Introduction to Hebrew Poetry
The Hebrew Bible contains a wide variety of writing styles, categorized in general terms as either prose or poetry. While the distinction between these two categories is sometimes blurred, it is generally reckoned that at least 50% of the Old Testament is in the form of poetry. In contrast to prose, poetry displays an elevated style of language that may be adopted for a wide range of purposes.
Types of Hebrew Poetry
The Hebrew Bible provides numerous examples of lyrical poetry (that is, poetry associated with singing). After their divine deliverance from impending annihilation by an Egyptian chariot force, the Israelites sing a victory song that is probably composed by Miriam (Exod 15:1–21). When David learns of the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, he composes a lament for the people to sing (2Sam 1:17–27). These examples of lyrical poetry come within longer prose narratives. The book of Psalms, by way of contrast, is a collection of songs, composed by different authors over a long span of time. While the lyrics of the songs have been preserved, we have unfortunately no idea of how they were sung. Insufficient musical information has been preserved, and we cannot be entirely certain as to how the songs were voiced.
Alongside lyrical poetry, the Old Testament preserves an important example of dramatic poetry in the Book of Job. Sandwiched between an introduction and conclusion in prose, the bulk of Job consists of speeches by the main participants in poetic form. Some scholars have suggested that the Song of Songs is also dramatic poetry, but the identity of the speakers is not as clearly defined as in the Book of Job.
Most prophetic oracles are viewed as being poetic in nature. These comprise a large part of the Old Testament. Not all oracles, however, display the level of poetic style found in lyrical poetry. As we shall observe, scholars differ to some degree on how Hebrew poetry should be defined. The one major category of poetry not found in the Old Testament is narrative or epic poetry.
Main Features of Hebrew Poetry
Before listing some of the main characteristics of Hebrew poetry, it needs to be pointed out that, unlike English poetry, Hebrew poetry is not characterized by the presence of regular rhythmic sound patterns. Most speakers of English identify poetic texts through the presence of words that rhyme at the end of lines. We see this, for example, in Yeats’ poem, The Lake Isle of Innisfree:
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
Hebrew poetry, however, is not based on rhyme, although there may be rare examples of alliteration, assonance and paronomasia. Other features define poetic texts, the three most important being parallelism, condensed language, and use of imagery. Not all these features are present in every example of Hebrew poetry.
One of the most widespread and distinctive features of Hebrew poetry in the Bible is the repetition of an idea using different but equivalent terms. This usually involves some form of semantic correspondence, although there are also examples of grammatical correspondence. As an example of parallelism, consider Psalm 27:1–3 (ESV).
1 The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?
2 When evildoers assail me
to eat up my flesh,
my adversaries and foes,
it is they who stumble and fall.
3 Though an army encamp against me,
my heart shall not fear;
though war arise against me,
yet I will be confident.
These verses illustrate two main types of parallelism. Adopting categories that were first proposed by Robert Lowth in the mid-18th century, verses 1 and 3 are examples of synonymous parallelism. The same concept is repeated in each half of these verses using closely corresponding language. Even in English translation this parallelism is obvious. Verse 2, however, comes under the category of antithetical parallelism. In this instance the two parts of the verse express opposite ideas. While examples of synonymous and antithetical parallelism are very common, authors of Hebrew poetry employ parallelism in a variety of other ways. Lowth suggested a third category: synthetic parallelism. For him, this was a catch-all category for everything that was not included in his first two categories. Unfortunately, synthetic parallelism is not a helpful category, other than pointing to the fact that parallelism is a complex phenomenon that cannot be easily categorized under a few headings.
Hebrew poetry in the Bible uses a minimum of words to express ideas and, consequently, generally lacks literary elements normally found in prose. Unfortunately, these missing features are not particularly noticeable in English translations. The main words or particles that are less often used in poetry are the conjunction “and,” the definite article “the,” relative pronouns, and the definite-direct object marker.
Alongside the absence of these literary features, Hebrew poetry exhibits ellipsis or gapping, when a word or concept is omitted. For example, Psalm 114:4 (ESV) reads:
The mountains skipped like rams,
the hills like lambs.
The verb “skipped” is omitted from the second line, but the reader is expected to understand that this line parallels in meaning the first line. In this example of parallelism, “mountains” correspond with “hills,” and “rams” correspond with “lambs.”
Use of Imagery
It is sometimes said that a picture is worth a thousand words. This may explain why Hebrew poetry, with its desire for condensed language, makes frequent use of word-pictures in the form of similes and metaphors. The simile draws a comparison between two things, often using the words “like” or “as.” Psalm 1 uses similes to contrast the righteous and the wicked, the former being “like a tree planted by streams of water” (Ps 1:3) whereas the latter are “like chaff that the wind drives away” (Ps 1:4). Unlike the wicked, the righteous experience stability in their lives. Metaphors describe objects or ideas by using other objects or ideas to suggest some likeness between them. For example, Psalm 18:2 states, “The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” Here a series of images are used to describe aspects of God’s nature. In this instance, using metaphors such as “rock” and “shield,” the author focuses on the security that God offers due to his strength. The author of the psalm is not stating that God is a literal rock or a literal shield. Figurative language is found across all genres of Hebrew literature but is more highly concentrated in poetry.
Other Less Common Features
A less frequent feature of Hebrew poetry is the use of refrains. Psalm 68 repeats in verses 3 and 5 the words:
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you!
Each of the 26 lines in Psalm 136 ends with the affirmation, “for his steadfast love endures forever.” Examples of refrains are relatively rare in the Old Testament.
Another occasional feature of Hebrew poetry is the use of skillfully crafted acrostics that are based on the letters of the Hebrew alphabet (e.g., Ps 119; Prov 31:10–31; Lam 1–4). The use of such acrostics conveys a sense of completeness (an A–Z) and of order. The repeated use of acrostics in Lamentations 1–4 is striking in a book that describes the chaos that befalls Jerusalem when it is attacked and overrun by the Babylonians.
As is evident from a survey of Hebrew poetry in the Bible, authors enjoyed a degree of freedom when composing poetic texts. Considerable latitude was granted for the composition of poetry. As a result, not all the characteristics listed above are present in every example of Hebrew poetry. This variation makes the task of identifying and analyzing Hebrew poetry challenging. Nevertheless, the presence of so much poetic material within the Old Testament enhances the reader’s experience, enriching the Bible as God’s inspired revelation to humanity.
R. Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry (New York: Basic Books, 1985).
A. Berlin, The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985).
S. T. S. Goh, The Basics of Hebrew Poetry: Theory and Practice (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2017).
Articles on “Lyric Poetry;” “Poetic, terminology of” in T. Longman and P. Enns, Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry and Writings (Downers Grove, IL/Nottingham: IVP Academic/IVP, 2008).
W. G. E. Watson, Classical Hebrew Poetry: A Guide to Its Techniques (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1984).