The Art of Biblical Poetry

New anthologies of biblical texts for classroom use appear nearly every year, though paradoxically the criticism that should support and enrich such offerings is sparse and sometimes stilted. Too often it is overly theological in outlook; sometimes (as James L. Kugel’s The Idea of Biblical Poetry, 1981; which identifies biblical verse as parallel “continuum” rather than genuine poetry), it is so intent on arguing a thesis that it fails to enlighten. Add to these pitfalls the enormous amount of material most critics feel compelled to consider, and it is easy to see why so few good studies exist for the general reader interested in the Bible as literature.

Robert Alter, a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley, has trod this dangerous territory before in his The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981) and does so with equal skill and daring in its companion volume The Art of Biblical Poetry. He wisely limits his inquiry to Hebrew poetry and commendably avoids both jargon and convoluted analysis. He relies on close readings first of short, then of substantially longer Bible texts that he identifies as poetic because they contain “versets,” his own simplified term for what Benjamin Hrushovski called “semantic-syntactic-accentual rhythm.” Alter therefore avoids having to detect metrical stresses where their very appearance is questionable.

Rather than meter, parallelism makes the verset and produces repetition but always with variety. Sometimes this parallelism appears synonymous, as in Genesis 4:23: “Ada and Zilla, hear my voice./ Wives of Lamech, give ear to my speech.” The second verset perfectly balances the first, but while there is repetition there is no monotony because the repetition is incremental. Lamech twice asks Ada and Zilla to listen to him but also notes their relationship to him and implies that he must say something important. Thus, there is only an apparent synonymity, since the versets move from standard to literary diction. As in Isaiah 59:9-10, parallelism can also be interlinear.

We hope for light and look! darkness,for effulgence, and in gloom we go.We grope like blind men for a wall,like the eyeless we grope.

Here, in addition to the change from plain to literary language (light, darkness/effulgence, gloom), there is also intensification in the second line. The general atmosphere of vastness is concretized in the image of a blind man groping along a wall.

Metaphorical substitution for a more general word can give parallelism further variety. Alter cites Joel 1:5: “Rise, drunkards and weep,/ and wail all drinkers of wine” and Joel 1:13: “Gird yourselves and keen, you priests/ wail, you ministrants of the altar” as instances in which the noun phrases function as explanatory epithets, notably more general since not all who drink wine are drunkards, nor are all who tend altars priests. Similar is the use of kennings, riddle metaphors that are often found in Old English verse (“whale road” equals sea, “wave-walker” equals ship); thus Micah’s words, “Shall I give my firstborn for my trespass/ The fruit of my loins for my own sins?” “Fruit of my loins” not only parallels “firstborn” but also describes the intimacy of the connection.

Last comes replacement not merely by intensifying epithet or by kenning but by full metaphor. Alter demonstrates that this is a dynamic parallelism in which literal and figurative levels alternate. This alternation produces a chiasmus which advances the text:Moab has been placid from youth, settled in his lees. Never emptied from vessel to vessel in exile never gone. And so his taste has kept, his fragrance has not changed.

(Jeremiah 48:11)

These few examples, drawn from the many provided and discussed in detail, give some idea of the semantic relationships that produce parallelism between versets. Essentially, they are very...

(The entire section is 1717 words.)


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Commonweal. CXII, November 1, 1985, p. 618.

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The New York Times Book Review. XC, October 20, 1985, p. 36.