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Lesson Plan: Exploring Biblical Poetry

Anne W. Stewart
Emory University

Audience: Undergraduate Introduction to Bible course


By completing this lesson, the student will:

  1. 1. Gain an introduction to the nature of poetry in the Hebrew Bible, including its common features and forms
  2. 2. Explore the diverse genres of poetry in the Hebrew Bible
  3. 3. Understand the background of common images, metaphors, and motifs
  4. 4. Consider the range of tools needed to interpret biblical poetry
  5. 5. Analyze individual poems

Guide to this lesson

As presented here, the lesson is too ambitious to be accomplished in one class period. The material could be used in one of several ways:

  1. 1. One session: Use the material in section I, including the activity with Judges 4–5. End the class period by using the discussion questions in the Conclusion below, about the nature of poetry. As a follow-up assignment, the instructor may wish to assign a project on ancient and modern poetry (see Conclusion, paragraph 2).
  2. 2. Two sessions: After doing the introductory session (above), plan a second session with the material in 2–3 of the other sections in the lesson plan (The Psalms, The Prophets, Didactic Poetry, The Song of Songs, Lamentations). Focus the second session on comparing the poetry in different biblical books (such as the Psalms and the Prophets) or in different genres of poetry (such as wisdom poetry [including wisdom psalms] and poetry of lament [including Lamentations and lament psalms]).
  3. 3. Multiple sessions: For an entire unit on biblical poetry, use the material in section I for an introductory session. Focus additional sessions on different genres of biblical poetry, selecting one or all of the genres outlined below. The instructor may wish to incorporate relevant modern poems throughout the unit (see, for example, Chapters into Verse) and/or encourage students to write reaction papers or blog entries in response to the poems studied.
  4. 4. Multiple sessions: Alternatively, the instructor may focus additional sessions on features of biblical poetry, such as figurative language (using material from the Psalms and Song of Songs), form (using material from the Psalms and Lamentations), and parallelism (using material from Proverbs and Prophetic Poetry).

This lesson could be adapted for high school, college, or seminary students. High school instructors may wish to simplify the assigned readings, abbreviate the analysis of the textual units, and focus particularly on the interface between ancient and modern poetry and music. Seminary instructors may wish to assign additional reading, include some analysis of the text in Hebrew (particularly where the translation is disputed, as noted below), and incorporate discussion of theological interpretation of certain poems (see suggestions for Further Reading).

Introduction and Overview: What is poetry? What is poetry doing in the Bible?

Background Material

Reading to assign in preparation (all available on OBSO): [The instructor should assign the combination of texts that will best suit the students' context. For an introductory high-school or undergraduate level, the first two entries provide brief overviews. For more advanced students, see Berlin's essay in the Jewish Study Bible, as well as the suggested Further Reading.]

  • "poetry," in A Dictionary of the Bible
  • Adele Berlin, "Poetry, Biblical Hebrew" in The Oxford Companion to the Bible
  • "The Characteristics of Biblical Poetry," in The New Oxford Annotated Bible
  • Adele Berlin, "Reading Biblical Poetry," in The Jewish Study Bible

  • Defining Poetry

    [The instructor may wish to solicit the students' ideas about how to define poetry. For example, supply a Shakespearian sonnet, a list, and a paragraph of prose and ask the students to discuss which they would classify as poetry and why.]

    There are innumerable ways to define poetry. Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously quipped that poetry is "the best words in the best order." Poetry is often identified visually by the blank space left on the page when the poem is printed in lines, as opposed to prose, which is usually printed in paragraph form. Much Western poetry is characterized by meter, rhyme, and lineation. Yet these are not foolproof markers. Not all poems have all of these features, and some poems do not have any of them.

    What most commonly distinguishes poetry from prose is its organization into lines. However, poetry is of course much more than its visual arrangement. Poetry is often associated with an expressive quality, conveying heightened forms of perception, experience, or emotion. This feature of poetry makes it both rewarding and challenging to study, for it often requires the reader to read slowly and repeatedly, pausing over vivid imagery, novel uses of words, or heightened modes of perception.

    Defining Poetry in the Bible

    Poetry makes up a significant portion of the Hebrew Bible, including the book of Psalms, most of the wisdom books, the Song of Songs, Lamentations, many prophetic texts, and poems set within prose accounts (e.g., Exodus 15; Judges 5). However, defining poetry in the Bible is a particularly difficult task because unlike much poetry in the Western canon, Hebrew poetry does not have a characteristic meter, nor is it always arranged visually in lines. For this reason, scholars have vigorously debated how to differentiate poetry from prose (and whether or not such a distinction is even relevant to the Hebrew Bible).

    It is helpful to recognize the features that are common to Hebrew poetry. While not every poem contains all of these features, most poems in the Hebrew Bible have a density of these features:

    Parallelism: Many scholars have pointed to parallelism as the key feature of Hebrew poetry. Parallelism is the repetition of similar syntactical patterns in adjoining lines. For example, Proverbs 12:5 contains two parallel lines that mirror one another in syntax and sound: "The thoughts of the righteous are just; the advice of the wicked is treacherous" (NRSV). In Hebrew, each line has the same number of words (3 words/line), and each word in the first line is the same part of speech and similar in sound to its corresponding term in the second line. The verse could literally be translated: "plans (maḥšĕbôt) of the righteous (ṣaddîqîm)–justice (mišpāṭ) // counsels (taḥbūlôt) of the wicked (rĕšāʿîm)–deceit (mirmâ)." Interestingly, in this saying the words that sound so similar actually convey contrasting meanings about the righteous and the wicked. These two lines thus stand in a certain tension. The syntactical parallelism functions to hold the two lines together, even as their meaning holds the two apart.

    There has been much debate among scholars about how best to describe and classify Hebrew parallelism. In the 18th century, Robert Lowth proposed that there are three kinds of Hebrew parallelism: synonymous, in which the lines mirror one another in meaning or imagery; antithetic, in which the meaning or imagery of the lines contrasts; and synthetic, in which the second line neither repeats nor contrasts the first. These categories are still commonly used today, though their deficiencies have also been noted. Not all instances of Hebrew parallelism fit within these types, and the synthetic type is especially unhelpful because it essentially contains all instances of parallelism that do not fit into the first two categories. Taking a different approach, James L. Kugel argued that biblical parallelism is characterized by the general pattern: A, and what is more, B. That is, the second clause in some way parallels, echoes, extends, or qualifies the first. For Robert Alter, the study of biblical parallelism is less about quantifying the types than identifying the dynamic movement of the poetic line. He says that in parallelism, "meaning emerges from some complicating interaction" between the lines (Alter: 164).

    Lines: Not all Hebrew poetry contains parallelism, and parallelism is not the sole feature of poetry. For this reason, other scholars have suggested that the line, not parallelism, is the key feature of Hebrew poetry (see Dobbs-Allsopp). While poetic lines are not always displayed visually in Hebrew manuscripts, the lines are evident by patterns of parallelism, rhythm, and rhyme scheme. That is, the language and syntax, not the format of the text, indicates the presence of lines. In acrostic poems, the lines are evident by the pattern of each line beginning with a different letter of the alphabet (see below, "Lamentations and the Acrostic Form"). It is important to note that when biblical poetry is arranged in lines in contemporary English translations, this reflects the editorial decisions of the translators. While these decisions are usually based on a long history of manuscript traditions and enjoy wide consensus, at times they differ among translations. Certain poems may be lineated differently or may not be rendered in lines at all.

    • For example, use the side-by-side biblical text tool to have the students compare Genesis 1:27 in the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV) and the Jewish Study Bible (TANAKH). They may wish to check other translations, as well. Note that some translations display this as poetry (in lines) and others display it as prose. Ask the students to discuss which decision they prefer and why.

    Terseness: As Coleridge said, poetry is the best words in the best order. There are no extraneous words in poetry. Similarly, Hebrew poetry is often characterized by its brevity. It lacks many of the prose particles (such as relative clause markers, conjunctions, and definite articles) and repetitive syntax of Hebrew prose. For example, compare excerpts from the prose and poetry versions of the story of Jael and Sisera in the book of Judges.

    Prose: "He [Sisera] said to her [Jael], 'Please let me have a little water because I am thirsty.' And she opened the skin of the milk, and she gave him a drink. And she covered him." (Judges 4:19)

    Poetry: "Water he asked; milk she gave. She brought curds in a grand bowl." (Judges 5:25)

    Word Play: Just as English poetry often uses rhyme or word play to link different lines, make connections between certain themes or ideas, or simply to delight the ear of the reader, so Hebrew poetry uses language to similar effect. For example, consider the rhyme between the two lines in Proverbs 12:5, discussed above: plans (maḥšĕbôt) of the righteous (ṣaddîqîm)—justice (mišpāṭ) // counsels (taḥbūlôt) of the wicked (rĕšāʿîm)—deceit (mirmâ). This saying may also use word play between the final word of each line to make an ironic point. The ways of the righteous and the wicked that are diametrically opposed sound strikingly similar. One must listen carefully to hear the difference between mišpāṭ (justice) and mirmâ (deceit).

    Figurative Language: Hebrew poetry often makes extensive use of figurative language, such as metaphor, simile, and personification. Figurative language conveys an idea or image by means of language put to another use than its common or plain sense. Similes compare two images or ideas. For example, Psalm 1 declares that the one who delights in the teaching of God is "like a tree planted by streams of water" (Psalm 1:3), while the wicked one is "like chaff that wind blows away" (Psalm 1:4). Metaphors compare two images or ideas by stating that one thing is the other thing. For example, Proverbs 11:30a describes the condition of the righteous in terms of the metaphor of flourishing plant life: "the fruit of the righteous is a tree of life," while Proverbs 10:20a states: "the tongue of the righteous is choice silver," using an image of a valuable commodity to convey the surpassing worth of righteous speech. Such comparisons between the righteous and plants or silver are at once striking for both their incongruity—a tongue is not literally money, nor is a person a plant—and their fittingness. In this sense, metaphors and similes communicate something meaningful about the image or idea, but they also have the ability to shock or startle as they connect two seemingly incompatible images, such as a righteous person and a plant. Personification is also a frequent device in biblical poetry. Proverbs 1–9, for example, develops the image of wisdom as a woman through several poems. Wisdom is described as a figure whom the student should love, embrace, and seek (e.g., Proverbs 4:8). Such figurative language functions to make meaning more imaginative and vivid. Wisdom comes to life as one who can speak, both rebuking and enticing the student. Like metaphor and simile, personification has both a certain appropriateness and an inappropriateness. Wisdom is like a woman in some ways but not in other ways. Moreover, figurative language is not simply a clever way to say what could be said otherwise. Rather, it communicates novel ways of looking at the world. It requires the reader to consider ideas in a different perspective.

    Studying Poetry in the Bible

    However one defines Hebrew poetry, a definition by itself will only go so far. There is not just one type of poetry in the Bible. For this reason, it is more useful to study particular genres of biblical poetry that share similar features, forms, or other characteristics. While genres can often be distinguished in particular divisions of biblical texts (e.g., the Prophets), genres sometimes cut across different books or sections of the canon (e.g., wisdom poetry can be found in both the Psalms and in Proverbs). This lesson will focus on several of the most prominent genres in the Hebrew Bible.

    Studying poetry in the Bible is similar to studying any other kind of poem. It requires slow, careful reading and attention to metaphor, imagery, and literary artistry. Studying biblical poetry also requires a familiarity with the imagery and conventions in which these poems were steeped. This lesson thus encourages close reading of particular poems in conversation with imagery and literary forms from the ancient Near Eastern world.

    Activity: Prose vs. Poetry in Judges 4 and 5

    Dividing the class into small groups of students, give each group the text of Judges 5:24–31. Ask the students to identify features of Hebrew poetry.

    Next ask each group to compare the prose version of the story in Judges 4:17–22 with the poem. What is different between the two versions? Do they share the same perspective on the action? Do they use the same literary tools? What does the poetry capture that the prose version does not? How does it do this?

    Among other features, the students may observe:

    1. 1. Extensive parallelism in the poetry.
    2. 2. Different perspectives on the scene between the prose and poetry versions. Where the prose proceeds by narration between the characters, the poem focuses on praise of Jael and the lyric voice of Sisera's mother. In this sense, it gives more attention to the emotion of the characters.
    3. 3. The poem embellishes more details (e.g., Jael gives Sisera "curds in a lordly bowl" [5:25] vs. simply "a skin of milk" [4:19]; the description of spoils of war by Sisera's mother uses parallelism to heighten and dramatize the image [5:30]).
    4. 4. The prose version includes certain details that are missing from the poem (e.g., the description of the alliance between Jabin and Heber [4:17] and Barak's pursuit of Sisera [4:22]).

    The Psalms: Poetry of Prayer

    The Form of Poetry in the Psalms

    Many psalms contain references to musical notations, instruments, or musical leaders, indicating that these poems may have functioned as songs. Indeed, many psalms are titled šîr, "song," and others reference singing or musical instruments. For example, Psalm 98:5-6 proclaims: "Sing to the Lord with a lyre, with a lyre and the sound of a song! With trumpets and the blast of a horn shout praise before the King, the Lord."

    The book of Psalms contains poems with particular forms. While much attention has been focused on what these forms may reveal about the original context or setting of the psalms, identifying the forms is also relevant to poetic analysis. The primary forms include hymns (e.g., Psalm 8), laments (e.g., Psalm 13), thanksgiving psalms (e.g., Psalm 150), wisdom psalms (e.g., Psalm 1) and royal psalms (e.g., Psalm 2).

    For example, the lament psalm typically has the following components in the following order: (1) address to God; (2) complaint; (3) petition; (4) confession of trust in God; and (5) vow of praise to God.

    • Using Psalm 13, ask the students to identify the components of the lament form [(1): v. 2 ("O Lord"); (2): vv. 2–3; (3): vv. 4–5; (4): v. 6a; (5): v. 6b].

    Yet poems may depart from the expected forms. Psalm 88, for example, intentionally breaks the lament form, which is a jarring and quite striking departure if one knows the typical form. This psalm ends not with a confession of trust and praise but with additional complaint!

    The Function of Poetry in the Psalms

    The psalms are prayers, usually in a first-person voice. Often, there is little historical or social context provided as to the specific circumstances of an original speaker. Yet this is part of the poetic function of the psalms. The first-person voice allows any individual who reads or sings the psalm to make the prayer his or her own. Furthermore, the form of the psalms points to another feature of poetry, more generally. It is episodic. It highlights a first-person perspective and often taps into deep emotion with expressive language. In the psalms, these features are often on full display. Individual psalms privilege discrete moments and emotions. Taken together as one collection, the psalms capture a range of emotions from exuberant joy to agonizing suffering, from jubilant praise to bitter complaint.

    Activity: Metaphor in the Psalms

    The psalms are a particularly fitting place to consider metaphor in biblical poetry, for the psalms are filled with a variety of metaphors that provide vivid imagery and novel perspectives. One of the most well-known metaphors from the psalms is the image of God as a shepherd in Psalm 23.

    Psalm 23 and Metaphor: Ask the students to read Psalm 23 and answer the following questions:

    1. 1. This poem turns on the metaphor of God as a shepherd. According to the poem, what does the image of a shepherd capture about God?
    2. 2. What about a shepherd is not fitting to what the psalmist conveys about God?
    3. 3. If the students have additional time, use OBSO to research shepherding in Israel and the ancient Near East. What was the life of a shepherd like? What other references are there to shepherds in the Bible (either metaphorical or literal)?

    The Prophets: Poetry of Judgment and Hope

    The Nature of Prophetic Poetry

    The overwhelming majority of prophetic speech is in the form of poetry. While prophetic poetry evidences features of poetry similar to other genres of poetry in the Hebrew Bible, it is often characterized, in particular, by the dynamic of speech from the divine world (either in the voice of God or the voice of God through the prophet) to the human world, and it frequently addresses a historical audience with vocative language (see Alter: 139–140). For example, the book of Amos, which begins by offering a particular time and location for the prophet's speech (Amos 1:1), contains a series of oracles that address the audience in the voice of God, as in Amos 3:1–2: "Hear this word that the Lord has spoken against you, O people of Israel, against the whole family that I brought up out of the land of Egypt: You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities."

    The Function of Prophetic Poetry

    Through its vivid imagery and language of direct address, prophetic poetry functions to influence the perceptions, emotions, and actions of the audience. For example, Isaiah 55 layers various images from the natural world and metaphors of water and wine to emphasize the theme of comfort, nourishment, and hope: "Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price" (Isaiah 55:1). Amos 5:18–24 uses images of light and darkness to inspire fear of God's judgment: "Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?" (Amos 5:20).

    Activity: Imagery and Poetry in Nahum

    Ask the students to read Nahum 3 and to discuss the following questions in small groups:

    1. 1. What event does the text describe?
    2. 2. What kinds of emotions or ideas does it invoke? How does it convey those sentiments (e.g., what kinds of images or metaphors does it use)?
    3. 3. Verses 1–3 are a series of images that are not in complete sentences. What is the function of this style? What effect does it produce?
    4. 4. Using OBSO, find images of warfare from the ancient Near East. Compare the images in the poem to the images from the website. What is similar about the images of warfare in both sources? What is different? Are there elements of warfare (or the experience of warfare) which the poetry captures that the images cannot?

    Didactic Poetry: The Poetry of Wisdom

    The Nature of Didactic Poetry

    Robert Frost said that poetry "begins in delight and ends in wisdom." Israel's wisdom literature frequently uses poetry not only to delight the senses but to instruct the audience. The book of Proverbs is comprised both of longer poems in chapters 1–9 and of small lines of poetry in the proverbial sayings. The book of Ecclesiastes contains several discrete poems (e.g., Ecclesiastes 3:1–8), and the dialogues in the book of Job are in the form of poetry. Moreover, poetry is a vital aspect in how these books communicate their wisdom. Proverbs, for example, relies upon the personification of wisdom and foolishness to portray vividly the desirability and danger of the opposing paths. The dialogues in Job make extensive use of metaphor and vivid imagery to convey the unsearchable nature of wisdom and the anguish of human suffering. Job himself, for example, compares God to an archer who assaults him, proclaiming: "For the arrows of the Almighty are in me; my spirit drinks their poison. God's terrors are arrayed against me" (Job 6:4).

    Terseness and Poetry: the Function of Proverbs

    Poetry makes a decisive difference to the didactic function of wisdom literature, which is particularly evident in the proverbial sayings of the book of Proverbs. The terse nature of proverbial sayings is not only a feature of their form, but it also serves their function of imparting wisdom and cultivating discernment in the student.

    Activity: Ambiguity in Poetic Lines—Proverbs 22:6

    1. 1. The Hebrew text of this verse can be translated literally as, "Train a child in his way, and when he is old, he will not depart from it."
    2. 2. The ambiguity of the phrase "his way" allows multiple interpretations of the verse. Ask the students to discuss what this saying means. They might mention such possibilities as:

      • Train a child in his way, that is, the way of wisdom, the way of one who is trained correctly
      • Train a child in his way, that is, according to his aptitude, according to the student's age and ability
      • Train a child in his way, that is, according to his social position or future role (e.g., a scribe)
      • Train a child in his own way, that is, the way that he (foolishly) desires

    3. 3. Compare various translations, using the tool on OBSO. How do these translations understand the meaning? Is anything lost in translation? Do they preserve the ambiguity in the verse?
    4. 4. What is the poetic function of such ambiguity? Why not make the meaning more explicit?

    The Song of Songs: The Poetry of Love

    The Song of Songs represents some of the most sublime poetry in the Hebrew Bible. Indeed, the very name of the book indicates its beauty. In Hebrew, the construction "song of songs" expresses superlative meaning. It might also be translated as "the best song." What makes this poetry so beautiful and unique is the way in which it captures the range of emotion involved in desire and erotic love. From joy to anguish, from delight to pain, from experiences of pleasure to situations of danger, the Song touches upon a range of emotions, senses, and images.

    There is a debate among scholars about whether the poems in the Song were originally independent or were written as part of a unified work. In its final form, the Song is a sequence of poems. Although there are various vignettes within the poems, the book as a whole does not proceed as a clear narrative tale across the eight chapters. Rather, a series of recurring themes and emotions frequently circle back upon each other. The poems do not narrate a past event from the perspective of an omniscient speaker. Rather, the lovers' experience of seeking after and longing for the other unfolds in the present, alternating between each of their unique voices.

    The waṣf

    One of the most important themes in the book is the praise of the beloved. This is also a common trope in Egyptian love poetry. This style of poetry is known as a waṣf, a descriptive poem or song that describes the beloved's body part-by-part.

    This style of poetry results in some metaphors that may be quite surprising to modern readers. As already discussed, for a metaphor to work well, it needs both congruence and dissonance. That is, it captures a certain aspect of the compared object, but it is not fitting in all respects. For example, in Song 4:2 the lover proclaims of his beloved: "Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes that have come up from the washing, all of which bear twins and not one among them is bereaved." This metaphor compares the color and evenness of the woman's teeth to young sheep, but of course the metaphor is limited. It does not imply that her teeth are hairy or smell like animals! This, too, is part of the function of the metaphor. The surprise or dissonance of comparing two unlike things is a provocative image. It prompts the reader to consider, in this case, an image of teeth in a new way. While teeth and sheep may be a surprising comparison, it is effective because there is a common element between the two. One would probably not say, for example, that teeth are giraffes. In that case, there is no bridge between the parts.

    Voice and Poetry

    The Song of Songs highlights the voices of both the male and female lovers. One of the most striking things about the Song is the mutuality it presents between male and female voices. For example, in Song 1:15–16, in English translation it is very difficult to determine who is speaking to whom: "Ah, you are beautiful, my love; ah, you are beautiful; your eyes are doves. Ah, you are beautiful, my beloved, truly lovely." In Hebrew, the pronoun "you" has different masculine and feminine forms, which makes clear that the lovers' voices alternate. But the English translation nicely captures the back-and-forth nature of their speech. Neither lover's voice dominates the conversation. Moreover, the poetry unfolds by the alternation of these individual voices. It is not mediated by a third-person narrator. The poetry highlights the individual voice and experience of the speaker.

    As the poetry highlights the individual voices of each lover, it functions to convey an important point about the particularity of love. The mutuality of the lovers does not imply that they are identical. Both figures desire one another with the same intensity; both seek out the other; and both send the other away. However, the two figures have unique ways of conceptualizing their experience. As J. Cheryl Exum notes, male and female have distinct personalities and different ways of viewing the beloved and describing their experience of love (see Exum: 14–17).

    Activity: The Voices of Two Lovers

    1. 1. Divide the class into groups, giving half of the groups the text of Song of Songs 4 and the other half the text of Song of Songs 2. Ask each group to answer the following questions:

      • How does the lover describe his/her beloved?
      • How does the lover describe the experience of love?
      • What emotions, senses, and images does the lover invoke?

    2. 2. As a class, compare the poems and each lover's particular voice. How do their experiences and descriptions differ?
    3. 3. The students may note:

      • The lovers have different modes of speaking about love for the other. The man describes the woman's body, part by part. But she often speaks of love through stories about the lover's approach or his absence (but see Song 5:10–16 for her description of the lover's body).
      • The lovers seem to be differently affected by love. While the woman speaks about what love does to her—it makes her sick or faint (Song 2:5; see also 5:8), the man speaks about what the woman does to him ("you have captured my heart," 4:9; see also "your eyes overwhelm me," 6.5). As Exum explains, "She is lovesick, he is awestruck" (Exum: 15).

    Lamentations: The Poetry of Grief

    The book of Lamentations contains several poems that present a gripping and emotional response to the experience of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians (587 BCE) and the exile of its inhabitants. With vivid imagery, the poems describe the aftermath of the siege, its effect on women and children, the hostility of the enemies, and the desolation of the city. Like the Song of Songs, this book is a sequence of poems. It does not tell a coherent narrative from beginning to end, but it unfolds through various first-person voices who represent different responses to exile.

    Lamentations as Poetic Sequence

    There has been some debate among scholars about whether the poems in the book were originally separate or were written as a whole by one author. On the one hand, the poems represent different perspectives on the experience of exile through different voices, which may indicate that they were originally separate poems. But on the other hand, these different perspectives do not necessarily require different authors.

    While the individual poems in the book do not form a linear narrative across the book, the sequence of the poems contributes to their meaning and effect. F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp, among others, has argued that Lamentations can be read as a lyric sequence, a form in which individual poems are organized into a larger collection (see Dobbs-Allsopp, Lamentations: 21–23). There are several ancient examples of poems collected into meaningful sequences, and this is also a technique of modern poets, such as Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass or T. S. Eliot in The Wasteland. As Dobbs-Allsopp explains, poetic sequences have both centrifugal and centripetal elements. That is, there are elements that function to bind the poems together, even as the episodicity of the individual poems resists a completely unified or continuous perspective.

    Within Lamentations, there are both thematic and formal centripetal forces. The use of the acrostic form (see below) in each poem binds the individual poems together, as does the repetition of certain themes, including grief (e.g., Lamentations 1:2), complaint (e.g., Lamentations 3:43–48), and expressions of faith (e.g., Lamentations 3:22–33). Within the book as a whole, there is not a linear progression from, for example, despair to hope. Rather, the various emotions circle back among themselves as the sequence advances.

    At the same time, the different voices, different modes of address, and multiple emotions throughout the poetry serve as centrifugal forces that produce a very fragmentary effect. Lamentations does not present a carefully reasoned argument about the cause of destruction or a narrative report of destruction like we might find in a newspaper. Instead, it offers a disjointed set of images that shift back and forth between description, accusation, and anguished prayer. The effect is disorientation. It is often hard to pick out exactly what is happening, where, and when. But the result is that the readers are just as affected by the chaos of the scene as the poet.

    Lamentations and the Acrostic Form

    An acrostic poem is one in which each stanza or line begins with a different letter of the alphabet. (For other acrostic poems in the Bible, see Psalms 9; 10; 25; 119; Proverbs 31:10–31; Nahum 1.) In Lamentations, there are several variations of the alphabetic acrostic, which proceeds through the alphabet in order from aleph to tav, the equivalent of "a" to "z" in the English alphabet. In chapters 1, 2, and 4 of Lamentations, each verse begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet in sequence. In chapter 3, the form is heightened, with each letter repeated three times. Chapter 5 does not have the acrostic form, but the poem contains twenty-two verses, which is the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. In that sense, there is still a certain continuity of form with the preceding poems, though the absence of the form may also be significant (see below).

    Within Lamentations, the acrostic form may have several different functions:

    1. 1. The acrostic is a "container" for the poetry. In the absence of narrative, the form holds the poetry together and guides the reader from beginning to end.
    2. 2. It functions to hold together the otherwise scattered and chaotic content of the poems, which is especially true of Lamentations' fragmented images.
    3. 3. The variation in form of the acrostic gives the entire collection a sense of development and dynamism. As indicated above, the form reaches its height in the middle of the book (chapter 3), and it breaks down by the end of the book, as chapter 5 is missing the alphabetic organization. In fact, the absence of the acrostic in the final chapter may be a commentary on the experience of conquest and exile: the breakdown of expected order.

    Activity: Emotion and Poetry in Lamentations

    Ask the students to read Lamentations 2 (especially vv. 1–5, 9–16) and discuss the following questions, either in small groups or as a class.

    1. 1. What does the text convey about the experience of exile?
    2. 2. What kinds of emotions, ideas, or events does it describe?
    3. 3. How does it convey those sentiments (e.g., what kinds of images or metaphors does it use)?

    If time permits, ask the students to use OBSO to research the experience of exile. What do we know, historically, about the exile? What sources are available, both in the Bible and in the form of texts and artifacts from the ancient Near East? Given the variety and diversity of such sources, what unique contributions does the poetry of Lamentations offer to understanding exile?


    What is poetry? Why does it matter? While this lesson has provided only a glimpse of the diversity and delight of poetry in the Bible, it should be evident that biblical poetry rewards close study. The forms and features of poetry often make a significant contribution to the meaning of the text and its interpretation. Hebrew poetry is beautiful literature, which is rich in imagery, emotion, and complex thought. At the conclusion of the lesson, it may be helpful to return to the beginning and discuss some of the following questions:

    1. 1. What is poetry? How does one identify poetry in the Bible? What factors influence how or whether one considers a particular text to be a poem?
    2. 2. Why does it matter? Does it make a difference for reading or interpreting the text?

    Biblical poetry can also be studied alongside modern poetry, including the music that students may listen to everyday. Ask the students to bring in a favorite poem or the lyrics to a favorite song that resonates with them differently after studying biblical poetry. Or ask the students to analyze a biblical poem alongside a modern poem. For example,

    1. 1. Psalm 121 and D. H. Lawrence, "The Hills"
    2. 2. Ecclesiastes 3:1–8 and The Byrds, "Turn! Turn! Turn!"

    Further Reading

    • Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Poetry. New York: Basic Books, 1985.
    • Atwan, Robert and Laurance Wieder, eds. Chapters into Verse: Poetry in English Inspired by The Bible, Vol. 1: Genesis to Malachi. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
    • Dobbs-Allsopp, F. W. Lamentations (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.
    • Dobbs-Allsopp , F. W. "Poetry, Hebrew." In The New Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, edited by Katherine Doob Sakenfeld, vol. 4, 550–558. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2009.
    • Exum, J. Cheryl. The Song of Songs. Old Testament Library; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2005.
    • Kugel, James L. The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981.
    • Petersen, David L. and Kent Harold Richards. Interpreting Hebrew Poetry. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992.
    • Strawn, Brent A., "Lyric Poetry." In Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry, and Writings, edited by Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns, pp. 437–446. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008.

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