Ancient Hebrew Styles of Writing
By Jeff A. Benner
Just as it is important to understand how the Hebrews thought and spoke, it is just as important to know how they wrote. Their style of writing is different than what we are used to, yet we attempt to read the ancient Hebrew texts as if it was written by one of our contemporary writers. This will again cause a mistranslation as well as misinterpretations of the text. Therefore, it is essential to learn the unique styles of writing employed by the Hebrews in order to read the texts correctly.
As Hebrew poetry is written much differently than our own Western style of poetry, many do not recognize the poetry which can cause problems when translating or interpreting these passages. There are several different types of Hebrew poetry; parellel, 123 and 123.
Approximately 75% of the Tenach (Old Testament) is poetry. All of Psalms and Proverbs are Hebrew poetry. Even the book of Genesis is full of Poetry. There are several reasons the Hebrews used poetry, much of the Torah was sung and was easier to sing too, poetry and songs are easier to memorize than straight texts, parallel poetry (as in Genesis 1) emphasizes something of great importance, as the creation story is. The Rabbis believed that if something is worth saying, it is worth saying beautifully." There is much more poetry in the Bible than most realize because most people do not understand it.
Parallelism is most commonly found in the book of Psalms and Proverbs but is found throughout the whole of the Hebrew Bible. Parallelism is the expression of one idea in two or more different ways.
"Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path". (Psalms 119:105)
The above example of a simple parallel and can be written in this manner;
Your word is; |
1. a lamp to my feet
2. a light for my path
Here we see that the words "lamp" and "light" are paralleled as well as the words "my feet" and "my path". Below is another example of this style of poetry.
"My son, my teachings you shall not forget and my commands your heart shall guard." (Proverbs 3:1)
In this verse the words "my teachings" is paralleled with "my commands" and "you shall not forget" is paralleled with "your heart shall gaurd" and can be written as follows.
My son; |
1. my teachings you shall not forget
2. my commands your heart shall guard
Below is Psalm 15:1-3 broken down into its poetic sequences. In this example each thought is represented by the letters A, B, C and D. Each expression of a thought is represented by the numbers 1 and 2.
A1. Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary? |
A2. Who may live on your holy hill?
B1. He whose walk is blameless
B2. and who does what is righteous.
C1. who speaks the truth from his heart
C2. and has no slander on his tongue.
D1. who does his neighbor no wrong
D2. and casts no slur on his fellow man.
Another common form of parallelism is the use of negatives where two opposing ideas are stated as we see in Proverbs 11:19.
A1. Righteousness brings one to life|
A2. Pursuit of evil brings one to his death.
In Genesis 12:1 we can see the poetry of God's command to Abraham to leave his hometown in three different ways.
a. from your land
b. and from your people
c. and from the house of your father
and go to the land I will show you.
In the Western style of writing, an account is broken up into sentences. Each thought is written and closed with a period. The Eastern style of writing on the other hand continues a sentence dividing each thought with the word "and". Below is a translation of Genesis 1:3-8 retaining the "and" as found in the Hebrew.
and God said let there be light and there was light and God saw that the light was good and God separated between the light and the darkness and God called the light day and the darkness he called night and there was an evening and there was a morning a first day and God said let there be an expanse between the water and let there be a separation between the waters from the waters and God made the expanse and God separated between the waters under the expanse and the waters above the expanse and it was so and God called the expanse sky and it was evening and it was morning a second day.
The use of the word "and" within the text must be kept in mind when reading Biblical accounts as it may influence the interpretation of the story. For example, in Exodus 17:7 we read;
And he called the name of the place Massah, and Meribah, because of the chiding of the children of Israel, and because they tempted the LORD, saying, Is the LORD among us, or not? (KJV)
In most translations this verse ends the paragraph and a new paragraph begins with verse 8.
Then came Amalek, and fought with Israel in Rephidim. (KJV)
The format of these two passages implies two separate events. But, if the word "and", as found in the Hebrew, is inserted between the two, the passages become related, as we see here.
And he called the name of the place Massah, and Meribah, because of the chiding of the children of Israel, and because they tempted the LORD, saying, Is the LORD among us, or not? And Amalek came and fought with Israel in Rephidim.
When read the passage in this manner, it appears that Amalek came and attacked as a result of their "chiding" and "tempting" of God.
While the removal of the word "and" can cause some misinterpretations of the text, misinterpretations can also be made when it remains in the translation.
So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life. (KJV, Genesis 3:24)
The use of the word "and" between "Cherubims" and "a flaming sword" suggest two objects guarding the tree of life. Hebrew, on the other hand, will frequently use the word "and" between two identifiers of the same thing such as in the following passages.
Hearken unto the voice of my cry, my King, and my God: for unto thee will I pray. (KJV, Psalm 5:2)
In this passage, the words "king" and "God" are two names for one person. In the same manner the words "Cherubim" and "flaming sword" are two words for the same thing. It should also be noted that the Hebrew for Cherubim and sword are almost identical. This use of the word "and" will be discussed further in the section "Hebrew Poetry".
A Western writer records his story or account in a chronological fashion where time is always viewed as a series of consecutive events that occur one after the other. This style of writing is called "step logic" as events are recorded step by step.
As an example, the following story is written in step logic.
I got out of bed and went to the kitchen for my coffee and breakfast. After reading the paper I drove to work. I read the daily reports and finalized the yearly report. I drove to the restaurant for lunch with my wife. I attended a meeting with the office staff. I drove to the market for our evening desert. At home we ate a leisurely dinner and ate our desert.
The story traces the events of the day from morning to evening in a chronological order. We have no difficulty reading or comprehending this style of logic as we use it every day.
Now let us read the same story written in block logic. Not one word or sentence has been changed, only the order in which the sentences are recorded.
I got out of bed and went to the kitchen for my coffee and breakfast. At home we ate a leisurely dinner and ate our desert. After reading the paper. I read the daily reports and finalized the yearly report. I attended a meeting with the office staff. I drove to the restaurant for lunch with my wife. I drove to the market for our evening desert. I drove to work.
The first thing we notice in this story is that we cannot determine the chronology of each event and our minds are attempting to do this as we read it. But, the author is not trying to place the events in a "step by step" chronology but instead grouping all like events in a series of related "blocks". The first block of events are those that occurred at home. The second block describe the actions of reading and working while the third are those events that involve driving.
Several examples of this block logic style of writing can be found in the creation story. The western mind reads this account of the creation assuming that the author is describing events in a precise chronological order. We can clearly see that this is not the authors intention when we compare the events of the first day of creation with the the fourth day.
And God said, "Let there be light" and there was light. And God saw the light that it was good and God separated between the light and the darkness. (Genesis 1:3, 4 - First Day) |
And God said there will be lights in the expanse of the to separate between the day and the night. (Genesis 1:14 - Fourth Day)
If God created light to separate light and darkness on the first day, why do we read of the creation of light to separate day and on the fourth day?
If we compare the first three days of creation with the last three days of creation, we discover that the author has divided the six days into two separate blocks. The first block of three days describes the act of separating the heavens and the earth while the second block of three days describes the act of filling the heavens and the earth.
Day 1 - Separating light and darkness|
Day 2 - Separating water and sky
Day 3 - Separating the land from water
Day 4 - Filling the light with the sun and the darkness with the moon.
Day 5 - Filling water with fish and the skies with birds
Day 6 - Filling the land with plants and animals
Another example of block logic is the different Creation stories recorded in the first two chapters of Genesis. The first block (Genesis 1:1-2:3) describes the "Creation" of the skies and the land, of which the creation of man is only mentioned. The second block (Genesis 2:4-25) describes the "Creation" of man, of which the creation of the skies and land are only mentioned. In essence, these two different stories are of the same event but from differing perspectives.
Word Parallels - puns
In our modern style of writing, we would never write something like, "The painter painted a painting," or "The painter fainted from the pain." However, in the Ancient Hebrew style of writing, this is the exact style of phrasing an author looks for. Here are just a few example of word puns that can found in the book of Genesis.
Gen 2:5 – adam (man) and adamah (ground) |
Gen 2:25-3:1 – arum (naked) and arum (clever)
Gen 6:14 – gopher (gopher wood) and kopher (pitch)