Biblical Studies Hebrew Poetry
by
F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp, Elaine T. James
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 September 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0083

Introduction

The poetry of the Hebrew Bible makes up a central part of the scriptural heritage of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and has been a foundational source for poetry throughout history, and especially for later traditions of Hebrew verse. Roughly a third of the Hebrew Bible is verse. This includes the books of Job, Proverbs, and Psalms, and the several festival songs embedded in prose texts (Exodus 15, Deuteronomy 32, Judges 5, 2 Samuel 22); Lamentations and Song of Songs; and other poems or fragments embedded within blocks of prose (e.g., Genesis 4:23–24). These were largely recognized as verse early on in the tradition; much later, Robert Lowth’s Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews (Lowth 1995b, cited under Robert Lowth) showed that much of the Latter Prophets are also verse. Briefly defined, biblical Hebrew poetry is a nonmetrical form of verse characterized above all by verbal inventiveness, a discernible poetic diction and texture, and concision. This particularly lean style is characterized by short lines, consisting of only two to six words per line, lending the impression of a heightened, dense form of discourse, achieved by bringing semantically important words together. As with other bodies of poetry, it routinely involves higher concentrations of words and phrases with rare meanings or usages, bold ellipses, sudden transitions, and other stylistic complexity. As poetry, it demands to be read within the larger discipline of literary studies.

General Overviews

There are a plethora of good, recent short treatments of biblical poetry, though many of the more substantive surveys are now several decades old. Alonso Schökel 1988 was a pioneering work, and Alonso Schökel’s treatment of the creative aspects of Hebrew poetry merits further engagement. Perhaps most notable among these general treatments are Kugel 1998 (originally published in 1981; see Parallelism) and Alter 1985, both of which monographs set the table for the contemporary discussion. In quite a different vein, although written at about the same time, O’Connor 1997 (originally published in 1980) presents a minute syntactic description of Hebrew poetry that has been met with mixed reviews, in part due to its demanding nature, though for the patient reader, the book contains many insights. Recent short introductory survey articles, such as Berlin 1996 and Dobbs-Allsopp 2009, offer concise evaluations of the current state of the conversation. Geller 1993, additionally, is an excellent resource. Watson 2005 (originally published in 1984) offers a catalogue of the techniques of biblical Hebrew poetry that is unmatched. The best starting point for beginners (and particularly students) is the introductory volume Petersen and Richards 1992. Fokkelman 2001 is also useful, although heavily indebted to structuralist analysis.

  • Alonso Schökel, Luis. A Manual of Hebrew Poetics. Translated by Adrian Graffy. Subsidia Biblica 11. Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1988.

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    This volume, adapted from a doctoral dissertation initially published in 1963 (Estudios de poética hebrea), pioneers a stylistic approach to Hebrew poetry and remains a significant contribution to biblical poetics. Emphasizes the need for sensitivity to and appreciation for poetic meaning: “Less classification is needed, and more analysis of style” (57). His chapters “Images” and “Figures of Speech” are particularly rich.

  • Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Poetry. New York: Basic Books, 1985.

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    Alter’s engagement with biblical poetry describes basic features and techniques, and also offers sensitive and creative readings of specific texts in his characteristically lucid style. He notes techniques at the micro-level (specification and heightening) as well as the macro-level (incipient narrative and structures of intensification). As these categories suggest, Alter describes some of the complex dynamics in the structures of parallelism.

  • Berlin, Adele. “Introduction to Hebrew Poetry” In The New Interpreter’s Bible. Vol. 4. Edited by Robert Doran, Carol A. Newsom, J. Clinton McCann, Adele Berlin, et al., 301–314. Nashville: Abingdon, 1996.

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    Berlin’s succinct article is a good starting place for the state of the discussion, as she offers a clear outline of scholarly history and the forms and features of biblical Hebrew poetry.

  • Dobbs-Allsopp, F. W. “Poetry, Hebrew.” In The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Vol. 4, Me-R. Edited by Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, 550–558. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

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    This article outlines the state of the field of poetry studies, drawing on the history of the discussion in biblical studies, as well as in related fields (such as lyric studies).

  • Fokkelman, J. P. Reading Biblical Poetry: An Introductory Guide. Translated by Ineke Smit. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001.

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    Conceived as a companion volume to his Reading Biblical Narrative (1999); Fokkelman’s approach to poetry is characteristically attentive to detail and committed to structural and numerical analysis.

  • Geller, Stephen A. “Hebrew Prosody and Poetics: Biblical.” In The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Edited by Alex Preminger and T. V. F. Brogan, 509–511. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

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    A brief, insightful, and accessible overview of biblical poetry and its informing prosody. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (NPEPP) in general is a fabulous resource, not only on biblical Hebrew poetics and the like but for any topic related to poetry and poetics—the NPEPP offers the field’s consensus opinion on all such topics.

  • O’Connor, M. Hebrew Verse Structure. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1997.

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    O’Connor’s formidable analysis of the line in Hebrew verse, originally published in 1980, critiques the “standard description” of verse since Lowth, which focuses on the twofold analysis of contiguous lines (parallelism) and the lines themselves (meter). The key achievements of the book are the syntactic description of the line and its rich insights drawn from a broad knowledge of comparative poetics and linguistics.

  • Petersen, David L., and Kent Harold Richards. Interpreting Hebrew Poetry. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992.

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    This volume is ideal for beginners to Hebrew poetry, as it carefully and clearly delineates terminology and offers ample illustrations as well as modeling readings of particular poems. Perhaps the best contribution is in setting the discussion explicitly within the larger literary study of poetry, including poetry theory.

  • Watson, Wilfred G. E. Classical Hebrew Poetry: A Guide to its Techniques. Rev. ed. London: T&T Clark, 2005.

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    This volume, originally published in 1984, along with the more recent Traditional Techniques in Classical Hebrew Verse (Watson 1994, cited under Ugarit) together offer a compendious resource of poetic techniques, considered in light of comparative (especially Ugaritic and Akkadian) texts. A valuable reference work.

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