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Dear visitor: Summer is here, and you may be thinking about a well-deserved vacation, family get-togethers, BBQs with neighborhood friends. More than likely, making a donation to Catholic Answers is not on your radar right now. But this is exactly the time we most need your help. The “summer slowdown” in donations is upon us, but the work of spreading the gospel and explaining and defending the Faith never takes a break. Your gift today will change lives and save souls for Christ this summer! The reward is eternal. Thank you and God bless.

Hebrew Poetry of the Old Testament

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Poetry, HEBREW, OF THE OLD TESTAMENT.—Since the Bible is divinely inspired, and thus becomes the “written word” of God, many devout souls are averse from handling it as literature. But such a view tends to lose sight of the second causes and human constituents without which, in fact, Holy Scripture has not been given to us. The Bible, as a concrete whole, is something definite in make, origin, time, and circumstances, all of which must be taken into account if we desire to reach its true meaning. It is history and it is literature; it lies open consequently to investigation under these lights, and if they are neglected misconceptions will follow. The fact that spiritual or super-natural influences have moulded phenomena does not withdraw from scientific inquiries anything which is properly amenable to them. “God speaks to man-kind”, said medieval Jewish commentators, “in the language of the children of men.” This observation, while it justifies verbal criticism, points out the way to it. Literature demands a special study; and Hebrew literature, because it is sacred, all the more, inasmuch as the outcome of misunderstandings in regard to it has ever been disaster. No one can read attentively the poorest version of the Old Testament without feeling how strong a vein of poetry runs through its pages. We need not venture on a definition of what poetry means; it is a peculiar form of imagination and expression which bears witness to itself. Verse has been called by Ernest Hello, “that rare splendor, born of music and the word”; now assuredly in writings such as many of the Psalms, in the Prophets, the Book of Job, and Proverbs we recognize its presence. On the other hand, from the great collection of documents which we term Chronicles (Paralipomena), Ezra, and Nehemias, this quality is almost entirely absent; matter and style announce that we are dealing with prose. We open the Hebrew Bible, and we find our judgment confirmed by the editors of the Massora—the received and vocalized text. Conspicuously, where the title indicates “songs” (shirim, Ex., xv, 1; Num., xxi, 17), the lines are parted into verse; for instance, Deut., xxxii, Judges, v, II Kings, xxii. But more. As Gins-burg tells us, “In the best M.S.S. the lines are poetically divided and arranged in hemistichs” throughout the Psalter, Proverbs, and Job. And this was enjoined by the Synagogue. Yet again, the punctuation by the period (so ph pasuk), which marks a complete statement, coincides with a rhythmical pause in nearly all such passages, demonstrating that the ancient redactors between 200 and 600 A.D. agreed as to sense and sound with the moderns who take the same citations for poetry. So emphatic indeed is this impression that, however we print either text or rendering, the disjecta membra poets$ will be always visible. Hebrew forms of verse have been much disputed over; but the combination of a lively picturesque meaning with a definite measure is beyond denial in the places alleged. Such are the “Songs of Sion” (Ps. cxxxvii, 3). This was known and felt from the earliest times. Josephus describes the Hebrew poets as writing in “hexameter” (Antiq., II, xvi); St. Jerome speaks of their “hexameters and pentameters”; while in his own translations he has constantly succeeded in a happy rhythm, not, however, giving verse for verse. He is markedly solemn and musical in the Latin of the Book of Job. The English A. V. abounds in magnificent effects of a similar kind. Given, in short, the original structure, it would be almost impossible not in some degree to reproduce it, even in our Western versions.

But on what system was the poetry of the Old Testament composed? Rabbi Kimchi and Eben Ezra had caught sight of an arrangement which they termed kaful, or doubling of enunciation. But to bring this out as a principle was reserved for Bishop R. Lowth, whose lectures “De sacra poesi Hebraeorum” (1741 begun, finally published 1753) became the starting point of all subsequent inquiries. In his Preface to Isaiah (1778, German 1779) he gave fresh illustrations, which led on to Herder‘s more philosophical handling of the subject (1782-3). Lowth convinced scholars that Hebrew verse moved on the scheme of parallelism, statement revolving upon statement, by antiphon or return, generally in double members, one of which repeated the other with variations of words or some deflection of meaning. Equal measures, more or less identical sense, these were its component parts. Degrees in likeness, and the contrast which attends on likeness, gave rise, said Lowth, to synonymous, antithetic, or synthetic arrangement of members. Modern research inclines to take the mashal or similitude as a primitive norm for Hebrew verse in general; and Prov., x, is quoted by way of showing the three varieties indicated by Lowth. Evidently, given a double measure, it admits of combinations ever more subtle and involved. We will speak of other developments later. But the prevailing forms were exhibited in Lowth’s “Praelections”. Recent comparisons of this device with similar structures in Babylonian, Assyrian and Egyptian poetical remains discover its extreme antiquity (see for the first Schrader; for Egypt, W. Max Muller, 1899; and on the whole, C. A. Briggs, “Gen. Introd. to H. Script.”, 1899). It might seem fanciful to call the type from which parallelism originates “echo-music”, yet nothing is more likely than that the earliest rhythm was a kind of echo, whereby the object of expression became fixed and emphasized. See the remarkable instances in Deborah’s chant (Judges, v, 26-30) etc. Here we must observe how the logic of feeling, as distinguished from the logic of reasoning, controls the poet’s mind. That mind, until a late period, was not individual, but collective; it was the organ of a tribe, a public worship, a national belief; hence, it could shape its ideas only into concrete forms, real yet symbolical; it expressed emotions, not abstractions, and it was altogether concerned with persons, human or superhuman. Poetry, thus inspired, glances to and fro, is guided by changing moods, darts upon living objects, and describes them from its own center. It is essentially subjective, and a lyrical outcry. It does not argue; it pleads, blames, praises, breaks into cursing or blessing, and is most effective when most excited. To such a temperament repetition becomes a potent weapon, a divine or deadly rhetoric of which the keynote is passion. Its tense is either the present (including the future perceived as though here and now), or a moving past seen while it moves.

Passion and vision—let us take these to be the motive and the method of all such primitive poetry. We may compare II Kings, xxiii, 2, David’s last words, “The sweet Psalmist of Israel, said `The spirit of the Lord spake by me, and His word was on my tongue’; or Ps. xliv, 2, “My heart bursts out with a goodly matter, my tongue is the pen of a ready writer”; or Job, xxxii, 18, “I am full of words, the spirit within constraineth me”; but especially Num., xxiv, 4, “He hath said, the man who heard the words of God, who saw the vision of the Almighty, falling into a trance, but having his eyes open”. These declarations lead up to impassioned metrical utterances, while they betoken the close relation which unites Hebrew poetry with prophecy. Both alike are a pouring forth of feelings too violent to be held in, aroused by contemplation not of the abstract or the general, but of persons and events, in their living power. To this belongs the idea of recurrence. Curtius observes acutely, “The gradual realization and repetition of an action are regarded by language as nearly akin.” (Elucidations, 143, quoted by Driver, “Treatise on the Use of Tenses in Hebrew”, xv.) The whole being moves as the object impresses it; speech, music, dancing, gesture leap out, as it were, to meet the friend or enemy who draws nigh. The Semites term their religious festivals a “hag”, i.e. a dance (Ex., xii, 14; xxxii, 5, 19; Deut., xvi, 10, 12; and frequently), of which the reminiscence is vividly shown in the whirling motion and repeated acclamations practiced by dervishes among Mohammedans to this day. We may thus connect the lyrical drama out of which in due course the Hebrews developed their temple-liturgy and the Psalms, with Greek dithyrambs, the chorus of the Athenian stage, and the anapaestic strophes danced thereon to a lively musical accompaniment. When past or future is caught up after this manner, made present as though seen, and flung into a series of actions, the singer prophesies. For what else is prophecy than the vision of things absent in space or time, or hidden from common eyes? The state of mind corresponding is “trance” (“deep sleep”, Gen., xv, 12; Job, iv, 13; Ezech., viii, 1). The literary form, then, in which primitive religion and law, custom and public life, were embodied, implies a poetic heightening of the ordinary mood, with effects in speech that may fall at length under deliberate rules; but as rules multiply, the spirit either evaporates or is diffused pretty equally over an eloquent prose. That all human language was once poetical appears everywhere probable from researches into folk-lore. That repetition of phrase, epithet, sentiment came earlier than more elaborate metres cannot well be denied. That religion should cleave to ancient forms while policy, law, and social intercourse move down into the “cool element of prose”, we understand with-out difficulty. Why the mediating style belongs to the historian we can also perceive; and how the “epic of gods” is transformed by slow steps into the chronicle and the reasoned narrative.

It does not seem, indeed, that the Israelites ever possessed a true epic poetry, although their kinsfolk, the Babylonians, have left us well-known specimens, e.g., in the Gilgamesh tablets. But this extensive form of Assyrian legend has not been imitated in the Old Testament. G. d’Eichthal, a Catholic, first undertook in his “Texte prim. du premier recit de la Creation” (1875) to show that Genesis, i, was a poem. The same contention was urged by Bishop Clifford (“Dublin Review”, 1882). and C. A. Briggs ventures on resolving this narrative into a five-tone measure. Of late, other critics would perceive in the song of Lamech, in the story of the flood and of Babel, fragments of lost heroic poems. It is common knowledge that the so-called “creation-epic” of Assurbanipal is written in four-line stanzas with a caesura to each line. But of this no feature seems really discernible in the Hebrew Genesis (consult Gunkel, “Genesis“, and “Schopfung and Chaos”). There is no distinct metre except an occasional couplet or quatrain in Gen., i-x. But Ps. civ, on the wonders of God‘s works; Ps. cv, cvi, on His dealings with Israel; Job, xxxviii-xlii, on the mysteries of nature and Providence; Prov., viii, 22-32, on creative wisdom, might have been wrought by genius of a different type into the narrative we define as epical. Why did Israel choose another way? Perhaps because it sought after religion and cared hardly at all for cosmogonies. The imagination of Hebrews looked forward, not into the abysses of past time. And mythology was condemned by their belief in monotheism. Psalms are comprehended under two heads,—”Tehillim”, hymns of praise, and “Tephilloth”, hymns of prayer, arranged for chanting in the Temple-services. They do not include any very ancient folksongs; but neither can we look on them as private devotional exercises. Somewhat analogous are the historic blessings and cursings, of a very old tradition, attributed to Jacob (Gen., xlix) and Moses (Deut., xxviii, xxxii-iii). Popular poetry, not connecting itself with priestly ritual, touches life at moments of crisis and pours out its grief over death. Much of all this Holy Scripture has handed down to us. The Book of Lamentations is founded on the Kinah, the wailing chant improvised by women at funerals in a measure curiously broken, one full verse followed by one deficient, which reminded St. Jerome of the pentameter. It seems to be aboriginal among Semites (cf. Amos, v, 2; Jer., xlviii, 36; Ezech., xix, 1; Ps. xix, 8-10). Martial songs, of which Judges, v; Num., xxi; Jos., x; I Kings, xviii, are specimens, formed the lost “Book of the Wars of the Lord”. From another lost roll, the “Book of Jashar”, i.e., of the Upright or of Israel, we derive the lament of David over Saul and Jonathan, as well as in substance Solomon‘s prayer at the dedication of the Temple (II Kings, i, 3; III Kings, viii, 53). However we interpret Canticles, it is certainly around of weddingsongs and is high poetry; Ps. xlv is an epithalamium of the same character. The song of the vineyard may be added to our list (Is., v, 1). Historically, at all events, the Book of Psalms is late and supposes prophecy to have gone before it.

A second stage is attained, the nearest approach in the Hebrew Testament to philosophy, when we reach the gnomic or “wisdom” poetry. Proverbs with its two line antitheses gives us the standard, passing into larger descriptions marked by numerals and ending in the acrostic or alphabetical praise of the “valiant”, i.e., the “virtuous” woman. Job takes its place among the great meditative poems of the world like “Hamlet” or “Faust”, and is by no means of early date, as was once believed. In form it may be assigned to the same type as Prov., i-x; but it rises almost to the level of drama with its contrasted speakers and the interposition of Jahweh, which serves to it as a denouement. Notwithstanding its often corrupt text and changes consequent on reediting at later times, it remains unquestionably the highest achievement of inspired Hebrew verse. Ecclesiastes, with its mingled irony and sadness, falls into a purely didactic style; it has traces of an imperfect lyrical mood, but belongs to the prose of reflection quite as much as Seneca or Marcus Aurelius. The Hebrew text of Ben Sira, thus far recovered, is of a loftier kind, or even a prelude to the New Testament. As regards the Prophets, we can scarcely doubt that oracles were uttered in verse at Shiloh and other ancient shrines, just as at Delphi; or that inspired men and women threw their announcements commonly into that shape for repetition by their disciples, to whom they came as the “word of the Lord”. To prophesy was to sing accompanied by an instrument (IV Kings, iii, 15). The prophetic records, as we now have them, were made up from comparatively brief poems, declaring the mind of Jahweh in messages, “burdens”, to those whom the seer admonished. In Amos, Osee, Micheas, Isaias, the original chants may still be separated and the process of joining them together is comparatively slight. Prophecy at first was preaching; but as it became literature its forms passed out of verse (which it always handled somewhat freely) into prose. The Book of Ezechiel, though abounding in symbol and imagery, cannot be deemed a poem. Yet from the nature of their mission the Prophets appealed to that in man’s composition which transcends the finite, and their works constantly lift us to the regions of poetic idealism, however fluctuating the style between a strict or a looser measure of time. Divine oracles given as such fall into verse; expanded or commented on, they flow over into a less regular movement and become a sort of rhythmical prose. Our Latin and English translations often render this effect admirably; but attentive readers will note in the English A. V. many unconscious blank verses, sometimes the five foot iambic, and occasionally classic hexameters, e.g., “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!” (Is., xiv, 12). There is likewise in Hebrew a recognized poetical vocabulary, though some critics deny it, and the grammar keeps a few archaic forms. We can distinguish popular unwritten prophecy as lasting from unknown periods down to Amos. From Amos to Esdras the prophets all write, still under poetic influences, but their singing has declined into a metaphor. The rhapsodists (moshelim) give place more and more to the rabbim. We hear the last echoes of Hebrew sacred poetry in St. Luke’s Gospel; for the “Benedictus“, the “Magnificat“, the “Nunc Dimittis“, though in Greek, are songs of Israel, moulded on Old Testament reminiscences.

Now we come into a debatable land, where critics dispute endlessly over the essence and make of Biblical versification, beyond the lines drawn by Lowth. What metrical system does Hebrew follow? Take the single line; does it move by quantity, as Latin and Greek, or by accent, as English? If by accent, how is that managed? Should we reckon to each kind of verse a definite number of syllables, or allow an indefinite? Since no Jewish “Poetics” have been preserved from any age of the Bible, we have only the text itself upon which to set up our theories. But if we consider how many fragments of divers periods enter into this literature, and how all alike have been passed through the mill of a late uncritical recension,—we mean the Massora—can we suppose that in every case, or even in general, we enjoy so much evidence as is required for a solid judgment on this matter? Infinite conjecture is not science. One result of which we may be certain is that Hebrew verse never proceeded by quantity; in this sense it has no metre. A second is that the poetical phrase, be it long or short, is governed by tone or stress, rising and falling naturally with the speaker’s emotion. A third would grant in the more antique forms a freedom which the development of schools and the fixedness of liturgy could not but restrain as years went on. At all times, it has been well said by W. Max Muller, “the lost melody was the main thing”; but how little we do know of Hebrew music? Under these complicated difficulties to fix a scale for the lines of verse, beyond the rhythm of passionate utterance, can scarcely be attempted with success.

G. Bickell, from 1879 onwards, undertook in many volumes to reduce the anarchy of Old Testament scansion by applying to it the rules of Syriac, chiefly as found in St. Ephrem. He made the penultimate tonic for syllables, counted them regularly, and held all lines of even syllables to be trochaic, of uneven iambic. On such a Procrustean bed the text was tortured into uniformity, not without ever so many changes in word and sense, while the traditional readings were swept aside though supported by the versions (see his “Metrices biblicae regulae exemplis illustratae”, 1879, “Carmina Vet. Test. metrice”, 1882; Job, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs). This dealing, at once arbitrary and fanciful, leaves us with so uncertain a text that our problem is utterly transformed, and the outcome is scepticism. Yet Bickell has indicated the true poetic measure by his theory of main accents, such as travellers note in the modern songs of Palestine. Julius Ley constructs a system on the tone-syllable which, preceded by unaccented syllables and followed by one that has “a dying fall”, constitutes the metre. His unit is the verse formed by parallel lines; he admits the caesura; with regard to text and vocalization he is conservative (“Grundziige d. Rhythmus, d. Vera. u. Strophenbau in d. hebr. Poesie”, 1875; “Leitfaden d. Metrik Der heb. Poesie”, 1887). A third writer, Grimme, while not discarding the received vowel-signs, gives them a new value, and combines quantity with accent. Probably, our conclusion should be that none of these ingenious theories will explain all the facts; and that we had better let the text alone, marking only where it seems to be corrupt.

Another amusement of Hebrew scholars has been the discovery and delimitation of” strophes” (Koster, 1831), or of larger units embracing several verses. Bickell and many recent critics allow the four-line combination. Anything more is very doubtful. In Ps. xlii, and elsewhere, a sort of refrain occurs, which corresponds to the people’s answer in Catholic litanies; but this does not enter into the verse-structure itself. C. A. Briggs, who clings resolutely to the idea of complex Hebrew metre, extravagates on the subject, by taking the “whole of sense” for a rhythmical whole. We must obey the plain law of parallelism, and allow a three-line arrangement where the words themselves demand it. But much of what is now written concerning the hidden links of Old Testament poetry is like the Cabbala, perversely and needlessly wrong. The lamentation verse lends itself to strophe; and beginnings of it may well exist, provided we do not assimilate this hard and severe language to the gracious flexures which were native in Hellenic composition. There is a species of “canon” or fugue in the fifteen chants called “Songs of Ascent”—our “GradualPsalms—an ambiguous title referring perhaps to this feature as well as to the pilgrim journey they denoted. Various poems and especially the great Ps. cxviii (Hebrew cxix) are arranged alphabetically; so the Book of Lamentations; Prov. xxxi; Ecclus., li, 13-29. In Talmudic and Rabbinical writings the Psalms cxiii-cxviii (Hebrew) are taken as one composition and known as the “Hallel of Egypt“, intended to be sung on the feast of Hanukkah or of Machabees (I Mach., iv, 59). Ps. cxxxvi, Hebrew (Vulgate cxxxv) “Confitemini Domino”, is the “Great Hallel”, and Ps. cxlvi-cxlviii make up another collection of these “Alleluia” hymns. In Hebrew poetry when rhymes occur they are accidental; alliteration, assonance, word-play belong to it. We find in it everywhere vehemence of feeling, energetic and abrupt expression, sudden changes of tense, person, and figure, sometimes bordering on the grotesque from a Western point of view. It reveals a fine sense of landscape and abhors the personification familiar to Greeks, whereby things lower than man were deified. In sentiment it is by turns sublime, tender, and exceedingly bitter, full of a yearning after righteousness, which often puts on the garb of hatred and vengeance. “From Nature to God and from God to Nature” has been given by Hebrews themselves as the philosophy which underlies its manifestations. It glorifies the Lord of Israel in His counsels and His deeds. In prophecy it judges; in psalmody it prays; in lamentation it meditates on the sufferings which from of old the chosen people have undergone. Though it composes neither an epic nor a tragedy, it is the voice of a nation that has counted its heroes in every age, and that has lived through vicissitudes unequalled in pathos, in terror, in a never defeated hope. By all these elements Hebrew poetry is human; by something more mysterious, but no less real, breathed into its music from on high, it becomes divine.


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