The Back Page – Hebrew Poetry


For centuries, Western poetry focused on rhyme and meter:
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

Here, both lines end in long “e,” and the beat is iambic tetrameter.
Biblical Hebrew poets focused on rhyming ideas more than sounds. The ideas (not so much the sounds or beats) of line “a” parallel those in “b.” The exact kind of parallelism differs from verse to verse.
A few basic variations include:
1) synonymous, in which the second line repeats in different words the idea of the first:
The earth is Yahweh’s, and all it contains,
the world [sc. is his], and those who dwell in it.
2) antithetic, in which the second line opposes the first:
Evildoers will be cut off, but
those who wait for Yahweh will inherit the land.
3) synthetic, in which the second line (and sometimes others that follow) builds on the first.
Better a small serving of vegetables where love is
than a fattened calf with hatred.
The second line may present in reverse order what is asserted in the first, resulting in a chiastic, X- shaped arrangement:
Yahweh watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.
Being aware of Hebrew poetry enriches our understanding of the OT. Jews often couched even everyday statements poetically:
What share do we have in David,
what part [sc. is there for us] in Jesse’s son?
To your tents, Israel!
Look after your own house, David!
Maybe we should do the same! We can combine our Western rhyme and meter with Eastern thought parallelism as we greet each other, and in discussions of important church issues:
To see you here—it makes me glad!
When you are gone, my heart is sad.
Who cares if Pastor’s sermons rhyme?
What counts is that they end on time.

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