The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism

Written by Adele Berlin Reviewed By Kenneth M. Craig, Jr

In recent years biblical scholars have focused less on source-critical questions (Who was the author of the biblical book? How many were there? When was the book written?) and more on synchronic (sometimes called ‘literary’) approaches, but the flowering of literary studies of the Bible has concentrated on prose narrative to the neglect of verse. A few scholars are beginning to consider biblical poetry in the light of recent trends. Adele Berlin’s The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism follows her Poetics and Interpretation in Biblical Narrative (Sheffield, 1983) and reflects the overall shift in focus from prose to poetry.

Berlin’s investigation is based on the poetics of Roman Jakobson, a modern linguist who was not working with the Bible, and thus stands apart from such studies as Wilfred G. E. Watson’s Classical Hebrew Poetry(Sheffield, 1983) and Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Poetry (Basic Books, 1985). Jakobson demonstrated that parallelisms are not limited to one genre (i.e. prose as compared to poetry) but are linguistic equivalences that transcend genre distinctions. Thus the definition which Berlin offers throughout her book is much broader than that found in other studies on biblical poetry where parallelism is described exclusively in terms of semantic and/or grammatical equivalences existing between two lines.

In the initial chapters, Berlin surveys various positions on biblical poetry beginning with Robert Lowth’s famous Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews (1753) and ending with various contemporary models (T. Collins, S. Geller, M. O’Connor, and J. Kugel). She succeeds in demonstrating that Kugel was able to maintain that biblical poetry and prose are indistinguishable only because he identified parallelism as the sole distinguishing mark for biblical poetry. Berlin’s conclusion in the opening chapters, more in line with traditional biblical scholarship, is that poetry exists where terseness and parallelism occur in a high degree, whereas prose is found where these features are less prominent (but never lacking completely).

A review of the remaining chapters indicates that the discussion is technical and intricate, written for students interested in a linguistically based description of biblical parallelism. Chapter three contains a discussion of the grammatical aspects of parallelism and is divided into two sections (morphologic and syntactic). The fourth chapter deals with lexical and semantic aspects of parallelism. Berlin draws from psycholinguistic theory (particularly theory related to word association) and succeeds in showing that word pairs are more the product of normal linguistic association than a poetic substratum unique to biblical Hebrew. While biblical scholarship has been moving in this direction, no arguments have been as convincing as the one Berlin offers here.

In the fifth chapter, phonological (or sound) aspects of parallelism are discussed in terms of ‘sound pairs’, and Berlin concludes after isolating numerous examples that sound pairing is as significant as other types of linguistic equivalence.

Unfortunately, each of the chapters remains largely independent. Perhaps a more integrated discussion would have resulted if the hierarchy of linguistic functions had been explored in true Jakobsonian fashion. Since grammatical, lexical, semantic and phonological aspects of parallelism are discussed along with psycholinguistic theory, the discussion is more technical, though none less significant, than that offered in her previous book on biblical prose.


Kenneth M. Craig, Jr

The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary