Saturday, February 1, 2014

Old Testament Hebrew Poetry, passion and meaning

I recently had a discussion with a friend after church about the meaning of Isaiah 65:17-25 and asked why he took this passage symbolically, and one of his statements was "all of the Old Testament is poetry". Now I can forgive a friend in the midst of a free flowing discussion to use generalities in the heat of the moment, after all, I have at times done this myself. Perhaps he was doing so to draw my attention to something he considered extremely important to deal with. Indeed it has been discussed in the commentaries that about half of the Old Testament is poetry, however to state that fact as many are prone to do doesn't address the point that the text has meaning and it is to some extent understood by the Jews. For the reader of the Old Testament and for the exegete, hermeneutics in relation to Hebrew poetry needs to be carefully addressed.

In this regard the book Biblical Hermeneutics by Milton Terry is extremely helpful as is the thesis by G Buchannan Gray 'Forms of Hebrew Poetry'. Hodder and Stroughton - London MCMXV.

Let me draw attention to what I consider extremely significant in the discussion about Biblical poetry.

Hebrew Poetry is not of the form of Western poetry.
What must first be stated about Hebrew poetry is that is is not of the same character as we find in the West, It does not have the distinguishing mark of word rhyme. Sadly much of Church history has lacked any in depth analysis of Hebrew Poetry. Gray is not wide of the mark when he declares there has been little agreement and little in the way of decisive conclusions regarding this subject. At least the two above authors remedy this to a large extent.
Early on, Origen pointed out that Hebrew meter was measured by the number of accented syllables. Philo likewise stated that Moses was taught rhyme, harmony and meter and yet clarification of these in regard to the Old Testament itself, was lacking. Nowhere did he refer to actual poems attributed to Moses in the Penteteuch as being metrical.
Josephus in speaking of meter at least referred to Biblical passages such as Exodus 15:2, Deut 32.
Speaking of Josephus, Gray points to how one's cultural predisposition effects how you approach a matter pointing out that Josephus was drawn to highlight meter because it was prevalent in Greek poetry, and yet he doesn't think of commenting on parallelism because that "feature" wasn't present in Greek poetry! (Gray pg 17).
This focus on meter at the expense of ignoring parallelism results in a severe crippling of the early discussions on Hebrew poetry.

Later discussions, particularly by Lowth began to rectify this. What Gray and Milton do is help us to better grasp the nature of Hebrew poetry pointing out that parallelism is the significant mark to consider. Others have acknowledged that Hebrew poetry lacks the formal rules of Greek, Arabic and English poetry so we in the West need to carefully take this into account when determining verses to be poetry and determining its corresponding meaning.

Even today Gray says
I have no new theory of Hebrew metre to set forth; and I cannot accept in all its details any theory that others have elaborated. In my judgment some understanding of the laws of Hebrew rhythm has been gained; but much still remains uncertain. and both of these facts need to be constantly borne in mind in determining the text or interpreting the contents of Hebrew poetry.
( intro pg vi )
Yet there is one other mark of Hebrew poetry that is also ignored and many preachers are yet to see the significance of it.
Milton Terry alludes to it when he says
untrammeled by metrical limitations, the Hebrew poet enjoyed a peculiar freedom, and could utter the moving sentiments of passion in a great variety of forms" Terry pg 92.

Another author makes the same point,
Authors wrote as they felt and because they felt, and their strong emotions dictated the forms their words took"
and it's this that adds to the distinction of Hebrew poetry compared to that of the West and Greek and English forms. One must understand the nature of the Hebrew to feel the impact of his form of poetry.

So reflect on this, the Hebrew author at times showed forth a passion that is reflected in the form of his writing.

Our question is does such passion make the text uninspired? No!
Does the form of Hebrew poetry that reflects the authors passion deter the meaning of the text? No
Does it mean that the authors at that point are not inspired? No! Since our Scriptures tell us that the authors of the Scriptures wrote as God moved them with the inference they wrote exactly what God wanted.

Just some reflections
In Christ

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