The Conventions of Biblical Poetry

A brief introduction to the devices and characteristics of in this biblical genre.

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   For (1) you smote (2) all my foes (3)  the cheek,

   (3)The teeth (2) the wicked (1) you smashed (Psalms 3:8).

   Awake, awake, O Deborah;

   Awake, awake, lead (dabri) a song! (Judges 5:12)

Other Poetic Devices

Like poetry in other traditions, biblical poetry employs techniques for conveying meaning beyond the literal sense of the words, putting across the poem's message more effectively, make it easier to set to music and remember, and entertaining or moving its hearer. They include:

1. Quotes, literary references, and parodies communicated by distinctive words, phrases, and patterns.

Original: What is man that You are mindful of him?

                 And of mortal man that You take note of him? (Psalms 8:5)

Parody:  What is man that You make much of him,

                 that You fix Your attention upon him?

                 You take note of him every morning,

                 Inspect him every minute.

 Will You not look away from me for a while,

 Let me be, till I swallow my spittle? Job 7:17-18)

2. Metaphors, often with a standard meaning, so interpretation requires attention to their use elsewhere. When the Shulamite describes her beloved as a tree in whose shade she wishes to dwell (Song of Songs 2:5), she is using a conventional metaphor for an overlord (Ezekiel 31). Those who dwell in the tree's shade are vassals.

3. Stanzas, whichorganize biblical poems more often than is reflected in most translations. The song about the bridegroom in Song of Songs 5:9-16 has 7 regular stanzas of four versets each.

4. Refrains, as in Isaiah 9:7-10:4, where the refrain "Yet His anger has not turned back, and His arm is outstretched still" is repeated four times, after each strophe.

5. Parallel structure of verses, stanzas, or sections of a poem. (The parallel stanzas below each include one pair of parallel versets (C,C'). The second stanza lacks one verset.)

A  Do tell me,                                                                       

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Jennifer T. Parkhurst received her Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is currently enrolled as a graduate student in the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.