The February 1989 issue of Bible Review contained an article on biblical poetry titled “Alter vs. Kugel—Taking the Heat in Struggle over Biblical Poetry.” In his introduction editor Hershel Shanks reviews the recent controversy between James Kugel and Robert Alter. In the main article John Gammie provides an analysis of their contributions to the study of biblical poetry.
Both Kugel and Alter have written recent books re-examining the concept of parallelism in biblical poetry. Parallelism is one of the characteristics that has been used to identify poetic passages in the Hebrew Bible.
Most biblical commentaries identify three types of parallelism:
Synonymous Parallelism, were the second line repeats or echoes the ideas of the fist in different words.
“For still the vision awaits its time;
it hastens to the end—it will not lie.
If it seems slow, wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay.”
Antithetic parallelism, where the second line stands in contrast to the first:
“Behold, he whose soul is not upright
in him shall fail,
but the righteous shall live by his faith.”
Synthetic Parallelism, where the second line modifies the thought of the first:
“O, Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and thou wilt not hear?
Or cry to thee ‘Violence!’
and thou wilt not save?”
Gammie notes that following the work of George Buchanan Gray in 1925, synthetic parallelism was pronounced dead. In the 1980s Kugel and Alter have revived interest in synthetic parallelism with their suggestion that the second line intensifies, advances or focuses the thought of the first. This is seen in the example quoted above from Habakkuk 1:2, where the intensity of the cry is elevated in the second couplet.
Both Kugel and Alter have suggested that synthetic parallelism is far more common and synonymous parallelism is rarer than previously thought. Gammie then says, “In short, it is synonymous parallelism that now is in the intensive care unit.”
That sentence set me to thinking, for it did not match up with my own personal experience. In 20 years of study and sermon preparation. I have had many opportunities to wrestle with biblical texts, a number of them Hebrew poetry. In my reading I have not always been able to sort out parallel verses into one of the three boxes the scholars have provided. Biblical poetry has seemed to me to be far more textured than the three categories would suggest.
Gammie notes that scholars have traditionally diagrammed synonymous parallelism as a b c /
My geometric background has taught me that when one uses a faulty symbolic model, one is almost destined to reach faulty conclusions. I want to suggest that both the assumption that various examples of parallelism fall into discrete categories and the symbolic diagram a b c /
I propose in their place a concept I call a Continuity of Parallelism. In my experience, verses of biblical poetry sometimes echo one another and at other times the second slightly intensifies the first. In some pairs the intensity is even greater.
To illustrate what I am saying I would like to offer the following symbolic models:
A. For synonymous parallelism, I would slightly modify the diagram a b c /
B. For synthetic parallelism, however, I would write not a b c /
Therefore a slight increase in thought from the first line to the second might be diagrammed as a b c || 1.5 (
A greater increase could read a b c || 2 (
For practical and mathematic reasons I would suggest limiting the coefficient to a value of three for most cases.
In this way I suggest that neither synthetic nor synonymous parallelism is dead. Instead of two discrete categories, we now have one—a Continuity of Parallelism, from an echo through slight modification to the full blown intensification of Kugel and Alter.
The Hebrew poet, I believe, was not limited to one or the other, but in fact used a variation of degree of intensification to create a symphony of words with soft passages and great crescendos.
My symbolic model opens us up to the varied texture by which the Hebrew poet captures and moves us along at once swiftly and at another time slowly and quietly. It opens us up to a greater appreciation of the skill of the Hebrew poet.
Having thus resurrected synonymous and synthetic parallelism from the morgue, my symbolic model began to take on a life of its own and to call me to move ever forward.
“How,” I asked myself, “would I diagram the third type of parallelism—antithetic?”
“That’s easy!” I replied to myself:
Antithetic parallelism a b c || -1 (
Eureka, my model can be used to diagram all three. It can even be used to produce a continuum (see below).
The conceptual model for what I want to modestly (?) call a Unified Field Theory of Parallelism in Biblical Poetry in the Hebrew Bible would be diagrammed as follows: a b c ||
Having solved one problem, I was faced with new opportunities. What about other possible coefficients?
A. Numbers between zero and positive one—positive fractions?
C. Numbers less than zero and greater than negative one—negative proper fractions?
My mind began to reel as the possibilities tumbled forth one upon another. My model, indeed, had taken on a life of its own and I had to follow it to its many logical conclusions. Let us explore these possibilities together:
Zero times anything is zero son a b c || 0(
This case would be found in the single line that stands out in the midst of a poetic passage. It is no longer a lapse or an intrusion. It belongs there! It has been used by the poet to help create texture. If the identity is used too much, the passage might lapse into prose or another type of poetry. But, judiciously used, it is a kind of parallelism—an identity.
What about positive fractional coefficients where, for example, a b c || 0.5(
R. B. Y. Scott in his Anchor Bible Commentary on Proverbs came to my rescue. On page 8 of his introduction, he discusses poetic parallelism and offers these words:
“At some points it seems very evident that a banal second line has been added to a picturesque saying, as in
‘The toilers appetite toils for him,
For his hunger drives him’
This example fits my model precisely—a b c || 0.5(
Negative proper fractional coefficients would describe those cases of antithetic parallelism where the second line is a weak contrast to the first. The symbolic model might look like this: a b c || -0.5(
The Hebrew poet, I believe, had a colorful palette of words and techniques from which to draw in creating word pictures that still touch our hearts and move our souls.
I offer this as a theoretical model for others to use and react to. Do these odd types of parallelism exist? “I think so,” say my guts. But without a conceptual map we might never know.
Can I give examples of all of these? Not yet. As a geometrician, I see myself in the role of a theoretician. I have opened new avenues to explore. I don’t have the answers yet. I haven’t walked down these avenues. But I plan to begin the stroll. Will you join me?
The February 1989 issue of Bible Review contained an article on biblical poetry titled “Alter vs. Kugel—Taking the Heat in Struggle over Biblical Poetry.” In his introduction editor Hershel Shanks reviews the recent controversy between James Kugel and Robert Alter. In the main article John Gammie provides an analysis of their contributions to the study of biblical poetry. Both Kugel and Alter have written recent books re-examining the concept of parallelism in biblical poetry. Parallelism is one of the characteristics that has been used to identify poetic passages in the Hebrew Bible. Most biblical commentaries identify three types of […]