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Genre: Poetry October 21, 2009

Posted by TJ Friend in Genre.

Hello all. I wanted to try something new this week. I wanted to talk about the genre of poetry in the Bible, but I thought it would be good to bring in a professional. Dr. Jane Beal is a proficient writer with three books of poetry already published. She is way more qualified and knowledgeable in the area of poetry than I am, which is why I had her write this post. I also thought it would be good to bring in a different voice. I am sure you will enjoy what she has to say. I will be back again next week. Be sure to check out her sites as well.


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Poetry in general, and biblical poetry in particular, can seem like a mystery. But it is a mystery with meaning in the center waiting to be revealed. In the Middle Ages, it was popular to imagine the pursuit of truth through biblical interpretation as comparable to finding a walnut, then needing to break the shell and crack open the nut in order to discover the meat of the Word. It takes work, of course, but the reward is well worth the taste of Paradise.

About one third of the Hebrew Bible is written in verse. The New Testament, although primarily made up of gospels, epistles, and the Apocalypse, also contains verse, mostly in the form of quotations from the Old Testament. Therefore, if we want to understand the Bible, we must learn to read poetry.

Every book in the Bible contains poetic language, and many biblical books are written in verse. These two modes — of poetic language and versification — predominate in wisdom literature and biblical prophecy, so we find them in Job, the Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, and Wisdom (in the Catholic canon) as well as in the prophets, especially and famously in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, parts of Ezekiel, and the minor prophets. Since readers of faith consider these books to be inspired by the Spirit of the Living God, poetry is for us, in a very real sense, the language of God. How can we understand his language? What is poetic language?

At the simplest level, poetry is not prose. As Lee Ryken has pointed out in his book, WORDS OF DELIGHT: A LITERARY INTRODUCTION TO THE BIBLE, “Poetry differs from ordinary prose by its reliance on images and figures of speech and by its verse form” (p159). So the understanding of biblical poetry is grounded in the understanding of imagery, figurative language (metaphor, simile, personification), and verse structures (parallelism, repetition, juxtaposition) and verse forms (love lyric, lament, psalm of praise).

The opening lines from the Song of Solomon perfectly embody the richly imagistic and figurative nature of Biblical poetry:

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!
For your love is better than wine; your anointing oils are fragrant.
Your name is oil poured out;
therefore the young women love you.
Draw me after you …

The images in these verses include the kiss, the wine, the fragrant oils. To the bride, figuratively speaking, the lover’s love is better than wine (a simile), and his name is oil poured out (a metaphor). The language of these verses is expressed in parallel structures, so that complementary ideas build upon one another and are shown to relate to one another. In terms of verse form, since the bride is articulating her feelings in a personal way, referring to herself directly (“me”) and her lover directly (“you”), this is a lyric, a love lyric of extraordinary power. It is also considered to be an epithalamion, a wedding song. As readers consider these beautifully expressed, poetic lines, the theme or central message emerges: the bride’s longing for the one she loves.

Because of the nuptial imagery in the Song of Solomon, it has for thousands of years been read not only literally, as a poem about two lovers, but allegorically, as a poem signifying the relationship between God and Israel, Christ and the Church, the Lord and the soul of the one trusting in him. Indeed, all Biblical poetry resonates with a literal and a spiritual sense that alert readers will discern, especially in seeking to apply what they read to their own contemplative relationship to God and their own active service to him in the world.

Biblical poetry is rich and varied. Readers will find in it not only love lyrics, but laments, not only expressions of worship, but outcries for vengeance. That is because poetry provides the perfect mode for expressing the emotional realities of human hearts, whether the Biblical writers or their readers are standing alone before God or in community with one another.

When reading Biblical poetry in the future, you might consider the following questions:

– who is speaking to whom about what?

– what images, figurative language, and verse structures and forms are being used to evoke the theme or central message?

– how does poem affect you emotionally? how does it relate to your relationship to God? to the service he is calling you to in the world?

Reflection: Psalm 23 is the most famous poem in the Bible and perhaps the world. Read it and reflect on its imagery, figurative language, and verse structures and forms. What themes emerge as you read? How might God be speaking to you through this poem?

For additional resources, visit: literatureofthebible.wordpress.com.

Dr. Jane Beal

sanctuarypoet.net * thepoetryplace.wordpress.com



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