Basics of Hebrew Paralellism

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Nearly 1/3 of the bible is composed of poetic material of some sort. We have our poetic books such as Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon called the Megilloth in the Hebrew Bible. Books like Lamentations should also be considered poetical in nature. Even in Much of the prose sections of the bible such as Genesis, we find sections of poetic literature embedded in the narrative. Gen 22:17 is a great example of this in the first book of the bible:

That in blessing I will bless thee,

and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed

as the stars of the heaven,

and as the sand which is upon the sea shore;

and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies.

Because of its widespread use, it is important to understand some basics about Hebrew poetry and Hebrew parallelism. First, it is important to understand that Hebrew poetry is not so much focused on rhyme and rhythm. For the most part Hebrew poetry functions as a form of free verse. Without a thorough knowledge of Hebrew, it would be difficult to analyze the rhyme and rhythm even when it is present. Secondly, Hebrew poetry is more focused on semantic or logical connections between lines of poetry. Research into the system of Hebrew poetry has bloomed since the days the Robert Lowth in 1753 when he introduced the basics of Hebrew parallelism in his book "Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews." Lowth proposed that Hebrew poetry was primarily focused on logical connections between lines called parallelism. He categorized these types of logical relationships into three broad forms of parallelism: synonymous, antithetical, and synthetic. The Synthetic category always was a little troublesome because it basically functioned as a catch all for any thing other than synonymous and antithetical parallelism. For the purposes of this introduction, we are going to use seven types of parallelism found in the scriptures.

  1. Synonymous- the lines say the same thing worded in a different way

  2. Antithetical- the lines are contrasting

  3. Synthetic- one line intensifies and develops the previous line

  4. Staircase- a portion of one line is repeated in the next building up to the next thought

  5. Emblematic- the meaning of the first line is pictured through a metaphor or simile in the second line

  6. Chiastic- the concepts of the first line are repeated in the reverse order in the second line

  7. Janus parallelism contains a middle line or concept that acts like a pun. The line carries a double meaning that points in two different directions. The first meaning might point to the line or concept previous to it while the second meaning points to what follows. Cyrus Gordon first proposed this form of parallelism in 1978 in his comments on Song of Solomon 2:12

The flowers appear on the earth;

The time of the singing of birds is come,

And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land

The word for "singing" in this passage has a dual meaning and is defined as a "trimming (of the vine", vintage, alt. song. One meaning references the trimming which points back to line 1 as it sings of flowers appearing on the earth. The alternate meaning of a song foreshadows the next line voice of the turtle dove in the land. The words of birds are not found in the Hebrew text and are added to give the idea of singing.

For the beginner, it may be helpful to limit ourselves to the three basic forms of parallelism. Previously, working through this took a little bit of legwork before, we could begin interpretation of the text; however, logos now has built into it a Psalms Explorer and a Proverbs Explorer. The Proverbs explorer has presets that will allow you to narrow down texts that acts as the different forms of parallelism. The Psalms explorer takes this a step further and actually labels the parallel elements and if you hover over the label, it will tell you which type of the basic three types of parallelism the editors at logos think it is. I have included a screenshot below:

Putting it into practice

To glean some practical understanding of how this works, let's take a look at Psalm 44:9-10.

9 But thou hast cast off, and put us to shame; And goest not forth with our armies.

10 Thou makest us to turn back from the enemy: And they which hate us spoil for themselves.

According to logos, the relationship between the two lines of vs 9 is synonymous while the two lines of vs 10 are synthetic. At first glance it might seem as if vs 9 would be better labeled as synthetic since it seems to be building on being cast off and put to shame; however, the second line of vs 9 is actually explaining how we have been cast off and put to shame. Because God did not go out with them to fight, they have been cast off and put to shame.

Now vs 10 is labeled as synthetic which as we saw earlier basically became the general everything else category. With our modified definition of synthetic would this passage be synthetic parallelism. These phrase do in fact seem to be a true synthetic parallelism as they develop further the meaning of the two lines. You could also argue that vs 10 is actually synthetic parallelism of vs 9 altogether.

The important interpretational takeaway from the Hebrew parallelism in this passage is that God's lack of presence in not going forth with them to battle is perceived as being cast off and being put to shame not as a further development of their punishment.

Further study

If you would like to do further study, I recommend looking into how Hebrew parallelism affects grammatical units as well as semantic units. Parallelism can be seen in the syntax (sentence structure), lexical (word level), morphological (meaningful parts of a word), and phonological (sound level) of parallelism. I would recommend Interpreting Hebrew Poetry by David Petersen and Kent Harold Richards and The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism by Adele Berlin.

I have provided a workflow in logos to do some basic work in Hebrew parallelism which can be downloaded here if you are interested.