03 May 2010


By Timothy S. Wilkinson

Hebrew poetry is constructed on an entirely different concept than the English structure we are familiar with. In English we use repeated sounds (alliteration and rhyme) and syllabic rhythms (meter) to capture a meaning deeper than the words alone can convey. In Hebrew, poets relied upon poetic parallelism. This is the repetition of a concept in such a way that each appearance of the concept in the poem adds another layer to its meaning.

In synonymous parallelisms, the second line repeats some part of the previous line in words that elucidate it:
To Jehovah belong the earth and that which fills it,
The productive land and those dwelling in it.

Antithetic parallelism makes use of contrasting thoughts:
For evildoers themselves will be cut off,
But those hoping in Jehovah are the ones that will possess the earth.

Synthetic parallelism uses additional lines to expand on an idea:
The law of Jehovah is perfect,
bringing back the soul
The reminder of Jehovah is trustworthy,
making the inexperienced one wise.

Perhaps in a future article I will write in more detail about these and other (emblematic, stairlike, and introverted) parallelisms. I bring these up here just to illustrate how ancient Hebrew writers might approach a subject in their prose.

The prophet Samuel used this type of parallel structuring in the composition of his books to powerful effect. An example of this can be seen in the introductions of the first two kings of Israel: Saul and David.

In 1 Samuel 9:2, Saul is introduced to us as being 'handsome and tall.' Chapter 16 verses 6,7 show Samuel once again choosing the 'handsome and tall' one as king, but Jehovah tells him instead to [reject the tall, Saul-like king and] choose the small, handsome one (verse 12).

In Chapter 9 verse 21 Saul declares his unworthiness to be king. In Chapter 16 verse 11, David's humble standing is such that even his own father and brothers have not found him worthy of consideration. Nevertheless, Saul is anointed with oil in a very non-public fashion--which leads to problems with his kingship being recognized later on (10:1). David is also anointed with oil (16:13) inside his father's house--and the appointment remains secret for some time.

Immediately after Saul's anointing, he is filled with the spirit of God (10:9-12). When David is anointed, he too is filled with this spirit (vs. 14)--a spirit that leaves Saul (vs. 13).

In Chapter 10 verse 3, following his anointing Saul is sent on a short journey during which he will acquire three items: a kid of the goats, loaves of bread, and wine. Chapter 16 verse 20 shows us David traveling after his anointing, carrying a kid of the goats, loaves of bread, and wine.

Both coronation accounts end with the same triumphant note: in Chapter 11 Saul saves his people from imminent danger by defeating Nahash and the Ammonite army. In Chapter 17, David outdoes his forebear by defeating the Philistine giant, Goliath and driving their army from the field.

Samuel calls attention to these parallels to set up a sort of psychological "echo" in his readers' minds. Though we do not consciously notice the pattern, it nevertheless has a ring of familiarity. We accept David wholeheartedly as the new king--not just because Samuel tells us to, but because he has made use of the subconscious power of a mini-archetype to convince us.

No comments: