Tag Archives: poetry

Lee, “Aramaic Poetry in Qumran” (2011)

I found a recent dissertation that analyzes the Aramaic poetic texts–both biblical and non-biblical–from Qumran.

Peter Y. Lee, “Aramaic Poetry in Qumran,” Ph.D. diss., Catholic University of America, 2011.

It is a valuable contribution to the study of Aramaic poetry. In my own work, it promises to be a good supplement to A. S. Rodrigues Pereira’s Studies in Aramaic Poetry.

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Poetry in Targum Pseudo-Jonathan

While reading for Bob Cargill’s seminar on the Targums to Genesis this past week, I noticed that Targum Pseudo-Jonathan (P-J) sees the opening verses of Genesis as poetry and that the meturgeman’s additions to this text maintain good poetic rhythm. As an example, here are the first few verses, divided into their poetic lines.

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1a From the beginning, God created
b The heavens and the earth.

2a The earth was formless and void,
b Desolate of humanity and empty of all livestock,
c And darkness was upon the surface of the deep.

d A merciful wind from before God
e Blew over the surface of the waters.

3a God said,
b “Let there be light to illuminate the world,”
c And immediately there was light.

4a God saw
b that the light was good,
c And God separated
d between the light and the darkness.

5a God called the light “daytime,”
b and he created it for the inhabitants of the world to work during it.
c The darkness he called “nighttime,”
d And he created it for the creatures to rest.

e It was evening
f And it was morning,
g The first day.


When divided up this way, several features about the text become apparent.


The first four strophes (lines 1a-3c) show good parallelistic alternation. Strophe 1 (lines 1a-b) and strophe 3 (lines 2d-e) are both bicolons with the same stress pattern, 3-2. Strophe 2 (lines 2a-c) and strophe 4 (lines 3a-c) do not share a common meter—strophe 2 has three lines of four stresses each, while strophe 4 has a stress pattern of 2-3-3—but both are tricolons that, importantly, tell two halves of the same story, and therefore must be connected.

Strophe 5 (lines 4a-d) and strophe 6 (lines 5a-d) are also well matched. Each consists of two parallel bicolons, and each of those bicolons have matching stress patterns: strophe 5 has a stress pattern of 2-2|2-2, and strophe 6 has 4-4|3-3.

Finally, strophe 7 (lines 5e-g) is a nice concluding tricolon of stress pattern 2-2-2.

P-J’s additions

P-J takes the Hebrew text of Genesis 1 and obviously reshapes it, but the additions maintain the poetic balance of the original. Even in the five verses I have examined so far, we may see two very clear examples of P-J’s skill at maintaining good meter in his additions to the text.

The first example is in Genesis 1:2. In the Hebrew text, Genesis 1:2 can be read as a four-line strophe, consisting of two parallel bicolons; P-J, however, expands the text into a well-balanced tricolon and a well-balanced bicolon.

The second example, from verse 5, is even more striking. P-J adds two phrases into this verse, but these additions maintain—even enhance—the verse’s poetic effect. Line 5a, which is a literal translation of the Hebrew text, has four stresses, and line 5b, which is entirely P-J’s own material, also has four stresses; likewise, line 5c, which matches the Hebrew, has three stresses, while P-J’s addition in line 5d also has three stresses.

These additions, especially those in verse 5, show even more concretely that the author of this text composed it as verse and that he intended it to be read as such.


Lastly, we may draw a few conclusions based on my analysis. First, we may conclude that the author of this section of P-J was clearly educated and was well versed in composing poetry—a conclusion that is consistent with the view, advocated by Y. Maori and E. Itzchaky, that an educated author composed P-J for an educated audience. Second, it seems the author of this section of P-J saw the opening chapter of Genesis as poetry, which led him to maintain poetic meter through his targum of the text. Lastly, even if P-J was not intended for use in a synagogue (as Yeshayahu Maori, Efraim Itzchaky, and Avigdor Shinan have argued; see Maher 1987 for references), this section of the text, at least, was intended for corporate use, to be chanted or sung to an audience.


Maher, Michael. Targum Pseudo-Jonathan: Translated, with Introduction and Notes. Aramaic Bible 1B. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1987.

Westermann, Claus. Genesis 1-11: A Continental Commentary. Minneapolis: Augsburg; London: SPCK, 1984.

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Wine and Social Justice

I was reading Proverbs 31:2-9 just now, and the structure of the poem struck me. Here’s the text from the NRSV, adjusted slightly for poetic formatting.

The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him:

No, my son! No, son of my womb!
No, son of my vows!
Do not give your strength to women,
your ways to those who destroy kings.
It is not for kings, O Lemuel,
it is not for kings to drink wine,
or for rulers to desire strong drink;
or else they will drink and forget what has been decreed,
and will pervert the rights of all the afflicted.

Give strong drink to one who is perishing,
and wine to those in bitter distress;
let them drink and forget their poverty,
and remember their misery no more.
Speak out for those who cannot speak,
for the rights of all the destitute.
Speak out, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy.

So, apparently, Lemuel was a pretty dissolute king when he was young, until his mother called him to the path of wisdom and justice. Lemuel’s mother doesn’t take too kindly to her son wasting his kingship on wine and women; it seems that young Lemuel cared more about having fun than caring for the poor and downtrodden.

So what does Lemuel’s mother tell him to do?

First, she tells him not to take so many wives/concubines/consorts/lovers/what have you. These women, she says, will destroy him. Second, she tells him to lay off the sauce. Being a playboy will corrupt him.

And then comes the interesting part. She takes the image of wine and turns it on its head. Instead of hoarding wine for himself and living a lavish and sumptuous life, he should give that wine to those who live in poverty and despair. The image of wine and carousing becomes a metaphor for social justice. And finally, so as to make sure that her metaphor isn’t lost on young Lemuel, she makes her point explicit: lighten the burdens on the poor and needy, and make sure they are treated justly.

The overall point is that Lemuel, as ruler of his country, should forego the creature comforts his position affords him, instead working to make sure that the poor and destitute get those same comforts.

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“The world is too grand to reshape with babble.”

I was listening to The Writer’s Almanac in the car yesterday morning, and I heard this poem, which resonated with me deeply.

“Sunlight,” by Jim Harrison

After days of darkness I didn’t understand
a second of yellow sunlight
here and gone through a hole in clouds
as quickly as a flashbulb, an immense
memory of a moment of grace withdrawn.
It is said that we are here but seconds in cosmic
time, twelve and a half billion years,
but who is saying this and why?
In the Salt Lake City airport eight out of ten
were fiddling relentlessly with cell phones.
The world is too grand to reshape with babble.
Outside the hot sun beat down on clumsy metal
birds and an actual ten-million-year-old
crow flew by squawking in bemusement.
We’re doubtless as old as our mothers, thousands
of generations waiting for the sunlight.


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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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