How Biblical Poetry Works

Dear Reader,

This is a repost with some revision of an earlier post. As I am getting back into the Psalms I wanted return to it. You can find all my posts on the Psalms here

The organizing principle of biblical Hebrew poetry is not rhyme or rhythm but parallelism. This is very different from English poetry so it is understandable that it may cause some problems in translation. How do we take poetry from one language and translate into another which uses a very different style and techniques? (And for those of us who sing psalms, we have to make it singable). It is a tough task and I don’t want to diminish the work of those who work so hard at it. But I also think that if you want to understand biblical poetry, you need to understand how it is organized. The primary principle behind biblical poetry is parallelism.

As  we read through a psalm, we may think it very repetitive. But if our thinking stops there, we may miss a lot of meaning. The inclination for English speakers may be to gloss over these “repetitions,” but if  we do so we lose the structure and also the meaning of the original.

It is time, I think, for some examples.  My goal is to give a taste of how the Hebrew poetry works and how meaning can be found in its structures (and why therefore we should seek to understand and preserve those structures in our renderings).

From the first verses of the first psalm, we find the typical Hebrew parallelism. Psalm 1:1 reads (all translations are my own translations of the Hebrew BHS text unless otherwise noted):

“Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked

and in the way of sinners does not stand

and in the dwelling of scorners does not sit.”

The parallelism here is, I hope, obvious. There are three clauses to this verse. The initial phrase “blessed is the man who” is not repeated but then what follows “does not X in the Y of Z” is paralleled in the latter two parts by similar phrases only with the order reversed (“in the Y of Z does not X”). There is more than mere repetition going on here though. What changes between the versets is significant. Notice that in the first part the man walks. He is moving (or not) along with the wicked. In second he is standing, and in the final third he sits. His interaction with the sinners becomes more and more intimate as the verse progresses. There is an escalation.

Another example may be found in psalm 28:5. My rendering of the Hebrew is:

“For they did not understand (yabinu)

the works of the Lord

nor the creation of His hands

He will tear them down and will not rebuild them (yibnem).”

The parallelism here is not as clear-cut as the first example. In Hebrew this can all be said with fewer words so that it is something like:

 Verb

noun-of-noun

noun-of-noun

verb verb.

Furthermore, the first and last verbs in the verse sound very similar. Consonants matter more than vowels in Hebrew and the first and last words of this verse both have the consonants ybn. When one hears the second in Hebrew, one hearkens back to the first. This lends emphasis to these two verbs. The meaning of the verse as I read it in Hebrew is summed up by these two words: “If they do not understand, God will not build them.” Now admittedly, all of this is much harder to render into English, but I think we can make an attempt. If we first take the time to understand the Hebrew, we can base our word choices on it and try to convey some of the sound and meaning of the Hebrew. How about this:

 “Because they did not understand

the works of the Lord

nor the creation of His hands

He will tear them down and will not let them stand.”

Another aspect of the comparison and contrast between these verbs is that in the first case humans are the subject and in the second God. God’s action (in not letting them stand) is a consequence of, indeed a fitting reaction to, the action of the people in not understanding.

I hope I have begun to show that the structure and word choice of the Hebrew is not insignificant and that it carries meaning with it. Even if we cannot capture all of this in English, I hope we can at least begin to appreciate it and thereby to better understand God’s word to us.

Nebby

3 responses to this post.

  1. […] this verse to show that the wisdom, knowledge, and understanding are distinct, but the nature of the biblical device known as parallelism is such that it shows just the opposite: wisdom is used in parallel with knowledge and […]

    Reply

  2. […] Hebrew poetry is governed by parallelism. Sometimes this parallelism is very pronounced and at other times it is subtle or perhaps the Psalmist intentionally varies traditional patterns. Psalm 120 seems to fall in the latter category. There are units here, but they are not necessarily pairs of exactly parallel lines. The structure I see in this Psalm is as follows: […]

    Reply

  3. […] [2] For more on parallelism and how Hebrew poetry works, see this post. […]

    Reply

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