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The Flavor of the Pages

September 21, 2006 By:
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Hills of Spices does a very simple thing which, in its very simplicity, seems almost revolutionary: It reminds us, through quotations and a minimum of textual analysis, that the Bible is filled with some of the most beautiful poetry ever written. It is a plain fact, known to countless numbers of us, but in this over-connected world of ours, it's gotten lost somehow, obscured, recalled as a distant memory, if that. Hills of Spices, edited by Rena Potok with an introduction by Andrea L. Weiss, returns us to this elemental fact and moves us far beyond the "Song of Solomon" example, which is everybody's favorite, all-purpose choice of biblical poetry. This beautiful little anthology has much more in mind.

According to Potok, the book contains poems chosen for their merit as literature -- their particular phrasing and imagery, the themes they address, the emotions they stir or their wordplay and rhythms. Some of her selections will be familiar as contemporary liturgy. Others, like Song of Songs or the 23rd Psalm, are much-loved verses, frequently read and quoted, both in religious and secular contexts.

The anthology is divided into nine sections reflecting the poetic genres and topics that appear in the Bible: Blessings, Prayers and Songs of Praise; Poetic Moments; Testaments and Pronouncements; Laments; Judgment Oracles; Prophecies of Salvation and Consolation; Wisdom Writings; and Love Songs.

It Practically Permeates It

In her introduction, Weiss attempts to define the distinguishing features of biblical poetry. While there were certain Greek thinkers who elaborated theories on the nature of poetry, no such commentary exists in the Bible. There isn't even a single word in the text meaning "poetry" per se, though Weiss says there are several terms that indicate the presence of poetic passages. For example, the "Song of Moses" is preceded by the statement: "Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song" (shirah). David's eulogy for Saul and Jonathan is called a "dirge" (kinah). Many sections in the Bible begin with the word "mizmor," which Weiss says is translated as a "psalm" and "likely indicates a song accompanied by a stringed instrument." Still, the scholar says, such designations are not used with consistency in the Bible, nor do they accompany every passage deemed poetic.

Weiss then suggests that visual signs might identify poetic passages.

She points to the layout of "selected" Hebrew editions and translations of the Bible as identifying the poetic sections by separating them from what is obviously prose and, as she puts it, signaling "a shift in discourse." Yet there are many other editions of the Bible that make no such "graphic distinction."

So, since we lack what Weiss calls "conclusive indicators," she says we have to rely on "stylistic features." Most scholars agree that prose dominates the Bible, but that poetry "permeates" it. Great variety exists in the genres and subject matter addressed in such sections, but despite this variance, scholars agree there is considerable stylistic similarity among these particular passages. Weiss identifies such literary features as parallelism, rhythm, terseness, imagery, metaphor, repetition, patterning and other tropes.

Weiss discusses each of these facets and includes at least one, if not several examples, as part of each discussion.

Parallelism in the Bible, first identified by Bishop Robert Lowth in 1753, and defined as "a certain 'equality' or 'resemblance' between the members of a poetic unit." Lowth identified three types: synonymous, antithetic and synthetic. Synonymous parallelism was the most frequent, where the same sentence is repeated in different but equivalent terms, as in Isaiah 60:3:

And nations shall walk by your light,
Kings, by your shining radiance.

Antithetic parallelism puts contrary terms together, as in Proverbs 27:6:

Wounds by a loved one are long lasting.
The kisses of an enemy are profuse.

Synthetic parallelism Weiss calls "rather amorphous" since it appears to consist of everything that cannot fit into the other two categories. Lowth's example is from Psalm 46:7:

Nations rage, kingdoms topple;
at the sound of His thunder the earth dissolves.

When it comes to meter and rhythm, Weiss notes that, unlike other ancient languages -- Akkadian and Greek, for example -- we're uncertain about how biblical Hebrew was pronounced. Without that knowledge, it's difficult to pinpoint actual meter. Some scholars say it exists in the Bible; others insist that it does not. But because the poetic sections of the Bible display a certain amount of symmetry and sound patterning, some scholars suggest that the focus of the discussion be shifted from meter to the broader idea of rhythm, which specifically connotes sound repetition and regularity.

In the Bible, this rhythm, Weiss says, results partly "from the terseness of parallel lines, the fact that the lines of biblical poetry tend to be short and comprised of about the same number of words and stresses." These lines are sometimes also joined together without a grammatical mark specifying the relationship between the two. She offers two examples:

You turned my lament into dancing,
you undid my sackcloth and girded me with joy.

(Ps. 30:12)

A garden locked
Is my own, my bride,
A fountain locked,
A sealed-up spring.

(Song 4:12)

More important still are the uses of imagery, metaphor and simile. The quotes above, says Weiss, provide us with a look at how imagery works. It "creates a mental image, which can involve sight, hearing, smell or other senses. For instance, the prophet Joel depicts a future time of judgment, 'the day of the Lord,' when 'the beasts groan' and 'the watercourses are dried up' (Joel 1:18, 20). The first comment involves an auditory element, while the second is primarily visual."

Metaphor also evokes an image but is also "the presence of an analogy, a comparison between a hypothetical situation and an actual situation." Here is Hosea 14:6, in which God makes a promise:

I will be to Israel like dew;
He shall blossom like the lily.

Weiss concludes her essay by saying: "Appreciating the artistry of biblical poetry and the depth of its meaning requires being a skillful reader, one who can unpack the language, structure, and imagery of a poetic passage and then piece everything back together in a way that gives voice to the ideas conveyed in the elevated discourse of poetry."

But what's most wonderful about Hills of Spices is that you can skip the introductory material completely, and just let all that beautiful language wash over you. Its effect remains undeniable.

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