetic relationships on several levels when working out the exact meaning of a poem. In parallelism, you need to know which elements are connected, which are synonymous, which are antithetical, which are developing logically and how. In a future post, I’ll teach a labeling system that you can use profitably.

10. It is important to track pronouns & perspective & essential point in each naturally emerging unit of poetry to keep from being lost in artistic dramas. In Psalm 2 alone, the “speaker” shifts a few different times. In addition to his own narration, the poet records the speech of plotting nations, YHWH Himself, and the emerging Messiah, who may or may not be the poetic narrator.

Do you think that I’ve missed anything important in my list?

One thought on “10 Things You Need to Know About Hebrew Poetry

  1. eileen says:

    I read it but it is way over my head.. I am still trying to interpret the passages I read.

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