A Good Example of How Parallelism Works

Dear Reader,

I have been trying to show how parallelism in biblical Hebrew poetry works. I ran across this wonderful example from the book of Judges. I think it shows beautifully how parallelism, rather than being merely repetitive, actually serves to advance the action and to build suspense.

The scene is a was against the Canaanites. The Israelites have routed their enemies, but the enemy leader, Sisera, has fled. He comes to the tent of a woman, Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite. Then . . .

“He asked water and she gave him milk;
she brought him curds in a noble’s bowl.
 She sent her hand to the tent peg
and her right hand to the workmen’s mallet;
she struck Sisera;
she crushed his head;
she shattered and pierced his temple.
 Between her feet
he sank, he fell, he lay still;
between her feet
he sank, he fell;
where he sank,
there he fell—dead.”

[Judges 5:25-27; ESV]

Can you feel the tension building? Did she strike his head more than once? Probably not. She only pounded the tent peg in with her mallet once. But the repetition drives home the point (so to speak). It makes the scene more violent. He also only fell once (it is not even clear that he did fall; he seems to have been lying down, perhaps asleep from the warm milk, when she struck him). But again, the repetition builds the drama. Is the great warrior Sisera really dead? Is this it for him? We can almost see him falling in slow motion. And then–dead. An abrupt end.

Scholars say that there is a fine line between poetry and narrative in the Old Testament. One could certainly believe it from this passage. Not all narrative is so poetic; nor does all poetry tell a story so well. But we need to be aware that the poetry can tell a story. We need to learn t read between the lines, to see how the parallelism can set the pace for the events, and to see the action unfolding. And above all, we need to not muck up in our translations, what God through the Bible’s authors, has so expertly crafted.


9 responses to this post.

  1. […] poetry, on the other hand, uses parallelism and structure as its main devices. It does not use rhyme and does not seem to use rhythm (there […]


  2. […] all together. Hebrew poetry is based primarily on parallelism, not on rhyme or rhythm (see here and here). So I instruct the children to look for things that are repeated or go together in some way, […]


  3. […] first two lines are parallel. “In my crying” parallels “in distress” and “answer me” […]


  4. […] you love the parallelism here? In Hebrew its all much pithier. It tends to not need to many little words for things to make […]


  5. […] serpents (tannin) and the cruel venom of asps.” Similarly, Psalm 91:13 also uses tannin in parallel with […]


  6. […] verse is a nice example of Hebrew parallelism.  Notice how the first and fourth lines use the word “neighbor” and the second and […]


  7. […] a Hebrew literary device which we often, mistakenly, take as mere repetition of ideas (see this post or this one). This is not what I think we have in this verse, however. It is not the more poetic […]


  8. […] a Hebrew literary device which we often, mistakenly, take as mere repetition of ideas (see this post or this one). This is not what we have in this verse, however. It is not the more poetic account in […]


  9. […] on rhyme and meter as its primary structural devices, Hebrew poetry is usually said to rely on parallelism. But there is no agreement as to whether parallelism as such actually exists and, if it does, how […]


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