On Hebrew Poetry

Psalm 1, Verse 1 and 2 in Biblia Hebraica Stut...

For those who have spent any time studying Biblical Hebrew (BH) it becomes readily apparent that while BH prose is fairly simple to translate (as far as translation of other languages go),  BH poetry is another matter altogether.  The often confusing short punctiliar lines (at least sometimes neatly laid out by the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia editors even if one disagrees at various points with their reconstructions and arrangements) offer the beginning student of BH many migraines on a good day.

As someone who works to translate BH poetry on a weekly basis I still find it fairly difficult.  At times though, the jarring nature of the Hebrew verse strikes my sensibilities like no English translation ever has…and I stumble to find adequate ways to express what I’m reading.  Maybe I’m still a neophyte of BH, but it still often remains enigmatic (just try translating the book of Job sometime).  BH poetry simply does not follow any perceivable set of rules (despite the over-simplifying system of Robert Lowth or the complex attempts at discerning syllabic concatenization by Michael O’Connor).  And yet, BH poetry maintains a certain terse spirit that reverberates with my own spirit.  It beckons to me, drawing me into its wild web of words and (at times) farcical phrase finagling.

You still don’t believe BH can be hazardous to one’s health?  There is a story told of the Arabist, Paul Kraus (c. 1944), who set out to demonstrate that “the entire Hebrew Bible, once properly accented, could be demonstrated to have been written in verse….When he discovered two-thirds of the way through his analysis that the texts no longer bore out his thesis, he took his own life.” (Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry, p.2)  Now that’s an extreme reaction to Hebrew poetics!  Yet it speaks to the issues of allowing the text (form and function) to say what it says, how it says it.  To read against the text, is to fail to hear the text and to replace it with another (but that’s for another blog post).

So what’s my point?  My point is: Keep at it Don’t quit just because it is difficult or does not seem to make sense.  Part of the beauty of poetic verse is that it resonates at a deeper level than simply the intellectual.  It cannot easily be parsed (nor should it).  It was intended to impact the senses with joy, sadness, fear, anger, love, passion, despair.  It was not intended for analysis (and yields its gems only partially to those who mine it’s depths with such intent).  So keep at it!

And while you are at it, I’ve compiled the following brief list of books which may prove helpful in the study of BH poetry:

Brief Biblical Hebrew Poetry Bibliography

Alter, Robert.  The Art of Biblical Poetry. Revised and Updated; New York: Basic Books, 2011.

Berlin, Adele, and David Noel Freedman.  The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism.  Revised and Expanded.  Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2008.

Chisholm, Robert B. From Exegesis to Exposition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998.

Fokkelman, J. P.  Reading Biblical Poetry: An Introductory Guide.  Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.

Futato, Mark D., and David M. Howard.  Interpreting the Psalms: An Exegetical Handbook.  Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007.

Kugel, James L.  The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History.  London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981, 1998.

Longman, Tremper, III.  How to Read the Psalms.  Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1988.

Longman, Tremper, III, and Peter Enns , eds.  Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings. IVP Bible Dictionary series.  Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2008.

Ryken, Leland.  Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible.  2nd ed.  Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1992.

Schökel, Luis Alonso.  A Manual of Hebrew PoeticsSubsidia Biblica 11; Rome: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 2000.

Watson, Wilfred G.  Classical Hebrew Poetry: A Guide to Its Techniques.  JSOTSup 26; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1985.

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