The Study of Classical Hebrew Poetry: Typology and Chronology

In my previous posts I reviewed the Standard Description of Hebrew Poetry, by which scholars analyze biblical Hebrew poetry on the axes of parallelism and meter. However, it should be noted that the Standard Description is based on a corpus of classical poetry which is somewhat homogeneous, and not all biblical poetry fits this description. Further, the Standard Description was pretty much canonized by 1915, long before two important finds which revolutionized the study of the Hebrew language and literature – Ugarit in 1929 and Qumran in 1949. Not only did both of these finds provide substantial corpora of Northwest Semitic poetry, but they also came on opposite chronological poles. Ugarit represents Late Bronze Age “Canaanite” poetry probably from the 15th and 14th centuries, while the Dead Sea Scrolls come from the centuries surrounding the turn of the era. Thus some scholars have suggested a typological and chronological division of biblical Hebrew poetry into early, classical, and late periods. The early period shares much with Ugaritic, while the late poetry appears to be on a trajectory toward Qumran.

The bulk of Ugaritic poetry is of a different genre from biblical poetry, being largely epic poetry comprised of long narratives in poetic form. However, from an early point it was recognized that Ugaritic poetry was largely homogeneous with biblical poetry, especially in regard to the core of the Standard Description – Lowth’s parallelismus membrorum. The line in classical Hebrew poetry is comprised of cola, each of which is a simple and complete sentence of usually two or three members, and each of these members have a corresponding parallel in the other cola. Ugaritic poetry also uses such a device, such as the two lines from this common refrain in the Ba’al Cycle (KTU 1.1-1.2):

tḥm ṯr il abk hwt lṭpn ḥtkk
A message from Bull-El your father A word from The Benevolent your progenitor
qryy b arṣ mlḥmt št b ‘prm ddym
Remove from the earth war Place on the dust love

Further, there are certain patterns of parallelism favored in Ugaritic poetry that seem to appear in the oldest biblical poetry. For instance, Ugaritic favors repetition, especially anaphora (the repetition of the first word of a clause) or the repetition of some members of the colon with slight variation in the other members, as in climactic or staircase parallelism (See Loewenstamm, “The expanded colon in Ugaritic and Hebrew verse,” JSS 14 (1969): 176-196). For instance, KTU 1.6 Lines 21-23:

yrd ˤṯtr ˤrẓ He came down, awesome Athtar
yrd lkḥṯ aliyn bˤl he came down from the throne of Mighty Baal
wymlk arṣ il klh And ruled over all the vast(?) earth

Compare Judges 5:7:

פְרָז֛וֹן בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל חָדְל֧וּ They ceased the peasants in Israel
עַ֤ד שַׁקַּ֙מְתִּי֙ חָדֵ֑לּוּ They ceased until I arose
אֵ֖ם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵֽל דְּבוֹרָ֔ה שַׁקַּ֥מְתִּי I, Deborah, arose as a mother in Israel


The poetry from Qumran (usually represented by the Hodayot), on the other hand, is of a different sort. It lacks the typical parallelismus membrorum and tight symmetry of earlier poetry. Further, a colon is no longer a simple sentence of two or three members, instead a complete sentence may span one or more cola giving a more prose-like appearance.  John Hobbins gives an example here. Paul Hanson (Dawn of the Apocalyptic, 1979) suggested that Deutero-Isaiah was the last of the classical poets, who rely on the simple bi-colon and tri-colon as the basic poetic structure. The shift to longer units with more irregular meter is seen in Third Isaiah and the other 6th and especially 5th Century poetry.

For example, Isaiah 60:1-2 represents an in-between stage. The poetry is much closer to prose (note the use of כי), the use of parallelismus membrorum is not quite as tight, but there is still a discernible bi-colon and the use of parallelism to tie the lines together:

ק֥וּמִי א֖וֹרִי כִּ֣י בָ֣א אוֹרֵ֑ךְ Arise! Shine! For your light is come
וּכְב֥וֹד יְהוָ֖ה עָלַ֥יִךְ זָרָֽח And the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
כִּֽי־הִנֵּ֤ה הַחֹ֨שֶׁךְ֙ יְכַסֶּה־אֶ֔רֶץ For behold, the darkness will cover the earth
וַעֲרָפֶ֖ל לְאֻמִּ֑ים And thick darkness the peoples
‏וְעָלַ֙יִךְ֙ יִזְרַ֣ח יְהוָ֔ה But upon you the Lord will rise
וּכְבוֹד֖וֹ עָלַ֥יִךְ יֵרָאֶֽה And his glory will appear upon you

Next compare Is 61:1. Again, note the use of יען to specify a logical relationship between cola, the lack of tight paralleismus membrorum in the beginning, and the irregularity of the line lengths at the beginning.

ר֛וּחַ אֲדֹנָ֥י יְהוִ֖ה עָלָ֑י The spirit of the Lord is upon me
יַ֡עַן מָשַׁח֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֹתִ֜י לְבַשֵּׂ֣ר עֲנָוִ֗ים Because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor
שְׁלָחַ֙נִי֙ לַחֲבֹ֣שׁ לְנִשְׁבְּרֵי־לֵ֔ב He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted
לִקְרֹ֤א לִשְׁבוּיִם֙ דְּר֔וֹר To proclaim to the captives freedom
וְלַאֲסוּרִ֖ים פְּקַח־קֽוֹחַ And to the prisoners liberation

Thus Ugaritic and Qumran Hebrew poetry tend to form the poles by which the chronology of biblical poetry is analyzed. There seems to be a movement from the bi-colon and ti-colon tightly structured by parallelismus membrorum toward more prose like verse where parallelism is across lines and larger structures. Many scholars have suggested that this move toward longer and more complex sentences and away from repetition and tight parallelism across cola seems to reflect a move toward written composition and away from oral composition (see Cross’ essay “Towards a History of Hebrew Prosody” in From Epic to Canon, especially p 139). This movement toward written poetry also seems to be reflected in the rise of the acrostic in later biblical poetry and Qumran (See WGE Watson, Traditional Techniques in Classical Hebrew Verse, 89ff).

However, this raises the issue always encountered when dealing with typology and chronology – to what extent are these typological differences truly chronological and to what extent may they be socio-linguistic, ie reflecting different “dialects” of poetry which may have always co-existed? Does a higher register of poetry prefer more repetition and tighter parallelism?

Explore posts in the same categories: Poetic Structure

2 Comments on “The Study of Classical Hebrew Poetry: Typology and Chronology”

  1. Carl Says:

    By the way, Peter, in Judges 5, is שקמתי really 1cs, or is it archaic 2fs (esp. in light of v.12’s address to Deborah)? And where does the second חדלו belong?

    “Until you arose, O Deborah;
    Until you arose, a mother in Israel”

  2. Peter Bekins Says:

    Carl, I was working off of my Bib 519 notes, I quote, “Is it 2fs or 1cs? Probably 1cs.” So thats what I thought two years ago. Verse 9 still has a 1cs suffix so I think we are still in the first person section. Third person begins in verse 10. I think חדלו goes where I scanned it, we have a tri-colon with the anaphora in the first two elements. Where would you put it instead?

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