Introduction to Hebrew Poetry
Cain’s lineage indeed advanced evil, introducing the world to facets such as self-worship, murder and bigamy. But God also wants us to take one brief look at some of the valuable contributions that Cain’s line produced: 1) Urban development (Genesis 4:17); Civilization (Genesis 4:20); Culture such as Music (Genesis 4:21), Craftsmanship (Genesis 4:22), Poetry (Genesis 4:23-24)
Cain was evidently astutely talented in many fields, which may have contributed to him feeling self-sufficient without the Lord. Of all contributions, Poetry (Genesis 4:23-24) is immensely prominent.
Today, we view poetry as parallel word cadence and rhyming patterns. Though the last 50 years has expanded the structure of the poetry genre, Hebrew poetry – with its emphasis on PARALLEL IDEAS remains unique. It takes some understanding to become accustomed to Hebrew poetry, and without that understanding, often poetic passages don’t make sense. Our ability to comprehend about 8,000 verses of scripture will be stunted. You will look but not see; listen but not hear; read but not comprehend. You will scan your eyes through thousands of verses of prophecy. You will comprehend every word, and you will not comprehend the message. Once you enter the books of prophecy, and you find that by Isaiah 2 or 3, you are merely reciting words on a page; you will likely not retain your enthusiasm through to Isaiah 66, and then onto Malachi 4:6. The Old Testament for you terminates with the book of Esther.
With an understanding of Hebrew poetry, about 40% of the Old Testament becomes readable where once it was not. About 85% of the 17 books of Old Testament prophecy is poetry, and 98% of the Job-Song of Solomon run is poetry. Also, Jesus and Paul, consistent with their Hebrew upbringing, occasionally talked in poetry. As though inoculating us with a passive immunity, God provides us with a starter poem in the fourth chapter of the Bible.
I am confident that this was God’s strategy because – the ugliness of the topic notwithstanding – the structure of the poem is beautiful. There was no reason for God to record the first account human bigamy except to introduce the reader of His revelation to man to the poetry genre; there was no other reason to footnote Lamech's rebellion against God as the world’s first bigamist. In Genesis 4:23-24, God gives us a short poem as a Petri Dish to culture our skills. But the poem is recorded to show Bible readers how basic poetry will function.
The key to understanding Hebrew poetry is parallel thoughts, or parallelism. Picking up in Genesis 4:23, watch how parallelism works. Notice how every word in Genesis 4:23-24 is placed on the grid, and how every word or phrase is similar in meaning to a word or phrase before it or after it. Poetry words and phrases in Hebrew travel in pairs.
The subject matter needs work. But the literary contribution is incredible. “Adah and Zillah” is the same two women as “Wives of Lamech.” This cannot be read as though to Adah, and to Zillah, and to other wives of Lamech. Similarly “my voice” is the same thing as “my speech.” In the second couplet, despite the word "and," there was no second slaying; the two lines describe the same murder. Overall, the poetry of the two verses combine to fill out a parallelism sheet nicely.
Two cells are empty. A parallelism can be complete or incomplete. The first couplet (sometimes called "bicolon" (pl. bicola) in commentary), that is the first two-some of lines (sometimes called "stiches" in commentary) above is a complete parallelism. The second and third are incomplete, since there is an empty cell in each. The various combinations of a parallelism - and there are at least a dozen more - can be recognized with practice. But they must first be identified. Before we get into how to identify that an Old Testament is poetic, I offer another example.
Psalms 1:1 reads, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers." The three categories:
• “walks not in the counsel of the wicked,”
• “nor stands in the way of sinners,”
• “nor sits in the seat of scoffers”
advise us to avoid one type of man described three different ways. The counselor to avoid is the type of man who places himself in a position of apparent authority and virtue, but his input to you is the opposite God’s will. The man who avoids advice from this thrice-described counselor is declared “blessed.” Since this is poetry genre, there is no need to create a checklist to evaluate if the counselor walks in the counsel of the wicked, AND THEN if he stands in the way of sinners, AND THEN AGAIN if he sits in the seat of scoffers. For any given counselor-prospect, either all three describe the counselor, or none of the three describes the counselor.
Before I go on, I should add that there is a big difference between interpreting a passage, and applying a passage. If a sermon or devotional picks up on the magic homiletic number of 3, and focuses on how to recognize three distinct types of charlatans described, I am not saying that this feature alone makes for a bad message. It might contain wonderful three-fold application. But if the homiletic outline were presented as an interpretation, then it would be a mis-interpretation. We should avoid any implication that a counselor can meet precisely one or precisely two of these descriptions.
CHIASMS: Sometimes the order of the boxes is rearranged as you move from the first statement to the restatement. For example Psalms 22:22:
The two clauses in the first line are reversed in the restatement. “I will declare thy name” is parallel to “will I praise thee,” and “unto my brethren” is parallel to “in the midst of the congregation.” The parallelism is there. You simply need mapping lines to identify it.
The two mapping lines will intersect to form an English X, or the Greek Chi. For that reason, this structure of Hebrew poetry is called a “Chiasm.”
Recognizing that a passage is poetry
If you were reading in the Hebrew, the poetic passages would be easy to spot. Hebrew poetry has its own rules and characters of punctuation. So among scholarly debate, there is little difference of opinion regarding whether a passage is prose or poetry. In English, poetry in KJV is difficult to identify. However, in most modern English versions, the indents of poetry are exaggerated. Since the versions do not agree all the time, it is obviously a little more complex. But if a verse is coupled, if every word of the verse is restated, then chances are this verse is poetry. It would be error to see two separate thoughts. It is one thought stated twice.
As in English poetry, the literalist will have to learn to relax a bit. In English poetry, we can only speculate how much money the economy paid the Beatles for their poem “Eight Days a Week.” Diana Ross recited the poetic line, “Ain’t no mountain high enough to keep me from you” when we can be fairly confident that a two-inch snow flurry would have seen her reach for the phone to cancel that night’s dinner plans. You can’t count on wooden literalism among Hebrew poets either. That said, this is not license to abandon the meanings of words altogether. “Eight days a week” may have been overstating it in a literal sense. But neither do we trivialize the devotion expressed.
Hebrew poetic parallelism is why there is an apparent contradiction in Proverbs 6:16: “there are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him.” This construction occurs five times in Proverbs and eight times in Amos. Numbers do not have synonyms. So for parallelism purposes, the number one below the correct number is borrowed and used on the first statement of the parallel.
Using Parallelism to identify the meaning of words
Bible translators usually derive the meaning of a Hebrew word by the company that it keeps. And since parallelisms derive their energy by aligning synonymous words, sometimes we get insights into word definitions by recognizing the value of Hebrew poetry:
I will declare thy name unto my brethren:
in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee.
– Psalm 22:22
Whatever your full understanding of “PRAISE” is, make sure it includes declaring God’s name.
Sometimes you may not know what a word means. Take the word "Zion" for instance. We are told that is has is perhaps a nickname for Jerusalem. But nobody can prove it to you. Isaiah 2:3 makes a fairly solid (though not conclusive) case.
out of Zion shall go the law,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
"The law" pairs with "the word of the Lord," and "out of Zion" pairs with "from Jerusalem." Whatever else you think of Zion, Isaiah 2:3 holds Zion in parallel with Jerusalem.
Jesus and Paul Used Poetry:
“A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master.” – Matthew 10:24
“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” – Luke 6:41 (Sometimes parallelism reflects contrast.)
I don't think Luke himself spoke in poetry, except to quote somebody. Luke was not brought up as a Hebrew.
“It was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven.” – John 6:32
“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” – 2 Corinthians 4:8-9