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Towards a (Somewhat) New Theory of Hebrew Poetry

Towards a (Somewhat) New Theory of Hebrew Poetry

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CLINES The Parallelism of Greater Precision


It is often not difficult to determine that relationship, but the point

about it is that it is not given but must be figured out by every


James Kugel was entirely right in asserting, as against a crude

popularization of Lowthian parallelism, that 'Biblical parallelism is

of one sort... or a hundred sorts; but it is not three'.54 But I believe

he is wrong to describe the 'one sort' as a matter of 'A, and what's

more, B', since that restricts the relationship of the lines to those of

emphasis, repetition, seconding, and so on. The relationships of A

and B are so diverse that only some statement such as 'A is related to

B' will serve as a valid statement about all parallelistic couplets. And

such a statement is equally valid for non-parallelistic lines. Biblical

poetry in general is overwhelmingly composed of couplets (or

triplets, extended couplets), and of such couplets we could state that

they are of one sort (A is related to B) or of a hundred, but not of

three or four or five.

Our study of the parallelism of greater precision has alerted us to

something that is true of Hebrew poetry generally. The meaning of

the couplet does not reside in A nor in B; nor is it in A + B (if they are

regarded as capable of being added like 2 + 2 or 3 + 2). It is in the

whole couplet of A and B in which A is affected by its juxtaposition

with B, and B by its juxtaposition with A. The whole is different from

the sum of its parts because the parts influence or contaminate each

other.55 A has its meaning within the couplet only in the light, or

sense, of B, and B in the light, or sense, of A. In the case of Isa 40.3,

for instance, the couplet does not mean B, even if B is more precise

than A. It means (i) prepare Yahweh's way in the sense of making

straight a highway, and it means (ii) make straight the highway as an

act of preparing a way for Yahweh, and it means both of these things


Because the relationship of the two lines within the couplet is not

predetermined, the reader is more fully engaged in the process of

interpretation, a more active participant in the construction of

meaning, than when a text presents itself in more straightforward

linear fashion. E.L. Greenstein has reminded us of Marshall

McLuhan's distinction between 'hot' and 'cool' media, 'hot' media

presenting a complete pattern of stimuli, 'cool' presenting an

incomplete pattern and therefore requiring greater processing and

hence a higher level of engagement on the reader's part.56 Such

engagement, I would suggest, is systematically demanded by the


Directions in Biblical Hebrew Poetry

nature of the Hebrew poetic couplet. The reader is constantly

involved in the delicate and tantalizing57 question of the relation of

the parts and the product of their interrelationship. That relation, as

we have seen in the study of the parallelism of greater precision, is a

dynamic one which cannot be mechanically delineated, but which

often yields itself only to patient exegetical probing, each couplet in

its own right. Any future theoretical study of such phenomena as

that discussed in the present paper will have the converging

resources of philosophical hermeneutics, current literary theory

(especially reader-response criticism and reception theory), and

psycholinguistics to draw upon.


1. A draft of the present paper was read to the Hebrew Poetry Section of

the Society for Biblical Literature at its Annual Meeting in Chicago, on

December 11, 1984. I am grateful to colleagues at that session for several

helpful comments.

2. This paper was in proof when there came into my hands the article of

A. Berlin, 'Shared Rhetorical Features in Biblical and Sumerian Literature',

JANES 10 (1978), pp. 35-42. The unspecific title of her paper disguises the

fact, which I gladly acknowledge, that my initial observation was anticipated

by Dr Berlin in her discussion (pp. 35-39) of the 'particularizing' parallelism,

as she calls it. She cites a number of Sumerian examples, such as this triplet

from Dumuzi's Dream, lines 1-3:

His heart was filled with tears, he went out to the plain;

The lad—his heart was filled with tears, he went out to the plain;

Dumuzi—his heart was filled with tears, he went out to the plain.

From the Hebrew Bible, she notes Ps 29.5; 89.4; Deut 32.9 and others. It

should be pointed out, however, that she is concerned only with cases of

particularizing words and almost exclusively with cases where 'the first

member of the pair is a general term and the second is a proper, or

geographical name' (p. 37). It will be observed that the present paper extends

the area of consideration in several new directions.

3. Zech 11.1 seems to be the only other place: 'Open your doors, O

Lebanon, that the fire may devour your cedars'.

4. BDB renders 'veil', and the Hebraisches und aramdisches Lexikon zum

Alien Testament gives Flor (gauze).

5. Isa 62.10 (DPPi 111, 'the way of the people') is an evident exception,

especially as the immediate context makes clear that it is a physical road that

is envisaged, which is to be 'built up' (ftD) and 'cleared of stones' (pNO T?pD).

The phrase DS?H 7H US may indeed be modelled upon the text at present

CLINES The Parallelism of Greater Precision


under discussion. R.N. Whybray, in denying that it is a highway and

affirming that it is the ' "way" of life of devotion to Yahweh which the

inhabitants of Jerusalem must lead' fails to distinguish between the concrete

image and its metaphorical function (Isaiah 40-66 [NCB; Oliphants:

London, 1975], p. 251.

6. TXP! p»52 is indeed very improbable, but the usual emendation to PUS,

'as if among', though somewhat awkward, is satisfactory (J^D is supported

by lQIsa, LXX and Targum). The emendation recommended by BHS to P3?

"liitn, 'like a poplar of Hazor' is weak. It is doubtful moreover whether we

should identify here a TXn 'reed', separate from T2P! 'grass' (so HALAT,


7. So RSV; it must be admitted that 'in point of language this comparative

sense of the Hebrew preposition ... is quite admissible' (O.C. Whitehouse,

Isaiah XL-LXVI [CB; Edinburgh: T.C. & E.G. Jack, 1908], p. 57).

8. So e.g. B. Duhm, Das Buck Jesaja (HAT, 3/1; Gottingen: Vandenhoeck

und Ruprecht, 31914), p. 269 ('"aus dem Nichts", ohne Kern und Wesenheit');

K. Marti, Das Buch Jesaja (KHAT, 10; Tubingen: J.C.B. Mohr [Paul

Siebeck], 1900), p. 274 (partitive p).

9. Thus e.g. K. Elliger, Deuterojesaja (BKAT, 11/1; Neukirchen:

Neukirchener Verlag, 1978), p. 42.

10. So BHS and many moderns; MT JThDiQ 'foundations' can hardly be

the object of dMJ'Ofi.

11. The phrase probably means simply 'from ancient times', says Whybray

(Isaiah 40-66, p. 55). It is perhaps better to see the temporal expressions as

relating to the 'telling' rather to the 'hearing', 'knowing' or 'understanding'.

Duhm (Jesaja, pp. 271f.) argued that the tWi was the beginning of Israel's

history, and that the 'foundation of the earth' does not refer to the time of the

earth's creation but to the fact of its creation; Israel should have discerned

the existence of a creator God from the existence of the world of nature. But

it seems much more probable that a temporal reference is made in both


12. M. O'Connor finds no example of this mirror chiasm in his selected

texts (Hebrew Verse Structure [Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1980], p. 394).

W.G.E. Watson, Classical Hebrew Poetry. A Guide to its Techniques (JSOTS,

25; Sheffield: JSOT, 1984), pp. 202f. reserves the term 'mirror chiasmus' for

cases of exact repetition of terms, calling cases such as the present 'complete

chiasmus' (abc // c'b'a').

13. For the terminology, cf. A. Berlin, 'Grammatical Aspects of Biblical

Parallelism', HUCA 50 (1979), pp. 17-43.

14. It should be noted that Berlin is of course quite aware that

grammatical analysis does not permit semantic conclusions ('Grammatical

Aspects', pp. 42-43).

15. So RSV.

16. So Elliger, Deuterojesaja, p. 101; Whybray, Isaiah 40-66, pp. 55f.


Directions in Biblical Hebrew Poetry

17. Tut forth' or 'grow' are acceptable senses of rf» hi. (HALAT, p. 785b),

contra Duhm, Jesaja, p. 274; Marti, Jesaja, p. 277; R. Levy, Deutero-Isaiah

London: OUP, 1925), p. 128, who suppose a different verb FbV 'to grow' (cf.

rfty 'leaf). Similar uses are found in Jer 30.17; 33.6; Ezek 37.6.

18. Some commentators find such an allusion 'doubtful' (Whybray, Isaiah

40-66, p. 60) or even 'fanciful' (North, The Second Isaiah, p. 89).

19. So North, The Second Isaiah, p. 89.

20. HALAT, p. 755b; E. Jenni, THWAT, cols. 242-43.

21. J.L. Kugel, The Idea of Biblical Poetry (New Haven: Yale University

Press, 1981), p. 8.

22. J. Muilenburg, 'A Study in Hebrew Rhetoric: Repetition and Style',

VTS 1 (1953), pp. 97-111 (98).

23. S.E. Loewenstamm, 'The Expanded Colon in Ugaritic and Biblical

Verse', JSS 14 (1969), pp. 176-96; id., 'The Expanded Colon Reconsidered',

UF 7 (1975), pp. 261-64; Watson, Classical Hebrew Poetry, pp. 150-56.

24. Watson, Classical Hebrew Poetry, p. 151 n. 106, and pp. 152-55.

25. Cf. M. Haran, The Graded Numerical Sequence and the Phenomenon

of "Automatism" in Biblical Poetry', VTS 22 (1971), pp. 238-67 (256).

26. Prov. 6.16; 30.15b, 18, 21, 29; Job 5.19.

27. Cf. Haran, 'Graded Numerical Parallelism', p. 266; Y. Zakovitch, 'For

Three... and for Four' (Jerusalem; Makor, 1979), ch. 3 [Hebrew]. I am not

convinced by the argument of M. Weiss, 'The Pattern of Numerical

Sequence in Amos 1-2', JBL 86 (1967), pp. 416-23, that there are seven

transgressions (he argues that 'three' and 'four' are the break-up of a

stereotyped phrase).

28. For a possible exception, see Watson, Classical Hebrew Poetry, p. 144

n. 84.

29. Haran, 'Graded Numerical Parallelism', p. 253. He is followed by

Watson, Classical Hebrew Poetry, p. 148.

30. Haran, 'Graded Numerical Parallelism', pp. 243-53.

31. Haran adduces Prov 24.30; Amos 6.1; Ps 81.4 (pp. 243-47).

32. It is true that Haran also finds four examples where the automatism is

in line B (Prov 4.3; 1.8 [similarly 6.20]; 23.22).

33. Haran, p. 244.

34. Haran, p. 247.

35. The language, as Kugel reminds us, goes back to Theodore of

Mopsuestia (using the term 8iaipeai<;, 'dividing in two'; the corresponding

term in Latin rhetoric was distributio (Idea of Biblical Poetry, pp. 40-42,


36. Some would speak of this as the break-up of the stereotyped phrase

'father-mother'. On the principle, see E.Z. Melamed, 'Break-up of Stereotype

Phrases as an Artistic Device in Biblical Poetry', Scripta Hierosolymitana 8

(1961), pp. 115-53; G. Braulik, 'Aufbrechen von gepragten Wortverbindungen

CLINES The Parallelism of Greater Precision


und Zusammenfassen von stereotypen Ausdriicken in der alttestamentlichen

Kunstprosa', Semitics 1 (1970), pp. 7-11; Watson, Classical Hebrew Poetry,

pp. 328-32. C.F. Whitley has, however, urged some important objections

against both the concept and the detailed exemplifications of the break-up of

stereotype phrases ('Some Aspects of Hebrew Poetic Diction', UP 7 [1975],

pp. 493-502 [493-99]). It would indeed be better if we could avoid thinking of

an 'ideal' or 'original' or 'simple' thought being 'broken-up' or 'distributed'

into separate lines. Yet lines A and B are not separate and independent, but

yield their meaning up only as a differentiated unity.

37. A much less clear-cut example (more difficult because of the rarity of

its words) adduced by Haran may be discussed by way of illustrating that

Haran's theory is less than persuasive. Judg 5.25 has

runj 2"?n ^KV D'D

PlNDn ronprt tiT-iN 'jaDa

Water he asked, and she gave milk;

in a lordly bowl she presented curds.

Curds, says Haran (p. 250), are only mentioned for the sake of the

parallelism (as in Gen 18.8 and Deut 32.14; but, unlike here, in both places

nNCsn 'curds' is the A-word). Milk is what she gave him, as the prose

narrative says (4.19), and that in a 'bowl' C?BD), elsewhere a vessel for liquids

(6.38). HNDn, by contrast, is something one eats (2 Sam. 17.29; Isa 7.15,22);

it is not a drink. Against these arguments we can assert: nothing is said in the

poem (which is all that counts for this purpose) of drinking; a vessel which,

in the one other place where the term is used, could be filled with the water

wrung from a fleece (6.38) does not thereby become reserved exclusively for

liquids. Prov 30.33 makes clear that nNDPl is a rmtk-product, which is to say

that it is a specific kind of milk. Is this not more probably a case of the

parallelism of greater precision?

38. Watson, Classical Hebrew Poetry, p. 344.

39. M. O'Connor is perhaps extreme in asserting that the principle that all

lines tend to be the same length is 'so far from being true that it is useless'

(Hebrew Verse Structure [Winona Lake, Eisenbrauns, 1980], p. 136). Cf. also

Kugel, Idea of Biblical Poetry, pp. 45-48, who however is ready to speak of a

general balance of poetic lines (p. 71).

40. G.B. Gray, The Forms of Hebrew Poetry (London: Hodder and

Stoughton, 1915), pp. 76-83, 94; his term was 'incomplete parallelism with


41. R. Austerlitz, Ob-Ugric Metrics (Folklore Fellows Communications,

174/8; Helsinki, 1958), pp. 64f, 101. This work is known to me only from

Watson, Classical Hebrew Poetry, pp. 344, 348.

42. O'Connor, Hebrew Verse Structure, pp. 123-29.

43. O'Connor, Hebrew Verse Structure, p. 113.

44. A. Berlin, 'Parallel Word-Pairs: A Linguistic Explanation', UgaritForschungen 15 (1983), pp. 7-16.

45. Cf. e.g. R.G. Boling,' "Synonymous" Parallelism in the Psalms', JSS 5


Directions in Biblical Hebrew Poetry

(1960), pp. 221-55 (223f.); Watson, Classical Hebrew Poetry, p. 129.

46. Cf. Berlin (see note 42 above). The conceptualization she employs is

not free from difficulties; see, briefly, S.A. Geller, Parallelism in Early

Biblical Poetry (HSM, 20; Missoula: Scholars Press, 1979), pp. 32ff.

47. So Watson, Classical Hebrew Poetry, pp. 131f.

48. Berlin, 'Parallel Word-Pairs', p. 8.

49. O'Connor, Hebrew Verse Structure, pp. 96f.

50. W.M. Walters, Formula Criticism and the Poetry of the Old Testament

(BZAW, 138; Berlin: de Gruyter, 1976); see, for example, pp. 102f.

51. See P.D. Miller, 'Synonymous-Sequential Parallelism in the Psalms',

Bib 61 (1980), pp. 256-60.

52. The frequently encountered statement that parallelism is 'characteristic'

of Hebrew poetry (e.g. Watson, Classical Hebrew Poetry, p. 114) must be

taken to mean that it is not universally found (cf. Watson, p. 12).

53. The remarks of P.A. Boodberg on parallelistic couplets in Chinese

poetry may be aptly cited: the function of the second line of a couplet is, he

argues, 'to give us the clue for the construction of the first'; 'parallelism is not

merely a stylistic device of formularistic syntactical duplication; it is

intended to achieve a result reminiscent of binocular vision, the superimposition of two syntactical images in order to endow them with solidity

and depth, the repetition of the pattern having the effect of binding together

syntagms that appear at first rather loosely aligned' ('On crypto-parallelism

in Chinese poetry' and 'Syntactical metaplasia in stereoscopic parallelism',

Cedulesfrom a Berkeley Workshop in Asiatic Philology, nos. 001-540701 and

017-541210 [Berkeley, 1954-55] [cited by R. Jakobson, 'Grammatical

Parallelism and its Russian Facet', Language 42 (1966), pp. 399-429


54. Kugel, The Idea of Biblical Poetry, p. 58.

55. Cf. the sentence of Menahem b. Saruch (AD 960), 'One half of the line

teaches about the other' (cited by Walters, Formula Criticism, p. 92).

56. E.L. Greenstein, 'How Does Parallelism Mean?', in S.A. Geller, E.L.

Greenslein and A. Berlin, A Sense of Text. The Art of Language in the Study

of Biblical Literature (A Jewish Quarterly Review Supplemenl; Winona

Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1982), pp. 41-70 (54).

57. I am reminded of D.S. Brewer's remark a propos of ihe opening of

Chaucer's Parlement of Foulys lhal the rhetorical devices are so deployed

that the reader's mind is 'led forward by a combination of information and

mild mystification, which arouses both expectation ilself and pleasure in ils

ingenuity' (The Parlement of Foulys, ed. D.S. Brewer [Manchester: Manchester

University Press, 1972], p. 49).



Isaiah 41.21-42.17

Jerome T. Walsh


For the first half of this century, critical study of Isa 40-55

subscribed, almost without exception, to the view that the prophecy

of Second Isaiah comprised a large number of short, independent

literary units. Before 1950, very few contested this opinion.1 Since

1950, on the other hand, a growing number of scholars have sought

to identify larger literary units composed of materials thought by

earlier commentators to be independent. Y. Kaufmann, J. Muilenburg,

and M. Haran are among the first contemporary scholars to propose

such readings. Haran, in turn, was the first to identify 41.21-42.17 as

a single literary unit, using as his criterion a series of 'components'

(defined as ideas and images, themes and motifs) that constitute the

basic pattern followed by Second Isaiah in chs. 40-48. The same unit

is identified by P. Bonnard on the basis of continuity of ideas and

verbal correspondences. Most recently, J. Goldingay has added a

contextual argument by showing the formal parallels between 41.120 and 41.21-42.17.2

The purpose of this essay is to investigate the stylistic and logical

structure of this putative literary unity. A translation of the text will

be followed by a close reading. Each of the unit's three sections

shows a tight, careful symmetry, as does the passage as a whole. The

logical coherence of the entire unit is revealed when it is read as the

case for the prosecution in a trial scene. Yahweh challenges the claim

of other gods to divinity; sets forth a clear, step-by-step procedure by

which such claims can be demonstrated; and follows the procedure

to prove his own claim to divinity.


Directions in Biblical Hebrew Poetry

1. Text

1. Transliteration



qdrebu ribekem

yo'mar yhwh

haggisu 'd$umdtekem

yo'mar melek ya'dqob


yaggisu weyaggidu Idnu

'et 'dser tiqrend

hdri'sonot ma henna haggfdu

wendsimd libbenu

wenede'd 'ahdritdn

'6 habbd'ot hasmi'unu

haggfdu hd'otiyot le'dhor

wenede'd ki 'elohim 'attem

'ap-tefibu wetdre'u

wenistd'd wenir'eyahddw

hen-'attem me'ayin

upo'olkem *

to'ebdyibhar bdkem





ha'iroti m&dpon wayya't

mimmizrah-Semes bismi

weydbo' segdnim kemo-hdmer

ukemo yo$er yirmos-fif


mi higgid mero's wenedd'd

umillepdnim weno'mar $addiq

'ap 'en maggid 'ap 'en masmfa'

'ap 'en-somea' 'imrekem

rt'son letfyon < .. >

welirusdlaim mebasser 'etten

we'ere' we'en 'is

ume'elleh we'en yo'e?

we'es'alem weydsibu ddbdr




hen kulldm <'ayin>

'epes ma'aiehem

ruah watohu niskehem

WALSH The Case for the Prosecution, Isa 41.21-42.17






hen 'abdi 'etmok-bd

behiri rdsetd napsi

ndtatti ruhi 'dldyw

mispdf laggoyim yds?

Id' yif'aq weld' yissd'

weld'-yasmfa' bahtis gold

qdneh rd$ii? Id' yisbor

upistd kehd Id' yekabbennd

le'emet yo?i' mispdf

Id'yikheh weld'

'ad-ydstm bd'dre? mispdf

uletordto 'fytrn yeyahelu


kdh-'dmar hd 'el yhwh

bore' hassdmayim wendfehem

rdqa' hd'dre? we?e'e§d'ehd

ndten nesdmd la'dm 'dlehd

weruah lahdlekim bdh






qerd'tikd be?edeq

we'ahzeq beyddekd

we"e$?orkd we'ettenkd

librit 'dm le'or gdyim

lipqdah 'enayim 'iwrdt

lehd?t' mimmasger 'assir

mibbet kele' ydsbe hdSek

'dniyhwh hu' semi

ukebodi le'aher Id'-'etten

utehilldti lappesilim




hdri'sdnot hinneh-bd'u

wahdddsot 'dm maggid

beterem ti?mahnd 'asm? 'etkem

siru layhwh sir hddds

tehilldto miqseh hd'dre?



Directions in Biblical Hebrew Poetry



yorede hayydm umelo'd

'iyim weyosebehem

yis'u midbdr we'drdyw

hdserim teseb qeddr

ydronnu ydsebe sela'

mero's hdrim yi§wdhu

ydsimu layhwh kdbod

utehilldto bd'iyim yaggidu


13. yhwh kaggibbor yese'

ke'is milhdmot yd'fr qin'd

ydria' 'ap-yasriah

'al-'oyebdyw yitgabbdr




heheseti me'61dm

'ahdris 'et'appdq

kayyoledd 'ep'eh

'essom we'es'ap ydhad

'ahdrib hdrim ugebd'ot

wekol-'esbdm 'obis

wesamti neharot Id'iyim

wa'dgammim 'obis

weholakti 'iwrim bederek Id'yddd'u

bintibot lo'-ydde'u 'adrikem

'dstm mahsdk lipnehem Id'or

uma'dqassim lemisor

'elleh haddebdrim

'dsitim weld' 'dzabtim


ndsdgu 'dhor

yebosu boset

habbotehim bappdsel

hd'omerim lemassekd

'attem 'elohenu

2. Translation



Bring near your lawsuit

Says Yahweh.

WALSH The Case for the Prosecution, Isa 41.21-42.17

Bring close your arguments

Says the king of Jacob.




Let them bring (it) close and tell us

Whatever will occur.

The first things—tell us what they were

That we might consider them

And that we might know their aftermath.

Or the coming things, make us hear them.

Tell us the things arriving later

That we might know that you are gods.

In fact, do anything—good or bad!

That we might see (it) and revere (you).

Look! You are less than nothing

And your doing is !

An abomination is he who chooses you!



I aroused (one) from the north, and he arrived.

From the orient he is called in my name

That he might come to rulers as to mortar

And as a potter trampling his clay.


Who told it from the first that we might know

And from beforehand that we might say, 'He was right!'?

In fact, none told it; in fact, none made it heard,

In fact, none heard you say anything.

First of all, to Zion ,

And to Jerusalem I am giving a herald.

But I look, and there is none;

Among them, there is no counsellor

That I may ask them and they might respond something.




Look! They are all < no thing >!

Their work is zero!

Breath and brouhaha are their statues.



Look! My servant: I support him;

My chosen one: my heart delights.

I have placed my breath upon him—


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