Hebrew and You with Lee M. Fields – Hebrew Poetry and Isaiah
According to Duvall and Hayes in Grasping God’s Word , more than one-third of the Old Testament is written in the form of poetry. (373) Modern English versions usually mark off poetry by punctuation, namely, by arranging into poetic lines rather than a continuous running text. This helps us identify poetic sections, but there is still more to understanding Hebrew poetry.
Hebrew and English poetry often use the same devises, e.g., rhyming, figures of speech, forms of parallelism, rare words or forms. But the may use them to different degrees or ways. Of course, it is oftentimes impossible to translate poetic features. Knowing some Hebrew can help us appreciate what authors are doing.
In this post, let’s look at two features, sounds and rare words, using examples found in Isaiah, widely recognized as one of the greatest poets of the Old Testament. Then we will make one connection to the New Testament.
Sounds: Rhyme, Rhythm, and Alliteration
Rhyme is not always used in English poetry, but it is a common feature. Rhyme does not seem to be a distinctive feature of Hebrew poetry. I suspect that since Hebrew is a language more highly inflected than English, rhyming is not a challenge. For example, the chart below gives Isa 21:15 in Hebrew, transliteration, and then a literal translation. I have given each line a reference letter (a–d) and added to the transliteration an accent mark ( ́) on words that are not accented on the final syllable; there is one in each line.
The last three lines all rhyme. Lines b and c end in passive Participles used as adjectives. They are both feminine in agreement with the gender of the nouns they modify. Line d ends in a feminine noun; so it is not grammatically parallel, but the final syllable is the same as that of lines b and c.
Notice also the rhythmic pattern that exists. In each of lines b–d the second word is a two-syllable word with accent on the first syllable. This gives a rhythmic parallelism.
One additional note: the Hebrew word rendered “weight” is כֹּבֶד (kṓḇeḏ). The NIV renders this expression very nicely in more idiomatic English, “from the heat of battle.”
Alliteration is another poetic device. Examples abound, but a nice one is found in Isa 17:10. In the final column I have merged three translations: NIV (lines a and b), ESV (line c) and NASB (line d).
Lines c and d each have alliterations. In line c there is a repetition of n, t, and Ayin (ע, ʿ) sounds. In line d there is a repetition of z and r sounds. The ESV and NASB bring these out nicely, of course using different sounds: p in the ESV of line c and s in the NASB of line d.
The alliteration draws attention to the lines, perhaps emphasizing the irony of the human efforts apart from God and the failure of those efforts without him. Incidentally, though the ESV renders the next two lines in Isa 17:11 as parallel to 17:10c–d, 17:11 is not structurally parallel, and the alliteration from 17:10c–d does not continue.
The word כֹּבֶד (kṓḇeḏ) mentioned above in Isa 21:15 occurs only four times in the OT, all in poetry (Isa 21:15; 30:27; Nah 3:3; Prov 27:3). The word for war is feminine, and we might predict that line d would be grammatically parallel, “from weighty war” concluding the phrase with the adjective כָּבֵד (kābēd) in the feminine. However, in the Hebrew Bible this adjective is never used to modify a feminine nouns, and therefore no feminine form exists.
A second rare word is found in the oracle concerning Dumah (Isa 21:11–12) verse 12 reads, ‘The watchman replies, “Morning is coming, but also the night. If you would ask, then ask; and come back yet again”’ (NIV). The Hebrew verb rendered “coming” and “come” is from the root אתה (ʾth/y). The most common Hebrew root for come is בוא (bwʾ). The root אתה is used only in poetry and occurs only 21 times in the OT.
A Connection to the New Testament
Interestingly in Aramaic, the root אתה is the routine and בוא is not used. But it is an Aramaic word many Christians know from the New Testament. In 1 Cor 16:22 Paul exclaims, “Maranatha!” (NASB), meaning “Our Lord, come!” (ESV) or “Come, Lord!” (NIV). Maranatha is the Greek transliteration of two Aramaic words. In some Greek manuscripts the form is the single word μαραναθα (maranatha), while in other manuscripts the word is divided into μαραν αθα (maran atha) or into μαρανα θα (marana tha). All three forms have early attestation. Ancient Greek manuscript copyists and church fathers translated “The Lord (or “our Lord”) came (or “is come”)” (see Tischendorf, loc. cit.).
The first part, mar, means “Lord.” The second part, comes from אתה. Maranatha might be divided either as Maran-atha or as Marana-tha. The –n or –na suffix means “our.” The form atha might be rendered with the English past, present, or future time, and possibly with the imperative. In the second division, tha would definitely be the imperative. (For those curious about the Aramaic forms, see Gustav Dalman, Grammatik des Jüdisch-Palästinischen Aramäisch [Leipzig, 1905], p. 152 and n. 3, §74, including p. 357 and n. 1., and the paradigm for pronominal suffixes on p. 395; available online.)
Understanding poetry in the Hebrew enhances our appreciation of the text. May our perspective and prayer of each new year and day be “Maranatha!”
Learn more about what Lee M. Fields has to say in Devotions on the Hebrew Bible.