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Posts Tagged ‘Hebrew Poetry’

I’ve always struggled with the change of verb tense in Hebrew poetry. The first line will use the qatal and the second line the yiqtol. The change in tense does make sense in some situations, but in other places the change is odd. Take Psalm 93:3:

The floods life up (qatal), O LORD
the floods lift up (qatal) their voice
the floods lift up (yiqtol) their roar

Kugel notes that such changes are not merely stylistic:

As noted above: if avoidance of repetition were the point, why does one find qtl-yqtl differentiation of the same verbal root, or actual repetition of the same words in the very verses which illustrate some other differentiating feature. If “elegant variation” were the point, would it not operate first and foremost on the level of lexis?

In other words, if the author wanted to vary his style, would he not only change the word? Because the root remains the same in both lines, the parallelism remains despite the tense change. Yet, the change in tense does communicate a noticeable difference, and it is a problem for translating (how do you communicate the tense change in English, for instance, without making the line sound funny?). Kugel suggests that the variance in verb tense expresses communicates the complete unity of a parallel line:

To understand these alterations as supplying “variety” seems contradicted by the very repetition of the verbal root; instead, something closer to completion or complentarity seems to their role, the integration of A and B into a single whole.

Not all parallelisms are semantic. The change in tense have of the effect of making the reader read both lines together. In Adele Berlin’s words:

There is almost always some degree of grammatical correspondence between parallel lines, and in many cases it is the basic structuring device of the parallelism – the feature that creates the perception of parallelism…The important thing to remember is although there is a difference in the two grammatical structures, they are in some way equivalent to one another. In nonparallelistic discourse only one would occur, and either one could substitute for the other (semantics permitting); but in parallelistic discourse they are both present. Thus grammar has been projected from the axis of selection to the axis of combination. (Bold mine)

Thus, for both Berlin and Kugel changes in grammatical structure of a line help link two lines together in a parallelistic structure. What makes this change fascinating is that in the case of qtl-yqtl, the verbs could lose their tense and should be translated in a manner that fits the context. I still wonder if there isn’t anything more to that change in verb tense. Though Kugel says that the change isn’t stylistic variance, I can’t help but thinking that isn’t much more than stylistic. Change in verb tense may indeed strengthen the parallelism, but in two lines that communicate more or less the same idea how does the change in tense help line B communicate something more than line B? I can only answer: לא ידעתי ולא אדע 

Note: the quotes are from James Kugel’s Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History and Adele Berlin’s The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism.

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Powerful Parallelism

My father-in-law and I finished the first assignment in Hebrew Poetry.  In the six hours we spent on this assignment, we spent our time dealing with first three verses of Psalm 6 (actually, we went through the title and the first two verses of the psalm). Six hours is a long time to think about two verses! Typically, I like to work through large sections of texts quickly in order to get the picture of the whole in my mind, but after this assignment I can’t say that I’m not appreciative of the longer gaze at the first few verses.

Psalm 6:2-3 read:

                יְֽהוָ֗ה אַל־בְּאַפְּךָ֥ תוֹכִיחֵ֑נִי
וְֽאַל־בַּחֲמָתְךָ֥ תְיַסְּרֵֽנִי
                 חָנֵּ֥נִי יְהוָה֮ כִּ֤י אֻמְלַ֫ל אָ֥נִי
רְפָאֵ֥נִי יְהוָ֑ה כִּ֖י נִבְהֲל֣וּ עֲצָמָֽי

2 O LORD, Do not in your anger rebuke me!
Do not in your burning wrath discipline me!
3 Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am distressed!
Heal me, O LORD, for my bones are terrified!

The relationship among these lines depict the very personal prayer of a person who is going through a period of darkness in his life. The first two lines seem to echo the same exact thought: Do not because of your anger punish me. These two lines portray the beauty of Hebrew parallelism. “Rebuke” and “discipline” are both used in contexts that involve judgement against evil doers. God’s wrath, of course, burns against sinners. I have to confess that I’m not sure how the first and second line are different from each other except to say that the repetition heightens the intensity of the feeling of distress in the psalm. At this point, we ask what has the psalmist done that he is now in such a dire situation? Will he say to God to rectify the situation?

The second two lines are also synonymous, but the second line more obviously communicates something in addition to the first line. The first line calls for gracious because “I am distressed.” In the second line, he asks for healing because “my bones are terrified.” The word for bones probably a metaphor for the psalmist’s entire being. He is both physically and spiritually in danger; he is both physically and emotionally shaken. He is in an utterly helpless state and is now asking God to move in mercy on his behalf. The first line explicitly asks for grace; the second line explicitly asks for restoration.

He begins with an odd request: Do not punish me in your anger. When God is wrathful against a person of a group of people, he usually angry because of some sin. Punishment would be the correct action to take against a rebellious person. Psalm 6, however, does not explicitly mention any sin as the reason for God’s anger. The psalmist’s positive appeal furthers the oddity of the request: “Be gracious to me! Heal me!” not forgive me. Again, the psalmist does not explicitly mention guilt. Rather, he points out his current distress as the rationale for God’s action. The prophets refer to God’s restoration of a people tore apart from God’s judgement as “healing.” He may be implying some sin on his part. Yet, he does not come out and say “I have sinned.” Why?

What strikes about this feature is his high view of God’s sovereignty. Not that acknowledgement of sin in any way diminishes God’s sovereignty – it doesn’t!  The “non-acknowledgement” highlights the value he places on God’s mercy. God’s wrath would destroy him. God’s grace would heal him. What happens to him is in God’s hands.

The psalmist approaches his situation from a position of faith. God is sovereign. My actions may be evil, but my life rests in God’s hands. I believe that God has the power to save me or crush me. I believe God is merciful. I believe God is present. I believe God hears. I will trust in him.

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