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Hebrew Poetry

Characteristics of Hebrew Poetry

Rhythm or meter
We have no broadly accepted understanding of this. Various scholars have tried to assess meter by counting stresses or syllables used in parallel bicola (pairs of lines) or tricola (sets of three lines). These systems do not always yield satisfactory results.

This is the major feature of Hebrew (and indeed most ancient Near Eastern poetry).

Until about 15 years ago scholars thought that parallel lines essentially expressed the same idea in two (or more) ways. The most common form of parallelism was called “synonymous parallelism”. E.g.

Amos 5:24
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Ps. 24:1-2
The earth is the Lord's and all that is in it,
the world, and those who live in it;
for he has founded it on the seas,
and established it on the rivers.
Isa. 1:3
The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master's crib;
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.
But not all examples fit this structure. Two other types of parallelism were noted:

(a)  Antithetical parallelism:

Prov. 10:1 (cf. also Ps. 1:6; Matt. 7:18; 10:39)

A wise child makes a glad father,
but a foolish child is a mother's grief.
(c) Synthetic parallelism (where the thought of the first line is developed in the next):

Ps. 29:1,2 (cf. Matt. 6:6b)

Ascribe to the Lord, O gods,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength;
ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name;
worship the Lord in holy array.
In the last 15 years scholars such as James Kugal, (The Idea of Biblical Poetry), have argued that parallelism is essentially a single phenomenon expressed in various ways. Parallel lines are 2 (or more) parts that can relate to each other in many ways. The second line (B) is connected to the first (A). They have something in common. B serves a seconding function particularising, defining or expanding A. This is not always the case. Some parallel pairs can be synonymous, but in others line (B) develops the idea in line (A). For example, in Isaiah 3 above, the “my people” defines the idea of Israel more carefully in the second line of the parallel pair. In the second line there is a closer sense of relationship between Israel and God; Israel “belong” to God.

 • Various forms of "sound effects" (which are usually lost in translation.)

Repeated sounds, predominant sounds, alliteration (e.g. Pss 1:1; 93:4; 122:6-7), assonance (e.g. Ps. 90:17; Isa. 53:4-5).
Structural features.
Chiasmus (Ps. 1:6), where words or ideas 'cross over' in an ABB'A' type of pattern; acrostic structuring (e.g. Ps. 119; Lamentations), where the first word of a line (or set of lines) begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet; and inclusio where the end is the same or corresponds to the beginning (Ps. 8).
Other features.
Repetition of words or phrases, metaphor, simile, imagery, symbolism, onomatopoeia, paranomasia, i.e. word plays e.g. Amos 8:2 ('summer fruit/end' - qayits/qets); Isa. 5:7b; Jer. 31:16-19 etc.

H. Wallace
January, 2007