Biblical Hebrew Homeschool Curriculum

Biblical Poetry

By some estimates, the Hebrew Scriptures are one third poetry! Reading poetry is usually harder than reading prose, especially if you don’t realize your author was trying to be terse, allusive, or metaphorical. So if God’s Word is bursting with poetry, we had better be ready for it.

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What makes a poem a poem?

The good news (for you, Hebrew learner) is that poetry is notoriously difficult to translate. Reading in Hebrew can turn clunky parts of your English Bible into clever puns, striking images, and lyrical commentary. Some poetical devices can be sensed in translation, but others are lost entirely. While some elements of Biblical poetry are common across languages, others are distinctive of Hebrew.

In English, rhyme and meter are our most common poetic flourishes. Meter is the rhythm of a poem’s words. Though you will hear it said that rhyme and meter are absent in Hebrew poetry, they permeate Hebrew prose! With such reliance on suffixes, many Hebrew phrases rhyme beautifully, and final syllable accents can tap out a steady beat.

So what makes a poem a poem? In any language, poetry employs powerful, expressive images and does so with a minimum of clutter. Poetry is pithy, and packs a punch of perception. After those basics, writers might get fancy with sound and structure.

Here we present some slick ways Biblical authors convey meaning with English and Biblical examples of each literary technique. Many of these may be familiar from English literature, and translate well. In Biblical Hebrew 2, we also explore sound and structure devices that are less well known because they get buried by translation.


Allegory, Fable, Parable

Van Gogh: The Good SamaritanAn allegory tells a seemingly straightforward and concrete story, but the characters, places, and events represent another, usually more abstract meaning.

Parables and fables are similar. Fables, though, typically employ animals or plants as lead actors. A parable makes one clear point: it would be a mistake to search for hidden parallels in every character and occurrence. Jesus made parables famous, but they were a common rabbinic teaching tool.

English example: Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan is an allegory of Christian life. Animal Farm by George Orwell is a fable meant to reveal the workings of communist Russia. Gulliver’s Travels and The Faerie Queene have disguised moral and political significance. C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia are often called allegories, though Lewis himself preferred the title “suppositions” and did write a bona fide allegory, Pilgrim’s Regress.

Bible example: Many hold Song of Solomon to be an allegory of the love between God and his people.

There is a fable at Judges 9 in which trees choose the bramble as a king.

The prophet Nathan uses a parable to bring King David to repentance (2 Samuel 12).

Jesus told gazillions of marvelous and well-known parables: The Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan (portrayed here by Van Gogh), the Lost Sheep, the Pearl of Great Price, the Wheat and the Tares…


Pinocchio illustrated by Attilio MussinoAllusion

an indirect reference

English example: Someone tells a whopper of a story. You ask if they feel their nose growing. You have alluded to the story of Pinocchio.

Bible example: Allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures fill Jesus’ teachings and the Apostles’ writings. Unfamiliarity with the Bible that Jesus read can lead to unwarranted interpretations of the New Testament. The Book of Revelation is a good example: John alludes extensively to Temple worship and the words and imagery of the prophets.


Juliet by William HatherellApostrophe

a passage addressed to someone or something from whom the speaker does not really expect an answer, such as a far away friend, a nearby hill, a dead grandfather, or a living rabbit

English example: When in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet utters, “O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?” she is speaking aloud to herself, unaware that Romeo is listening, hidden.

Bible example: "What ails you, O sea, that you flee? O Jordan, that you turn back? O mountains, that you skip like rams? O hills, like lambs?" Psalm 114:5-6

Here David speaks to his dead son: "And the king was deeply moved and went up to the chamber over the gate and wept. And as he went, he said, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!" 2 Samuel 18:33


Robert Burns by Alexander NasmythHyperbole

purposeful exaggeration for emphasis or humor that is not meant to be taken literally

English example: “But to see her was to love her, Love but her, and love forever.” Robert Burns

Bible example: "Our brothers have made our hearts melt, saying, “...The cities are great and fortified up to heaven." Deuteronomy 1:28

"Among all these were 700 chosen men who were left-handed; every one could sling a stone at a hair and not miss." Judges 20:16

"If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away." Matthew 5:29

"And the king made silver and gold as common in Jerusalem as stone"
2 Chronicles 1:15


Jonah, Verdun altarIdiom

a phrase that means something besides what the words actually say that everyone understands anyway

English example: It is raining cats and dogs. He hit the ceiling. I’m feeling blue.

Bible example: In Jonah, the prophet complains about the Lord’s “long noses.” He really means that God is too patient with sinners for his taste.

Psalm 7:9 says that God tests our kidneys. Your translation might use “emotions.”

An English speaker might not readily comprehend the benefits of having her horn exalted (Psalm 92:10), but an ancient Hebrew speaker felt the strength.

Sometimes a Hebrew idiom, spoken by Jesus, has been translated word-for-word into Greek, and little sense can be made of it without knowledge of Hebrew. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talks about eyes in the middle of teaching about handling money. Translations rummage around for the right word: a single, whole, healthy, good, sound, clear, or unclouded eye? The answer comes from an ancient Hebrew idiom in which a “good eye” means generosity, and a “bad eye” connotes stinginess. Jesus is teaching about wealth, not vision correction.


Anusorn P nachol at FreeDigitalPhotos.netMerism

a standard phrase that expresses completeness by mentioning constituent parts, contrasting components, or listing several synonyms

English example: Lock, stock, and barrel (a list of gun parts, meaning “completely”); search high and low (contrasting components of “everywhere”); hook, line, and sinker (parts of fishing tackle); young and old (contrasting components of "everyone"); I bequeath, convey, and devise the rest, residue, and remainder of my property (plenty of synonyms)

Bible example: “You know when I sit down and when I rise up” (Psalm 139:2) If David stood on his head, God would know that, too: this is a merism that means “all the time.” Likewise, when Deuteronomy 6:7 instructs parents to teach their children God’s words “when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise,” we could say without merism, “everywhere and always.”


Metaphorcandle (detail), Georges de la Tours

a figure of speech that compares two things without using “like” or “as”

English example: “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players;” William Shakespeare in As You Like It

Bible example: The Bible has more metaphors than you can shake a stick at. Some Bible metaphors are short and specific: "A gentle tongue is a tree of life" (Proverbs 15:4a); others run the breadth and depth of God’s Word. How often throughout Scripture does a vineyard = Israel, light = revelation, a bride = God’s people, leaven = sin, salt = everlastingness, garments = atonement?

A few famous Biblical metaphors: The Lord is my shepherd. You are the salt of the earth. This is my body which is broken for you. I am the bread of life. You are the body of Christ. Let your light shine.

note: Metaphors are often missed, and when found, dismissed. Missed because we read only literally. Dismissed because when a metaphor is noted, the literal truth is then assumed to be unreal. God can act out metaphors. Real events can echo metaphorically.


Moses by TissotMetonymy

substitution of the name of something for something else to which it is related

English example: The pen is mightier than the sword. Pen here means “communicating ideas” and sword means “having a war.” We would misunderstand if we expected to knock a ballpoint and a saber together and see the blade shatter.

Bible example: The Torah is often called “Moses.” Isaac’s leftover blessing for Esau was “By your sword you shall live…” “Sword” serves as a metonym for violence and warfare. When God tells Adam, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread,” sweat represents hard work. Hebrew vocabulary itself uses metonymy: “tongue” is the word for “speech.”


train by TurnerPersonification

assigning human or animal attributes to an object or concept

English example: The Railway Train by Emily Dickinson

I like to see it lap the miles,
And lick the valleys up,
And stop to feed itself at tanks;
And then, prodigious, step

Around a pile of mountains,
And, supercilious, peer
In shanties, by the sides of roads;
And then a quarry pare

To fit its sides, and crawl between,
Complaining all the while
In horrid, hooting stanza;
Then chase itself down hill

And neigh like Boanerges;
Then, punctual as a star,
Stop--docile and omnipotent--
At its own stable door.

Bible example: In Proverbs, wisdom is a woman who prepares banquets and goes downtown to offer invitations. Cain is warned about sin crouching outside his door. Rivers and fruit trees clap their hands while mountains sing. The land of Canaan, thoroughly disgusted with sin, vomited out its inhabitants.


Samson, Meister der Weltchronik des Rudolf von EmsRiddle

a puzzling description or question with a witty, ingenious answer, often posed to someone else as a test

English example: Thirty white horses upon a red hill. Now they champ, now they stamp, now they stand still.

Bible example: Ecclesiastes 12:1-8: See if you can decipher it fully.

Samson was a high-stakes riddler with this enigma from Judges 14: “Out of the eater came something to eat, Out of the strong came something sweet.”


Frukost_under_stora_björken_av_Carl_Larsson_1896Simile

a comparison of two things that employs the word "like" or "as"

English example: "A woman is like a tea bag; you never know how strong it is until it’s in hot water." Eleanor Roosevelt

Bible example: "Like a muddied spring or a polluted fountain is a righteous man who gives way before the wicked." Proverbs 25:26

"Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table." Psalm 128:3

"I am gone like a shadow at evening; I am shaken off like a locust." Psalm 109:23

"Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman without discretion." Proverbs 11:22


copyright ©2015 Alef Press

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright ©2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved :: paintings by Vincent Van Gogh (Good Samaritan), Carl Larsson (family picnic), William Hatherell (Juliet), J.M.W. Turner (train), James Tissot (Moses) Georges de la Tour (candle) Alexander Nasmyth (Robert Burns portrait), Meister der Weltchronik des Rudolf von Ems (Samson), and Attilio Mussino (Pinocchio) are in the public domain in the US because their copyrights have expired :: photo of detail of Verdun altar depicting Jonah by Goodness Shamrock, released to public domain :: cartwheel photo courtesy of Anusorn P nachol at FreeDigitalPhotos.net