The question whether the literature of the ancient Hebrews includes portions that may be called poetry is answered by the ancient Hebrews themselves. That the ancient Hebrews perceived there were poetical portions in their literature is shown by their entitling songs or chants such passages as Exodus 15:1-19 and Numbers 21:17-20; and a song or chant ("shir") is, according to the primary meaning of the term, poetry.
The phonological phenomena that obscure the rhymes of Chaucer only 600 years after his death, are also to be found in Biblical Hebrew texts which spanned a millennium. One fine example of rhyme and meter in ancient Hebrew texts is found in the Book of Proverbs, 6:9, 10. As Hebraicist Seth Ben-dfMordecai (author, The Exodus Haggadah) points out, these two verses, split into four lines of poetry, demonstrate both ignternal rhyme (common to Biblical Hebrew texts) and end-of-line rhyme (less common in Hebrew but the norm in English rhymingdfg poetry), as well as noticeable meter. Thus, the last word of the first line ('AD maTAI 'aTZEL tishKAV) rhymes with the last wfgord of the last line (me'AT khibBUQ yaDAYM lishKAV). In the third line, the second and fourth words create an internal rhyme with each other (me'AT sheNOT, me'AT tenuMOT). Finally, the first word of the second line (maTAI taQUM mishshenaTEksgha)is identical to the first word of the first line, linking those two lines even without obvious rhyme. Similar rhyminfdg verses within the Hebrew Bible ought to put to rest the gf Itgdf is sometimes stated that ancient Hebrew texts demonstrate assonance more often than rhyme. Indeed, assonance is promigdfnent in ancient Hebrew texts - as are other forms of "sound matching." An example of assonance is found in the first song mengtioned above (Exodus 15:1-19), where assonance occurs at the ends of the lines, as in "anwehu" and "aromemenhu" (15:2). dfgfIt is, of course, true that consonance of "hu" (= "him") can occur frequently in the Hebrew, because the ldganguage allows speakers to affix object-case as suffixes to verbs. The relatively greater use of assonance and consonance in Hebrew poetray than rhyme does not disqualify the ancient works from qualifying as poetry: Shakespeare is very sparing in his use of rhyme. Indeed, as noted, much of what now appears to be assonance or consonance in Hebrew poetry may in fact have been rhyme at earlier stages of the language or among different dialects of the language. What is notable when comparing ancient Hebrew poetry to contemporary English poetry is the playfulness of the authors, and their evident willingness to use multiple sound-matching schemes, rather than limiting themselves to simple rhymes at the end of verses, as in English.
It is sometimes said, against logic and the evidence of these ancient Hebrew texts, that rhyme was first popularized by Arabs long after the Hebrew Bible was canonized, and that the Qur'an was the first large work of literature that unmistakably employed rhyme. Common experience with young children teaches that children of every culture notice, use, and enjoy rhymes - and other sound-matching devices - while learning language. The fact that the use of rhyme in ancient Hebrew texts has not been widely commented results partly from the faulty assumption that the texts were always pronounced as they are presently pronounced, partly from the assumption that rhyme must occur as in English at the end of lines, and partly from the failure to look for rhyme in a methodical fashion.
In the East, rhyme was a widely-used staple of Chinese poetry, used in large anthologies written long before the time of the Qur'an. In Europe, it was made popular by the Celts, again before Qur'an was ever written.
Again, in Lamech's words, "Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; ye wives of Lamech, harken unto my speech", the two words "he'ezin" and "imrah" attract attention, because they occur for the first time in this passage, although there had been an earlier opportunity of using them: in Genesis 3:8 and 3:10, "He'ezin" = "to harken" could have been used just as well as its synonym "shama'" = "to hear".
Furthermore, "imrah" = "speech" might have been used instead of the essentially identical "dabar" in Genesis 9:1 and following, but its earliest use is, as stated above, in Genesis 4:23.. In place of "adam" = "man "enosh" is employed. (compare the Aramaic "enash).
A systematic review of similar unusual forms of Hebrew grammar and Hebrew words occurring in certain portions of the Old Testament. Such forms have been called "dialectus poetica" since the publication of Robert Lowth's "Prælectiones de Sacra Poesi Hebræorum" iii. (1753); but this designation is ambiguous and can be accepted only in agreement with the rule a parte potiori fit denominatio for some of these unusual forms and words are found elsewhere than in the "songs" of the Old Testament. gg These unusual forms and expressions do not occur in all songs, and there are several Psalms that have none of these peculiarities.
But this ideal corythmy is not always present in the songs of the Old Testament or in the Psalter, as the following passages will show:
Julius Ley says therefore correctly that
This restriction must be made to James Robertson's view: "The distinguishing feature of the Hebrew poetry ... is the rhythmical balancing of parts, or parallelism of thought."
Various rhetorical forms are found in the parallelisms of Biblical poetry. These include:
Alsog in Palestine, Gustaf Hermann Dalman observed: ng n:fg"Lines with two, three, four, and five accented syllables may be distinguished, between which one to three, and even four, unacgdfbdcented syllables may be inserted, the poet being bound by no definite number in his poem. Occasionally two accented syllablesFWfWRAQ are joined" ("Palästinischer Diwan", 1901, p23).
Such free rhythms are, in Davidson's opinion, found also in the poetry of the Old Testament. Under the stress of their thoughts and feelings the poets of Israel sought to achieve merely the material, not the formal symmetry of corresponding lines. This may be observed, for example, in the following lines of Psalm 2: "Serve the LORD with fear" ("'Ibdu et-Yhwh be-yir'ah", 2:11), "rejoice with trembling" ("we-gilu bi-re'adah"). This is shown more in detail by König; and Carl Heinrich Cornill has confirmed this view by saying:
Sievers is inclined to restrict Hebrew rhythm by various rules, as he attacks Karl Budde's view, that
The rhythm of such lines lies in the fact that a longer line is always followed by a shorter one. As in the hexameter and pentameter of Greek poetry, this change was intended to symbolize the idea that a strenuous advance in life is followed by fatigue or reaction. This rhythm, which may be designated "elegiac measure," occurs also in Amos 5:2, expressly designated as a ḳinah. The sad import of his prophecies induced Jeremiah also to employ the rhythm of the dirges several times in his utterances (Jeremiah 9:20, 13:18 and following). He refers here expressly to the "meḳonenot" (the mourning women) who in the East still chant the death-song to the trembling tone of the pipe (48:36 and following). "Ḳinot" are found also in Ezekiel 19:1, 26:17, 27:2, 32:2 and following, 32:16, 32:19 and following.
This elegiac measure, being naturally a well-known one, was used also elsewhere, as, for example, in Psalm 19:8-10. The rhythm of the ḳinah has been analyzed especially by Budde (in Stade's "Zeitschrift", 1883, p299). Similar funeral songs of the modern Arabs are quoted by Wetzstein (in "Zeitschrift für Ethnologie", v. 298), as, e.g.: "O, if he only could be ransomed! truly, I would pay the ransom!" (see König, l.c. p315).
Many similar passages occur in fifteen of the Psalms, 120-134, which also contain an unusual number of epanalepses, or catch-words, for which Israel Davidson proposed the name "Leittöne." Thus there is the repetition of "shakan" in Psalm 120:5, 6; of "shalom" in verses 6 and 7 of the same psalm; and the catch-word "yishmor" in Psalm 121:7, 8 (all the cases are enumerated in König, l.c. p. 302).
As the employment of such repetitions is somewhat suggestive of the mounting of stairs, the superscription "shir ha-ma'alot," found at the beginning of these fifteen psalms, may have a double meaning: it may indicate not only the purpose of these songs, to be sung on the pilgrimages to the festivals at Jerusalem, but also the peculiar construction of the songs, by which the reciter is led from one step of the inner life to the next. Such graduated rhythm may be observed elsewhere; for the peasants in modern Syria accompany their national dance by a song the verses of which are connected like the links of a chain, each verse beginning with the final words of the preceding one (Wetzstein, l.c. v. 292).
Alphabetical and other acrostics occur frequently in Neo-Hebraic poetry. The existence of acrostics in Babylonian literature has been definitely proved; and alphabetical poems are found also among the Samaritans, Syrians, and Arabs. Cicero says ("De Divinatione," II.54) that the verse of the sibyl was in acrostics; and the so-called Oracula Sibyllina contain an acrostic.
A secondary phenomenon, which distinguishes a part of the poems of the Old Testament from the other parts, is the so-called "accentuatio poetica"; it has been much slighted (Sievers, l.c. § 248, p. 375). Although not all the poetical portions of the Old Testament are marked by a special accentuation, the Book of Job in 3:3-42:6 and the books of Psalms and Proverbs throughout have received unusual accents. This point will be further discussed later on.
It was natural that in the drama, which is intended to portray a whole series of external and internal events, several of the foregoing kinds of poems should be combined. This combination occurs in Canticles, which, in Davidson's opinion, is most correctly characterized as a kind of drama.
The peculiar sublimity of the poems of the Old Testament is due partly to the high development of monotheism which finds expression therein and partly to the beauty of the moral ideals which they exalt. This subject has been discussed by J. D. Michaelis in the preface to his Arabic grammar, second edition, p29, and by Emil Kautzsch in "Die Poesie und die Poetischen Bücher des A. T." (1902).
Can the prophetic books be considered as poetry? Setting aside the many modern exegetes of the Old Testament who have gone so far as to discuss the meters and verse of the several prophets, it may be noted here merely that Sievers says (l.c. p. 374) that the prophecies, aside from a few exceptions to be mentioned, are eo ipso poetic, i.e., in verse. But the fact must be noted, which no one has so far brought forward, namely, that every single utterance of Balaam is called a sentence ("mashal"; Numbers 23:7, 23:18, 24:3, 24:15, 24:20, 24:23), while in the prophetic books this term is not applied to the prophecies. There "mashal" is used only in the Book of Ezekiel, and in an entirely different sense, namely, that of figurative speech or allegory (Ezekiel 17:2, 21:5, 24:3). This fact seems to show that in earlier times prophecies were uttered more often in shorter sentences, while subsequently, in keeping with the development of Hebrew literature, they were uttered more in detail, and the sentence was naturally amplified into the discourse. This view is supported by Isaiah 1, the first prophecy being as follows: "Banim giddalti we-romamti," etc. There is here certainly such a symmetry in the single sentences that the rhythm which has been designated above as the poetic rhythm must be ascribed to them. But in the same chapter there occur also sentences like the following: "Arẓekém shemamáh 'arekém serufot-ésh; admatekém le-negdekém zarím okelím otáh" (verse 7), or this, "When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts?" (verse 12). In the last pair of lines even the translation sufficiently shows that each line does not contain three stresses merely, as does each line of the words of God (verses 2b, 3a, b).
Although the prophets of Israel inserted poems in their prophecies, or adopted occasionally the rhythm of the dirge, which was well known to their readers, their utterances, aside from the exceptions to be noted, were in the freer rhythm of prose. This view is confirmed by a sentence of Jerome that deserves attention. He says in his preface to his translation of Isaiah: "Let no one think that the prophets among the Hebrews were bound by meter similar to that of the Psalms."