The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism by Adele Berlin

Book #8 on my curriculum of 10 is The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism by Adele Berlin. And consider this post itself a mini-“Beginners’ Guide” to parallelism.

“Parallelism” is the basic element of biblical poetry. It plays a role something like what rhyme did for so long in English-language poetry, creating a rhythm that matches two different lines. For a quick introduction, consult “Reading Biblical Poetry,” 2097-2104 in The Jewish Study Bible, book #1 on my list. Here’s a quick example to demonstrate:

Deut 32:1

O heavens, | give ear | and let me speak;
Let the earth | hear | the sayings of my mouth.

The first line takes three words in Hebrew; the second line “matches” each one of them:
1 “Earth” matches “heavens” because they are an obvious (biblical) pair.
2 “Hear” matches “give ear” because the two verbs mean (more or less) the same thing.
3 “The sayings of my mouth” matches “let me speak” because both phrases refer to what the poet is going to say.

The “matching” effect is so strong that this phenomenon sometimes used to be called “thought-rhyme.”

We owe our English expression “a voice crying in the wilderness” to Matt 3:3, which misread Isa 40:3.

Matt 3:3

This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”
(NRSV translation)

But parallelism shows that “in the wilderness” should be inside the quotation marks:

Isa 40:3

  A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
(also NRSV)

Again, line B “matches” line A (though not in exactly the same order):
1 “In the desert” matches “in the wilderness.”
2 “Make straight” matches “prepare.”
3 “A highway” matches “the way.”
4 “Our God” matches “the LORD.”

Note that even the quotation in Matthew reads the Isaiah verse with poetic parallelism—but moving “in the wilderness” outside the quotation marks led Matthew to drop “in the desert” from line 2 of the Isaiah verse.

Berlin’s book describes the manifold ways in which this technique is used to create poetry in the Bible. She’s a good writer, but if the technical language or the Hebrew there is too much for you, you might want to have a look at James Kugel’s The Idea of Biblical Poetry. The book is about the history of how biblical poetry has been understood, but the first chapter is another description of parallelism.

I hope eventually to present some biblical poems myself; watch this space!


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