FYI: It takes 43 muscles to frown :-(  and just 16 to smile :-). Also, no word in the English language rhymes with month.


Biblical Poetry


The following introduction to biblical poetry is adapted from Barry L. Bandstra’s Reading the Old Testament (Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing, 1999), 386–391. See also the Web version.


Israel's hymns, songs, and prayers conform to the general conventions of ancient Middle Eastern poetry. Poetry is concentrated language. It compresses a maximum of thought into a minimum of words. Content and form are essential in poetry, and both need to be unpacked if poetry is to be appreciated and understood. This section explains the basic features of biblical poetry.


A significant amount of Israel's literature is poetic in form. The book of Lamentations is a set of five poetic laments over the destruction of Jerusalem. A high percentage of the Latter Prophets is poetry. Even narrative literature occasionally contains poetic inclusions, such as the Blessing of Jacob (Genesis 49), the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15), and David's dirge on the death of Saul and Jonathan (2 Samuel 1).

Defining what constitutes poetry in the Hebrew tradition is not a simple matter. A number of features taken together make for poetry. These features have to do with the nature of the language and the imaginative imagery the poet used (Caird 1980), as well as the structures and forms into which the thoughts were poured (O'Connor 1980).


1) Formal Features


A brief treatment of biblical poetry will introduce the main levels where poetic features operate, as well as the tools and techniques available to the poet at each of these levels. Refer to the figure below as we discuss the levels of analysis.



1.1) Line-Level


A single line of biblical poetry, sometimes called a stich, might or might not be a complete sentence. If it is not a complete sentence, then it is completed by the second line, or rarely by a third line. Whether or not a single line is a sentence, there are poetic features that operate on the line level.

Alliteration is the repetition of a consonantal sound in two or more words of a line. It is a sound device that can be perceived only in the original Hebrew version, for obvious reasons. In the following line notice the repetition of the bolded consonants y, v, and d, repeated in exactly that order.


yovad yom ivaled vo

Perish the day on which I was born.
(Job 3.3a)


Alliteration can sometimes extend across multiple lines. In the following two couplets from Psalm 122 notice the repetition of the bolded sounds sh and l, with additional alliteration in ayik at the end of each couplet.


sha'alu shelom yerushalayim
yishlayu ohavayik
yehi shalom bechelek
shalvah be'armenotayik

Entreat the peace of Jerusalem,
May they prosper who love you.
May peace be within your walls,
Security within your towers.

(Psalm 122.6–7)


Paronomasia is a play on words, a verbal pun, that makes specialized use of alliteration. The poetry of prophecy contains examples of this device. Amos used it masterfully, as in the following line where Gilgal puns on "go into exile."


ki hagilgal galoh yigleh

For Gilgal will surely go into exile.
(Amos 5.5)


Also, when Amos saw a basket of summer fruit, qayits, he took this as a sign that the end, qets, was near (8.12). Paranomasia is used throughout the Hebrew Bible and is not restricted to poetry. For example, Genesis 2.7 says that God formed man, adam, out the ground, adamah.



1.2) Couplet-Level


The basic building block of Hebrew poetry is the couplet (also called a distich or bicolon), which consists of two contiguous lines related to each other by form and by content. Usually each verse number in English versions of the psalms is a Hebrew poetic couplet, more rarely a triplet (also called a tristich or tricolon). Poetic analysts designate the two lines of a couplet the A-line and the B-line. A fundamental feature of Hebrew poetry is parallelism, the matching structure of lines within a couplet.

What constitutes the formal relationship between the lines of a couplet is difficult to specify. Hebrew poetry does not have rhythm and meter in the same sense as, for example, iambic pentameter verse in Western poetry. Rather, Hebrew poetry seems to be governed by a basic balance between the lines of a couplet (or triplet) whereby each line has the same number of word units. Most couplets have three major stressed word units in each line resulting in a 3 + 3 pattern. In the following example, note that it often takes multiple English words to translate one Hebrew word.


Yahweh, how-many-are my-foes!
   1    +    1    +    1    =    3


Multitudes are-rising-up against-me.
   1    +    1    +    1    =    3


(Psalm 3.2)


Some couplets have unbalanced lines of 3 + 2 word units. Called lament meter (qinah in Hebrew), it dominates the book of Lamentations and frequently is found elsewhere. Some analysts have sought to refine the notion of Hebrew poetic meter and suggest that parallelism occurs when each line of a couplet has virtually the same number of syllables (see Stuart 1976).

O'Connor (1980) suggests that parallelism is not constituted on the formal level by rhythm, meter, or line length, but by word devices such as alliteration, verbal repetition, and syntactic dependencies that bind poetic lines together into literary sense units. The problem with analyzing biblical parallelism is that everyone recognizes that it exists, but agreeing on exactly how it exists is another matter.

A widely-used method of analysis classifies couplets by the meaning, or semantic, relationship of the two lines (Gray 1915, Geller 1979). Four basic types of relationship have been identified. synonymous, antithetic, formal, and climactic.

Synonymous parallelism is present when the notion of the A-line is repeated in the B-line.


Pay attention, my people, to my teaching,


Be attentive to the words of my mouth.


(Psalm 78.1)


In antithetic parallelism, the notion of the A-line is stated in opposite terms in the B-line.


YHWH protects the way of the righteous,


But the way of the wicked will perish.


(Psalm 1.6)


In formal parallelism, sometimes termed synthetic parallelism, the two lines have a formal relationship defined by rhythm or line length, but the A-line is semantically continued in the B-line. The couplet contains only one complete sentence, not two coordinated sentences, as in the other types of parallelism. The two lines are parallel in form but not in content.


Like a club, sword, or sharp arrow


is one who bears false witness against a neighbor.


(Proverbs 25.18)


Climactic parallelism combines synonymous and formal parallelism. The B-line echoes part of the A-line, then adds a phrase that develops the meaning and completes the sense.


Accredit to YHWH, O Heavenly Ones,


Accredit to YHWH glory and strength.


(Psalm 29.1)


Formal parallelism exposes a basic problem with the broad notion of parallelism. Strictly speaking, formal parallelism is semantically non-parallel parallelism, and so is not really genuine parallelism at all. Kugel (1981) challenges the traditional analysis of poetic parallelism and argues that the A- and B-lines of a poetic couplet are not typically synonymous in meaning. He claims that we should not really talk about semantic parallelism. Rather, the B-line was intended to be an expansion, elaboration, or seconding of the meaning of the A-line.


1.3) Stanza-Level


A stanza, sometimes called strophe, is a group of couplets that constitute a sense unit within a poem. It is the poetic equivalent of the paragraph. Stanzas can be recognized by features of form as well as content.

The transition from one stanza to the next can be marked by such things as changes in speaker or addressee, the use of words that signal logical or temporal transitions (such as but and now), and changes in verb-forms from imperative to past tense.

Stanza structure is obvious when a repeated refrain is used within a unit. In Psalms 42 and 43, which should be taken together as one psalm, the following refrain is found at 42.6, 42.11, and 43.5.


My, how downcast you are, my soul,
Upset within me!
Put your hope in God.
I will praise him yet--my savior and my God.


Parallelism can operate within stanzas to bind multiple couplets into a single thought unit. The individual couplets display their own internal parallelism and also have an external parallel relationship with each other.



YHWH is my light and my salvation.



Of whom shall I be afraid?



YHWH is the fortress of my life.



Of whom shall I be in fright?


(Psalm 27.1)


Thus, using refrains and external parallelism, literary sense units can extend beyond the limits of poetic couplets.


1.4) Poem-Level


Biblical poetry sometimes employs techniques on the level of the entire poem to bind couplets and stanzas into one composition. Some of these techniques involve alphabetic schemes in one form or another. Psalm 119 consists of twenty-two stanzas of eight couplets each. The first lines of each couplet of the first stanza begin with the Hebrew letter aleph, the first lines of each couplet of the second stanza begin with the letter beth, and so on for each of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

Psalm 34 is an acrostic poem where the first verse begins with aleph and each succeeding verse begins with the next letter of the alphabet. Psalms 9 and 10 should be taken as a single poem by the evidence of the acrostic structure which starts in 9 and finds completion in 10.


2) Literary Features


In addition to the formal and structural features of Hebrew poetry at its various levels, numerous stylistic features lend a high literary quality to this type of writing. One of the notable features of biblical poetry, and poetry in general, is what we could call compression. Poetry packs the biggest amount of thought into the least amount of words. This often means that a great deal is left to the reader's imagination and interpretative skill. The reader has to unpack poetic expressions to draw out their nuance and intent, and often a biblical poetic line can be rendered in many different ways. Serious study of biblical poetry (short of learning the original Hebrew), demands gathering a variety of different English versions in order to compare translations. This reveals the variety of ways the poetic text could be interpreted and opens up possibilities of understanding.

In addition, the reader must be sensitive to the use of poetic language. Poetry often communicates through the creative and evocative use of language. Imagery can help the reader visualize thoughts or feelings, as in the following verse.


Dogs surround me,
a group of evildoers encircles me.
(Psalm 22.17)


Imagery often takes the shape of simile or metaphor. Simile is more obvious than metaphor, because it uses like or as to introduce the comparison.


I am like a moth to Ephraim,
and like dry-rot to the house of Judah.
(Hosea 5.12)


Metaphor is less direct and more subtle, implying a comparison rather than introducing it with like or as. Psalm 18 uses metaphors to communicate the steadfastness of Yahweh to the psalmist.


YHWH is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer.
My God is my rock.
I take refuge in him.
My shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
(Psalm 18.3)


Many of the techniques found in narrative and poetry, including anthropomorphism and personification, can be classified as specialized types of metaphor.