Poetry, Hebrew



Poetry Defined:

1. In Matter, Concrete and Imaginative

2. In Form, Emotional and Rhythmical



1. External or Formal Characteristics

(1) Vocabulary

(2) Grammar

(3) Rhythm

(4) Parallelism

(5) Other Literary Devices

(6) Units of Hebrew Poetry

(7) Classification of Stichs or Verses

2. Internal or Material Characteristics

(1) Themes of Hebrew Poetry

(2) Species of Hebrew Poetry


1. The Poetical Books in the Narrow Sense

2. Customary Division of the Poetical Books

3. Poetry in Non-poetical Books


By Hebrew poetry in the present article is meant that of the Old Testament. There is practically no poetry in the New Testament, but, in the Old Testament Apocrypha, Sirach is largely poetical and Wisdom only less so. Post-Biblical Hebrew poetry could not be discussed here.

I. Is There Poetry in the Old Testament?

Poetry Defined:

It is impossible to answer this question without first of all stating what poetry really is. The present writer submits the following as a correct definition: "Poetry is verbal composition, imaginative and concrete in matter, and emotional and rhythmic in form." This definition recognizes two aspects of poetry, the formal and the material.

1. In Matter Concrete and Imaginative

The substance of poetry must be concrete--it is philosophy that deals with the abstract; and it has to be the product more or less of the creative imagination.

2. In Form Emotional and Rhythmical

It is of the essence of poetry that, like music, it should be expressed in rhythmical but not necessarily in metrical form. Moreover, the language has to be such as will stir up the aesthetic emotions. Adopting this account of poetry as criticism, it may unhesitatingly be affirmed that the Hebrew Scriptures contain a goodly amount of genuine poetry; compare the Psalms, Job, Canticles, etc. It is strange but true that poetical is older than prose written composition. An examination of the literature of the ancient Indians, Babylonians, Hebrews, Greeks and Arabs makes this quite certain.

See also the McClintock and Strong Biblical Cyclopedia.

II. Neglect of Hebrew Poetry: Causes.

Notwithstanding the undoubted fact that poetry is largely represented in the Bible, it is noteworthy that this species of Bible literature was almost wholly ignored until the 18th century. We may perhaps ascribe this fact mainly to two causes: (1) Since the Bible was regarded as preeminently, if not exclusively, a revelation of the divine mind, attention was fixed upon what it contained, to the neglect of the literary form in which it was expressed. Indeed it was regarded as inconsistent with its lofty, divine function to look upon it as literature at all, since in this last the appeal is made, at least to a large extent, to the aesthetic and therefore carnal man. The aim contemplated by Bible writers was practical--the communication of religious knowledge--not literary, and still less artistic. It was therefore regarded as inconsistent with such a high purpose that these writers should trouble themselves about literary embellishment or beautiful language, so long as the sense was clear and unambiguous. It was in this spirit and animated by this conception that toward the middle of the 19th century. Isaac Taylor of Ongar (The Spirit of Hebrew Poetry, 1861, 56 ff) and Keil of Dorpat (Introduction to the Old Testament, 1881, I, 437) denied on a priori grounds the presence of epic and dramatic poetry in the Bible. How, they exclaimed, could God countenance the writing of fiction which is untruth--and the epic and the drama have both? Matthew Arnold rendered invaluable service to the cause of Bible science when he fulminated against theologians, Jewish and Christian, for making the Bible a mere collection of proof texts, an arsenal whence religious warriors might get weapons with which to belabor their opponents. "The language of the Bible is fluid .... and literary, not rigid, fixed, scientific" (Preface to the first edition of Literature and Dogma). The Bible contains literature, poetical and prose, equal as literature to the best, as Matthew Arnold, Carlyle, and Froude (on Job) held. The neglect of this aspect of the Scriptures made theologians blind to the presence and therefore ignorant of the character of Bible poetry. (2) Another factor which led to the neglect of the poetical element in the Old Testament is the undoubted fact that Biblical Hebrew poets were less conscious as poets than western poets, and thought much less of the external form in which they expressed themselves. Bible poetry lacks therefore such close adherence to formal rules as that which characterizes Greek, Arabic or English poetry. The authors wrote as they felt and because they felt, and their strong emotions dictated the forms their words took, and not any objective standards set up by the schools. Hebrew poetry is destitute of meter in the strict sense, and also of rhyme, though this last occurs in some isolated cases (see below,III , 1, (4), c and e) . No wonder then that western scholars, missing these marks of the poetry which they knew best, failed for so long to note the poetry which the Old Testament contains.

III. Characteristics of Hebrew Poetry: External and Internal.

The definition of poetry accepted in I, above, implies that there are marks by which poetry can be distinguished from prose. This is equally true of Hebrew poetry, though this last lacks some of the features of the poetry of western nations.

1. External or Formal Characteristics:

(1) Vocabulary.

There are several Hebrew words which occur most frequently and in some cases exclusively in poetry. In the following list the corresponding prose word is put in parenthesis: millah, "word" (= dabhar); enosh, "man" (= 'ish); orach, "way" (= derekh); chazah, "to see" (= ra'ah); the prepositions ele, "to," adhe, "unto," ale, "upon," and minni, "from," instead of the shorter forms el, adh, al, and min. The pronoun zu, rare in prose, has in poetry the double function of a demonstrative and a relative pronoun in both genders. The negative bal, is used for lo'. For the inseparable prepositions "b", "k", "l" ("in," "as," "to") the separate forms bemo, kemo and lemo are employed.

(2) Grammar.

(a) Accidence:

The pronominal suffixes have peculiar forms in poetry. For -m, -am, -em ("their," "them") we find the longer forms -mo, -amo, -emo. For the plural ending of nouns -n (-in) takes the place of -m (-im), as in Aramaic (compare Job 4:2; 12:11), and frequently obsolete case endings are preserved, but their functions are wholly lost. Thus, we have the old nominative ending -o in Ps 50:10, etc.; the old genitive ending -i in Isa 1:21, and the accusative -ah in Ps 3:3.

(b) Syntax:

The article, relative pronoun, accusative singular 'eth and also the "waw-consecutive" are frequently omitted for the sake of the rhythm. There are several examples of the last in Ps 112:10 ff. The construct state which by rule immediately precedes nouns has often a preposition after it. The jussive sometimes takes the place of the indicative, and the plural of nouns occurs for the singular.

(3) Rhythm.

Rhythm (from rhuthmos) in literary composition denotes that recurrence of accented and unaccented syllables in a regular order which we have in poetry and rhetorical prose. Man is a rhythmic animal; he breathes rhythmically, and his blood circulates--outward and inward--rhythmically. It may be due to these reflex rhythms that the more men are swayed by feeling and the less by reflection and reasoning, the greater is the tendency to do things rhythmically. Man walks and dances and sings and poetizes by the repetition of what corresponds to metrical feet: action is followed by reaction. We meet with a kind of rhythm in elevated and passionate prose, like that of John Ruskin and other writers. Preachers when mastered by their theme unconsciously express themselves in what may be called rhythmic sentences. Though, however, rhythm may be present in prose, it is only in poetry as in music that it recurs at intervals more or less the same. In iambic poetry we get a repetition of a short and long syllable, as in the following lines:

"With ravished ears

The monarch hears,

Assumes the gods,

Affects the nods."


(4) Parallelism.

What is so called is a case of logical rhythm as distinguished from rhythm that is merely verbal. But as this forms so important a feature of Bible poetry, it must be somewhat fully discussed. What since Bishop Lowth's day has been called parallelism may be described as the recurring of symetrically constructed sentences, the several members of which usually correspond to one another. Lowth (died 1787), in his epochmaking work on Hebrew poetry (De Sacra poesi Hebraeorum prelectiones, English translation by G. Gregory), deals with what he (following Jebb) calls Parallelismus membrorum (chapter X). And this was the first serious attempt to expound the subject, though Rabbi Asariah (Middle Ages), Ibn Ezra (died 1167 AD), D. Kimchi (died 1232) and A. de Rossi (1514-1578) called attention to it. Christian Schoettgen (died 1751) (see Horae Hebraicae et Talmudicae) anticipated much of what Lowth has written as to the nature, function and value of parallelism. The first to use the word itself in the technical sense was Jebb (Sacred Lit., 1820). For the same thing Ewald used the expression Sinnrhythmus, i.e. sense rhythm, a not unsuitable designation.

(a) Kinds of Parallelism:

Lowth distinguished three principal species of parallelism, which he called synonymous, antithetic and synthetic.

(i) The Synonymous:

In this the same thing is repeated in different words, e.g. Ps 36:5:

`Yahweh, (i.) Thy lovingkindness (reaches) to the heavens,

(ii.) Thy faithfulness (reaches) to the clouds.'

Omitting "Yahweh," which belongs alike to both members, it will be seen that the rest of the two half-lines corresponds word for word: "thy lovingkindness" corresponding to "thy faithfulness," and "to the heavens" answering to "to the clouds" (compare Ps 15:1; 24:1-3; 25:5; 1Sa 18:7; Isa 6:4; 13:7).

(ii) Antithetic Parallelism:

In which the second member of a line (or verse) gives the obverse side of the same thought, e.g. Pr 10:1:

`A wise son gladdens his father,

But a foolish son grieves his mother'

(See Pr 11:3; Ps 37:9; compare Pr 10:1 ff; Ps 20:8; 30:6; Isa 54:7 ff). Sometimes there are more than two corresponding elements in the two members of the verse, as in Pr 29:27; compare Pr 10:5; 16:9; 27:2.

(iii) Synthetic Parallelism:

Called also constructive and epithetic. In this the second member adds something fresh to the first, or else explains it, e.g. Ps 19:8 f:

`The precepts of Yahweh are right, rejoicing the heart:

The commandments of Yahweh are pure, enlightening the eyes.

The fear of Yahweh is clean, enduring forever:

The judgments of Yahweh are true and righteous altogether.

More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold;

Sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb'

(See Pr 1:7; compare Pr 3:5,7; Ps 1:3; 15:4). In addition to the three principal species of parallelism noticed above, other forms have been traced and described.

(iv) Introverted Parallelism:

(Jebb, Sacred Lit., 53): in which the hemistichs of the parallel members are chiastically arranged, as in the scheme ab ba. Thus, Pr 23:15 f:

(a) `My son, if thy heart be wise

(b) My heart shall be glad, even mine:

(b) Yea, my reins shall rejoice

(a) When thy lips speak right things'

(Compare Pr 10:4,12; 13:24; 21:17; Ps 51:3).

(v) Palilogical Parallelism:

In which one or more words of the first member are repeated as an echo, or as the canon in music, in the second. Thus, Na 1:2:

`Yahweh is a jealous God and avenges:

Yahweh avenges and is full of wrath;

Yahweh takes vengeance upon His adversaries,

And He reserves wrath for his enemies'

(Compare Jg 5:3,6 f,Jg 11:1-40 f,Jg 15:1-20 f,23,Jg 17:1-13; Ps 72:2,12,17; 121:1-8; 124:1-8; 126:1-6; Isa 2:7; 24:5; Ho 6:4).

(vi) Climactic or Comprehensive Parallelism:

In this the second line completes the first. Thus, Ps 29:1:

"Give unto Yahweh, O ye mighty ones,

Give unto Yahweh glory and strength"

(see Ex 15:6; Ps 29:8).

(vii) Rhythmical Parallelism:

(De Wette, Franz Delitzsch): thus, Ps 138:4:

"All the kings of the earth shall give thee thanks ....

For they have heard the words of thy mouth."

See Pr 15:3; compare Pr 16:7,10; 17:13,15; 19:20; 21:23,25.

Perfect parallelism is that in which the number of words in each line is equal. When unequal, the parallelism is called imperfect. Ewald (see Die poetischen Bucher des alten Bundes, I, 57-92; Die Dichter des alten Bundes, I, 91 ff, 2d edition of the former) aimed at giving a complete list of the relations which can be expressed by parallelism, and he thought he had succeeded. But in fact every kind of relation which can be indicated in words may be expressed in two or more lines more or less parallel. On the alleged parallelism of strophes see below.

(b) Parallelism as an Aid to Exegesis and Textual Criticism:

If in Lowth's words parallelism implies that "in two lines or members of the same period things for the most part shall answer to things, and words to words," we should expect obscure or unknown words to derive some light from words corresponding to them in parallel members or clauses. In not a few cases we are enabled by comparison of words to restore with considerable confidence an original reading now lost. The formula is in a general way as follows: ab: cx. We know what a, b and c mean, but are wholly in the dark as to the sense of x. The problem is to find out what x means. We have an illustration in Jg 5:28, which may be thus literally translated:

"Through the window she looked,

And Sisera's mother x through the x."

Here we have two unknown, each, however, corresponding to known terms. The Hebrew verb accompanying "Sisera's mother" is watteyabbebh, English Versions of the Bible "and .... cried." But no such verb (yabhabh) is known, for the Talmud, as usually, follows the traditional interpretation. We want a verb with a meaning similar to "looked." If we read wattabbeT, we have a form which could easily be corrupted into the word in the Massoretic Text, which gives a suitable sense and moreover has the support of the Targums of Onqelos and Jonathan, and even of the Septuagint (Codex Alexandrinus and Lucian). What about the other Hebrew word untranslated above ('eshnabh)? This occurs in but one other passage (Pr 7:6), where it stands as in the present passage in parallelism with challon, "window" (probably Pr 7:6 is dependent). We get no help from etymology or in this case from the VSS, but parallelism had suggested to our translators the meaning "lattice," a kind of Eastern window, and something of the kind must be meant. The verb shanabh, "to be cool," may possibly suggest the rendering "window," i.e. a hole in the wall to secure coolness in the house. Glass windows did not exist in Palestine, and are rare even now. There are innumerable other examples in the Old Testament of the use of parallelism in elucidating words which occur but once, or which are otherwise difficult to understand, and frequently a textual emendation is suggested which is otherwise supported.

(c) Prevalence and Value of Parallelism:

Two statements anent parallelism in the Old Testament may be safely made: (i) That it is not a characteristic of all Old Testament poetry. Lowth who had so much to do with its discovery gave it naturally an exaggerated place in his scheme of Hebrew poetry, but it is lacking in the largest part of the poetry of the Old Testament, and it is frequently met with in elevated and rhetorical prose. (ii) That it pervades other poetry than that of the Old Testament. It occurs in Assyria (see A. Jeremias, Die bab-assyr. Vorstellung vom Leben nach dem Tode), in Egypt (Georg Ebers, Nord u. Sud, I), in Finnish, German and English Indeed, A. Wuttke (Der deutsche Volks-Aberglaube der Gegenwart, 1869, 157) and Eduard Norden (Die antike Kunstprosa, 1898, II, 813) maintain that parallelism is the most primitive form of the poetry of all nations. It must nevertheless be admitted that in the Old Testament parallelism has in proportion a larger place than in any other literature and that the correspondence of the parts of the stichs or verses is closer.

(5) Other Literary Devices.

Old Testament poetry has additional features which it shares with other oriental and with western poetry. Owing to a lack of space these can be hardly more than enumerated.

(a) Alliteration:

E.g. "Round and round the rugged rocks." We have good examples in the Hebrew of Ps 6:8 and Ps 27:14.

(b) Assonance:

E.g. "dreamy seamy" (see for Bible examples the Hebrew of Ge 49:17; Ex 14:14; De 3:2).

(c) Rhyme:

There are so few examples of this in the Hebrew Scriptures that no one can regard it as a feature in Hebrew poetry, though in Arabic and even in post-Biblical Hebrew poetry it plays a great part. We have Biblical instances in the Hebrew text of Ge 4:23; Job 10:8-11; 16:12.

(d) Acrostics:

In some poems of the Old Testament half-verses, verses, or groups of verses begin with the successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. We have such alphabetical acrostics in Ps 9:1-20 f; Ps 34:1-22; 37:1-40; Pr 31:10 ff; La 1:1-22 through La 4:1-22; compare La 5:1-22, where the number of verses agrees with that of the Hebrew alphabet, though the letters of that alphabet do not introduce the verses.

(e) Meter:

The view of the present writer may be stated as follows: That the poetry of the Hebrew is not in the strict sense metrical, though the writers under the influence of strong emotion express themselves rhythmically, producing often the phenomena which came later to be codified under metrical rules. Thinking and reasoning and speaking preceded psychology, logic, and grammar, and similarly poetry preceded prosody. In the Old Testament we are in the region of the fact, not of the law. Poets wrote under strong impulse, usually religious, and without recognizing any objective standard, though all the time they were supplying data for the rules of prosody. Those who think that Old Testament poets had in their minds objective rules of meter have to make innumerable changes in the text. Instead of basing their theory on the original material, they bring their a priori theory and alter the text to suit it. It can be fearlessly said that there is not a single poem in the Old Testament with the same number of syllables, or feet, or accents in the several stichs or hemistichs, unless we introduce violent changes into the Massoretic Text, such as would be resented in classical and other ancient literature. It is important, before coming to any definite conclusion, to take into consideration the fact that the poetry of the Old Testament belongs to periods separated by many centuries, from the Song of Deborah (Jg 5:1-31), the earliest Hebrew poem, down to the last hymns in the Psalter. In the oldest specimens of Hebrew poetry there is a naive simplicity which excludes the idea of conscious article In the latest the poet is much more conscious, and his poetry more artistic. It would be manifestly unfair to propound a theory of poetry based on the poetry of Keats and Tennyson and to apply it to the productions of Anglo-Saxon and Old English poetry. Bound up in the one volume called the Bible there is a literature differing widely in age, aim and authorship, and it needs care in educing a conception of Heb poetry that will apply to all the examples in the Old Testament. The later psalm-acrostic, etc., many of them made up of bits of other psalms, seem to have sprung from a more conscious effort at imitation. If, however, there were among the ancient Hebrews, as there was among the ancient Greeks, a code of prosody, it is strange that the Mishna and Gemara' should be wholly silent about it. And if some one system underlies our Hebrew Bible, it is strange that so many systems have been proposed. It should be remembered too that the oldest poetry of every people is nonmetrical.

The following is a brief statement of the views advocated:

(i) Philo and Josephus, under the influence of Greek models and desiring to show that Hebrew was not inferior to pagan literature, taught that Hebrew poetry had meter, but they make no attempt to show what kind of meter this poetry possesses.

(ii) Calmet, Lowth, and Carpzov held that though in the poetry of the Hebrew Bible as originally written and read there must have been metrical rules which the authors were conscious of following, yet, through the corruption of the text and our ignorance of the sounds and accentuation of primitive Hebrew, it is now impossible to ascertain what these metrical rules were.

(iii) In their scheme of Hebrew meter Bickell and Merx reckon syllables as is done in classical poetry, and they adopt the Syriac law of accentuation, placing the tone on the penultimate. These writers make drastic changes in the text in order to bolster up their theories.

(iv) The dominant and by far the least objectionable theory is that advocated by Ley, Briggs, Duhm, Buhl, Grimme, Sievers, Rothstein and most modern scholars, that in Hebrew prosody the accented syllables were alone counted. If this principle is applied to Job, it will be found that most of the Biblical verses are distichs having two stichs, each with three main accents. See, for an illustration, Job 12:16: (immo `oz wethushiyah: lo shoghegh umashgeh': `Strength and effectual working belong to (literally, "are with") him, he that errs and he that causes to err'). Man's rhythmical instincts are quite sufficient to account for this phenomenon without assuming that the poet had in mind an objective standard. Those who adopt this last view and apply it rigidly make numerous textual changes. For an examination of the metrical systems of Hubert Grimme, who takes account of quantity as well as accent, and of Eduard Sievers who, though no Hebrew scholar, came to the conclusion after examining small parts of the Hebrew Bible that Hebrew poetry is normally anapaestic, see W.H. Cobb, Criticism of Systems of Hebrew Metre, 152 ff, 169 ff. Herder, De Wette, Hupfeld, Keil, Nowack, Budde, Doller, and Toy reject all the systems of Hebrew meter hitherto proposed, though Budde has a leaning toward Ley's system.

(f) Budde's Qinah Measure:

Though Budde takes up in general a negative position in regard to Hebrew meter, he pleads strenuously for the existence of one specific meter with which his name is associated. This is what he calls the qinah measure (from qinah, "a lamentation"). In this each stich is said to consist of one hemistich with three beats or stress syllables and another having two such syllables, this being held to be the specific meter of the dirge (see La 1:1, etc.). Ley and Briggs call it "pentameter" because it is made up of five (3 plus 2) feet (a foot in Hebrew prosody being equal to an accented syllable and the unaccented syllables combined with it). See Budde's full treatment of the subject inZATW , 60, 152, "Das heb. Klagelied." It must, however, be borne in mind that even Herder (died 1803) describes the use in elegies of what he calls, anticipating Ley and Briggs, the "pentameter" (see Geist der ebraischen Poesie, 1782, I, 32 f, English translation. The Spirit of Hebrew Poetry, 1833, I, 40). But the present writer submits the following criticisms: (i) Budde is inconsistent in rejecting all existing theories of meter and yet in retaining one of his own, which is really but part of the system advocated by Bellermann, Ley and Briggs. (ii) He says, following Herder, that it is the measure adopted by mourning women (Jer 9:16), but we have extremely few examples of the latter, and his statement lacks proof. (iii) There are dirges in the Old Testament not expressed in the qinah measure. David's lament over Saul and Jonathan is more hexametric and tetrametric than pentametric, unless we proceed to make a new text (2Sa 1:19 ff). (iv) The qinah measure is employed by Hebrew poets where theme is joyous or indifferent; see Ps 119:1-176, which is a didactic poem.

(6) Units of Hebrew Poetry.

In western poetry the ultimate unit is usually the syllable, the foot (consisting of at least two syllables) coming next. Then we have the verse-line crowned by the stanza, and finally the poem.

According to theory of Hebrew poetry adopted by the present writer, the following are the units, beginning with the simplest:

(a) The Meter:

This embraces the accented (tone) syllable together with the unaccented syllable preceding or succeeding it. This may be called a "rhythmic foot."

(b) The Stich or Verse:

In Job and less regularly in Psalms and Canticles and in other parts of the Old Testament (Nu 23:19-24) the stich or verse consists commonly of three toned syllables and therefore three meters (see above for sense of "meter"). It is important' to distinguish between this poetical sense of "verse" and the ordinary meaning--the subdivision of a Bible chapter. The stich in this sense appears in a separate line in some old manuscripts.

(c) Combinations of Stichs (Verses):

In Hebrew poetry a stich hardly ever stands alone. We have practically always a distich (couplet, Job 18:5), a tristich (triplet, Nu 6:24-26), a tetrastich (Ge 24:23), or the pentastich.

(d) Strophe:

Kosters (Stud. Krit., 1831, 40-114, "Die Strophen," etc.) maintained that all poems in the Hebrew Scriptures are naturally divisible into strophes (stanzas) of similar, if not equal, length. Thus Ps 119:1-176 is arranged in strophes named after the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, each one containing eight Scripture verses, or sixteen metrical verses or stichs, most of the stichs having three meters or rhythmical feet. But though several Biblical poems are composed in strophes, many are not.

(e) Song:

This (shirah) is made up of a series of verses and in some cases of strophes.

(f) Poem:

We have examples of this (shir) in the books of Job and Canticles which consist of a combination of the song.

(7) Classification of Stichs or Verses.

Stichs may be arranged as follows, according to the number of meters (or feet) which they contain: (a) the trimeter or tripod with three meters or feet; Bickell holds that in Job this measure is alone used; (b) the tetrameter or tetrapod, a stich with four meters or feet; (c) the pentameter or pentapod, which has five meters or feet: this is Budde's qinah measure (see III , 1, (4)); (d) the hexameter or hexapod: this consists of six meters or feet, and is often hard to distinguish from two separate trimeters (or tripods).

2. Internal or Material Characteristics:

Our first and most original authority on the internal characteristics of Hebrew poetry is that great German theologian and man of letters, J.G. Herder, the pastor and friend of Goethe and Schiller at Weimar. In his Vom Geist der ebraischen Poesie, 1782 (The Spirit of Poetry, translated by James Marsh, U.S.A., 1833), he discusses at length and with great freshness those internal aspects of the poetry of the Old Testament (love of Nature, folklore, etc.) which impressed him as a literary man. Reference may be made also to George Gilfillian's Bards of the Bible, 1851 (popular), and Isaac Taylor's Spirit of Hebrew Poetry. It is a strange but striking and significant coincidence that not one of these writers professed much if any knowledge of the Hebrew language. They studied the poetry of the Old Testament mainly at least in translations, and were not therefore diverted from the literary and logical aspects of what is written by the minutiae of Hebrew grammar and textual criticism, though only a Hebrew scholar is able to enter into full possession of the rich treasures of Hebrew poetry.

(1) Themes of Hebrew Poetry.

It is commonly said that the poetry of the ancient Hebrews is wholly religious. But this statement is not strictly correct. (a) The Old Testament does not contain all the poetry composed or even written by the Hebrews in Bible times, but only such as the priests at the various sanctuaries preserved. We do not know of a literary caste among the Hebrews who concerned themselves with the preservation of the literature as such. (b) Within the Bible Canon itself there are numerous poems or snatches of poems reflecting the everyday life of the people. We have love songs (Canticles), a wedding song (Ps 45:1-17), a harvest song (Ps 65:1-13), parts of ditties sung upon discovering a new well (Nu 21:17 f), upon drinking wine, and there are references to war songs (Nu 21:14; Jos 10:13; 2Sa 1:18).

(2) Species of Hebrew Poetry.

Biblical poetry may be subsumed under the following heads: (a) folklore, (b) prophetical, (c) speculative, (d) lyrical.

(a) Folklore:

"Poetry," said J. G. Hamann (died 1788), "is the mother tongue of the human race." In both folk-music and folk-poetry, each the oldest of its class, the inspiration is immediate and spontaneous. We have examples of folk-songs in Ge 11:1-9; 19:24 f.

(b) Prophetic Poetry:

This poetry is the expression of the inspiration under which the seer wrote. One may compare the oracular utterances of diviners which are invariably poetical in form as well as in matter. But one has to bear in mind that the heathen diviner claimed to have his messages from jinns or other spirits, and the means he employed were as a rule omens of various kinds. The Old Testament prophet professed to speak as he was immediately inspired by God (see DIVINATION,VIII ). Duhm thinks that the genuine prophecies of Jeremiah are wholly poetical, the prose parts being interpolations. But the prophet is not merely or primarily a poet, though it cannot be doubted that a very large proportion of the prophecies of the Old Testament are poetical in form and substance.

(c) Philosophical Poetry:

This expression is intended to include such poetry as is found in the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament and the Apocrypha (see WISDOM LITERATURE). The so-called didactic poetry, that of the proverbs or parables (mashal), also comes in here.

(d) Lyrical Poetry:

This includes the hymns of the Psalter, the love songs of Canticles and the many other lyrics found in the historical and prophetical writings. In these lyrics all the emotions of the human soul are expressed.

Does the Old Testament contain specimens of epic and dramatic poetry? The answer must depend on which definition of both is adopted.

(a) Epic Poetry:

The present writer would define an epic poem as a novel with its plot and development charged, however, with the passion and set out in the rhythmic form of poetry. There is no part of the Old Testament which meets the requirements of this definition, certainly not the Creation, Fall and Deluge stories, which De Wette (Beitrage, 228 ff, Einleitung, 147) and R.G. Moulton (Literary Study of the Bible, chapter ix) point to as true epics, and which Ewald (Dichter des alten Bundes, I, 87 ff) held rightly to have in them the stuff of epics, though not the form.

(b) Dramatic Poetry:

Defining dramatic poetry as that which can be acted on a stage, one may with confidence say that there is no example of this in the Old Testament. Even the literary drama must have the general characteristics of that which is actable. Franz Delitzsch and other writers have pointed to Job and Canticles as dramatic poems, but the definition adopted above excludes both.

IV. Poetical Writings of the Old Testament.

1. The Poetical Books in the Narrow Sense:

According to the Massoretes or editors of our present Hebrew Bible, there are but three poetical books in the Old Testament, Job, Proverbs, and Psalms, known in Jewish circles by the mnemonic abbreviation 'emeth, the three consonants forming the initial letters of the Hebrew names of the above books. These three books have been supplied by the Massoretes with a special system of accents known as the poetical accents, and involving a method of intoning in the synagogue different from that followed when the prose books are read. But these accentual marks cannot be traced farther back than the 7th or 8th century of our era.

2. Customary Division of the Poetical Books:

It is customary to divide the poetical books of the Old Testament into two classes, each containing three books: (1) those containing lyrical poetry (shir , or shirah), i.e. Psalms, Canticles, Lamentations; (2) those containing for the most part didactic poetry (mashal), i.e. Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes.

3. Poetry in Non-poetical Books:

There is a large amount of poetry in the Old Testament outside the books usually classed as poetical: (a) poetry in the prophetical books (see above,III , 2); (b) poetry in the historical books including the Pentateuch (see Michael Heilprin, The Historical Poetry of the Hebrews, 2 volumes, 1879-80). We have examples in Ge 4:23 f; Ge 49:1-33; Ex 15:1-27; Nu 21:14 f,Nu 27:1-23-Nu 30:1-16 (JE); Nu 23:1-30 f (Balaam's songs); De 32:1-52 f (song and blessing of Moses); Jos 10:12-14 (JE); Jg 5:1-31 (Deborah's Song); Jg 9:8-15; 1Sa 2:1-10; 2Sa 1:1-27; 3:33 f; 2Sa 23:1-39 (= Ps 18:1-50), etc.


The most important books and articles on the subject have been mentioned during the course of the foregoing article. There is a full list of works dealing with Hebrew meter in W.H. Cobb, Criticism o.f Systems of Hebrew Metre, 19 ff. The first edition of Ewald's still valuable "Essay on Hebrew Poetry" prefixed to his commentary on the Psalms was published in English in the Journal of Sacred Literature (1848), 74 ff, 295 ff. In 1909 J.W. Rothstein issued a suggestive treatise on Hebrew rhythm (Grundzuge des heb. Rhythmus .... nebst lyrischen Texten mit kritischem Kommentar, 8vo plus vi plus 398), reviewed by the present writer in Review of Theology and Philosophy (Edinburgh), October, 1911. Early Religious Poetry of the Hebrews by E.G. King (Cambridge University Press) contains a good, brief, popular statement of the subject, though it makes no pretense to originality. In The Poets of the Old Testament, 1912, Professor A.R. Gordon gives an excellent popular account of the poetry and poetical literature of the Old Testament.

T. Witton Davies

Bible Verses by Topic Nave's Bible Concordance McClintock and Strong Biblical Cyclopedia Online Bible KJV Dictionary

Scripture reference tagging and popups powered by VerseClick™.