“Understanding Old Testament Poetry,” Ensign, June 1990, 51
Many people are surprised to learn that as much as a third of the Old Testament is written in poetry. In addition to the poetic books, Psalms, Proverbs, and Job, isolated poems are preserved throughout the Pentateuch and the historical books, such as Jacob’s patriarchal blessings to his twelve sons (Gen. 49), the songs and blessings of Moses (Ex. 15 and Deut. 32–33), the song of Deborah (Judg. 5), and the song of Hannah (1 Sam. 2). A substantial portion of the prophetic writings is also poetic in structure. Many of the prophets of ancient Israel wrote their messages in Hebrew poetic forms, and their discourses recorded in the Old Testament are often framed in Hebrew poetry. Therefore, both for purposes of understanding and appreciation, students of the Old Testament should have some familiarity with Hebrew poetry.
The first thing to learn about poetry in the Old Testament is that it is different from the Western poetry with which we are most familiar. Prior to the eighteenth century,1 scholars generally tried to describe Hebrew poetry in terms of classical Western composition—with reference to meter and other conventions we normally associate with poetry. But classical models can be misleading; although it is possible to recognize rhythms in Hebrew poetry, for example, the poetry is not based on a metrical system. Further, unlike much English poetry, rhyme is virtually unknown in Hebrew poetry. Rather than using meter or rhyme, Hebrew poetry uses patterns of repetition.
Both in poetry and prose, repetition is the hallmark of the Hebraic style.2 It is such a dominant element in Hebraic writing that it can even be seen in the grammar of the language. For instance, Hebrew favors a construction known as the cognate accusative, where a verb and a related noun are used in the same sentence, as in Genesis 37:5: “Joseph dreamed (verb) a dream (noun).” [Gen. 37:5] In English, we would avoid the repetition and simply say “Joseph had a dream.” Another example is the way Hebrew supplies the force of a superlative by repetition, as in Exodus 30:10, which literally reads, “It is a holiness of holinesses unto the Lord” [Ex. 30:10] (translated in English as “It is most holy unto the Lord”), and as in the threefold repetition of Isaiah 6:3: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.” [Isa. 6:3]
Much of Hebrew poetry was based on the repetition of sounds. Although it did not include rhyme, it did include alliteration (the repetition of consonant sounds, as in “threatening throngs”), assonance (the repetition of vowel sounds, as in “holy” and “stony”) and paronomasia (play upon similar-sounding words, as in “wholly holy”). For instance, consider Psalms 27:7. [Ps. 27:7] This (and following verses) have been divided into lines to show their poetic structure more clearly:
Hear, O Lord, when I cry with my voice:
have mercy also upon me, and answer me.
When read in Hebrew, the alliterative q in the first line and the word play in the second half become apparent:
sema’-YHWH qoli ‘eqra
Unfortunately, these rhetorical devices do not normally survive translation. As with all poetry, it would be best to read Old Testament poetry in its original language. Joseph Smith obviously believed that there was value to reading the Old Testament in Hebrew; he went to great trouble to learn something of the language, and on one occasion said of Daniel’s vision of beasts that “in Hebrew it is a Latitude and Longitude compared with [the] English version.”3 But if one is unable to read Hebrew, the next-best thing is to read the King James Version, whose translators infused the English text with the spirit of the Hebrew poetry where they were able. Consider, for example, the striking assonance in the repetition of long i sounds in the words arise, shine, thy, light, Gentiles, brightness, and rising and the majestic or sounds in the words glory and Lord, found in King James Version of Isaiah 60:1–3:
for thy light is come,
and the glory of
the Lord is risen upon thee.
For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth,
and gross darkness the people:
but the Lord shall arise upon thee,
and his glory shall be seen upon thee.
And the Gentiles shall come to thy light,
and kings to the brightness of thy rising. [Isa. 60:1–3]
One form of Hebrew poetry not apparent in translation is the acrostic (a Greek-derived word meaning “beginning of the line”). An acrostic is a device by which the first letters of a series of lines form words or the alphabet. In Psalm 119, for example, each of the first eight verses begins with aleph, each of the second eight verses begins with beth, and so on until the entire Hebrew alphabet has been completed. (The 1979 LDS edition of the Bible prints the appropriate Hebrew letter at the beginning of each eight-verse section of this poem as a way of outlining this pattern.) Lamentations 1–4, Psalms 9, 34, and 37, and Proverbs 31:10–31 are also acrostic poems. [Ps. 119; Lam. 1–4; Ps. 9; Ps. 34; Ps. 37; Prov. 31:10–31]
Although the repetition of sounds and acrostic forms do not translate well into English, the most important type of repetition in Hebrew poetry does translate well: synonymous parallelism. This poetic pattern involves a balance of thought, in which the second line repeats the idea expressed in the first, often with some sort of variation. A good illustration is the song of Lamech found in Genesis 4:23–24:
Adah and Zillah, Hear my voice;
ye wives of Lamech, hearken unto my speech:
for I have slain a man to my wounding,
and a young man to my hurt.
If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold,
truly Lamech seventy and sevenfold. [Gen. 4:23–24]
Lamech did not have wives in addition to Adah and Zillah, and he did not kill two men, as one who did not recognize the parallelism might assume. The “wives of Lamech” are Adah and Zillah; the “man” and the “young man” are the same.
It is important to be able to recognize parallelism, not only for a full appreciation of the poetry, but also to avoid misunderstanding the text. For example, consider this messianic prophecy from Zechariah 9:9:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion;
shout, O daughter of Jerusalem:
behold, thy King cometh unto thee:
he is just, and having salvation;
lowly, and riding upon an ass,
and upon a colt the foal of an ass. [Zech. 9:9]
Either Matthew or his redactors, apparently unfamiliar with the structure of the verse, misunderstood Zechariah to have proclaimed that the messiah would ride two animals, and so Jesus is awkwardly represented as riding atop an ass and a colt simultaneously during the triumphal entry. (See Matt. 21:7.) The Joseph Smith Translation corrects this verse to conform with the true meaning of the prophecy and what was no doubt historical reality by having Jesus ride only one animal. (See JST, Matt. 21:5.)
In addition to synonymous parallelism, scholars have identified several additional types of parallelism:
Antithetic, in which the second line contrasts with the first:
For the Lord knoweth the way of the righteous:
but the way of the ungodly shall perish.
Emblematic, in which a literal statement is contrasted with a metaphor or a simile:
As the hart panteth after the water brooks,
so panteth my soul after thee, O God.
Stairlike, in which a repeated phrase introduces new thoughts (also known as anaphora):
Give unto the Lord, O ye mighty,
give unto the Lord glory and strength.
Introverted, in which the order of the parallel elements is reversed (also known as chiasmus):
I cried to thee,
and unto the Lord
I made supplication.
None of these patterns of parallelism was held to rigidly or mechanically. Often the second line only partially parallels the first, or parallels it in form but not in content. In many cases, the parallelism does not form a couplet, but involves three, four, or more lines. For instance, Isaiah 60:1–3 [Isa. 60:1–3] (quoted above) displays a more complex introverted parallelism than the simple reversal of two parallel elements. The various types of parallelism should be thought of simply as aids to help us recognize some of the many patterns of repetition in parallel phrases in Hebrew poetry.
The discovery of the Ras Shamra tablets in 1929 led to a significant refinement of our understanding of parallelism and the way in which ancient poets composed poetry. These tablets contain myths and legends dating to the second millennium B.C., written in Ugaritic, a Canaanite dialect with close affinities to biblical Hebrew. In 1936, it was observed that the words for brother and mother’s son occur in parallelism several times in both Hebrew and Ugaritic.4 For instance, consider Psalms 50:20:
Thou sittest and speakest against thy brother;
thou slanderest thine own mother’s son. [Ps. 50:20]
Compare this couplet with another from a Ugaritic poem:
And lo, (as) a brother of Sea Baal is given
As a retribution for the destroyed sons of my mother.5
Scholars soon identified other pairs of words like “brother/mother’s son” that occur more than once in parallel constructions in both Hebrew and Ugaritic poetry. These pairs of words are called “parallel pairs,” or “word pairs.”
Why do some word pairs repeat in both literatures? The most satisfactory answer was suggested by another discovery from the 1930s. It was then that scholars were able to demonstrate by their examination of Serbo-Croatian poetry from Yugoslavia that the repeating epithets, phrases, and lines in the Homeric epics were “formulae” that aided in the rapid oral composition of the poetry.6
The Homeric poems were sung in the meter of epic poetry, known as dactylic hexameter. In order to compose lines that met the requirements of this meter quickly enough to perform in public, the singer would repeatedly use a traditional stock of words and phrases he knew in advance would meet certain metrical requirements. Scholars soon realized that, although Semitic poetry is based on parallel lines rather than meter, this same basic insight can explain the existence of repeating word pairs.7 In order to compose parallel lines rapidly, the Hebrew poet would rely in part on a traditional stock of parallel words that were common to the ancient Near East. The poet could use the same word pairs over and over again as the basic building blocks of different parallel lines.
Consider how one synonymous pair of words, “Jacob/Israel,” is used repeatedly in the prophetic utterances of Balaam recorded in Numbers 23 and 24:
Come, curse me Jacob,
and come, defy Israel.
Who can count the dust of Jacob,
and the number of the fourth part of Israel?
He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob,
neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel.
Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob,
neither is there any divination against Israel.
There shall come a Star out of Jacob,
and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel.
How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob,
and thy tabernacles, O Israel!
Here we can see how the poet used one word pair as the foundation for a number of different synonymous lines.
An appreciation of the principles of Hebrew poetry can also enhance our understanding of the Book of Mormon, a work written by the descendants of a Hebrew-speaking family. Although the Book of Mormon is predominantly a prose work, its style is very repetitive, and the rhetorical element of chiasmus has been observed in its pages.8 The Book of Mormon also contains isolated instances of parallelism, the best example of which is the song of Nephi in 2 Nephi 4. [2 Ne. 4] A review of that poem reveals the presence of formulaic word pairs from the ancient Near East that scholars have catalogued. The most striking of these is the “heart/soul” word pair found in the following passages of 2 Nephi 4:
For my soul delighteth in the scriptures,
and my heart pondereth them. …
(2 Ne. 4:15.)
Behold, my soul delighteth in the things of the Lord;
and my heart pondereth continually upon the
things which I have seen and heard.
(2 Ne. 4:16.)
Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh;
my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities.
(2 Ne. 4:17.)
… why should my heart weep
and my soul linger in the valley of sorrow … ?
(2 Ne. 4:26.)
Why should … the evil one have place in my heart
to destroy my peace and afflict my soul?
(2 Ne. 4:27.)
Awake, my soul! No longer droop in sin.
Rejoice, O my heart, and give place no
more for the enemy of my soul.
(2 Ne. 4:28.)
O my heart,
and cry unto
the Lord, and say:
I will praise thee forever;
yea, my soul
will rejoice in thee, my God. …
(2 Ne. 4:30.)
One final note: Hebrew poetry was seldom intended as art for art’s sake. Its poets invariably composed it for teaching, prophesying, and worshipping. The style of Hebrew poetry was ideally suited to such tasks, since every important idea was repeated at least once. But this repetition was accomplished with sufficient variety of form and diction to render it artful and prevent it from bogging down. When properly perceived, the repetition in the poetry of the Old Testament is not at all tiresome but a delight to read and a key to our understanding.