Hebrew Poetry Forms by Sean Burt

Anyone who has sat down to read through the Psalms has probably encountered the occasional feeling of déjà vu. "Be pleased, O God, to deliver me. / O Lord, make haste to help me …"—wait, what Psalm is this? 70? Didn't I just see this back in Psalm … where is it … 40? Though only a few biblical poems quote each other as extensively as do those two, the attentive reader of biblical Hebrew poetry sees similarities across many poems. Even more, poems often resemble one another not just in content but also in structure.

These structures, the skeletons on which the poets built their poems, are the "forms" of Hebrew poetry, and Hebrew poetry is deeply attuned to form, down to its smallest parts. Lines are typically concise (think Emily Dickinson or Bashō, not Walt Whitman). The first line of Ps 23 ("The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want"), though short and rich in English, tallies a modest four Hebrew words (yhwh ro'i lo' ehsar). Also, though biblical poetry lacks meter, it does have rhythm. Most verses are made up of two or three parts, or "versets," each of which has two to four accented syllables. Poets connect their versets using biblical poetry's most distinctive feature, parallelism. See the opening of Ps 56:

"Be gracious to me, O God, for people trample on me;
all day long foes oppress me."

Here, in a style typical of Hebrew poetry, the second verset uses parallel words and syntax to develop the ideas of the first verset (“foes oppress” // “people trample”).

Form, in other words, is apparent in Hebrew poetry at all levels. However, the concept of the forms of Hebrew poetry often refers to the various genres, or types, of poems. Even when not borrowing entire phrases, poems often employ what look to be common templates. Ps 56 above is an example of the genre of individual lament. In addition to the cry for help, this particular genre also includes an expression of trust (verse 11) and a vow of thanks (verses 12–13) (compare similar poems, such as Ps 3, Ps 22, Ps 88).

The entire list of possible poetic genres is long indeed, but other examples include royal psalms (Ps 45), hymns (Ps 104), love poetry (Song 1), dirges (Ezek 19), blessings (Gen 28), communal laments (Ps 79), prophetic controversies (Mic 6:1-5), victory songs (Judg 5), city laments (Lamentations), and oracles against foreign nations (Obadiah), as well as shorter poems such as riddles (Judg 14:14), proverbs, and even drinking songs (Isa 22:13)! Some of these genres’ names come from the Bible—Ezek 19 calls itself a dirge (Hebrew qinah). Most, however, were coined by modern biblical scholars working with the method called form criticism, whose founding figure is the German scholar Hermann Gunkel (1862–1932).

Traditionally, form critics have aimed not only to name genres but also to connect these genres to their original social settings. So, prophetic disputations might have emerged from a legal context, dirges from funerary practices, royal psalms from the king's court, and so on. Recent research has taken form criticism in new directions, showing how poets also use genres in imaginative ways. For example, the lengthy acrostic Ps 119 is rigorously structured, indeed rigorously formal, yet it draws freely from the lament genre and uses its elements to make something new: a meditative celebration of Torah. Poets let themselves be guided, not dictated to, by the constraints of form. Just like Joel, who turned Micah and Isaiah's ploughshares into swords (or the other way around; see Joel 3:10, Isa 2:4, Mic 4:3), biblical poets understood the power of playing on readers' expectations.

Sean Burt, "Hebrew Poetry Forms", n.p. [cited 27 Apr 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/hebrew-poetry-forms

Contributors

Sean Burt

Sean Burt
Assistant Professor, North Dakota State University

Sean Burt is an assistant professor in religious studies and English at North Dakota State University. His research interests include Persian-period Judaism, genre theory, and the Psalms. He is the author of The Courtier and the Governor: Transformations of Genre in the Nehemiah Memoir (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014).

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The application of critical models of scholarship to a text.

Interpretation of the genre and shape of a narrative in order to determine its original setting and function.

A category or type, often of literary work.

A formal poetic category (see Psalms, Lamentations, prophets).

The name of Israel's god, but with only the consonants of the name, as spelled in the Hebrew Bible. In antiquity, Jews stopped saying the name as a sign of reverence. Some scholars today use only the consonants to recognize the lost original pronunciation or to respect religious tradition.

Ps 23

The Divine Shepherd
A Psalm of David.
1The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.2He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;3he re ... View more

Ps 56

Trust in God under Persecution
To the leader: according to The Dove on Far-off Terebinths. Of David. A Miktam, when the Philistines seized him in Gath.
1Be grac ... View more

Ps 56

Trust in God under Persecution
To the leader: according to The Dove on Far-off Terebinths. Of David. A Miktam, when the Philistines seized him in Gath.
1Be grac ... View more

Ps 3

Trust in God under Adversity
A Psalm of David, when he fled from his son Absalom.
1O Lord, how many are my foes!
Many are rising against me;2many are saying to ... View more

Ps 22

Plea for Deliverance from Suffering and Hostility
To the leader: according to The Deer of the Dawn. A Psalm of David.
1My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? ... View more

Ps 88

Prayer for Help in Despondency
A Song. A Psalm of the Korahites. To the leader: according to Mahalath Leannoth. A Maskil of Heman the Ezrahite.
1O Lord, God of ... View more

Ps 45

Ode for a Royal Wedding
To the leader: according to Lilies. Of the Korahites. A Maskil. A love song.
1My heart overflows with a goodly theme;
I address my verse ... View more

Ps 104

God the Creator and Provider
1Bless the Lord, O my soul.
O Lord my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honor and majesty,2wrapped in light as with a g ... View more

Song 1

1The Song of Songs, which is Solomon's.
Colloquy of Bride and Friends
2Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!
For your love is better than wine,3your ano ... View more

Ezek 19

Israel Degraded
1As for you, raise up a lamentation for the princes of Israel,2and say:
What a lioness was your mother
among lions!
She lay down among young lio ... View more

Gen 28

1Then Isaac called Jacob and blessed him, and charged him, “You shall not marry one of the Canaanite women.2Go at once to Paddan-aram to the house of Bethuel, y ... View more

Ps 79

Plea for Mercy for Jerusalem
A Psalm of Asaph.
1O God, the nations have come into your inheritance;
they have defiled your holy temple;
they have laid Jerusalem ... View more

Mic 6:1-5

God Challenges Israel
1Hear what the Lord says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.2Hear, you mountains, the controve ... View more

Judg 5

The Song of Deborah
1Then Deborah and Barak son of Abinoam sang on that day, saying:2“When locks are long in Israel,
when the people offer themselves willingly— ... View more

Judg 14:14

14He said to them,
“Out of the eater came something to eat.
Out of the strong came something sweet.”
But for three days they could not explain the riddle.

Isa 22:13

13but instead there was joy and festivity,
killing oxen and slaughtering sheep,
eating meat and drinking wine.
“Let us eat and drink,
for tomorrow we die.”

Ezek 19

Israel Degraded
1As for you, raise up a lamentation for the princes of Israel,2and say:
What a lioness was your mother
among lions!
She lay down among young lio ... View more

Ps 119

The Glories of God's Law
1Happy are those whose way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the Lord.2Happy are those who keep his decrees,
who seek him with their ... View more

Joel 3:10

10Beat your plowshares into swords,
and your pruning hooks into spears;
let the weakling say, “I am a warrior.”

Isa 2:4

4He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
na ... View more

Mic 4:3

3He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into p ... View more

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