Monthly Archives: June 2012

Hebrew Poetry: Why No Standard Meter?

I’m reading an article by Frank Moore Cross about Hebrew prosody,* and he was talking about how, even after a couple centuries’ effort, no one has been able to find a consistent pattern of meter in classical Hebrew poetry — at least any meter like that of other classical poetry (namely, Greek and Latin), based on accent and stress. The main thing is that classical Hebrew poetry has lines of different length and irregular stress, while classical Greek and Latin poetry has strict rules for line length and stress. Cross proposes that the main feature of Hebrew meter is syllable count.

I think I might have a few ideas as to why classical Hebrew poetry doesn’t follow the strict metrical rules of classical Greek and Latin poetry. The first is the obvious: Hebrew poetry developed earlier than Greek poetry (and way, way before Latin poetry) and in a different cultural context, the poetry of which didn’t value strict adherence to set metrical patterns.

The second is the grammatical: the noun cases of Indo-European languages like Greek and Latin make it relatively easy to change the word order of the poetry to fit the rules of meter and still have an intelligible text. Hebrew doesn’t have a case system — at least nothing like the Indo-European languages — so it’s more difficult to shift word order and still have intelligible verse.

The third is the practical: the more you deviate from standard word order, the harder it is to understand you. It’s a fairly open question as to how easily Sophocles’ or Horace’s original audiences could have understood their works when listening to them. Hebrew poets, I think, kept more or less to standard word order, with the twin results that their poetry was easily understandable at first listen and also did not follow a rigid meter.

Thus, to sum up, Hebrew poetry did not follow classical rules of meter for three reasons: 1) It developed at an earlier time and in a different cultural context than Greek and Latin poetry; 2) Hebrew lacks the noun cases that allow Greek and Latin poetry to stray from standard word order to keep meter; 3) Hebrew poets kept mostly to standard word order in order to have verse that was easily understood by ear.


*Frank Moore Cross, “The Prosody of Lamentations 1 and the Psalm of Jonah.” Pages 99-134 in From Epic to Canon: History and Literature in Ancient Israel. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1998.

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The Bible as a Magic Text

Lately, I’ve become convinced that modern Evangelicalism/fundamentalism uses the Bible as a magic text.

For instance, the concept of “praying the Bible” and “singing Scripture” as the forms of prayer and worship that God finds most acceptable. In this practice, the believer takes his/her sacred book (i.e. the Bible), and, on account of its sacredness (it is often believed to be the very words of God), believes it to have some sort of special efficacy in bringing about divine action or currying divine favor.

Another example is using the Bible as an augur, divining from it “God’s will for your life.” Of course, a subset of Evangelicals (often the Neo-Reformed) denies the validity of this practice; however, so far as I’ve seen, a great many Evangelicals use the Bible in this way. In this practice, the practitioner, when faced with a decision, uses the Bible to learn what is the divinely sanctioned choice, in order to avoid being “out of God’s will.

I’m interested in reading scholarly engagement with this idea, which I’ve been unable to find. Can anyone recommend any sources? I’m specifically interested in sociological or “religious studies” discussions, rather than theological debate.


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“The Spirit is God’s Force of Newness”

Alter Video Magazine has a video of Walter Brueggemann, talking about hope, imagination, and the Spirit. Check it out here. Here’s an excerpt.

I believe that the prophetic promises function in Scripture to keep us imagining futures that God intends to bring among us. So, then, you get a promise of a new temple, a new king, a new land, a new Jerusalem, a new heaven, a new earth, and our work in faith is to be open to the impetus to those new possibilities, I think. And, so, I’ve been thinking that hope is not simply a premise, and it’s not a conclusion, but it’s a process, and we kind of participate in it as we are able.

So that often leads me to the third article of the Creed. . . . It’s a strange configuration: that I believe the Church in the work of the Spirit, but I believe it all revolves around the forgiveness of sins, and I believe the forgiveness of sins will lead to the resurrection of the body. What kind of talk is that? That’s crazy talk! But it’s all in the third article, under the Spirit. And the Spirit is kind of God’s force of newness, which is so important in a technological society that wants to stop all that and control everything.

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Morton Smith, “II Isaiah and the Persians”

I recently read Morton Smith’s article “II Isaiah and the Persians,” which is quite enlightening for the study of Deutero-Isaiah. Smith argues that Deutero-Isaiah (specifically, Isaiah 40-48) is strongly influenced by Persian thought and, especially, Cyrus’ propaganda against Babylon.

Go check it out. You can find it in Journal of the American Oriental Society 83 (1963), 415-421, and Shaye J. D. Cohen, ed., The Cult of Yahweh, vol. 1 (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 73-83.

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Isaiah 40:3-8: MT, LXX, Gospels

Continuing in my text criticism/analysis of Deutero-Isaiah, here’s Isaiah 40:3-8. Like before, I’m using the Septuagint and the Masoretic Text as the bases for my criticism and analysis. English translations are my own.

3 A voice shouting in the wilderness:
“Ready the Lord’s road,
Make straight our God’s paths.
4 Every valley will be filled,
And every mountain and hill will be brought low,
And everything crooked will be made straight,
And the rugged will be made into a plain.
5 And the Lord’s glory will be seen,
And all flesh will see God’s salvation,
Because the Lord has spoken.”

6 The voice of one speaking: “Shout!”
And I said, “What should I shout?”
“All flesh is grass,
And all a man’s glory is like a flower of grass.
7 The grass is dried up, and the flower falls,
8 But our God’s word remains forever.

3 A voice calling out in the wilderness:
“Clear out YHWH’s road,
Smooth out highways in the desert for our God.
4 Every valley will be lifted up,
And every mountain and hill will be brought low,
And the crooked will be made into a level place,
And the rugged places will be made into a plain.
5 And YHWH’s glory will be uncovered,
And all flesh will see together
That YHWH’s mouth has spoken.

6 A voice saying, “Call out!”
And he says, “What should I call out?
All flesh is grass,
And all his faithfulness is like a flower of the field.
7 The grass withers, the flower fades,
Because YHWH’s breath blows on it;
Surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers, the flower fades,
But the word of our God will stand forever.”

Verse-by-Verse Analysis

Verse 3:
In the desert Because the LXX has the shorter reading of this verse, it is to be preferred over the MT’s reading. The MT’s “in the desert” is probably an addition to the text, to make it clear where YHWH’s highways are.

Verse 4:
Overall, this verse is promising that, when YHWH returns Judah to their land, he will make it suitable for agriculture. In filling in the valleys, leveling the hills, and removing the stones from the rugged places, he will remove the impediments to farming that plague the Judean countryside.

Will be brought low The LXX’s “will be brought low” (tapeinothesetai) means, literally, “will be humiliated.” It is strange to use the word in the sense of “level off” (which is the meaning it carries here, in parallel with “will be filled”); however, it corresponds exactly with the MT’s yishpalu, which carries the same force – it denotes being “brought low,” but it connotes being “humiliated.”

Will be made straight “Will be made,” in lines 3-4 of this verse, is a gloss. The LXX reads, literally:

And everything that is crooked will be into straightness,
And the rugged (fem. sg.) into a plain.

Likewise, the MT reads, literally:

And the crooked will be into a level place,
And the rugged places into a plain.

Verse 5:
See God’s salvation/See together 
The LXX’s reading is a harmonization with the content of 40:9-11, which describes how God will lead Judah back to their country, as a sort of second Exodus, which means that the MT’s text is more original.

Nevertheless, the LXX’s alteration, along with the scribal error in verses 7-8 (see below), changes the tone of the passage distinctly, making it more hopeful than the MT. In both the LXX and MT, YHWH’s glory is associated with radical changes to the landscape and with the fleeting nature of humanity; however, the MT goes further and describes YHWH’s breath as devastating, while the LXX goes in a completely different direction and relates how God’s glory will being salvation to the whole world. (It is, of course, not difficult to see why Luke — uniquely among the Gospel writers — includes the LXX version of this verse in his description of John the Baptist, whom he saw as Jesus’ forerunner.)

Because the Lord has spoken (LXX) It is possible to read the LXX’s “because the Lord has spoken” as “the Lord has said,” with verses 3b-5b as a quotation from YHWH (who would then be identified with the Wilderness Voice). This latter reading makes good sense in context, as v. 6a shows the “voice of one speaking” as issuing Isaiah’s call to prophesy. However, from a purely grammatical point of view, this reading is unnatural, so I have not followed it.

(N.B. Though I do not make an explicit connection in my translation that YHWH = the Wilderness Voice, I think a strong case for this identity may be made exegetically, based on verse 6a. Generally speaking, I think it is poor translational practice to make explicit what the text before you leaves implicit, so I have done exactly that.)

It is worth noting that, if the voice of 3a and 6a are the same person – namely, YHWH – then the Gospel writers have misinterpreted this passage. Each of them (Mk 1:2; Mt 3:3; Lk 3:4; Jn 1:23) have the Wilderness Voice as John the Baptist (John’s Gospel actually has the Baptist explicitly identifying himself with the Wilderness Voice). What seems likely to me is that, because John the Baptist was a prophetic figure who stationed himself in the wilderness, and because he was, in the Christians’ estimation, Jesus’ precursor/predecessor, the Gospel writers used this passage as a proof text to validate John’s authority and, thus, to equate Jesus with YHWH.

Verse 6:
And I/he
said The LXX has “And I said” while the MT has “And he said.” In the case of the LXX, verse 6 is a dialogue, which may be expressed as follows:

Voice: Shout!
Narrator: What should I shout?
Voice: All flesh is grass,
And all a man’s glory is like a flower of grass. . . .

The MT, however, presents verse 6 in the mouth of only one speaker, as here:

Voice: Call out!
What should I call out?
All flesh is grass,
And all his faithfulness is like a flower of the field. . . .

Line 2 in the MT is thus a rhetorical question in the Wilderness Voice’s proclamation, while the LXX presents it as a second speaker in a dialogue. The MT’s reading is so awkward that I can’t help but think it is corrupt, and I thus prefer the reading of the LXX, as do the NLT, ESV, NRSV, and NIV. The KJV follows the Hebrew text woodenly.

The NET translates this verse as follows, taking some explanatory liberties in the translation:

A voice says, “Cry out!”
Another asks, “What should I cry out?”
The first voice responds: “All people are like grass,
And all their promises are like the flowers in the field. . . .”

The NET’s notes remark that “[a]pparently a second ‘voice’ responds to the command of the first ‘voice.’ While this interpretation, i’ll admit, does more justice to the MT as it stands, it makes the most sense to follow the LXX’s wording.

All a man’s glory/All his faithfulness The MT’s “faithfulness” is more difficult than the LXX’s “glory,” so the MT is to be considered more original here. However, both readings do make sense in context, so neither should be deprecated; instead, we should see them as two separate traditions of the text.

The LXX contrasts human fame, which is fleeting and impermanent, with God’s declarations, which are fixed and eternal; the LXX’s version is thus a meditation on humanity’s ultimate insignificance. The MT, on the other hand, contrasts human fickleness and flakiness with God’s ultimate reliability.

Verses 7-8:
Compare the reading of the LXX here:

7 The grass is dried up, and the flower falls,
8 But our God’s word remains forever.

with that of the MT:

7 The grass withers, the flower fades,
Because YHWH’s breath blows on it;
Surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers, the flower fades,
But our God’s word will stand forever.

The most likely explanation for the difference between these two texts is scribal error. That is, at some point in the production and/or transmission of the LXX – whether in the transmission of the LXX’s Hebrew source, in the act of translation itself, or in the transmission of the Greek text of the LXX – a scribe/the translator unintentionally skipped from the first line of v. 7 to the last line of v. 8. (The proper term for this error is homeoteleuton.)


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