Understanding Biblical Genres: Poetry

There can be no doubt that poetry is the oldest and historically most important form of literature; as much as it may be an afterthought for most of us today, throughout most of human history, poetry was king. While more of a stylistic approach to language than a ‘genre,’ it’s helpful to understand how biblical poetry works because so many of the genres of the Bible contain extensive poetic material. So today I’d like to look at poetry in general and Hebrew poetry specifically. It will form a background to help us approach some of the genres we’ll look at later, such as Prophecy, Psalms, and Proverbs.

So first, what is poetry? Poetry is a type of literature that uses artificial, aesthetic elements to transform normal speech in order to serve some artistic or mnemonic purpose. Or, in simpler terms, poetry twists the way we normally use language to make it more interesting or more memorable. Common elements include such things as rhythm, rhyming, alliteration, acrostic, and specific counts of vowel length, syllables, or lines. So for example, the English poetic form known as the sonnet had, in its classic form, fourteen lines, grouped into three rhyming quatrains followed by a refrain. So it had a structure: ABAB CDCD, EFEF, GG. Each line consisted of five metrical feet with an iambic (long-short) rhythm. Or, the Japanese poetic form of haiku is comprised of three lines containing five, seven, and five syllables respectively. These two poetic genres differ almost entirely, but yet are both still identifiable as poetry because of how they use language.

Looking to ancient Hebrew poetry, its most obvious and consistent element is what is called parallelism. Parallelism is a device in which adjacent lines (or smaller or larger units) contain similar ideas and comment on each other. Sometimes the two lines are essentially synonymous, such as these words from a speech Lamech gives in Genesis 4.23: “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; wives of Lamech, listen to my speech.” It’s two ways of saying the same thing. But more commonly, the second line adds new information, expanding, narrowing, or contradicting the first. Types of parallelism include:

  • Complement: “you anoint my head with oil / my cup overflows” (Psalm 23.5b) — the second line provides a second example furthering the sense of abundance and blessing.
  • Comparison and Contrast: “Saul has killed his thousands / and David his tens of thousands.’” (1 Samuel 18.7) — the second line undermines the first by comparing the accomplishments of the two leaders.
  • Explanation or Nuance: “The LORD is my strength and my might / He has become my salvation.” (Exodus 15.2) — the second line explains what the claim of the first line entails.
  • Antithesis: “A wise son makes a father glad / but a foolish son is the heaviness of his mother” (Proverbs 10.1) — the second line makes the same point as the first but states it in the opposite way.
  • Analogy: “As the deer pants for the water brook / So pants my soul for You, O God (Psalm 42:1) — the two lines are the two halves of a simile, in which the second half is likened to the first half.

When you encounter parallelism in the Bible, it can be helpful to stop and think through the nature of the relationship between the two parallel units. If we don’t do this, we can easily run into the problem of thinking the text is saying two things, when it’s really saying one. For example, the verse above from Psalm 23 is not really about oil and wine, but both together are a demonstration of God’s providential care.

This is as good a place as any to introduce the next feature of biblical poetry: its extensive use of symbolism. Symbolism is a big part of all literature, but it’s worth mentioning here because it’s a great example of the kinds of things poetry does to language. In symbolism, words or ideas are used as a stand-in for something else. So, in that verse from Psalm 23 again, it’s talking about oil and wine but oil and wine are not the point. What’s important is what oil and wine symbolize, namely, abundance and God’s providential care. Symbolism is particularly important when dealing with numbers; we already saw in the post on genealogies how the number seven recurred because of its importance as a symbol of completion or perfection. We see a different example of numeric symbolism in the lines quoted above from 1 Samuel: it’s unlikely that David’s successes in battle were a factor of ten greater than Saul’s, and that’s not the point; what’s important is not the exact numbers but the comparison between the two men’s reputations. If it were somehow discovered that David only killed 2.6 men in battle for every man killed by Saul, this would not render the Scripture ‘false’, because arithmetic is not the concern of the text.

Symbolism is everywhere, but even compared to normal speech, the Bible is particularly filled with it. There are a few reaons for this. First, there is simply the fact that that is a lot of poetry in the Bible, and so it stands to reason that it would contain a lot of this approach to language that poetry universally employs. But more interestingly, compared to many languages, Hebrew had a very small vocabulary, and so words carried many meanings by metaphorical extension. For example, ‘ayin meant ‘eye’ and by extension ‘sight’ and ‘opinion’, but also other roundish holes in things, so ‘well,’ and ‘spring.’ Moreover, because the New Testament makes extensive use of the Old Testament in Greek translation, it contains a lot of Hebraicisms, figures of speech or symbols that are natural in Hebrew but more metaphorical in Greek. These include the idea of living life as ‘walking’ or the seat of discernment as ‘the heart’.

Most of the other features of Biblical poetry end up being lost in translation. For example, some of the Psalms are acrostics, with each line starting with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Similarly, any metrical, rhythmic, or rhyming elements are also necessarily lost in translation. They don’t really help us with interpretation, but it’s helpful to remember that these things are happening in the background, whether we see them or not. If a translation seems weird, it could simply be that the underlying Hebrew is a little weird because it’s poetry and a word was chosen for some feature of the way it sounded as much as for what it meant.

By far the most important genre of poetry in the Bible are the songs we call Psalms. But poetry is also found extensively in the Prophets, in Wisdom literature, and in songs recorded in the Pentateuch (Torah). An interesting thing about poetry as compared to prose is that, while it’s very free in its use of language, once it becomes considered a unit, poems are very conservative and rarely change. For this reason, some of the songs in the Torah, most notably the Song of the Sea (or Miriam’s Song) from Exodus 15, represent the oldest preserved literary units of the Bible and feature otherwise unknown vocabulary and archaic grammatical forms.

It’s time to bring this post to a close. We’ll look at some of these specific poetic genres more in the coming weeks. For now, what’s important is to remember that much of what we find in the Bible is poetry and should be approached as such: It is stylized, conventionalized, and highly symbolic.

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