Tuesday, May 06, 2003

Hebrew Poetry

Since the psalms and prophetical sections of the Old Testament are often in a poetical form, we must give thanks to God for the His guiding hand in how Israel developed its poetry. The issue is translation. Consider the following:

There once was a lady named Bright
Who could travel faster than light.
        She went out one day,
        In a relative way,
And came back the previous night.

The above poem is a limerick. A limerick has a very definite style in meter and rhyme. Consider, now, the issues of translating the above poem to German or Hebrew. Could you maintain the rhyme, meter, and humor?

English poetry is very often based on meter and rhyme and this is what can make it so difficult to translate. Hebrew poetry is not. It is based on that juxtaposition of ideas known as parallelism. For example,

Listen, O heavens,
        and hear, O earth;
For the Lord speaks,
"Sons I have reared
        and brought up,

But they have revolted against Me."

An ox knows its owner,
        And a donkey its master’s manger,
But Israel does not know,
        My people do not understand.” (Isaiah 1:2-3, NASB)

Note the couplets in this introduction to Isaiah. "Listen, O heavens, and hear, O earth;" You have the complementary verbs "listen" and "hear" along with "heave" and "earth." The two ideas coupled together communicate a desire for all of creation to hear. What makes it poetic is its arrangement. The prose equivalent would simply be, "Listen up heavens and earth."

Note the double couplet, "An ox knows its owner, and a donkey its master's manger" / "But Israel does not know, My people do not understand." Ox pairs with donkey. Owner pairs with master's manger. Israel pairs with My people. Does not know pairs with do not understand. The first couplet pairs with the second couplet. The prose equivalent would simply be, "The people of Israel have revolted against me."

The parallelisms in Hebrew poetry can be complementary by which both couplets say the same thing is a slightly different way. Most of the couplets in Isaiah 1:2-3 are complementary parallels. But opposites can be paired as well, as the parallel couplets above show.

The poetic forms sets up an expected cadence that creates an expectation and increases the interest level of the message. The poetry of parallelism is also inherently translatable.  In translating Isaiah, certain plays on words are lost, but the essential flow of his message is not.

Whereas the couplets are easily observed, there is another poetic form that is a bit obscure. This form is know as a chiasm. The term is derived from the Greek letter Chi, which looks like the English X. A chiasm is named such because its parallel structure resembles an X. Here is a small example:

“Render the hearts of this people insensitive,
        Their ears dull,
                And their eyes dim,
                Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
        Hear with their ears,
Understand with their hearts,
And return and be healed.” (Isaiah 6:10)

See how the lines reference hearts, ears, and eyes and then reverse to reference eyes, ears, and hearts in reverse order. It has an ABCCBA pattern. It is possible to discern larger chiastic structures in the scriptures. Here is longer poem from Isaiah:

How the faithful city has become a harlot,
She who was full of justice!
            Righteousness once lodged in her,
            But now murderers.
                        Your silver has become dross,
                        Your drink diluted with water.
                                     Your rulers are rebels
                                    And companions of thieves;
                                    Everyone loves a bribe
                                    And chases after rewards.
                                    They do not defend the orphan,
                                    Nor does the widow’s plea come before them.
                                              Therefore the Lord God of hosts,
                                              The Mighty One of Israel, declares, “Ah, I will be relieved of My adversaries
                                    And avenge Myself on My foes.
                                    I will also turn My hand against you,
                        And will smelt away your dross as with lye
                        And will remove all your alloy.
            Then I will restore your judges as at the first,
            And your counselors as at the beginning;
After that you will be called the city of righteousness,
A faithful city.” (Isaiah 1:21-26)

This complex poem consists of a series of parallel couplets, which I have not bothered to indent. There is also a discernable chiasm here. Unlike the exact parallel of heart-ears-eyes||eyes-ears-heart, this is a chiasm of near opposites harlot-murderers-dross-rebels||foes-dross-judges-faithful.

There are even larger chiastic structures to see. Daniel 2 through 8 has the following structure:

Nebuchadnezzar's dream.
        Condemnation and rescue of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abedbego.
                Nebuchadnezzar loses his sanity.
                Belshazzar loses his kingdom.
        Condemnation and rescue of Daniel from the lion's den.
Daniel's dream.

The chiastic structure is one clue that we have that the two dreams should be studied together.

Finally I want to close with what seems to be a discernable chiasm in the New Testament. Note the following outline of Ephesians:

Blessings in Heavenly Places.
        All Subject to Christ.
                Saved from our Former Life.
                        Unity of Jews and Gentiles.
                        Unity of the Body of Christ.
                Renewed to a New Life.
        Subject to One Another.
Battle in Heavenly Places.

Hopefully you have found this little treatise stimulating.

Friday: Not sure yet.

<>< Test everything. Cling to what is good. ><>


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